The impossible challenge of being F1's tyre supplier, explained by Mario Isola
Pirelli are entering their 12th straight year as the sole tyre supplier in this phase of their involvement in Formula 1. With it, they also enter the fourth significant set of technical regulations, something they’ve been heavily preparing for. But I’ve long been interested in what feels like the rather unenviable position Pirelli has volunteered itself for: showcasing tyres that deliberately degrade. Tyres that annoy their drivers.
Tyres that force something of a compromise between flat out racing and managing the fastest overall race. Tyres are now very much front and centre across much of the Formula 1 weekend, not just something you strap on the car and forget about. How they behave, how they wear, how much they can be pushed is the biggest part of the grand prix strategy. And this is all by design. It’s what Formula 1 wants from its tyres.
So I spoke to Mario Isola, Pirelli’s head of motorsport to talk about the challenges of meeting these requirements and dealing with how their tyres are perceived, by drivers and by the audience, with starting getting the tender and starting out in 2011 [MARIO ISOLA]: the first request was a bit strange because Formula 1 needed something to give more excitement to the races to increase the number of overtaking, and so one idea was to have tyres with high degradation. That obviously is exactly the opposite [that] we have done for so many years. When you develop new tyres you try to reduce degradation, you try to increase the performance. So there are many targets that are exactly opposite of what they were looking for, but we accepted the challenge anyway.
We thought that it was a good way to promote also our emerging in the Championship: explaining to spectators what was going on. [STUART]: Formula 1 shifted to more of a focus on tyres, starting in 2007 when they introduced the rule forcing teams to use both a soft and a hard compound of tyre in the race. And by the time Pirelli took over as supplier in 2011, they were asked to make the tyre strategy a more powerful tool and so it has remained ever since. To achieve this, you have to introduce serious, noticeable degradation to the tyres.
If you don’t, they’ll just run flat out on one set of tyres for basically the whole race. But if you wear out your tyres, you have to take more pit stops, which is a significant chunk of time out of your race. So drivers hold back performance to make their tyres last, to try and take fewer pitstops. So what we end up seeing if drivers not able to push as fast as they want, which annoys drivers and fans. So how do you balance all these elements? [MARIO ISOLA]: Yeah, I don't want to say it's an impossible task because nothing is impossible, but you are right: when you reduce degradation, clearly you go in a direction where you can imagine less strategies or a reduction in number of pit stops. It's wrong to eliminate the degradation because, as you said, if you don't have a degradation, you don't have strategies.
So we need to manage the degradation in a way that can encourage [races] to have a mix of one stop and two stop strategies. This is what is, let's say, written in the target letter and the values that are in the target letters are coming from simulations where a mix of one and two stop strategies are possible. [STUART]: The “target letter” he mentions is an agreement between stakeholders – F1, the FIA, the teams, etc – on what the performance and characteristics of the 2022 tyre should be.
They aim for less overheating, a wider working temperature range, and lower degradation. [MARIO ISOLA]: That means that the two stop strategy should be quicker than the one stop because you need to have an advantage of a few seconds to take the risk that if you are on a two stop strategy, you are back in traffic and maybe you lose some time, so you need to have an advantage on a two stop strategy compared to one stop. Then you have the choice to have a more aggressive approach with two stops taking the risk that maybe you make a mistake during a pit stop or you get in traffic. And so you lose a bit of time, or you can approach the race on a more conservative choice that is a one stop.
[STUART]: So the overall idea is to encourage more two stop strategies by making it inarguably the faster strategy, less marginal with the one-stop option. The risk you have to factor in is making the two-stop work with getting past cars and the added risk of not mucking up a pit-stop twice. But Mario is right - you need to have degradation as a fundamental part of the tyre in order to force multiple stops. The soft tyre might be far and away the fastest but if it doesn’t run out quickly enough, teams will make it work for a one stop if they can.
But we don’t want too much tyre management or what happens is we see the best drivers in the world tip toeing around instead of pushing for all their worth. And actually, if the new 2022 aero rules actually deliver on their target, that may go a long way to solving the problem. [MARIO ISOLA]: Let's see what is going to happen, but the main discussion was on overheating.
That obviously is something we want to avoid and to reduce and [improve the] working range of the compounds. Overheating is not just a matter of how the tyres operate. It was also the old F1 concept, the old F1 cars. They were generating downforce mainly from the wings, and that means that the turbulence that they generating was affecting the cars in the back and the cars were losing up to 40 percent of downforce when they were following closely in the car. If you lose downforce, you start sliding.
If you slide, you overheat the tyre. So as you can see, it's never ending story. Now, with the new concept, they lose up to 10 percent of downforce when they follow closely the car in front. That means they still keep a lot of downforce on the car. They push the tyres on the ground on track. They don't slide.
And these, together with the new concept, the new idea that we had to design a compound should encourage close racing. That is the idea behind this new concept of Formula One. [STUART]: Now, naturally drivers are always going to complain about the tyres. Drivers and teams want a perfect car with perfect tyres and try and minimise the hard work they have to do. And tyres degrading after 15 laps is going to annoy them, naturally.
So how seriously do Pirelli have to take drivers moaning and complaining about how the tyres behave, and how much do they need to just accept what they’re given and make it work? [MARIO ISOLA]: I believe we have to talk about two different elements. One is the feedback from the drivers. You said 'complaining'; you probably are right, but I would say that they are giving us feedback in order to improve the product further. That's the important part of the complaints that we have to take on board because when they are coming to us and giving us feedback, that could be also a negative one or negative on some specific elements. That's important for us to design a tyre that is even better. The other element is about how we have to design a tyre because we should remember that we design the same product for everybody.
That means 10 different cars and 20 different drivers. It is clear that each driver would like to have a tyre that is designed for himself that is optimised on his car. That is part of the competition. They want to have the quickest possible package that is “car, power unit and tyres”. It's in their wish list, but unfortunately, when you are the sole supplier, you have to design the best compromise. And that's why we are also running tests with all the cars, all the teams; not just the quickest but also the midfield, also the slowest because we need to understand – if our tyres warm up – the degradation, the performance is OK for everybody, not just for the top teams.
And that's why I'm saying we designed a tyre that is the best compromise and is not optimised on a single car or driver. [STUART]: The balance in all this is tricky too, because it’s not just about what the drivers or the teams want. Let’s be honest, the teams want as easy a ride as possible.
But the fans and the hosts want a show. [MARIO ISOLA]: The point is that if you took different stakeholders, they have different ideas and they want something different. So it is clear that for the drivers: it's important that you have a tyre that is with a maximum level of grip, no degradation, no overheating, and they want to push from lap one to the end to the chequered flag. But it's not always possible. But for the promoter, for example, that is not really good because if you have a train of cars that cannot overtake, it's not funny.
It's not something that spectators want to to see. When we talk about degradation, when you have a high degradation, you create a differentiation between cars with fresh tyres and in cars with used tyres. When you have very low degradation, you reduce this differentiation. But it's not just the car that is trying to attack that has tyres with no degradation, it's the car in front that has tyres with no degradation. So they both have the same product and sometimes it's difficult to overtake because of this small gap between the performance of two different type of tyres, so we have to keep in mind that degradation high or low is the same for everybody.
If you have a degradation, you can play with the strategy in order to have fresh tyres when your competitor has older tyres. If you have no degradation, it's a different story. The risk is that you reduce the number of overtaking manoeuvres. [STUART]: Being the sole tyre supplier to Formula 1 is something of a poisoned chalice. If everything goes well, you sort of become invisible.
If something goes wrong, or if things like degradation start annoying drivers, you just get all the criticism. So how do Pirelli feel they are perceived in the heat of the kitchen? [MARIO ISOLA]: We made some analysis and investigation on the perception of our product on the market, and I think that is a very good perception. It's a product with a high level of technology. Actually, we develop technology in Formula One to bring technology in our road tyres – for supercars mainly. Then it is important to explain to Formula 1 fans and motorsport fans that we are in control of the design of the tyres. That's the message so we can design a tyre degradation or we can reduce degradation, or we can increase the delta lap time between compounds so we can move the tyre on a more [??] tyre or towards the intermediate tyre.
These are our tools. We can design tyres according to what we are asked for. [STUART]: And that makes a lot sense. As long as people understand Pirelli are doing what they’re being asked to do, that’s a positive. You want endurance tyres, we can make ‘em.
You want tyres that degrade? We’ll give you those. You want tyres that only work in a small temperature window? No problem. That’s what they hope people see - that they are rising to an engineering challenge, not that they can only make tyres that fall apart.
And Pirelli have had to do this while the car changes above them. 2014 brought increased levels of torque that the tyres had to manage. 2017 introduced wider tyres and massively increased aero that upped lap speeds by five seconds. And now 2022 is bringing even faster cornering speeds with the new ground effect cars while asking Pirelli to completely change the shape of their tyres. [MARIO ISOLA]: [In] 2016 we had another big challenge because we had to develop the wider tyres for 2017.
At that time, it was impossible to have a new car – a 2017 car with the level of performance that was expected in 2017. We are talking about five seconds quicker lap times in Barcelona compared to two years earlier compared to 2015. So it was a big challenge. We had to develop and to use a lot the virtual models, and we work with the teams in order to simulate as much as possible before running the tyres on track.
And we were using mule cars, but with the level of performance that was much lower compared to what we had in 2017. Now there is another a big challenge. It's not only the new cars, new aero package, new way to develop a downforce, but also new sides of the tyres 18 inches – completely new situation. We had to redesign the profile to redesign a construction, but also the targets that are required to the new tyres are completely different. Now we have to design tyres with lower degradation, with less overheating, with a wider range.
So it was not not just designing a new profile and construction, but also to redesign completely family of compounds [STUART]: What’s interesting is that research and development for the 2017 season was much harder for Pirelli than it has been for 2022. They just didn’t have mule cars able to simulate a 5 second a lap jump in performance. Whereas for 2022, they could work with the teams to balance and set up the cars to get close to expected performance. But the work has to continue. [MARIO ISOLA]: The first step, as I said, was to design a profile under construction in order to optimise the pressure, distribution and temperature distribution under the footprint. That's really important because… otherwise you can design any compound, but if the footprint is not working well and basically you throw in the bin all of the improvement of the compounds.
So the first step was exactly this one We have a plan also for 2022 to develop the tyres further because surely in 2021 it was impossible to test the wheel cover, for example, it was impossible to test the new aero package. It was impossible to test the heat transfer between the brake and the rims because the brakes were the old brakes. And so we have some question marks and we have some elements that we still need to confirm.
The new cars were working well because the minimum weight and weight balance was similar to the current cars, and the teams were putting a lot of effort in modifying all the cars in order to replicate what is expected for 2022. But now and this year, we have the opportunity to test with a real car. So let's say with the current cars and this is giving us a lot more information. [STUART]: And what have Pirelli learned so far about the new package and about how these new lower sidewall tyres operate? [MARIO ISOLA]: The other point was about the characteristics, as you said, that are different because with the lower sidewall, the tyres are more precise, the tyres are more reactive, especially the front.
The comments from drivers were that the rear tyre is very strong. And straight line traction is quite good. So they can feel it. But the tyres are different. In Abu Dhabi, for example, they were complaining about understeer because of the rear tyre that was pushing too much the front. That was a useful information for them and for the teams in order to design the new cars – or not to design because they were already designed – but to rebalance the new cars in order to keep this in mind.
In fact, in Barcelona, this understeer was highly reduced. There is another point that is the behaviour of the tyre, together with the new aero package, the new aero package is working a lot on the high speed corners. So in high speed with the new 18 inch tyres, the cars were quite well-balanced and drivers have [the] confidence to push, especially [at] high speed. In low speed corners the effect – the ground effect – is less so they were complaining. They were reporting some understeer on low speed corners, so probably for them it would be necessary to change a little bit the driving style in order to manage this slow speed corners understeer compared to the high speed.
I believe that the current Formula One [cars] are probably the fastest car in the history of Formula One, because if you compare the speed with the weight, the weight is an element that is really important for the lap time. These cars are really, really, really quick and also: looking at the only test we have run so far with the 2022 cars, they are already quite quick. The expectations were that the cars were a lot slower compared to what they are in reality and during the test, we are well aware of the fact they are hiding the real performance, so probably there is a lot more that is coming in the next few weeks [STUART]: So, Pirelli have been working hard behind the scenes for the last 12 years trying to walk a tightrope of various targets: degradation, stability, strategy, performance, working temperature ranges, and so on. Now, perhaps they’ve not always succeeded to what we’ve wanted or even what they’ve targeted at times but hopefully this has given insight into some of the complexities involved in delivering what they’ve been asked.
2022 might not see the return of a plethora of two stop races as we’ve still got to see how these cars behave and race in action, but as the data is gathered and Pirelli continue to learn we should see things moving in interesting directions.