Kurt Verlin
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Formula One is Facing a Tire Problem

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Formula 1 Pirelli Tires

Pirelli’s Formula One tires. From right: Soft, Medium, Hard, and Intermediate compounds
Photo: Phil Guest

We are just five races into the 2017 Formula One season and it seems obvious something needs to be done about the state of tire durability.

It’s a problem that has been around for a while and though before the issue was that tires degraded too quickly to allow drivers to truly race, we now find ourselves on the flipside of the durability coin. The Pirelli tires last longer than ever with a grip drop-off at least as small as we had in the Bridgestone/Michelin era, though at the time they also had refueling to make strategy interesting and didn’t have many different compounds to choose from.

Time and time again this year we have seen a team, such as Ferrari at the most recent Grand Prix in Spain, put a car on the harder compound tire, expecting the competing team—in this case Mercedes—to eventually have to pit again or lose time because it chose the softer tire. And time and time again, this doesn’t come to pass: the softer tire not only manages to go the distance (about half of the race in Spain, though it may have done more), it also does so without ever reaching an overlap where the harder tire finally overtakes it in terms of grip provided.

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Red Bull RB13

The Red Bull RB13 on the white-marked Medium tires

The teams are at least partially aware of this. Of the three different compounds they can bring to each race, they have so far never used the hardest—after all, why do that when they can use the softer, faster compound without sacrificing durability?

Were it not against the rules, you can imagine the teams would have completed the entire Spanish Grand Prix on just two sets of soft tires. But the rules require the teams to use at least two different tire compounds, and thus they are forced to vainly hope the opponent’s softer tire will at least degrade quickly enough for their harder tire to prove useful, or simply match strategies and hope to get an edge in execution.

It’s clear Pirelli chose the wrong tires for the last race. Instead of supplying the Soft, Medium, and Hard tires, the fans say Pirelli should have gone one step down and chosen the Supersoft, Soft, and Medium tires. But we saw that the Soft tire was comfortably capable of going half the distance, thus making the Medium flatly inferior. In this hypothetical scenario, then, the same problem would have arisen: the teams would all have ignored the hardest tire.

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Ferrari F14 T

The Ferrari F14 T on the yellow-marked Soft tires

And this is at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, of all places—a track infamous for its high tire degradation. In fact, few races are as hard on tires as the Spanish Grand Prix, which to my mind suggests that none of the races on the calendar should feature any tire harder than the Soft compound, though this would unfortunately not remedy the durability issue at tracks like Monaco, where tire degradation is very low to begin with.

But why is it a problem? After all, isn’t this what everyone asked for?—tires that could last long enough for the drivers to race flat out without having to worry about conserving their life? That’s true, but clearly there is a rift between how the tires are designed to perform and how they actually do perform. Using a softer tire is supposed to be beneficial in the short run and detrimental in the long run; using a harder tire is meant to offer the opposite compromise.

If this balance isn’t accomplished within a race distance with the tires provided, then there is little point to using multiple tire types in the first place. If the teams all recognize this, it limits strategic opportunities and makes the races duller. If some do not, it favors teams that benefit from the lack of trade-off for using the soft tires and makes the races feel unfair.

I don’t have a solution, but I believe that tire durability and strategy was in a good place last year. Unlike in years preceding, tire grip didn’t suddenly fall off a cliff after one or two laps of hard driving, and the increase from two to three different available compounds created interesting new strategies—but, again, only because all three were viable.

Kurt Verlin was born in France and lives in the United States. Throughout his life he was always told French was the language of romance, but it was English he fell in love with. He likes cats, music, cars, 30 Rock, Formula 1, and pretending to be a race car driver in simulators; but most of all, he just likes to write about it all. See more articles by Kurt.