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Pirelli - 2011's success story

Fabrizio Corgnati
November 7, 2011
Pirelli's tyres have been the key to better racing this year © Sutton Images
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Pirelli's arrival as the single tyre supplier in Formula One has been the main talking point this season. The news meant the teams had to design their cars over the winter with very limited knowledge of the tyres, while Pirelli had to re-embrace design and production standards at a top class level. And, considering their 20-year absence, their adjustment has been extraordinarily quick.

"I have to say that, so far, everything went very well," Pirelli President, Marco Tronchetti Provera says proudly. "We managed to face a few months of challenges which seemed impossible at first. Our team, our people, our technologies prevailed and we contributed more and more to this fascinating Formula One adventure, which this year has increased in audience and emotions.

"This was possible because we have the ability to develop our technologies rapidly. We managed to get into Formula One because we are No. 1 in the world in supplying tyres to the so-called 'prestige' segment: Ferrari, Maserati, Aston Martin, McLaren, Porsche and so on. That's why we have a very high technological innovation capability and our people could provide it to Formula One with the results everybody can see."

The result also required a significant financial investment. Pirelli pumped €30 million into its Izmit factory - where the Formula One tyres are manufactured - which can be added to the €140 million already spent on the Turkish facility over the last 10 years. By the end of the year Pirelli will have produced 50,000 units for Formula One, employing over 1,000 engineers, 50 of whom are on call at the races with 15 support trucks.

"We have an extraordinary team," adds Tronchetti Provera. "We have always been in racing, we follow some 50 championships all over the world. We were single suppliers in World Rallying with extraordinary performances - and it seems to me that the companies who came after us have had a few more problems. I think we managed to have, throughout one season, the same amount of troubles and punctures they now have in one single race. Our people are good, both the technologists and those working on track and we keep on doing our job with passion."

A key component of Pirelli's development team is test driver Lucas di Grassi. Having made his F1 debut on Bridgestone tyres with Virgin Racing he knows how much Pirelli has changed the sport, even if a like-for-like comparison is unfair.

"It's difficult to make a direct comparison, because I raced one car with Bridgestones last year and I'm driving another one with Pirellis this year, so I find it hard to compare them," he explains. "Of course, as everybody knows, the current tyre has a higher consumption than Bridgestone, but this was made on purpose by Pirelli to FIA specifications in order to increase the number of pit-stops and thus the action during the races. So, from the driver's point of view, not much has changed, but we have to drive a little bit cleaner and, maybe, sometimes not to push 100% in order to save them a little more."

The Pirellis haven't suited everyone's driving style, however. The likes of Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton have struggled to adapt to the new style of racing when compared to their respective team-mates Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button, who have excelled on the new rubber. The high degradation of Pirelli tyres has, in fact, been the technical theme of the 2011 season, forcing drivers to adopt a more conservative driving style instead of the old "maximum attack" mantra.

Strategists, too, have had to adapt, increasing the number of pit-stops to combat the higher rate of degradation. In grands prix such as Malaysia and Turkey this trend reached an extremely high level, leading to races so frequently interrupted that they were almost impossible to follow. But in most cases, the variable and unpredictable degradation rates of the tyres has varied grip levels between cars and boosted overtaking - something the FIA had been trying to achieve in vain for many years.

Bernie Ecclestone praises Pirelli president Marco Tronchetti Provera © Sutton Images
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Laurent Mekies, chief engineer at Toro Rosso, explains why the racing has been so exciting: "[It's down to] a higher degradation in tyre performance, combined with a bigger difference between the two compounds available. This leads to a wider strategy range and to several situations where two cars close to one another on track have a very different pace and encouraging easier overtaking chances. The setup of the car was significantly shifted towards the best possible race condition, while last year the cars were optimised for qualifying."

What's more, the differences have sometimes been huge. On some occasions new tyres have been up to four seconds faster than those at the end of their life and, to add to the unpredictability, the speed of tyre degradation has also varied from car to car. The technicians on the pit wall, therefore, have found themselves facing real dilemmas.

"The teams' race strategy has become much more complex," Williams chief operations engineer Mark Gillan explains, "necessitating more stops during a race than in previous seasons due to the clear lap time delta between the option and prime tyres coupled with, at times, the large wear and/or tyre degradation profiles of the tyres. When combined with KERS and DRS, the potential to overtake is now significant. Moreover, the various tyre compounds are easy to differentiate and for the first time the public can track the relative characteristic of a particular compound as it used on different tracks."

In addition to the strategies, the technical influence of the new Pirelli tyres has had a fall out on two more factors. On the one hand, the setup: "It is constantly evolving throughout the year - the car changes each race," reveals Alan Permane, trackside operations director at Renault. "We have certainly learnt how to preserve the tyres for longer and this process continues. We developed a rear suspension geometry specifically designed to look after the tyres in the race."

On the other hand, the very designing of the cars: "Right from the beginning the FIA had asked Pirelli to develop tyres with this kind of characteristics, and that's what they did," says Giampaolo Dall'Ara, head of track engineering at Sauber. "So, when we designed the Sauber C30-Ferrari we focused on these facts and tried to build a car which is gentle with its tyres. This sometimes gives us the option to do one pit stop less than most of our competitors."

In other words, the arrival of Pirelli defined an optimal level of downforce. If you go beyond this limit, you start wearing the tyres throughout the races unduly. If you don't have enough of it, you can still be competitive in races by preserving the tyre, but during the first laps you will struggle to get them up to temperature, thus damaging your performance in qualifying and at the beginning of the stints (as Ferrari has experienced on occasion).

Despite giving the engineers a lot to think about, Pirelli is supportive, as Gillan again acknowledges: "Whilst my first race with Williams was only in Singapore, I was encouraged by Pirelli's technical support and feedback during the event. One other point of note is Pirelli's incredible rate of development with their pneumatic 50% and 60% size wind-tunnel model tyres which are used for aerodynamic development. Having been part of the original protracted testing group for the first pneumatic windtunnel tyres back in the early 2000s I was originally quite concerned that Pirelli would struggle to produce this complex model scale tyre in the short time they had between the contract being awarded and the first aerodynamic wind-tunnel tests for the new cars - I need not have worried."

Paul Hembery: The man behind Pirelli's success story © Sutton Images
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Pirelli's Motorsport Director, Paul Hembery, explains why the Italian manufacturer strongly embraced the innovative idea of wind-tunnel testing of their products: "It's part of the job of a tyre-maker. You need to make a product scaled to 50% and 60%, because the teams have different car scales, too. However, it is not a Formula One tyre replica, because if it were, we'd have too much vertical stiffness. So they have a very strange structure, which would be impossible to use on track. It's not a go-kart tyre, as it may seem, but a custom-made and very complex product, because it has to copy the high-speed profile of a normal tyre."

However, the wind-tunnel tyres are but one of the areas in which the company is pushing their future development. Hembery's ideas, published also in the press during the last few months, are many: "We simply offered several possibilities: we are a partner and part of our job is to be innovative and to come forward with new proposals. The qualifying tyre, for example, could be good idea for the future, but we have to discuss those themes further. We won't be doing anything of the sort for next year, because the teams are against that. For them, qualifying works fine the way it is, so they don't feel there is a problem.

"Apart from that, we tried to convince them to change something in the way they exploit tyres during the weekend. Every Sunday night we take back a set of unused prime tyres and this is quite ridiculous. We have to carry them around, fit them and then scrap them when still new. It would be better to find a solution to use them, for example on Fridays when cars do only a few laps because they have to give back just one set of tyres. It could be sufficient to increase to two the amount of sets they have to give back, and maybe they would do more mileage. The drivers would like to do more laps, too. I hope we can change our approach, but the decision is up to the teams."

And then the fans did their part too, by suggesting at a recent FOTA fan forum that teams should get the opportunity to choose which two tyre compounds, of the four available, they want to use at each race: "This proposal, actually, didn't come from us, but from the audience," Hembery points out. "We have answered that we are available for discussion. It's interesting, but very complicated: there are thousands of factors involved, both on the logistical and on the technical side... It's not so easy."

Another possibility for the future of Formula One is a move to 18-inch rims and low-profile tyres, but Hembery says this is still someway off. "Before 2014 it's impossible," he concludes. "The real problem is that you can't bring an 18-inch product in February for the first time without having had the possibility to test it beforehand. Somebody should build a testing car. It's true that today most of the work is done on the simulator, but providing the most advanced cars in the world with such a different product would be a risk for the sport which we can't afford. Think about the impact with the kerbs, for example, which is not easy to simulate. It's technically doable, but we have to find a way to do it."

If this very last idea should go through as well, Formula One's technical revolution by Pirelli would take yet another step forward.

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