Ahead of the 2022 Formula 1 season, there was much talk of the sport’s radical new aerodynamic rules and whether it would create the closest races that those who run them have long craved.
But on the mechanical side an equally radical fluke was made. F1 eventually dropped its 13-inch wheel format in favor of new 18-inch wheels and taller tires.
Pirelli therefore had to develop an entirely new range of rubber by 2022. And that crucial chemical interaction between the rubber and the road would go a long way in determining whether F1’s new rules package was deemed a success.
It is the biggest change Pirelli has made in the 11 seasons since it took over as F1’s official tire supplier. Adding to the challenge, new tires had to be developed for machines that didn’t spin a wheel until last month. The teams produced ‘mule cars’ for testing purposes which provided an inaccurate, albeit useful, approximation of what was to come.
Last week’s Bahrain Grand Prix marked the first real-world test of whether F1’s new aerodynamic and tire rules are delivering. Speaking exclusively to RaceFans on the Thursday before the second race of the season, Pirelli motorsports boss Mario Isola said the tire performance in the opening round had been encouraging, although not exactly in line with his expectations. forecasts.
“I would say I’m happy with the result,” Isola said. “They weren’t working exactly as predicted, but don’t forget that last year we tested the tires on the mule cars and some of the numbers we collected are probably slightly different compared to what we have now on the new cars.”
The biggest difference Pirelli discovered was that the performance gap between the three compounds was far greater than what they expected after last year’s test. A difference of around half a second per lap was predicted.
“In Bahrain, it was more,” Isola explained. “It was a second between hard and medium, 1.2 between medium and soft. And also the level of degradation was higher than expected.”
This was not entirely in line with the targets set out in the ‘target letter’, which is drawn up in consultation with the FIA to define the performance characteristics of tyres, Isola said. However, the teams’ strategies varied until the late launch of the Safety Car.
“These two elements together made the race interesting because with these numbers, even if they were different from the target letter, it was possible to have many different strategies.
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“Some people tried the hard, some people focused the race on the medium and the soft. Some people during the race decided to switch from a two-stop strategy to a three-stop strategy. Then the Safety Car was clearly helping everyone move to a three-stop strategy. But we had a lot of teams and cars that went for different options.
“It was also difficult for them to decide which tires to return after free practice, because that was affecting the number of tires available for the race. For example, the medium was a good race tire but only Alfa Romeo and Williams had only two sets of mediums available for the race. So there was a lot of strategy behind it. That was exactly what we wanted to achieve with the new tyres.
One of the most encouraging elements of the first weekend of racing, says Isola, is that the drivers seem to have more freedom to push to overtake the cars in front with the new tires and the new ground effect cars. That should allow drivers to follow rivals more closely without losing too much performance.
“[The tyres] they seem to suffer much less from overheating,” Isola said. “The drivers could push during the race, that is visible. When they were following each other, it was possible to overtake more than once.
“Until last year, if you remember, they would try to overtake once, twice and the tires would overheat and they would have to go back. While we were in Bahrain, we had a lot of different actions going on. I’m not just talking about the leaders, but also behind.”
Isola does not expect the high degradation seen in Bahrain to become a common factor for the rest of the season, with the abrasive asphalt of the Sakhir circuit being the main culprit for the heavy wear over the weekend.
“Performance [and] the behavior of the tire was in line with our expectations”, he said. “We expected some understeer in low speed corners due to the characteristics of the new aero package. The rear tires worked fine. We had no graininess, we had no blisters. So it’s a very good result.
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“Considering that Bahrain is a circuit where you have high temperatures, the roughness of the track is the highest in the championship, it requires a lot of traction because it is quite an intermittent circuit, the tires worked well.
Heading into the second round of the season in Saudi Arabia, and the first street track, Pirelli is hoping for a different kind of race weekend from its softer tire range at the Jeddah Corniche circuit.
“It’s a much faster and smoother circuit with a lot of lateral energy, but not a lot of traction,” explained Isola. “So the setup is probably different, the way they approach the race is different.
“We are going to use the C4 for the first time, so we are one step softer compared to the race in Bahrain. But also the track, the Tarmac is different.
“We were talking in the briefing that they sprayed some parts of this circuit, which means that the grip is probably a bit inconsistent throughout the circuit because this water spray occurred in some parts, but not throughout the circuit. . We need to understand and I think the teams will focus a lot on the C4, the soft tyre, to understand how this tire works compared to the other two that they know from Bahrain and from the test.
With such a major change in tire specifications for this season, Isola admits that Pirelli still have a lot to learn about their new tires as they plan for the coming seasons.
“The product is brand new. With five compounds we need to tackle 23 different circuits, 10 different teams, 20 different drivers and clearly we need to find what we say is the best compromise.
“So our job now is to collect data at the start of the championship, make a plan for the tire development test for the rest of the season, understand if we need to adjust the product for next year.
This year’s tire tests will be more representative, he adds. “Now we can test with the real cars, so it’s a bit better. I’m not complaining about the mule carts; obviously in that situation the crews did an excellent job of providing us with mule carts. But the mule cars were different and now we need to understand if the tires we developed with the new cars are okay.
“During the season our product is frozen, so they are not like the teams that develop the car. We have to freeze the product, let’s say, November, December of the previous year, we can’t change it for a year. But we can collect data, understand what we can improve for next year and that’s what we’re going to do, starting from the first test, which is after Imola, so that’s the plan.”
Mario Isola was talking to Claire Cottingham
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