Formula 1's future tire supply has dominated paddock conversation for months, and on Wednesday the FIA announced that Pirelli had gotten the nod to pick up Bridgestone will leave off at the end of 2010.
AUTOSPORT spoke exclusively to Pirelli's managing director Francesco Gori about the Italian company's F1 plans, and the pressure to deliver in motorsport's top category.
Q. When was the deal finally done between Pirelli and the FIA?
Francesco Gori: Yesterday. When the FIA announced the decision at the World Council. As far as we were concerned, we had no deal done before yesterday. The deal was announced by the FIA, they had the right to make the decision and I think they made the decision after consultation with the F1 Commission, the teams and the organization.
Q. So you literally didn't know until they announced it?
FG: We were strongly hoping, and in any case we started the development of the F1 tire the day we sent the first letter to the FIA, the Ecclestone organization and the teams, back on the last day of April. We sent the letter expressing our interest in being considered as tire supplier for F1 from next year and we started our development activities in-house.
Q. How important is it for Pirelli's global market position?
FG: It is important. Especially looking at the new markets, the so-called emerging markets, that are growing fast – much faster than Europe, where, frankly speaking, we may not need F1 even though F1 will relaunch the Pirelli brand.
But definitely in China, Russia, India and, you name it, all the other markets in the world, to the young population Pirelli is not that known. In those markets, you have to build brand awareness and the brand reputation, and it's going to take years.
Q. Were those markets a huge deciding factor in Pirelli going to Formula 1?
FG: Yes. And you may know that we already have a new factory which we built up back in 2005 in China, so we are already there with a big hardware investment and people. It would be stupid not to be there with an intangible investment such as F1 branding and visibility.
Q. America is now back on F1's agenda as well – is that somewhere else you feel you need to be?
FG: Of course, we would like to. We have been racing in Grand-Am, but F1 may have visibility – who knows? In Canada it is important. In the U.S. it is not so important, even though the specialized press write about F1. F1 is in the back of the mind of the American consumer, but we need to race there to make it alive and relevant.
Q. It's quite late in terms of preparation...
FG: It makes it more exciting! I'm joking, of course... That's why the day we decided to send the letter and start to bid, we also started the development in-house, knowing that there was a chance that we were throwing away some money, but it was necessary to be at least to be ready with the physical machinery and the dimensioning because 13-inch tires are not made by Pirelli anymore so we had to buy the equipment and the machinery.
Today we had the shape of the tire ready. Of course, we have to now start working on the compounds because this is going to be the challenge, having the compounds ready for the tests, which for the time being cannot start before the Abu Dhabi race in November.
So we will take these months, which include summer time, which is very important. We have racing compounds in-house, starting from the Superbikes, going through rallying, Grand-Am and so on. But, of course, F1 is a bit difference.
Q. Looking at what you've seen from Bridgestone this year and their approach to the two compounds, how does Pirelli intend to approach it? Are you looking to create exciting racing?
FG: I would like to have a Canadian GP every race. That would be fantastic. Or rain, because when you have rain there is always a show. When you have no rain we need to do something like our competitors did. I don't know if they did it on purpose or not, but I congratulate them – it was a fantastic race in Canada.
We have to offer different alternatives to the teams. The four compounds are instrumental to playing the game. I think one of the successful factors of the Pirelli offer was that we maintained, thanks to the advice of some experts, the four compound choices.
Q. But those four compounds will be very different from each other?
FG: They must be, but nevertheless they cannot be. The limit is in theory long-lasting compounds should not be so slow to be offset by a short-lasting compound plus pit stops. I'm afraid it won't always be easy to get the calculations right, but that will be part of the challenge or the excitement.
Q. You mentioned 13-in. tires and obviously that's a reasonably outdated concept from a tire manufacturer's point of view. Would you like to see 18-in. tires in the future?
FG: We have had quite detailed discussions with teams. Of course, not for the 2011 season or 2012, but possibly, possibly starting from 2013, to progressively move to bigger diameters – maybe step by step and not suddenly to 18 inches, because that's going to be impossible to redesign the car. But you may have 15-inch wheels or different wheels front and rear. We will offer some alternatives to the teams.
But I'm sure there is the room to develop better shape tires in line with current developments. We are leading in the supercar business, and today you don't go below 19 and 20 inches there.
Q. The marketing potential for Pirelli in Formula 1 is very large initially, but once you've been in F1 for two or three years, you're not beating the competition, are you open to the idea of other tire manufacturers coming in and you competing with them in the future?
FG: Yes, we are open. We just need a couple of years. We cannot face a competitor on day one after we have not been there for 20 years. We need some time. But at the right time, that could be the case.
However, it is not our decision. It was clear from the very beginning that teams did not want to have a tire competition.
Q. Because of costs?
FG: Because of the money and also because of the predictability. They don't know much about it. These people don't know how tires are made, which makes us very happy. They have enough problems, enough variables, to try and manage. To have a control tire is a plus for them. In this case, it's a plus for Pirelli coming back to F1, speaking frankly.
Q. There's an awful lot of work to be done, and you've talked about beginning the development in April, but the F1 experience you're drawing on is from 1991 – and the sport has changed hugely since then. The other areas you're involved in don't have a lot of crossover with modern F1 performance. How much pressure is there on Pirelli to reach a certain performance level?
FG: We have been discussing this extensively with our technicians since the decision. In reality, over these 20 years we have been racing probably every weekend, or close to it. We've been racing with powerful cars, with open wheels, with GT cars that develop incredibly high temperatures – and higher than F1. They go up to something like 130 degrees versus the 100+ of F1. You may have to last 45 minutes for a stint, we've been lasting two hours in GTs.
Our experience and know-how is sufficient. We need some time. The recent mono-brand in F1 has leveled the performance.
Q. Could the GP2 contract be a distraction to the Formula 1 program?
FG: No, that was instrumental to getting there. We've been working on this project in-house, even without disclosing it to our people in-house because it was risky to excite our employees worldwide and then to disappoint them. So we decided to enter GP3, then GP2, and be ready for something to happen in F1.
Then the decision of Bridgestone to withdraw from F1 was earlier than expected in a way and a bit of a surprise, but we were already working in the GP3, GP2 direction. So, in a way, it was a facilitator of the decision. From a logistics and organizational point of view, to be on the racetrack supplying GP3, GP2 and F1 tires will be at the end an economy of scale.
Q. But it's an awful lot to take on in one go, isn't it?
FG: Back in 2007, for different reasons, we decided to move production of racing tires to a new factory that we build up in Turkey. The decision was made to be more competitive, to have new machines and so on. Then the [financial] crisis came, and our expectations in terms of production volumes were halved, because clearly worldwide 2009 and even 2010 have not been fantastic seasons in terms of selling racing tires. There are fewer racing cars around.
So let me put it in an industrial way – we have extra capacity available for racing tires. So it's not going to be a major effort from the industrial point of view.