Have you ever watched F1 and wondered why drivers have to change tyres all the time, and why they have different types of tyres? In this article is everything you’ve ever wanted to know about F1 tyres, why all the teams have the same supplier, and how they relate to strategy.
Who supplies F1 tyres to the teams?
Right now and up until 2024, Pirelli has the contract to supply all of the teams on the grid with high-quality rubber. They’ve taken back this contract and made a return back to the sport as they had previously supplied teams back in the 50s, 80s, and 90s. Pirelli was one of a few companies back in the 50s to supply tyres unlike now where there is only one. This push to only one tyre supplier was highlighted especially after the 2005 USA GP which saw the majority of the grid unable to start because of tyre blowouts. It turns out that supplier Michelin had brought tyres for it’s teams that weren’t up to spec and couldn’t withstand the extreme forces of the Indiannapolis speedway’s banked corner. Only six cars started the grand prix including Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher who ended up winning.
What specifications are the current F1 tyres?
As recently as 2022 the tyre spec was changed from 13-inch to 18-inch rims which decreased the profile of the tyre. Everything from the structure of the tyre was refactored as well as different compounds which were tested by teams the season before.
Pirelli claims that they had tested the new specification tyres for a whopping 10,000 hours of in-house testing, 5,000 hours of virtual testing and simultaneously developed 70 computerised models which were then made into 30 actual models and narrowed down. These 30 were tested across more than 20,000km in total by all of the teams in F1.
In 2023, Pirelli made slight tweaks to the compounds and conducted tests in Mexico City, Abu Dhabi, and Sao Paolo; all notable for their increased temperature so one can only assume that they were testing the thermal profile of the tyres.
One reason why the tyres were made to be 18 inches instead of 13 was to align the technology in F1 with cars and technology used on the road by everyday motorists. After all, F1 pushes innovation in loads of areas, one of the more notable being hybrid technology used by many cars nowadays.
What difference are there between the tyres?
Pirelli’s range of tyres range from C0 all the way up to C5 which range from soft to hard, less durable to more durable, faster to slower. Also in their range are Intermediate and Wet tyres to accommodate for really wet and slightly wet conditions. Pirelli decides which three adjacent tyre groups they take to a circuit (e.g. C1 C2 C3). The bottom compound is labelled soft, middle medium and top hard, depending on the weather conditions and surface of the track. Teams are required to use at least two different compounds in a weekend to make the races more interesting and introduce an extra element of strategy into the weekends. The soft compounds tyres are labelled red, medium yellow and hard white; watch out for these colours to get a read on team strategy.
Teams choose their tyres based on the weather, what their car responds to the best, and strategy. Say if you started the race in pole position and wanted to pull off into the distance, you would choose the soft option for that weekend. If, however you started the race higher than you usually would with a slower car you might want to hold onto that position for as long as possible with hard tyres.
Softer compounds are usually used for fast laps in qualifying rather than the race. Harder tyres are used for long stints when cars don’t really worry about overtaking or setting fast laps.
How hard you are willing to push your car in that specific weekend may also play into this decision. To give an example, Max Verstappen receives a penalty that places him in 15th on the grid. Him and his team know that his car is faster than all the others so he puts on a soft tyre to give him the edge and ability to climb the order. It’s often underestimated how hard it is to overtake so many cars even while you’ve got a fast car because front-running cars are designed to run at the front in clean air all race weekend; every edge is needed hence the fastest tyres. All of this is a balancing act.
In a standard race weekend, every driver is given 13 sets of dry weather tyres, 4 sets of intermediates, and three sets of wet-weather tyres. An extra set of soft tyres is granted to those who reach the final stage of qualifying (Q3) in which 10 drivers battle it out for the top grid slots; this is less of a gift and more of an understanding that they’re the ones doing more qualifying laps. The requirement for two compounds is only valid if the track is dry.
Interesting Revised Qualifying Format
In the 2023 season, two events will include the RQF which will evaluate the use of three separate compounds for three different thirds of qualifying. Q1 is set to only allow drivers to set laps in Hard tyres, Q2 only in medium and Q3 only in soft.
Pirelli and the FIA are planning on doing this to cut down on waste as then only 11 sets of tyres will be allowed compared to the current figure of 13. In my opinion, a step in the right direction.