Exclusive: Q&A with Pirelli Motorsport’s Paul Hembery

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Authors note: Pirelli and their tires have been in the news quite a bit lately. The below interview was conducted at the end of last year. As the process of interview to approval to publishing is not overnight this interview was conducted without the current developments the sport and Pirelli have decided to move in. That being said what Paul Hembery has to say is all very relevant. ~ Johnpierre Rivera

It’s not uncommon to hear that F1 is disconnected from its fan base. I agree that F1 has lost touch with the very people that have made it the juggernaut it is today, the fans. And I happen to think that without F1’s historically passionate worldwide fans this particular formula might not be the pinnacle of motorsport it is today.

But the fans are kept at a distance today more than they used to be. Gone are the days when you could get within touching distance of the drivers. Gone also are the days when you could walk amongst the mechanics and team personnel before the race or during the practice sessions. It’s true this era was many years before I was watching F1, but there are numerous compelling black and white photos from the sixties documenting this phenomenon.

Occasionally though, someone at the top reverses that trend and makes time for a fan, happily. Paul Hembery at Pirelli graciously granted my request for an interview so that I could get a little closer to the sport I love so dearly, and in so doing allowed me to bring the sport a little closer to you as well.

Q&A with Pirelli’s Paul Hembery

Formula1Blog: Can you express to our readers why Pirelli wants to be a supplier to one of motorsport’s most difficult and complex formulas?

Paul Hembery: “Pirelli is all about sophisticated technology and sophisticated Italian style, which goes hand in glove with what Formula One represents all over the world. Formula One is also the perfect showcase for our technical know-how, and a chance for us to really connect with the public by contributing to the spectacle of the sport, which is still one of the greatest shows on earth. Formula One has an incredibly high-end image in every country and the fact that we are such a well-recognized partner to the sport indicates the quality of our products at every level, both on the track and the road. So from a business standpoint it’s very useful as it reinforces all our key messages.”

FBC: If I have my facts right, you have been with Pirelli since 1992 so clearly you are an expert, not just a front man. In your time in this industry, is supplying F1 the biggest challenge for a tire company? Is this the biggest challenge since you have been appointed Motorsport Director at Pirelli?

PH: “Undoubtedly. When we were originally confirmed as Formula One tyre supplier in 2010, it was in June and we had to be on the grid in March. By August our first prototype tyres were running on the track, then by November we had the first official F1 test at Abu Dhabi. I don’t think many companies could have achieved what we did in that timescale.”

FBC: I suspect most fans in F1 can not even begin to understand the enormity of what it takes to supply the modern day sport of Formula 1 with tires. Can you break that down for us?

PH: “It’s a big operation. Production of the tyre allocation begins at Pirelli’s Izmit factory in Turkey. Between 1,800 to 2,000 Formula One tyres are supplied for each race; about 700 more if the race is a GP2 round as well and another 600 for GP3. For European events the tyres for the race are transported by road from Izmit to Didcot: a journey of approximately 3,100 kilometers that takes three days. The tyres arrive at the Didcot facility and have their bar codes scanned into Pirelli’s system. The FIA (the governing body of world motorsport) is then notified of the bar codes. At random, the FIA allocates certain barcodes to each driver. The allocated tyres are then sorted by the team in Didcot and loaded into seven trucks for transportation to the grand prix: four trucks for F1, three trucks for GP2 and GP3. We have about 55 people at each grand prix.”

FBC: Fans of F1 hear all the time about road car relevance. This was and still is a point the big manufacturers constantly reference regarding the formula change to the engine package of an F1 car. How relevant is your work in F1 to the tires you produce for, say, a Honda Civic or any road car? Do construction and compounds from F1 make their way onto the tires of my Ford Fusion?

PH: “Making a successful tyre is all about the alliance between creativity and technology: and that applies to road car products as much as it does to Formula One. The creativity is what gives us this vision; then it is down to us to come up with the technology that turns the vision into reality, with the aim of reducing consumption in mind. This way of working is not exclusive to motorsport; if you look at the P1 Cinturato tyre for instance, which is designed for small to medium sized road cars, Pirelli had a clear vision of what it wanted to achieve: greater efficiency, decreased rolling resistance, less road noise and a longer tyre life – on an enormous scale as these are some of the biggest sectors in the automotive market. Obviously it’s a slightly different target to what we want to achieve in Formula One, but it’s the same way of working to get there.”

[FBC: Call me naive but I have always, and still do, buy the idea that there is road car relevance to what F1 does. I believe that what the F1 team learns in the Petri dish of competition will at some point make its way into the road car world. I have a hard time believing that what Mercedes and Renault, Honda and Ferrari learn stays within the confines of a grand prix car. So it is of no surprise that Pirelli would transfer what it learns to its road car products.]

Hembery Paul Pirelli c600

FBC: A while back, Mercedes and Red Bull were a bit upset at the tire that Pirelli was using at some point in the season. Pirelli elected to ultimately change the tires that year, but what was missing in the conversation (from my point of view) was the fact that Pirelli did not have the opportunity for any meaningful testing with current technology for that year. It must be quite a balancing act trying to produce tires that all the teams in the paddock can be happy with. The pressure to make sure everyone is not handicapped must be huge. How do you and Pirelli manage to do it?

PH: “It’s not so much a question of handicapping: it’s more that the teams are operating at such a high level that they understand any situation very quickly and realise how to make the most of it – particularly if the team in question has good resources. That’s the case with the tyres too, particularly at the end of the season when there’s a year’s worth of data to look back on. Also, the tyres probably have less of an effect this year than last year, as with the new formula in its second season there are fewer surprises. Back in 2012 we had seven different winners in the first seven races, leading to close racing and unpredictability, which is what most people would say you need in any sport to make it compelling. That’s what I personally would want to build into the rules, but this goes beyond tyre regulations. Pleasing everybody is a hard concept: first of all, everyone has to sit down and agree about what they would like the sport to be.”

[FBC: The key word here is agree. So often what the fans read in the press about F1 is that there needs to be unanimous agreement and commonly that does not happen, to the detriment of the sport in this blogger’s opinion. However, I can understand why these very complex aspects of F1, cost caps, testing allocations, tires, can be a very touchy subject for the teams and manufacturers. Like I mentioned in the question, the pressure must be intense for Paul and company…]

Pirelli test track temp c600

FBC: The proper operation window or temperatures; even the most casual fan at some point has some knowledge of this aspect of racing and in particular regarding F1. One cannot watch any part of F1, be it practice, qualifying or the race itself without hearing this phrase or something similar to it. This will sound naive but can you explain why a tire cannot work throughout a range of temps?

PH: “It’s just how the chemicals that make up the compound work, for any tyre. To have peak performance in one area, there inevitably have to be sacrifices in others. Our tyres are designed as low working range and high working range, so we have a tyre to cover every situation, but they perform best when they are working under the circumstances for which they are designed.”

FBC: You are getting ready to introduce the purple banded ultra soft tire for this year’s season. Much bigger rear tires are due to come back in 2017, similar to F1 cars of the 1970’s or that is what we have all been led to believe. What is going on? Are people finally getting the picture that where-the-rubber-meets-the-road, tires (sorry for the pun) can make a huge difference in the show and lap times?

PH: “I think so but the exact regulations for 2017 are still to be defined. It’s a work in progress. But our aim, as it’s always been, is certainly for the tyres to help improve the show.”

FBC: Is there any major change for race strategies for the following years?

PH: “This will follow on from the rules really. We’ll definitely see some changes in the way that teams shape their strategies next year, with the introduction of another compound and a new way of choosing the allocation. Then in 2017, we’ll have cars that are quite different and maybe some other new regulations too: these will obviously affect tyre strategies. One thing that is sure is that the teams will be collecting data on all these new scenarios as comprehensively as possible, and will soon work out what the quickest way is. That’s been our experience in the past, and I’m sure that will be the case again.”

FBC: Sebastian Vettel recently mentioned he wanted to go faster and suggested more mechanical grip for better tires (his words not mine), rather than being so reliant on aerodynamics. You also just recently said four seconds is probably doable just in the changes that will be made. The sport is looking for 6 seconds in all. Why will the sport not allow you to fulfill Sebastian’s (and for that matter many more drivers’) wishes, in making grippier tires, surely the technology is there. Is it a safety thing, a political matter, what gives?

PH: “I think the most important thing is to decide first what you want to achieve in Formula One, and then create solutions that match the answers, rather than the other way round. The general trend has been to reduce downforce in recent years and this has certainly helped cars to run closer to each other than they used to in the recent past. Increased mechanical grip would mean that the cars ran even closer to the limit of adhesion in corners – which we think would help the show – and there is also an aesthetic aspect: wider tyres definitely look more aggressive, which again seems to be a direction that Formula One is taking now. So all told we think wider would be a beneficial move, but ultimately we are here to serve the teams, so they will ultimately decide what they want to do, together with the promoter and the governing body. And they have already indicated a desire to move to wider tyres through the Strategy Group.”

[FBC: This was a very well crafted and perfectly thought out reply to my question. Mr. Hembery did not take the bait and throw F1 under the bus, good for him. Truth be known, I don’t want to throw F1 under the bus either. Or not completely, anyway. However, I and many, many fans are all of the same opinion. We feel that in the area of speed F1 has taken a step backward or at least that is the impression and for most fans that is just as important as the real facts. In the F1 documentary “1” which is an excellent history about the sport and its utter lack of safety in the beginning and then its transformation to one of the safest types of motor racing today, Max Mosley has a very profound line about a driver being offered two cars, one is very safe but not so fast and the other one is very, very fast and not so safe. I’m sure you can guess which car a driver will choose every time. It is up to the governing body to make that judgment call on safety for the drivers. I understand the sport’s reluctance to allow Pirelli or any tire manufacturer to just have at it and create the grippiest tire possible, but … I can’t help but feel these cars could be faster and therefore more compelling for the fans. When we see ultimate speed, we see a driver on the absolute knife edge between the perfect lap or completely cocking it up. That’s what keeps us coming back.]

F1 RB9 tire smoke c600

FBC: Sticking with tires for a just a little longer there was some testing and a couple of hot laps with Martin Brundle in a GP2 car fitted with very different looking rubber on 18 inch wheels. His initial feedback was very positive and you mentioned that if the sport was to move in this direction Pirelli was fully capable to adapt. Two questions, one, why would the governing body want to move away from the 13 inch wheel and two, is it a road car relevance issue again and do you see this (if the sport should want it) happening anytime soon.

PH: “In the end, we will do what the teams want us to do – so it has a future if they want, but not before 2017 at the very earliest. In our view, the new tyres looked stunning when they were run as an experiment in testing last year. If the teams decided that they wanted us to proceed in this direction, we have the capability to carry on development in this area and come up with a production-ready version in a comparatively short space of time. There are some engineering challenges to manage with a tyre like this, but it’s nothing major and there are no issues that we have not dealt with before in other championships.”

FBC: I recently read that you felt the choice of rubber Pirelli produced this year was too conservative with too many one-stop strategies playing out this year. But you also mentioned that with the testing or the lack thereof your hands are tied in providing the sport and the FIA what they have asked for: A balanced approach to tires that degrade but in a way that benefits the “show”. Why can’t the FIA give you what you need?

PH: “The problem is, it’s not just down to the FIA to decide. They obviously have other pressures and influences on them that affect the decision-making process, which we respect and understand.”

[FBC: My guess is that unanimity is the problem again, after several teams found themselves on the short end of the stick back in 2012 with tires that didn’t quite suit their chassis design. Who would want to take that risk again, despite the fact that it was exciting to watch those early races unfold? Mr. Hembery and Pirelli have a clear directive from the powers that be and as of right now the kind of tire that makes for such compelling racing is not been asked for. It’s a shame really, because now with all the data that the FIA, the teams and Pirelli have gathered I think the balanced approach to a more exciting tire could be achieved without catching some of the teams out.]

Pirelli wet dry tire c600

FBC: Getting back to the future of F1, what do you see on the horizon for F1 with the sport being in such upheaval? The engine formula has many detractors for several different reasons, a major player in the sport, Red Bull, almost quit over engine allocations. Caterham folded due to finances, Manor Marrusia is just barely hanging on, but 12 seconds off the pace after lap one. Some of the midfield teams filed a suit with the EU, effectively biting the hands that feed them. Obviously your company only supplies tires but in the context of F1 itself, do you get a sense that F1 is in a bit of a crisis? And can you (hopefully) see things the fans cannot: that maybe behind the scenes, solutions are starting to come together?

PH: “Upheaval is a strong word. Formula One has a lot of very strong positive assets; it’s a genuine world championship. The type of changes where F1 could consider modifying its approach is certainly to become more fan-friendly, and fan-friendly in reality means the drivers needing to become genuine heroes, visible and well-known. They need to be the people that fans look up to and most of all identify with. And that goes on to the next aspect of F1, which is the availability for fans to interact with the sport itself. There’s a lot of footage created during a race weekend but currently almost no online free access to imagery of Formula One. That’s a challenge for Formula One and it’s probably the same for a number of other sports. But collectively we’re all working on that.”

[FBC: Fair enough Paul, fair enough…]

And there you have it, insight and perspective from the Director of Pirelli Motorsport. A closer look into what F1’s tire manufacturer thinks of the sport, what their current role is in F1 is and how they can be of assistance to help the teams and thus help the sport deliver what we all want, closer, more exciting, compelling racing.

I would like to thank Mr. Hembery and Pirelli on behalf of Formula1Blog.com and myself for taking the time to allow the fans of this great sport a chance to be included in the conversation of one of the most critical parts of a race car, the tires. Hopefully we all have a better understanding of what it is Pirelli do and in the context of F1 how they achieve the directive set out by the FIA. Again, thank you, and see you in Melbourne Paul…

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