On the eve of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, Formula One teams remain apprehensive about the performance characteristics of Pirelli’s new dry-weather tires. Despite expressing satisfaction with pre-season testing results in Spain and a general confidence in their 2013 designs, F1 teams up and down pit lane have voiced concerns that tire degradation in Pirelli’s new designs may be a major factor in the first few rounds of 2013.
Pirelli Tire Changes for 2013
The Italian tire manufacturer, in its third year as exclusive F1 supplier after a 20-year absence from the series, altered the compounds of the four P Zero dry-weather slick tires it will provide to F1 teams this season. Although F1 did not mandate changes to the tire regulations for 2013, all four dry compounds (supersoft, soft, medium and hard) offered this season are softer that their 2012 predecessors. Now, each new tire compound resembles last season’s next softer version.
Softer compounds will, of course, result in increased tire degradation, a design feature Pirelli intentionally built into the 2013 rubber. Now that tires have become even more of a limiting factor for F1 teams, the days of a one-stop race strategy are over as teams will now have to stop for tires at least twice per race; a wrinkle Pirelli suggest will add more excitement to F1 racing.
Pirelli also proposes that there will be a larger time gap (of about a half-second) between the four dry compounds even though all four are uniformly softer that last year’s tires.
A less functional change in this year’s rubber is solely cosmetic. The hard compound P Zeros, previously identified by silver lettering and difficult to differentiate from the white-lettered medium tires, are now lettered in orange. The supersofts will still be identified by red lettering and the softs will be in yellow.
The new 2013 rubber will also weigh in at 2kg more than last year’s tires.
The two Pirelli tires for wet conditions - the intermediates and full wets - have been redesigned to facilitate more progressive traction while giving drivers a more linear feel and lessened possibilities of snap oversteer.
“The goal is to continuously set new challenges for the drivers and to ensure that all the teams start the new season on a level playing field when it comes to the tyres…Our 2013 range of tyres mixes up the cards once more to help overtaking and ensure two to three pit stops per race,” stated Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery in a Pirelli press release.
During the three rounds of winter testing, the drivers were not highly complimentary of the new rubber.
New McLaren driver Sergio Perez voiced his concerns. "It's extreme. The degradation is very difficult. It's a big surprise," he told FoxSports. "Normally in winter testing we see a lot of degradation, but never this much…I hope it changes, because if we are in this situation in Melbourne we are going to see something like seven or 10 stops."
Nico Hulkenberg, frustrated with the testing delays Sauber experienced due to the degradation, said via ESPN’s F1 website, "It's difficult with the tyres, quite challenging to make them last and get some proper testing on the way. They're degrading pretty quickly and the continuity and the consistency hasn't been there today and that makes testing very hard."
Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg, commenting on the team’s website about their prospects in Australia, said, “The weather in Melbourne looks very hot at the moment which is going to be a tough challenge as we have no experience with the F1 W04 in those conditions. Tyre degradation will be the biggest issue for everyone so we need to look at that carefully and do a good job in managing it.”
Pat Fry, Technical Director at Scuderia Ferrari, made note of the unknowns for Australia on Ferrari’s F1website. “All the teams, ourselves included, will still have a lot to learn about the tyres in Melbourne. The performance and the degradation of the tyres will be the determining factor in establishing how competitive everyone is. Albert Park is a partial street circuit – it is only used for racing a few times during the year – so it will be interesting to see how the tyres behave in higher temperatures.”
According to Pirelli’s Paul Hembery, cooler ambient and track temperatures, as well as some wet conditions, caused increased graining (a form of tire degradation where deformed “grains” of rubber stick to the tire’s surface, thereby limiting grip). In responding to team concerns, he stated that conditions during tests in Spain were not an indication of the tires’ performance throughout the 2013 F1 season. “The teams experienced quite high degradation in Barcelona, and that was really down to the weather….Once we get to Melbourne the tyres should be much more within their intended working range, which will eliminate the unusual amount of degradation that some teams have experienced,” he told Formula1.com.
Martin Whitmarsh, team principal at McLaren, showed a bit less concern about the challenges presented by the new tires going into the 2013 season. “I think a high degradation which is arguably good for the show – actually, inarguably good for the show – would undoubtedly be a headache for those of us trying to race to win. But I think it’s an interesting challenge and at the end of the day it’s the same for everyone, said Whitmarsh during a McLaren phone-in interview and reported on F1Fanatic.com.
The two dry compounds that will be available to F1 teams this weekend in Australia will be the medium (prime) tire and supersoft (option) tire.
By all indications, an intense and unpredictable 2013 F1 season is ahead and close on-track battles and tight championship races should be the norm. Now add tire performance to the list of subplots to watch as the season races on.