What are these F1 drivers feeling when the tyres start to degrade? Tough to say exactly as I’m still hoping for that USF1 test, but I can take a stab at it as I have driven on a few different types of race tyres in my long insignificant career.
As I’ve described before, different tyres and compounds have a “personality” that you need to get to know. The longer you know them the more you understand what makes them tick, so over the life cycle of a tyre stint you have high grip, low grip and hopefully a long span of consistently reasonable grip moments.
Your job as a driver is to extract the longest run of performance out for the time you have allocated. Sometimes you have to reign in your desire to “hero out” (or Paul Tracy) the first two laps of a race as this first initial stress on the tyre will ultimately speed up the degradation and over heat the tyre to a point that you cannot fully recover. There’s a number of scenarios like this but lets go through a typical stint.
First, on a pace lap you need to get the tyres (and brakes) as warm as possible, I concentrate more on the fronts as during the opening lap the ability for more abrupt changes in direction, and late braking can help you make some passes in unusual places, ultimate corner speed is not as critical., the handling of your car will be significantly different during this period.
Once the initial race has settled down a bit the handling of both tyres and car are more uniform, so now it’s time to pace the race. You will see some drivers still holding onto that first lap erratic nature a bit too long and this is a good sign for you as no tyre I’ve driven on can take that abuse forever. So everything’s feeling good and you’re dialing yourself into the track conditions of the day. There’s always temperature swings and other series racing on the same day and this can really make a change to the balance of your car, but you should have this figured out by lap number five.
No chance to change anything now, so no matter how brave or strong you are you can’t force a car to change so you adjust your application of the controls. If it’s understeering you might trail that brake a little longer into the turn, if it’s a little oversteery you make your initial steering input a little slower. You could always scream over the radio but I’ll leave that to Jenson & Lewis.
With all that completed, you try to put in consistent laps. You can’t experiment forever so just go with option B. As the run progresses you will just be pumping out the laps and then as fine tuned as you have become with the car as it is, something starts to change, you can feel the front tyres a bit more as they are connected to your steering wheel and therefore more directly to you, perhaps the initial input had a little less affect and you found yourself turning that little bit more or you say, “that didn’t feel as crisp”, so you make a mental adjustment in your head and over the next few corners you try and confirm your thought. You’re hoping you just got it a bit wrong but it’s an inevitable occurrence so just accept it and move on.
Now you start thinking of ways of counteracting this affect but you also want to be sure not to fight it too much as this can lead to making the situation worse. Some roll bar adjustments can help and can be constantly changed for the differing fuel loads and tyre wear to bring the car back into a more balance, but you will also have to turn down that entry speed a bit and wait just a tad longer before you unleash the full wrath of the engine.
If it’s the rear end it’s just as crucial not to abuse anymore as you are then in danger of overheating the rears even more and charging your way to the back of the pack, as spectacular as a nice sideways drift is, it’s detrimental to forward progress. You can perhaps increase the level of slip angle (tyre direction vs. actual direction) or show off those car control skills—as the back end wants to chase you down the road—and maintain close to the same corner speed. But this is ultimately damaging the tyre which means that sympathy, acceptance and adjustment are a big part of making a tyre last.
If you can get in tune and keep adjusting you will find you can slow down the deterioration process and sometimes if the tyre is such, actually gain some speed back by knowing and playing to the moods of the rubber. Usually you see the fruits of your labor nearer the end of the race or stint as patience, talent and experience are huge factors which is why the thinkers seem to be able to come out on top in tricky or highly changeable situations. Sometimes this is the difference between rookies with speed and end results, you have to play with the cards that you’re dealt. It’s very satisfying when you can reap the rewards of your patience at the end of a race, it may not get you in the headlines as the next Gilles, but remember it’s not where you start it’s where you finish.