Potential shake-up in formula 1 tires

Potential shake-up in formula 1 tires
Photo: Chris Peeters, Pexels.

Top racing leagues like Formula 1 change up their specifications every season, with teams having to learn and adhere to new standards regarding every little piece of their racing machines. Usually, these decisions are made before the season begins, with teams and the league itself taking plenty of time to understand each adjustment and its implications.

This season, though, looks like it might be in for a radical change, with Formula 1 having potentially made a major mistake in their tire standards. Teams are meeting with league management in order to rectify the situation, with some teams and drivers insisting that the latest tire standards are ruining this F-1 season. 

The question looming over these discussions is what will happen next – will the standard be adjusted, forcing drivers to learn the handling of a completely new tire in the middle of their season? Or will we continue with the current standard, which some drivers find untenable? Let’s take a look at everything that has happened so far in this situation.

2019 tire standard change

As is commonplace for Formula 1, in advance of this season the league settled on a new standard for the thickness of tires that could be used in competition. 

The relationship between teams and manufacturers is very interesting in this respect. Teams are only allowed to use one of a preselected group of tire options from sponsors Pirelli. Previously Pirelli had seven different compounds the could use for competition but this year that number was trimmed to five. 

The decision was made that Pirelli would choose one tire compound in advance of each race and then teams would be allowed to select a hard, medium, or soft version of that compound. 

In addition to the change in the compound system, Pirelli also began to manufacture their tires at the slightly different thickness, about .4mm thinner than previous years. Teams now must use these thinner tires and try to compete at the same level as last year.

Effects of tire thickness

Reports indicate that this move to thinner tires was meant to combat issues of overheating and blistering that had plagued the series last year. Generally speaking, the thicker (and therefore heavier) a tire is, the more it will build up and retain heat over the course of a race. F1 teams identify a range of optimal tire temperatures where they feel their machines will perform best.

With the thinner tires, it suddenly became much more difficult for a driver to build up the heat they wanted for optimal tire performance. This is especially important during trials when getting your machine up to it’s fastest and running one key lap is very difficult to do properly. 

Teams who had trouble using the new, thinner tires because they were not able to drive on them as expected are unhappy with this change.

Potential shake-up in formula 1 tires
Photo: Quentin Tricoire, Pexels.

Potential safety hazard

One facet that makes this issue difficult to unpack is the potential safety hazard that the thicker tires represent. With the thicker rubber layer, the tire is more likely to overheat and blister, making it very dangerous to drive on and potentially causing blowouts.

One thing teams are currently discussing is whether the thinner tires should be kept around to help mitigate the chance of the tires causing this kind of safety hazard. Teams who want to push for the thicker tires to come back are saying that the way to combat blistering is simply to take an appropriate number of pit stops, not to make changes to the equipment.

What might happen next?

Sometimes when issues like this come up in sport there aren’t any real ways to redress the issue until the end of the season but that is not the case in Formula-1. If enough of the teams involved in this year’s competition can agree that they’d like to change the tire thickness back to the 2018 level, the change will be made immediately.

Some clear sides have emerged already in this question. Teams from Ferrari, Red Bull, and Haas are reportedly in favor of a change, but that does not put them up to the seven-team threshold needed to make the move. 

Some teams, including Mercedes, are reportedly against making any sort of a move. Remember that while the thinner tires definitely represent a change in the way the car handles, it is not a settled question whether these thin tires are better or worse. From safety, speed, and entertainment sides, this argument is basically unsettled.

For its part, Pirelli says that they understand why drivers and teams might not be happy with the tire specifications for this season, but that they can not make a change to their thickness unless a formal request is made from the league.

Looking ahead

The potential mid-season change would be extraordinary for Formula-1, but not entirely without precedent. It will undoubtedly have an impact on this season, either helping out teams that have been hurt by the adjustment or keeping the status quo if it gets voted down.

Things become even more interesting when we look ahead to next season. Given some more time and more data about the performance of the thinner tires, will the racing league look backwards or forwards as they make their decisions about next season?

One thing that seems clear is that the rollout of these thinner tires was botched from the beginning. The fact that not all teams were prepared for these new tires speaks to a dangerous lack of planning from the central powers in the sport. 

With cars moving as fast as these, it is imperative that everyone knows exactly how their equipment will perform. Not understanding in advance how a set of tires will run can have terrible consequences for drivers. Whatever these teams decide to do they must make sure that everyone involved has the ability to properly prepare and test out the materials they’ll be using in advance of the next season. Hopefully, all parties will be able to come to a decision here.