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Pirelli Should Win The Non-Tire War Without a Shot

Paul Hembery, head of Pirelli Formula One.
Paul Hembery, head of Pirelli Formula One.

Tires or Tyres? Mere minor differences in American English and British English. However, The brand of tire a particular motorsport, in this case Formula One, uses can say a whole lot about the performance of the machine. After all, the tire is the most dynamic component of a racing car; it’s the one that touches the ground. How the car handles, cornering, safety and acceleration are all placed on the often-overlooked tire.

But tires can suffer. Durability, whatever level of ‘Stickiness’, is the main concern and always will be. The current tire supplier, Pirelli, entered Formula 1 after the rules were changed to one supplier to avoid tire wars, were one way to level the playing field for competitors.

Somehow, the same rationale was used when introducing hybrid technology. One former tire supplier has announced they are extending open arms to returning to the sport of Formula 1. The tire manufacturer Michelin could conceivably make a return once Pirelli’s contract has ended.

Michelin’s motorsport director Pascal Couasnon told Autosport magazine: “Why not? We are fully open to return, but on some precise conditions. Formula 1 must change its technical regulations.” Whoa now hold up there cowboy! Did you just say you want F1 to adjust their governance to fulfill your wishes? That’s more daring than adding a crosswalk to the grid. Of course it’s only fair for the tire manufacturer to ask for certain stipulations. Michelin’s terms include converting the 13-inch wheels currently used to a much taller 18-inch wheel. The French tire company has said if the governing body will not change the regulations, they won’t be interested.

That’s a tall order by Michelin. It certainly is a capable endeavor, but it will not occur anytime soon. Let’s start with their condition, 18-inch wheels. Michelin is the only tire supplier involved with Formula E where 18-inch wheels are already in use. Of course, this being their reason for such a proposal. This would save Michelin the hassle of developing a new 13-inch tire to accommodate the current design. In turn, saving some development and testing. It certainly isn’t as easy as taking a rack of tires from the Venturi Formula E team then slapping them on the Williams FW16.

Pirelli's 18 inch 'concept' tire.
Pirelli’s 18 inch ‘concept’ tire.

Why 18 inch wheels? Larger wheels can cause more problems. They are much heavier. That’s a problem because weight spoils performance. F1 is based around performance, performance, performance.   Other problems arise as well. The fuel economy will be compromised. Additionally, the tire sidewall must shrink to maintain the tire’s overall diameter. A lower profile will allow bumps in the track to rattle sensitive suspension parts.

The vast majority of F1 teams are satisfied with running 13-inch wheels that gives the tires an additional role as a passive suspension component.

Michelin wants to form a monopoly with higher end motorsports. They are in the process of taking over MotoGP, which currently races on Bridgestone. Michelin hasn’t been involved in Formula 1 since 2006. F1 technology and power has changed dramatically in the last nine years while continuing to change every few months. Michelin will have to spend countless amounts of money to design a set of tires with tests from each and every track on the calendar. That could be like starting from square one compared to where Pirelli is today. Its a well-known fact Pirelli’s contract is up next year in 2016.

Pirelli hasn’t been silent on the subject. They can build an 18-inch tire as well and Formula One may ask for such a change for 2017 and beyond, but for now they have chosen to run a wider tire that is far easier to create with consistency. Consistency is key as a bad set of tires is very undesirable. You can see it happen repeatedly in NASCAR.

When the FIA signed Pirelli as the sole supplier in 2011, relieving Bridgestone, they wanted to even the competition by having a high degradation tire. The result is a two to three pit stop race, adding tire strategy in the mix. Well Pirelli sure made a difference, just not in the way they expected. Drivers were forced to conserve tires, ruining any competition between teams.

You can’t push the limit of grip when the rubber just falls off ten laps in the race.

How about those 18-inch wheels? Pirelli has tested tires on 18-inch wheels. So why not just accept Pirelli’s desire to design a much lower degradation tire on the 13-inch wheels, it’s already in the works. Problem solved. No signing new manufacturer contracts. The teams get to choose which of two compounds to run without being mandated by Pirelli. It’s more control to the teams for strategy.

I don’t see Michelin entering Formula 1 anytime soon.

Pirelli will most likely renew their contract to begin their next chapter in open wheel motorsports.

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