Formula 1 teams are set to face a major tire strategy dilemma ahead of qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix thanks to the high degradation experienced so far on the softer-compound tires.
That is the view of Pirelli's motorsport director Paul Hembery, who says the fact that the soft compound's pace appears to be dropping off so dramatically in a stint could push teams to revolve their strategy around the medium tire. That could even manifest itself in some Q3 teams opting to qualify on the medium tire, because a short early stint on the soft rubber would result in them dropping back into traffic at the first round of pit stops.
"We wanted or need about 20 laps out of the medium tire, which has resisted well, and the wear rates have been slightly better than our predictions – which for a green track is fine," said Hembery. "The soft tire is doing about 10-12 laps, and there was slight blistering, so that is creating an interesting crossover, which is pretty similar to Singapore, really.
"You have a soft tire that had speed but a higher degradation. A lot of races this year have run on the soft tire, because they haven't had a great deal of degradation, which means the harder tire is being used at the end of a stint. Here, there will be a question for many teams in that they might like the performance of the softer tire, but it is not going to give them the durability, and there will be higher degradation. So they might have to jump to a strategy based on the medium."
Hembery reckoned that the point where the softer tire was lapping slower than the medium tire could come as early as six laps into a stint, but teams would have a clearer idea of the situation during third practice.
"It is quite varied between the teams at the moment. Some of them are actually quite rapid, five or six laps, but you tend to get that on a Friday, particularly at a very aggressive track like Suzuka. I think it will be key to see what happens in final practice. If there has been an evolution and if that degradation level changes. There are probably some setup changes that the teams can look at as well if they would have seen they were blistering a bit early.
"Ferrari had a strange blistering situation with [Fernando] Alonso very early in the stint which wasn't replicated on the other cars, but there is an opportunity for them to make some setup improvements. You are not going to make it completely different, though."
Hembery said the likelihood was for a three-stop race, although some teams could try and eke out just two tire swaps.
"The race, if you ask me know how to do it, I would say you will be focusing on the medium tire," he said. "You are on a certain three-stop, potentially two-stop if you want to focus on a medium tire strategy. Looking at data tonight you would think three-stop strategy for most of the teams."