August 1st in Fiorano Modenese, Italy marked a new chapter in Pirelli’s Formula One story. Around 8 a.m. that morning, four time World Champion Sebastian Vettel took to Ferrari’s private test circuit to test the new generation of F1 tires that will debut next year. The new tire will not only be wider, but also a completely different construction to handle the higher levels of downforce expected to be produced by the next generation of cars while also offering better tire life so drivers can, theoretically, push even harder.
With only four months to come up with the final version of the tire, and no 2017 spec cars in existence to use for the 10 approved tests, it would seem that Pirelli is digging itself into the same hole that they were in starting when they entered F1 back in 2011, when they had to take an undeveloped and untested tire into the most demanding form of motorsports in the world.
But according to Pirelli’s motorsports director Paul Hembery, this is not the same Pirelli that came into the pinnacle of motorsports like a babe in the woods. This is a Pirelli that has had their baptism by fire, using their F1 struggles as a learning experience to revise everything on both the motorsports and consumer side, from how they manufacture tires to how they operate as a company.
In 2011 the company was able to win the bid for the sole supplier. Having been out of F1 for almost two decades, everyone wondered: would Pirelli be able to handle the stress of being a sole supplier to the most demanding form of motorsport in the world?
Of course, Pirelli hadn’t been out of motorsports completely. They were the sole suppliers to both the World Rally and World Superbike Championships and the American Grand Am series. Actually it was Pirelli’s continuing involvement with all of those series that helped lay the foundations to their return to F1.
But even though Pirelli had been keeping their motorsports edge sharpened, there’s not much out there that compares to F1.
Several things complicated Pirelli’s return. The first one was that the powers that be—I don’t want to name names, but let’s say their last name rhymes with Schmecclestone—had given the winning bidders a remit to make the tire they were supplying...less than great.
In short the demand was to create a tire that would wear at a much quicker rate then Pirelli was capable of producing with the aim of promoting more pit stops in hopes of mixing up the racing. This was a huge change in the philosophy of F1, the supposed pinnacle of motorsport was now tossing outright performance aside in order to make the “show” better.
But an even bigger issue faced by Pirelli was the new draconian limit on testing, designed to help keep the sport affordable for lower level teams. In 2008, the rule at the time, which allowed basically unlimited testing were changed to only allow 30,000 km. In 2009, those limits were slashed again to only 15,000 km and in-season testing was completely banned, effectively limiting teams to just a few pre-season tests.
To set the scene, then: the sole tire supplier entering 2011 had zero experience with a modern F1 car, a demand to create a very specific performing tire, in the narrow operating window the F1 cars work in, with limited testing, in less than nine months, and on the biggest sporting stage in the world.
Why the hell would any responsible company that sign up for that?
After continuing to struggle with wear and durability issues for the first few years, that question reached a fever pitch during the 2013 season. Things got bad. For that year, the tires supplied by Pirelli were a completely new construction, a pure radial tire with a softer sidewall and a steel belt rather than the previously run radial/crossply hybrid with a stiffer sidewall and a Kevlar belt.
Starting at pre season testing in Barcelona, drivers noted extreme tire degradation which Pirelli chalked up to unexpectedly cold temperatures. Then during the Malaysian, Bahrain and Silverstone Grands Prix, several cars had massive tire failures, with at least one car per race suffering tire delamination—where the tread separates from the carcass of the tire—at some point during the race weekend. The level of degradation was so high at the Spanish GP that most of the field stopped an almost unheard of four times for tires. Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton was told by his team on multiple occasions to slow his driving to conserve his tires. His now infamous reply was “I can’t drive any slower.”
What’s the saying Mr. Schmecclestone? “Be careful what you wish for?”
Pirelli placed most of the blame for these issues on the teams for using the tires outside the perimeters they were designed for. Mounting the rear tires the wrong way around (switching tires from left to right in order to get more life out of their limited tire allocation), running low tire pressures, using extreme camber and hitting the aggressive curbs at Silverstone.
Eventually Pirelli was able to convince the FIA to allow more strict regulations on how teams could use their tires and the conditions under which they could be run in order to manage the issues. As an additional response, Pirelli made the unprecedented move to introduce a new tire mid-season, going back to the Kevlar belt that had proven to be more puncture resistant and run cooler than the steel belt.
After a rough introduction to F1, Pirelli seemed to have a bit of calm with the introduction of the new generation of turbocharged powertrains. Pirelli’s tires have seemed to manage the lower downforce and new torquey engines of the new generation of cars without many of the issues they had seen in the first few turbulent years. There were a few bumps in the road with tire issues, as the cars began to be developed further and started to claw back some of the downforce they lost under in new regulations.
But now, in 2016, things seemed to have completely settled down with the drivers and teams seemingly happier with the rubber than they’ve ever been during Pirelli’s tenure in the sport. There have been some infrequent complaints from drivers like Sebastian Vettel and his Ferrari team (primarily for a tire failure at the Austrian GP) and some worries from Pirelli about potential issues (standing waves on the long high speed straights at Baku). However the tire manufacturer seems to have finally gotten a handle on the product they are supplying to the F1 teams. Sounds like the perfect time to shake it all up again and introduce a new tire, right?
To find out how Pirelli plans on surviving the new tire launch in 2017, and to hear directly how getting into this money pit of a sport has any benefit at all to the company, I spent some time with Hembery, along with NAFTA Region comms honcho Rafael Navarro, at the F1 races at Silverstone and the Hungaroring this year.
As I had a lobster buffet waiting for me back at the F1 Paddock Club, I didn’t want to waste any time getting to the point. So my first question to Hembery was a bit blunt.
What the hell is Pirelli doing in F1?
“We want to do F1 because its popularity places it as the number one motorsport category and it’s seen as the pinnacle of motorsport. For our brand positioning, as a prestige brand supplier, that makes a lot of sense. It’s also pushed us in ways we couldn’t have imagined when we entered F1 in 2011.”
Why has it been such a struggle to create a “spec” F1 tire?
“Up until now it is been very difficult to do our job without the testing. We’ve been very limited testing in the past three years, maybe just a couple days a year, which is obviously is not sufficient going forward when we do not have a strategic test plan which allows us access to the best drivers and cars.
Even though F1 cars all look similar there are massive differences between each team’s cars and more importantly how each team’s car uses the tire. Where one car may get the tires up to temperature early and then have to manage it for the balance of the session another team may struggle in the same session to get the tire in the operating window at all.”
How will you approach creating an entirely new tire for 2017 to avoid the issues you’ve had in the past?
“The request given to us now is different in the sense that we’re being asked very much to improve the performance of the overall package. The target given to us was to produce lap times in the area of five seconds a lap quicker comparing Barcelona 2015 to Barcelona 2017.”
They (F1) also want to have better drivability, so it will give teams a much wider operating window for the tires, so they should work for a majority of the drivers most of the time. With the increase in performance for next year, the drivers are really going to feel that they’re in a race. The loads going through the corners are going to substantially increase.
How does Pirelli’s involvement with F1 translate to their street car business?
“The main benefit is the increase in simulation work that goes on with our tire design, particularly in the area of structural design. We use simulation in the analysis of our new tire models and how they work with various manufacturers cars. It’s the exact same simulations we use in F1 and the road car business is going very much in that direction as it looks for decreased development times. Honestly I envisage in 10 years time that probably all types of tires for road cars will be developed exclusively in this manner. F1 helps us to be at the leading edge of that.
Using simulation for development also means when you actually put the wheels on the ground of a new vehicle, that you get a tire that is very close or is much closer too what the final product is going to be therefore reducing both times and costs.
So our involvement in F1 does have a lot of benefits that are genuine technology boosts that translate to the road car. That’s not a marketing line. I won’t tell you that you can bolt on the set of F1 tires on your street car and go faster, but there are aspects of our top of the line street tire (the Trofeo R) that we were using seven or eight years ago in GT racing.
I mean look, you’ve now got road cars with a 1,000 brake horsepower like the La Ferrari and McLaren P1 that are maybe touching on performance that you might have seen a few years ago in GT racing, if not greater. The crossover point between the world of motorsports and road vehicles today is getting ever closer and closer.”
Later, while on the road with Pirelli’s Rafael Navarro (I was trying my best to kill him at the time by driving on the wrong side of the road in the UK in a left-hand drive McLaren 650S) I got to see some of the other ways Pirelli is different post-F1.
Pirelli recently launched the PZero World store in Los Angles. Navarro says that the only way the PZero World concept exists is because of the company’s experience in F1. “We learned so much by being in F1,” he said. “Both from a technology standpoint but also a customer service standpoint. We are a supplier to F1 and F1 is by far the most demanding customer you could ever have. We’ve learned, during our involvement with them, how to better work with all of our customers.”
So they opened a tire store. Big deal, right? What does this mean in practice? While we were driving, Navarro got a text from a very stranded fellow by the name of Chris Harris who had just suffered a puncture while testing the new Bentley Bentayga. (My guess is he was trying to drift it.)
The big Bentley took a very unusual size Pirelli Scorpion tire and it was looking like Harris would be stranded in an otherwise very lovely Colorado mountain town for some time. But minutes after receiving the text Navarro had secured the necessary tire and got one of the local dealers hoof it out to save the day.
I’m not Chris Harris (and my guess is neither are you, unless you are actually, in fact, Chris Harris), and I’m not likely to get Pirelli’s top brass to come out and change a flat on my Dodge Neon. But at least to me, it feels like Pirelli is trying to be different. Whether that’s just a shift in corporate philosophy, or actually a side benefit from their involvement in F1, or a bit of both, remains to be seen.
This upcoming season will be a massive test for Pirelli. If the new tire has the same teething dramas as before, then I’m sure a rethink of their F1 involvement will be quick in coming. If, however, the new rubber hits the ground performing the way the Pirelli brass have said it will thanks to their improved testing regimen, then the company may well be vindicated for their past struggles and their involvement in F1 seen as a masterstroke.
Either way, even before reach the end of this season, I’m already looking forward to 2017.
Robb Holland races in the British Touring Car Championship for Rotek Racing. He’s a Jalopnik contributor who basically lives at the Nürburgring most of the year. He is also the tallest man in Germany.