F1 tyre war gathering momentum

The race to provide F1 rubber is hotting up, with just two weeks until the tender process to be a supplier from 2017-2020 closes.

Both Michelin and incumbent tyre manufacturer Pirelli have announced their intention to participate in the tender, but it is likely that only one will be chosen. Interestingly, the French and Italian companies have proposed very different approaches that could have considerable ramifications for the sport.

Road car relevance

Michelin’s bid is known to centre on the introduction of 18-inch rims in order to make F1 more aligned to road car tyres, and therefore more relevant to global TV audiences – a key question that was featured in both the GDPA and Autosport/Motorsport News fan surveys.

While Pirelli recently demonstrated 18-inch wheel rims on a GP2 car at the Monaco Grand Prix, it has today announced that it does not expect the sport to adopt low-profile tyres in the near future.

Speaking ahead of the Canadian Grand Prix, Pirelli motorsport boss Paul Hembery commented: “I’ve got a feeling we’ll end up with a much wider tyre, but on a 13-inch rim. 13-inch, 18-inch or 19-inch, they need to decide what they want to do. There are two schools of thought: go towards 18- or 19-inch because its closer to road cars and another school of thought that all our other current circuit tyres are 18-inch, so bizarrely, keeping 13-inch differentiates F1 from what everyone else is doing.”

“We’re quite pleased with the decision to move to a 420mm-width tyre, we feel that gives a very big visual impact. Today we make tyres for high performance cars much wider than the ones in F1, so that makes it a little bit more visually important.”

Pros, cons and miscommunication

The Working Strategy Group announced that F1 will move to wider tyres from 2017, with the rear width increasing from 360mm to 420mm – last seen in F1 in 1992.

This will have the effect of increasing mechanical grip and, subsequently, faster lap times. Many drivers have already welcomed the move and it is likely that this will remain the approach, regardless of which tyre manufacturer is selected.

For Pirelli, the smaller rims, with larger sidewalls also offer a promotional boost, as Hembery stated: “I think the marketing department would like to keep 13-inch and a nice big sidewall for the branding, which we don’t have to pay for – every cloud has a silver lining! We will do what the sport wants and we will try and find solutions to what they want.”

The major disadvantages of introducing wider rimmed tyres are the additional cost for teams in designing a car to suit the specifications – although with enough warning this can be considered from the start of the design process – while 18-inch rims would also likely add 4.5kgs to the cars’ weight.

The biggest conundrum of all is why the communications around this subject have been handled so poorly. Why would F1 and Pirelli tease something that they know will have no place in F1’s future – it’s not good for the fans.

With major question marks hanging over whether refuelling will indeed be reintroduced to the sport, F1 must present a united front and well-defined regulations that fans can understand. Bernie Ecclestone has accused the sport and its related media of making the technology behind F1 too complex for fans to understand, but I would argue that regular u-turns about the direction of the sport are equally as damaging.

The tender for F1’s tyre suppliers for 2017-2020 closes on Wednesday 17th June, with an announcement on the successful candidate expected later this season.

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