• F1 tire supplier Pirelli

Pirelli uses Formula One Racing as Road Tire Laboratory

Tires are manufactured in single batches for each race and Pirelli does this to ensure all the tires are the same

Norris McDonald By: Norris McDonald June 26, 2019

Kevin Magnussen didn’t have a good Grand Prix du Canada weekend.

After crashing during qualifying for the race in Montreal two weeks ago, he’d had to start the Grand Prix from pit road. Things went from bad to worse (he eventually finished 17th out of 20 drivers/cars that started) and, at one point, he told his team over the radio, “This is the worst experience I have ever had in a racing car, ever.”

Magnussen races for Haas F1, which is owned by an American, Gene Haas, but managed by an Italian, Guenther Steiner, who snapped back: “Enough is enough. Drive the car.”

Magnussen, son of ex-IndyCar and current Corvette Racing sports car star Jan Magnussen, must have realized his comments had landed him in big trouble and he was in some danger of losing his job. So, during an interview this past week with a Danish newspaper, the driver changed his tune and launched into damage control by blaming sole F1 tire supplier Pirelli for his predicament.

Magnussen, who is ninth in the drivers’ standings with 14 points (teammate Romain Grosjean is 17th with two points), really laid it on thick in the interview. “The car is so good and so fast and so well designed, but when we get laps on the tires, nothing works,” he said.

“My comment was not meant as a criticism of the team; more an expression of the huge frustration of being so helpless and slow in a car that is so good.”

The Haas driver is not the only one complaining about the tires. Just about every F1 team this year has laid the blame on Pirelli for one thing or another. Only Zak Brown, who runs McLaren, and Toto Wolff, top gun at Mercedes, have gone to the tire firm’s defence.

F1 tire supplier Pirelli

“Pirelli has an impossible task,” Wolff said in Montreal during breakfast with a group of Canadian journalists. “Initially, they were told degradation was important (in which the tires would break down quickly and require pit stops during races). But then the (F1 team) engineers figured out that if the drivers would go at a slower pace, they would only have to make one stop during a race, so that’s what happened. Now Pirelli has to go back to the drawing board.”

Which is something it can’t do. Not in the middle of the season, anyway. I sat down in Montreal with Pirelli Formula One director Mario Isola for a one-on-one interview to find out how, exactly, the whole F1 tire business works, and the first thing he said to me was that the teams are going to have to live with the tires they’ve got now because you just can’t snap your fingers and come up with something different.

In short, everybody is locked in for 2019, starting with this weekend’s French Grand Prix.

Isola said the teams are just facing a learning curve with the tires, like they do every year, and some are adjusting better than others. And while the teams can make adjustments to the cars, Pirelli can’t touch the tires. But he said in an interview that the company is satisfied with its product “as long as we have a tire that is safe, reliable, doesn’t have blisters (and) overheating is lower.”

Formula One, in an attempt to cut costs, has agreed to use some common parts, and Pirelli has been the tire supplier since 2011. Tire research and development is done at company headquarters in Milan, Italy. Final tire construction in done in Izmit, Turkey. Recycling is done in England. The current contract runs till 2023. Deciding on tires for 2020 is tough enough, but the company faces an even bigger challenge in 2021 when the series will change to 18-inch wheels and tire warmers will no longer be allowed.

Be that as it may, the immediate concern for the company is the 2020 season.

“What we do is develop a new product for the following year based, in part, on the performance of the tire during the current year,” Isola said. “We consult the drivers and the teams, and we have targets given to us by the FIA and Formula One itself. We have some deadlines, and it’s usually by the first of December that we have the final compounds that we want to homologate for the following year.

“We offer the teams the opportunity to test with us and they can accept or not. We share test sessions among all the teams, and we develop a tire that is a compromise suitable for the cars, which all have different chassis, different suspensions, different downforces, different engines, and so-forth.

“Once it is settled, though, we can’t change anything. If the severity of the car on the tires is higher than expected, we can do things like increase the pressure, reduce the camber, that sort of thing. But that’s all.”

F1 tire supplier Pirelli F1 tire supplier Pirelli

Pirelli had 1,800 tires at Montreal. They are manufactured in single batches for each race and Pirelli does this to ensure all the tires are the same. Each car gets 13 sets of slick tires, four sets of intermediate (rain) tires and three sets of wet tires plus an extra set of intermediates in case of rain on Friday. There are also spares available. After the race, whether the tires are used or not, they are sent back to the U.K. for recycling.

Pirelli assigns an engineer to work with each team and they have assistants. “We don’t interfere in decisions made by the teams,” he said. “Our engineers are there to support the team and to give them any information that might be useful for them to understand the tires.”

All tires must be mounted on rims during a race weekend, and they are returned to Pirelli at carefully monitored intervals to insure none go missing. The reason? Hard as it might be to believe, industrial espionage could be at play, and these checks and balances are meant to guard against it. To keep track of all the tires, each one has a barcode and there is regular scanning

While tires are supplied, rims are not. They are designed and built by the teams. So, the teams take the rims to Pirelli, where tire technicians mount, balance and fill them with air or nitrogen. When the race is over, the teams take all the tires back to Pirelli, where they are dismounted.

Isola said that Pirelli had 55 people working at the race in Montreal. If they were at a meet where Formula 2 and Formula 3 cars were also racing, there would be another 10 on hand. “We have a lot of engineers at home, too,” he said. When you include research and development, testing departments and so-on, there are about 1,000 people working on motorsports projects. “We provide tires for more than 230 championships around the world” — including the Ontario-based Canadian Touring Car Championship.

He added that while Formula One is the top of the mountain for Pirelli, GT classes around the world are almost as important because manufacturers of premium brands are involved, and their cars are more similar to road cars.

Isola insists it’s better for F1 and all other racing series to have one supplier rather than many. Besides the money that tire wars cost, single suppliers level the playing field, he said.

“We have to supply the same product to everybody — a tire that is reliable and consistent. So when we started with F1, we had to redesign all our production processes, quality controls and so-on. We had to be 100 per cent sure that every single tire was — and is — the same without any variation in production.

“The same production processes we use for Formula One are also used to produce road tires. For us, motorsport is a way to have an open laboratory that is travelling the world and giving us useful information for road tires. It’s a way to explore the usage of the tire in an extreme environment, where you can test the tire to the limit of resistance, temperature and so-on. This is the way we develop our technology.”

F1 tire supplier Pirelli

To make it easier for spectators to determine which of three types of tire a driver is using during a Grand Prix, the tires all have a colour on the side wall — white for hard, yellow for medium and red for soft. Pirelli homologated five compounds at the start of the season and usually takes tires made up of three of the compounds to each race.

“We determine the compounds depending on the circuit layout, weather conditions expected, and so on, he said. “Montreal is a very tight course with lots of hard braking, so we took the three softest tires in the range. In Barcelona, we had the three hardest tires. For spectators, it doesn’t matter; they just see the colours and know it’s hard, medium or soft.”

I’ve always been curious about how a driver manages his or her tires. Isola was quick to answer.

“The first part of managing tires is the setup of the car,” he said. “This depends on the characteristics of the circuit. Montreal is all about traction and braking. If you overstress the rear tire with the traction necessary in Montreal, you have higher degradation and you lose performance. So, the first part of the management is to set up the car in a way that you are not overstressing the rear tire.

“The second part is the driver’s responsibility. The driver must pay attention not to slide too much on the exit of a corner and to drive in a way that the tire lasts longer. The start of the race is particularly important because the car is carrying 100 kilos of fuel and is a lot heavier than it will be toward the end of the race. It’s like you have two passengers with you.

“And the drivers — we’re talking about the top 20 drivers in the world — they feel everything. They are able to tell when the tires are at peak performance and when they are overheating. They give us feedback and we compare the comments with the telemetry data so that we can quantify with numbers the comments of the drivers.

“It is really important for us to get the right feedback, to prepare for development of the tires for the following year.”

F1 tire supplier Pirelli