F1's 'fruit machine' race that led to the Pirelli era — and increasing tyre management


F1 Retro
A topsy-turvy 2010 Canadian GP was so unpredictable, it formed the basis of Pirelli's tyre development direction for the years to come – and shaped F1 as we know it today, writes Mark Hughes

2 Lewis Hamilton McLaren 2010 Canadian GP Montreal

2010 Canadian GP shaped the future of F1 racing

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On Sunday in Montreal — on the very weekend it was confirmed that Bridgestone had tendered for the F1 tyre supply contract from 2025-27 — Max Verstappen discovered quite early that this wasn’t a typical 2023 race. It wasn’t even a typical race from throughout his F1 career. Because far from having to nurse the Pirellis to keep them below the critical temperature threshold, he was having to push them to keep hot enough. He was having to push! In the race!

It happens sometimes. On those days when the compound is a little on the hard side for the demands of the track and the temperature, the tyres never quite reach that point where the tread is hot enough that the driver needs to manage the tyre – by driving it just on the edge of thermal equilibrium. That’s how it usually is: back off too much and they don’t switch on, push on too hard and they become too hot. That’s the convention in the Pirelli era, which has been in place since 2011. But sometimes, like on Sunday, you never quite reach that point where they become too hot and all you have to do is push on to prevent them becoming too cold.

That’s the mechanism Pirelli chose all those years ago. The forces fed through the tyres by a modern F1 car are immense and the absolute unacceptable result for a tyre company is a tyre failure. It’s very dangerous and very visible and is capable of making a marketing asset into an expensive liability in a fraction of a second. Preventing the F1 car from transferring the sort of sustained loads to the tyre’s core it would otherwise be capable of by engineering a tyre which cannot be lapped flat-out for very long before the tread gets too hot is a neat way of creating a safe tyre without the expense of tyre war technology and massive development budgets to keep up with the development gains of the cars. The excess heat keeps the excess loads away from the tyre’s structure, forming a sort of safety valve.

Lewis Hamilton McLaren 2010 Canadian GP Montreal

Hamilton led off the start, but had to pit on lap seven

Grand Prix Photo

But the loads are not great around Montreal, just a succession of short, slow corners: Monaco with long straights as one engineer referred to it at the weekend. So if you happen to hit it right with the weather, an old-fashioned, flat-out push race can still happen here, quite safely, without any particular tyre jeopardy. It happened this way in 2016 too when Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel had a great flat-out duel for the last stint.

It’s fantastically ironic that these untypical Pirelli era races should happen at Montreal. Because it was the 2010 race here at which Bridgestone inadvertently helped create the Pirelli era. Quite by chance. The compound choices made by Bridgestone combined with the cool weather conditions and partly resurfaced track to make for a crazily volatile race, the likely winners shuffling around like symbols on a fruit machine. Bernie Ecclestone was so enthused by how it had played out that he asked Pirelli if it could engineer that sort of race as a matter of course. Pirelli said it would try.

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So what happened in that 2010 race which got everyone so enthused? There was nothing planned about it, but neither of the Bridgestone compounds – the medium and super-soft – worked. The drama with the track surface breaking up in the traction zones in the previous two Montreal races had led the organisers to patch those parts up with a very light, non-abrasive surface to stop the tractive forces of the cars from just churning the track up. That and the cold weather induced massive graining – on either compound – which wore away the tread in no time at all. The track just refused to rubber-in. The tyres and the track surface were barely on speaking terms let alone getting intimate.

Red Bull had made the conservative tyre choice of medium for both Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber (you had to start on the compound on which you’d set your grid time). The rest of the top 10 were on the super-softs, which were 0.3-0.4sec faster over a single lap but which fell off a cliff face of graining-induced wear after about four laps. Red Bull’s choice had helped McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton to score the first non-Red Bull pole of the season, with Vettel alongside him on the front row (but only after second-fastest Webber had taken a gearbox change penalty). The mediums lasted slightly longer than the super-soft – but not by all that much.

Hamilton surged into the lead from Vettel, knowing it was going to be a very short-lived glory. Super-soft runners began making their first stops from as early as lap five. Hamilton came in from the lead after seven laps. Fernando Alonso’s third-place Ferrari had done the same. All of which put the medium-tyred Vettel and Webber running 1-2 for Red Bull.

As if the super-early stops for the soft runners weren’t dramatic enough, the mediums were barely any better. Vettel and Webber were soon coping with enormous graining and in no time at all had the fresh medium-tyred cars of Alonso, Hamilton and Jenson Button squeezed up tight behind them, having made up the pitstop loss in no time at all. Vettel and Webber were in for fresh rubber after 13 and 14 laps respectively, Vettel fitted with super-softs, Webber with mediums.

Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 2010 Canadian GP Montreal

Vettel had to try and win the race on track after being badly stung on tyre strategy

Red Bull

Vettel had not initially quite grasped that he was racing the cars ahead of him for position. “Do I have to overtake Button on track for the win?” he asked. “Yes, Button and the three cars ahead of him,” came the reply. “How the hell has that happened?” raged Sebastian.

Briefly leading now was the Toro Rosso of Sébastien Buemi, but only because it hadn’t stopped yet. As Alonso and Hamilton came to pass him, the Ferrari driver was wrong-footed, enabling Hamilton to pounce, retaking the lead. Hamilton-Alonso-Button ran tight together but they – together with Vettel – were all in for their second stops by lap 28. Putting Webber in the lead. The race was not even half distance and had seen four lead changes.

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But as the track finally warmed up and the rubber began to be laid down, tyre life began to normalise. Webber’s plan now was to try to get to the end and he had his lead up to 12sec at one stage. But the newer-tyred McLarens, Alonso and Vettel were chasing him down. By lap 49 he was a sitting duck as Hamilton surged by into the lead. Webber surrendered and pitted for more tyres. “I was just trying to hold a constant pace, and then in the end the tyres didn’t want that pace and they went away,” said Webber. “It’s virtually impossible to keep the tyres happy, they just keep degrading no matter how slow you drive.”

Hamilton continued onto victory, Button passed Alonso to make it a McLaren 1-2, with the Red Bulls of Vettel and Webber only fourth and fifth, their medium-starting strategy not having worked. It was a day when the strategists were thrown a curveball, when the wide tyre difference conspired with unusual conditions to make a much greater range of possibilities than normal. It was a race which inadvertently created a new era.