Why does everyone keep talking about the tyres?

OK, we’re a couple of posts in, now, so everybody should have a basic understanding of what F1 is and how a race weekend works. Time for some specifics. First up: tyres.

The first question you might have, if you’re not from Britain or the colonies, is, “Why do you keep writing ‘tyre’ instead of ‘tire’?” Well, we at TPL are Canadian, and we use the British spelling rather than the American one for words like colour, neighbour and, in this case, tyre.

The tyres may seem like the most basic part of an F1 car, with its big engine, crazy bodywork, and steering wheel with more buttons than the keyboard I am typing this on, but a lot of technical development goes into the tyres as well. Having the right tyres on your car and being able to make them last are two very important components of winning races in modern F1.

Throughout Formula One’s history, many of the best-known tyre manufacturers in the world have supplied the series, including Bridgestone, Goodyear, Michelin, and Firestone. Over the years, the regulations have alternated between giving teams two or more tyre companies to choose from and having a single supplier for all teams. Since 2007, F1 has been in single-supplier mode.

Picture 4Photo credit: Matthew Walthert

The current supplier is Pirelli, who have provided F1 tyres on-and-off since 1950. They have been the exclusive tyre provider since 2011, although their contract runs out following the 2013 season. It remains to be seen whether it will be renewed.

There are six different types of Pirelli tyres that you may see on a grand prix weekend. They all have colour-coated writing on the sides, so you can always tell what type a particular driver is using.

The four main types (of which two are available each weekend) are hard (orange), medium (white), soft (yellow), and super-soft (red). As you can probably guess, the harder tyres have more durability, but they also provide less grip (i.e. you can generally go faster on softer tyres, but they will last for fewer laps). All of these tyres are ‘slicks’, with no grooves or treads in them and, provided it does not rain during the race, each driver must use each type of tyre for at least one lap during the grand prix.

If it does rain, that requirement vanishes and drivers have two tyre options: intermediates (green) and full wet tyres (blue). These tyres do have grooves in them to help move the water and maintain grip on the racetrack. The intermediate tyres can be used during light rain, when there is no standing water (i.e. puddles) on the track. Once it starts raining hard, full wets are required. Sometimes, like during the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix, it rains so hard that the cars will aquaplane even with full wet tyres and the race must be delayed.

During a race that begins in the rain and then starts to dry out, or vice versa, it is very important to change tyres at the correct time. Wet-weather tyres will wear out very quickly on a drying track and are much slower than the dry weather slicks. Likewise, once the track becomes too wet, drivers with slicks still on their cars will have to go very slowly to maintain grip and will lose time to cars that have already changed to wet-weather tyres.

Since everyone knows how difficult it can be to predict the weather, and aside from the fact that it is much harder to keep the cars on a wet track, even with the correct tyres, the necessity for split-second decisions on which tyres to use and when to switch them often makes for exciting races and unpredictable results when the rains come. Nobody wants to be the first to switch to wet or slick tyres, but they also don’t want to wait too long and lose valuable time.

Even when the weather is dry, though, there is a lot of ‘tyre management’ going on. Each driver only has 11 sets of slick tyres for each grand prix weekend (plus four intermediate sets and three wet). Three of the slick sets are for use only on Friday, leaving eight sets for Free Practice Three, qualifying and the race. As tyres wear down, they provide less grip, so teams will try to run as few qualifying laps as possible, while still making sure they move on to the next round.

lock upPhoto credit: Michael Elleray via Flickr

Some drivers and cars are easier on their tyres than others. Drivers who brake too heavily or slide around the track too much (which often happens when they are following another car very closely) will wear their tyres more quickly, meaning slower lap times and extra pit stops.

At the same time, F1 tyres can’t be treated too delicately. For the slicks to provide proper adhesion to the track surface, they need to be heated to 100°C or more. That’s why you will often see drivers swerving back and forth when they are driving at low speeds (behind a safety car or on the parade lap) and why the tyres are wrapped in electric blankets until they are put on the car.

tyre blankets

Photo credit: JohnONolan via Flickr

One other note: you will often hear the race commentators talking about ‘option’ or ‘prime’ tyres. These are the standard names for whichever two compounds of slick tyres Pirelli is providing for that Grand Prix: options are the softer compound and primes are the harder one.

Enjoy the Spanish Grand Prix tomorrow!

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