Pirelli returned to Formula One in 2011 as the sole tyre supplier and official championship partner. Pirelli, founded in Italy, recently acquired by ChemChina, joined the championship with a clear mandate from Formula One Management to ‘spice up the racing’ through the development of a range of tyre compounds with significant performance variables and accelerated levels of degradation. Initially, this new philosophy around tyre performance at the pinnacle of motorsports was well received with a positive response from fans and media around a new element of unpredictability surrounding an F1 weekend.
However, as teams and drivers adapted to the Pirelli approach to tyre compound chemistry, car set up and driving techniques evolved to minimise the challenges the tyres presented. This led to increasingly aggressive approaches to performance and degradation levels in tyre development culminating in the “challenging” 2013 British Grand Prix in which teams were supplied with tyres which were not capable of performing at the levels required. The result of which was a race which saw numerous failures throughout the field and a strategic re-evaluation from Pirelli.
In the seasons since 2013, Pirelli has maintained the vision of producing a range of compounds with varying levels of performance and high levels of degradation but with a more conservative approach. The result of this restraint has been races in which teams and drivers focus on tyre management over performance, understanding the optimal approach to a race has often been to extend the life of a tyre rather than push it to its limit. As such, in recent seasons, drivers have rarely complimented the performance of Pirelli’s efforts over a Grand Prix weekend.
Creating positive media coverage in a sole supply situation will always be a challenge. Since there is no competitor to beat, victory becomes the default leaving the only newsworthy coverage that of failure. In such an environment it can be a challenge to understand how Pirelli quantify benefits from its sponsorship of Formula One. Over seven seasons they have developed a reputation for producing tyres with excessive degradation and minimal differentiation beyond coloured side walls. Would an F1 fan seriously consider buying Pirelli tyres for their own car based on how they perform in Formula One?
So where does this leave Pirelli?
At the end of each season, Pirelli produce an end of year summary detailing all every fact and figure imaginable around; corning speeds, top speeds, lap times, number of overtakes, number of compounds used by each driver and the figure which stood out to me the most, the number of sets of tyres produced in a season.
In 2017 Pirelli produced 38,788 sets of F1 tyres, which equates to approximately 3,258 tons of tyres. Of these, only 12,920 sets (1,085 tons of tyres) were actually used. This means two-thirds of F1 tyres produced in 2017 were never raced and simply destroyed. Whilst Pirelli makes it clear all tyres were recovered, a system in which such a vast number of tyres are produced and shipped around the globe and never used is hugely wasteful and frankly embarrassing for both the manufacturer and the sport. The strategy of an ever-increasing range of tyres being made available for a Grand Prix weekend has resulted in the requirement of an inefficient and cumbersome supply chain. Something which will only increase in 2018 with further tyre compounds and team selection freedoms being added to the Pirelli ‘menu’.
In recent years Michelin, a leading industry competitor, have repeated statements that the current philosophy of Formula One around the use of tyre degradation as a key variable in racing, is of limited strategic merit and is not in keeping with how they believe tyre technology should be presented in motorsport. Instead, Michelin has focused their efforts in Formula E and the World Endurance Championship, showcasing innovations around all-weather tyres, low profile tyres (18-inches, compared to the 13-inch profile used in Formula One), and minimal degradation allowing competitors to push the performance of a tyre throughout an event.
Increasingly Formula One and its regulations are focused on reducing unnecessary waste. limiting fuel use through a race, and limiting the number of power units available to a team through a season. This focus on efficiency appeals to existing OEM’s in the sport including Mercedes, Renault, and Honda, and again sits in contrast to the wasteful and confusing approach mandated to Pirelli. For the 2018 season there is no longer any opportunity for Pirelli to change their approach to racing, but with minimal technical regulation changes set for 2019, perhaps the management of Formula One should look to change the conversation around Pirelli’s role in F1 and encourage the manufacturer to innovate relevant style.
For 2019, perhaps Pirelli should look to consider a simplified approach to tyre compounds, produce tyres with increased variance in performance yet minimised levels of degradation, and adopt 18-inch low profile tyres, enabling the end user to better relate to the product they see racing on a Sunday.
It is understood 2019 is the final season of Pirelli’s current agreement with Formula One. Without change, will it be their last?