A return to the knife-edge is the aim for Pirelli's Formula 1 tire program in 2013, with new structures and new compounds being introduced in the hope of recapturing some of the unpredictability of last season.
For the first time in F1 history, the first seven races of 2012 delivered seven different winners; Fernando Alonso ended the streak with his win at Valencia. Replicating that a second time around is going to be tricky. Part of the reason that the first half of last year was such a lottery was the ban on blown diffusers, which left the teams grappling with an aero imbalance front to rear, and as a direct result, an imbalance between the tire temperatures at each end of the car.
“It made it feel like they had two different tires fitted,” says Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembrey. “Midway through the season the teams got on top of that by taking loading out of the rear tires to balance up the front. At the start, they were trying to load the front tires more to match the rear. But that was wonderful because it created such great racing, and combined with the challenges we gave them with the tires, we had that amazing start [to the season].”
Twelve months down the road and with a relatively stable technical package carrying over into 2013, Hembrey is not optimistic that we'll be treated to the same spectacle again. But that doesn't mean that Pirelli has been dormant during the winter.
“I think it would be wishful thinking that we could beat seven,” he admits. “Having said that, we are changing the tire substantially, and it will still be a challenge for them to maximize performance.”
Spearheading the changes is a softer, more aggressive choice of compounds, which will be deployed in an effort to encourage degradation and force the teams into two- or three stop strategies, rather than the single stops that they'd been able to get away with late last year. The performance gap between the two compounds made available at each race will be roughly half a second, meaning larger speed differentials between cars on different strategies.
Meanwhile, structural changes to the sidewalls and belt packs are intended to improve heat distribution across the contact patch (meaning less blistering) and increase traction (meaning more stability under braking). The end result is a tire that Pirelli estimates will be 0.5sec per lap quicker than its 2012 cousin.
For the drivers, the biggest change will be a sharper turn-in; a development that Hembrey says will force some to change their approach.
“We tested the compound and structure in Brazil and the feedback was very much that the turn-in is quicker,” he says. “For some drivers that was good, and for some it wasn't. You can't please everybody. The drivers will probably need some time to adapt, just as they did when we first came into Formula 1. It's going in the direction that they suggested they wanted us to improve on, so we believe it is going in exactly the right direction.”
Some elements of Pirelli's program remain unchanged. Test drivers Lucas di Grassi and Jaime Alguersuari have been retained, as has the 2010-spec Renault test car. Exactly when the on-track test crew will be pressed into service is an open question though, with Pirelli still yet to sign a deal to continue as F1's tire supplier in 2014.
The renewal of Pirelli's contract is generally considered to fall within the "when" rather than "if" category, but in the meantime, it provides a good opportunity to take stock of the Italian company's spell in Formula 1 to date. History has long shown that it's difficult for a sole supplier to get PR leverage out of motorsports involvement – it's for this reason that Honda was supportive of an engine war in IndyCar. It's even harder when your product is so good that fans effectively forget that it's there, as was arguably the case with Pirelli's predecessor Bridgestone.
Pirelli's brief when it arrived in 2011 was to circumvent that by making the tires an integral part of the story. Where Bridgestone mastered the craft of developing a tire that remained resolutely consistent through a stint – or even an entire race – Pirelli set out to build tires that were great for 20 or so laps and then fell off a cliff.
Not surprisingly, the initial response in the paddock was one of panic. Speaking during pre-season testing in 2011, Alonso voiced concerns that the high degradation rate would penalize faster teams, while Sebastian Vettel predicted four- or five-stop races. Neither proved to be the case: Vettel stopped just twice at the curtain-raiser in Australia, and with Red Bull, he capitalized upon having the best car in the field to win the championship.
So in making tire management a critical part of the races, Pirelli has succeeded on the publicity front. What's less obvious is how it benefits from a technical perspective, which is the other reason that car companies go racing. The ability to build tires that turn to goo after less than 70 miles isn't exactly something that you're going to apply to your road car division, but Hembrey says that Pirelli benefits in other ways.
“One thing from getting rid of the testing in F1 is that the teams have to focus more on modeling, because they can't go onto the track,” he explains. “And if you work with the premium manufacturers today, they're starting to do virtual product development as well. F1, from a tire manufacturers' point of view, has allowed us to push that [simulation] technology and become far more competent in that area.
“Understanding the interaction of the tire to the surface in F1 still has a very big impact on your road car business. There, you're looking for what happens in wet braking, anti-lock braking performance levels, traction in different and varying conditions.
“These are all models that you can derive from F1 to apply into your other activities. I could add on things such as production processes as well – the reliability, quality and repeatability of a product all have an impact on high-performance tires. How we test and evaluate F1 tires also has an effect on road-going tires. In the end, all of it together brings a discipline across your business that maybe you wouldn't have if you hadn't been involved in motorsport.”
For the average fan, a lot of that doesn't really matter nearly as much as tuning in to the opening race of the season and being treated to a barnburner. F1 teams are smart, and no matter what they are given at the start of the year, odds are that they'll figure it well with several races to spare. Pirelli's mission is to ensure that they just don't do it too soon.