By Roger Hart, ERJ staff report (TB / AW)
Yas Island, Abu Dhabi -- An interesting story line to keep an eye on during the beginning of the Formula One season is just how the teams adapt to the new Pirelli tyres since Pirelli S.p.A. replaced Bridgestone Corp. this season as F1's sole tyre supplier.
Reading the reports from and talking to AutoWeek's F1 correspondent who attended the recently concluded first test of the season, each team noted the extensive work needed to acquaint it with the new rubber. Some teams completed the test in their year-old cars, so they will have to fine-tune their setups for the new cars, which will have variable downforce to meet new regulations that include a moveable rear wing.
Normally, I admit, I don't pay a whole lot of attention to tyres when I watch races, unless something goes wrong with them. Yet tyres are without a doubt one of the most neglected items on a passenger car. In fact, tyre companies estimate that more than 50 percent of vehicles on the road in the US have at least one underinflated tyre, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that underinflated tyres contribute to more than 600 accident-related fatalities and more than 30,000 injuries every year.
But we're talking here about racing tyres, and the manner in which a driver takes care of his/her tyres during a race can make the difference between winning or losing-or crashing.
My interest in F1 tyres this season stems in part from the fact that, a couple of weeks ago, Pirelli offered up a chance to watch the company test its rain and intermediate tyres. The experience was fascinating on several accounts.
First, the test took place at the Yas Marina F1 Circuit in Abu Dhabi. If there is a finer racetrack anywhere in the world, I have yet to see it. The facilities are first-rate, with spacious garages, opulent suites and enough lights around the track to make a good stab at simulating daylight. And everyone I met there was extremely friendly, not something I can say about every racetrack I've visited.
The tests occurred at night, in part because trucks dumped water on the racing line, and there is less evaporation at night. The other reason was that the corresponding drop in temperature better simulated conditions at wet races during the Grand Prix season.
Second, Pirelli invited about 50 journalists to witness the event and equipped a media center with high-speed Internet access. If there was a screw up-even something totally out of Pirelli's control-it was going to be announced to the world within seconds of happening. That takes some guts.
Third, the melding of teams, personalities and nationalities was interesting to watch. The Pirelli F1 effort is led by Paul Hembery, a Brit, but the vast majority of the tyre engineers are Italian. The test car Pirelli used was the last Toyota Formula One car, and the team's mechanics and technicians are mostly German. The lead test driver, Pedro de la Rosa, is Spanish. Many of the track workers are Australian.
Mr. De la Rosa was asked if, during the four hours of testing done each of two nights, he was holding back, running maybe at 9/10s just to be sure not to wreck the car.
â€œI cannot do this,â€ he said. â€œI always have to drive 100 percent. I would like it better if I were racing against someone, but if I did not drive all-out, the data we are collecting would not be good.â€
Mr. De la Rosa has many years experience as an F1 test driver, mostly with McLaren. According to Pirelli engineers, he's excellent in giving pertinent feedback from the test sessions.
Both sessions in Abu Dhabi were completed without incident, and the tyres were shipped to Valencia, Spain, where the official test occurred last week. Pirelli has developed four compounds-supersoft, soft, medium and hard-of dry tyres, a rain tyre and an intermediate tyre for use on damp surfaces.
With the majority of the preseason tyre tests out of the way, Pirelli is looking for a new test vehicle going forward. Mr. Hembery said the old Toyota, which was also the F1 team's test car and has logged thousands of miles, is at the end of its useful life. The tyre company is looking to get a more up-to-date F1 car to continue the test program.
Mr. Hembery noted that making racing tyres can be a thankless task. â€œIf a driver fails to win, it's always the tyre's fault, but when he wins, it's all about the driver.â€
The good news for Pirelli-as it was for Bridgestone-is that its tyres are guaranteed to be on the winning car in every F1 race this year. Of course, its tyres also will be on the 23 loser cars.
Roger Hart is managing editor of AutoWeek magazine, a Detroit-based sister publication of European Rubber Journal.
From Tire Business (A Crain publication)