Why Pirelli is ready for the USGP…and the future

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You’ve met them before—the person who is so passionate about their work that whenever they speak about a current project, you are instantly engrossed in the topic and in 15-30 seconds you start to share this passion even though it’s a topic you thought you’d never feel passion about. That’s what it is like when speaking with the folks at Pirelli. Passion, pride, intelligence and a fanatical devotion to the craft of building a better tire.

When you think of the future of tire technology, you’re most likely visualizing a black, round thing that goes on cars that might get better mileage and possess a lower rolling resistance. You’d be forgiven in not considering a “Cyber-tire” or a tire that produces critical data in real-time about temperatures, conditions, and even performance control. It would also be understandable if you weren’t considering the massive amount of work that goes into providing carmakers an OEM specification tire that compliments the exact demands of their car. Don’t worry—Pirelli is thinking about it and they’re working on it.

As the sole supplier for Formula One, Pirelli has done the unthinkable. They have designed a tire that does the exact opposite of what their consumer products are designed to do—degrade rapidly. The F1 world championship is tight and Pirelli plays a large role in that fact. They’ve been working diligently to give the premier racing series a technical challenge that would increase the tactical difficulties of a race as well as increase the spectacle of the individual event.

As a sole supplier, some have argued that the lack of a second tire manufacturer removes a critical element for the sport but Pirelli, rightfully, adds that a second supplier only provides a war between tire companies that the teams and fans aren’t interested in. Pirelli’s multiple compounds and high degradation are, in fact, providing the spectacle that fans did enjoy when there were two or more tire makers in the sport.

The 2012 season trappings have been reserved for drivers and teams who can measure the tire characteristics and manage those parameters better than others. If you consider Lotus F1’s Kimi Raikkonen winning last week in Abu Dhabi, you get a picture of just how a car—not the fastest on the grid—can win a race and hold off the dominant players.

You also have to consider just how good Raikkonen is as he’s been away from the sport for two years and these tire characteristics and fuel loads didn’t exist when he raced before. I had a chat with Pirelli motor sport boss Paul Hembery today and he said, “if the team had a stronger qualifying performance earlier, they’d have won races already”.

Another interesting point that Paul made was the impact a full fuel load has on the car and tires. It is “underrated” as an element critical to F1’s current performance models according to Hembery and one can see why. As Paul suggested, it’s like having two journalists on either side of the car that eventually fall off some time during the latter parts of the race—yes, he’s a witty guy and knows his audience well.  He’s also brilliantly sharp and understands the entirety of the sport better than I think most people would expect.

Austin here we come

As the series heads back to America in one week’s time, the big challenge is deploying a tire on a brand new circuit (Circuit of the Americas or COTA) having never ran there. Pirelli knew the challenges up front and they’ve been involved in the United States Grand Prix in Austin from the days of dirt and dust. They have developed simulations, measured and inspected the track surface. They understand that a curing process can bleach the track and chemicals can rise to the surface. The abrasion factor is always a concern and no one knows that more than Pirelli. Support races will actually help the surface maturation process and provide a better racing condition for the F1 car but there is rain in the forecast and that could throw the cat amongst the pigeons.

Hembery revealed that Pirelli expect COTA to be a high-energy circuit with a smooth surface and no surprises. He was non-committal on just how many pit stops the teams would make during the race but two seems to be the conventional wisdom which is contrary to India two weeks ago. In fact, Pirelli were a tad conservative at the last two races (India and Abu Dhabi) and that seems to have an immediate noticeability to the fans watching at home who have become keen observers of just how the Pirelli’s are behaving from race to race.

While F1 fans the world over have been steeped in the series for decades, American fans are usually accused of being non-existent or obtuse to the nuances and fine details of Formula One. That just isn’t the case according to Hembery. Paul believes that the US has a very large fan base and says that the technical questions and time spent with talking with them reveals a very loyal and technically adept crowd.

This comes as little surprise for Formula1blog.com as we’ve been speaking with you for years now and we know you love the sport and devour the details. Formula One calls itself a global sport and there is no question that American fans are fully aware of its intricacies and nuances—even down to the tires.

Hembery reckons that the return of Grand Prix racing in America is better positioned for success with a purpose-built circuit in a terrific city and a beautiful infrastructure. These are crucial, says Hembery, to appealing to Americans who want a social event and good environment in which to spend a weekend. It has to be more than just 24 cars running around in circles and Americans expect more from a weekend—they want an event, not just a race.

Formula One’s Future

The future of Formula One is certainly hanging in the balance from a political standpoint but Hembery is focused on the technical regulations looming in 2013 and 2014. Pirelli announced a few weeks ago that the 2013 compounds would be less of a moving target for the teams—it took several races in 2012 in order for them to get on top of the nuances of the prime and option compounds. These characteristics are then accounted for and added to team strategy but as they were an all-new compound for the 2012 season, it caught the teams off guard.

Heading into 2013, the regulations are not changing significantly and therefore Hembery expects teams to be on top of the tires more quickly and making the most of their strategies.  It’s logical and if you juxtapose that with his tale of flexi-wings, it becomes clearer.

Hembery recanted the story of some teams running a very flexible front wing/nose earlier this year and the impact it had on tires created a 20 degree temperature difference between the front and back tires. Imagine trying to immediately handle that delta and remain on target for your tire-wear strategy during a race! Slight changes to aerodynamics or regulations can have big impacts on the tires so the 2013 rules remaining relatively stable and slightly evolutionary from the 2012 rules, may give teams a leg up.

Heading into 2014, the big changes start to radically impact everyone. Pirelli have a 2010 specification Renault F1 car in which they have done testing but as Hembery explains, in 2014 that all changes and even a car from this year would be irrelevant.  The torque of a turbo V6 engine will place all new demands on tires and the aerodynamic changes will as well.

I asked Paul about his Renault test car and quite honestly, all future work will be done just as the teams themselves are doing—simulators and simulation models.  The tire is a moving object with pressures, stress and temperatures. There is nothing easy about developing a tire for Formula One or road cars. Some have asked for larger wheels and that has its own challenges during cornering and would take the teams support to make that happen. The suspensions would all have to be changed as well and while Pirelli are up for that challenge, they do think some more immediate changes could be made.

Hembery discussed the need for all cars to run in the Q3 session during qualifying. In order to do that, Pirelli would like to have a qualifying tire for the Saturday session. This would allow drivers to put it on the limit and really go for the pole. When the pressures are that big, mistakes happen and heroes arise—and zeros fall.

Teams now are forced to start the race on the tires they qualified on during Saturday’s session and when you are facing degradation from the qualifying event that will impact you at the start of the race, it’s easy to see why teams refuse to run in Q3.

Pirelli are committed to working tirelessly to help Formula One improve and become a better event. The challenge of making tires degrade to reduce overall lap times by 1/10th to 3/10th per lap is amazing and it is a level of detail that you only find when watching live timing and scoring. Pirelli’s willingness to help is only limited by the teams and commercial rights holders’ desires and it was refreshing to hear just how agile and open to new ideas Pirelli were.

In the end, Pirelli are facing the same challenge many Formula One sponsors face—get our products noticed in America with a racing series that isn’t too popular. If Formula One does little to promote itself in America—and it doesn’t—then it is up to the sponsors to drive and promote the series in order for fans to actually see their brand messages and products being used. That’s a challenge for marketing departments to be sure.

Pirelli use F1 to promote their brand in America and their new factory in Mexico will be a source of 1.5 million tires in 2013. That locality to America, along with their factory in Georgia, will allow Pirelli to provide even timelier customer support. It’s a message they hope Formula One will help them deliver in Austin and the years to follow.

Like Formula One, Pirelli is a premium brand and their dedication to their craft is nothing short of amazing. Paolo Ferrari, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Pirelli’s NAFTA region, says that the company is benefitting more than you would think from its Formula One involvement in the American market. The interest level is high and marketing spend will be even higher in 2013 in order to reach American F1 fans and consumers about the quality of Pirelli tires.

 

 

 

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