Is tyre strategy dead?

Pirelli’s tenure as the sole supplier of tyres to the F1 grid has been the subject of much debate. When they took over in 2011 they were mandated to produce a tyre that had high levels of degradation in order to increase the amount of pit stops and available strategies to the teams. This was to make sure that the absence of refuelling didn’t lead to a lack of action in the pits and to that end Pirelli succeeded.

The problem was that the tyres Pirelli were instructed to produce did not promote the aggressive, flat out racing that is synonymous with Formula One racing. Drivers complained that they could not push hard enough for fear of hitting the performance drop off and succumbing to an extra pit-stop compared to their competitors. Fans complained that the drivers had to nurse the tyres and were therefore unable to push themselves or their cars to the limit, another feature synonymous with Formula One racing. Then there was the high profile and dangerous tyre failures that struck periodically and rightly caused a stir.

The 2016 season brought a significant change in how Pirelli approached their selection of tyre compound for each race weekend. Previously, Pirelli selected two compounds for each event from their four available (dry weather) compounds: hard, medium, soft, and super-soft. For 2016 Pirelli introduced a fifth dry compound (ultra-soft) and now selected three compounds per event and allowed the teams to choose how they wanted to split their allocation of 13 sets between the three compounds. As in previous seasons the teams were only required to run two of the compounds during a dry race, one of which was designated as mandatory by Pirelli. It transpired that this system was nowhere near as complicated as it initially sounded.

And a great change it proved to be. The new tyre rules combined with a closed up midfield to create some very exciting racing. The tyre strategies in the races were brilliant and the midfield teams had opportunities to really mix things up and promote themselves up the order. This made the results, behind Mercedes, somewhat less predictable – hurrah!

So. What’s not to love?

As I mentioned earlier, the new tyre rules sounded a lot more complicated than they were. As as result, newcomers (and maybe returning fans) to the sport might well have found it difficult to understand what was going on during the races with different drivers running all sorts of different compounds at different times. What’s the difference between these compounds? What advantage do they get from running the softs over the mediums at this point in the race? If the softs are so good then why is this car running on super-softs? And so on. This is a point which Ross Brawn has raised in various recent interviews. Although I suspect that someone as knowledgeable and intelligent as Brawn was nowhere near as confused as he makes out to be.

Nevertheless, 2016 produced some great races and the tyre rules played a role in that.

The first race of 2017 was not a thrilling spectacle. Unsurprisingly, the new rules have stretched the field out further rather than closed it in as some people seemed to think that it might. Massa, in 6th place, was the last remaining driver to finish on the lead lap yet not far from being caught by Vettel.

Race simulations for the teams in Melbourne suggested that a two stop strategy was faster by approximately 8 seconds providing they could avoid traffic. However, in terms of tyre wear the race was clearly a one stop. Drivers pushed ahead on ultra- and super-soft tyres for lap after lap without much drop off in performance. In some cases, their times even improved marginally over the duration of a stint. This was evidenced by the mini-battle for the fastest lap that ensued in the closing stages of the race.

This was all made possible by the work of Pirelli. This year they’ve been mandated to produce a tyre that allows the drivers to drive flat out without having to worry about ‘saving the tyres’. In addition, the tyres are now significantly larger than recent years and are fitted to cars capable of cornering significantly faster which consequently subjects the tyres to significantly more punishment than recent seasons. And (as before) Pirelli appear to have satisfied that mandate.

The change in tyre behaviour over the duration of the stint appears to have been well received by the drivers. They no longer feel that they are driving within themselves now that they can push hard for the duration of a stint. The fans are rewarded by getting to see the drivers taking their cars closer to the limit and driving flat out. Unless, of course, they are within two seconds of the car in front…

Unfortunately, the downside of this is that the brilliant three tyre rule introduced last year now appears to be dead. Unceremoniously cast aside like a classic European venue in favour of a Tilke-drome in a Gulf state. There is almost no point in teams gambling on tyre strategy when the only strategy is to run the softest, fastest compound for as long as possible and then switch to the next softest compound for the remainder of the race.

Can we really have it both ways though?

In an ideal world the tyre would run at its optimum for approximately x laps before seeing a dramatic drop off in performance. It would be durable enough for the stint to be flat out and fragile enough to punish the teams for taking it too far without being prone to delamination. It would open up the strategies and thus the potential rewards for gambling on a strategy call that in a race that requires more than one stop over the 300km distance. Is such a tyre even possible? I have no idea but common sense suggests that there are too many conflicting ideals for this to be a realistic possibility.

With only one race down in 2017 it is far too early to be sure that the three tyre rule is completely dead. It may well come back with a vengeance at circuits that are traditionally hard on tyres but circuits like Sochi are probably going to be devoid of pit-lane action on Sunday. If the tyre strategies are indeed nullified by the new tyres we can only hope the racing is better once we reach circuits that lend themselves to racing more than Albert Park does.

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