It goes without saying that for a car – any car – to go anywhere it’s going to need tyres. Formula 1 cars are no different, but the nature of their tyres is different to that of a standard road car. Not only that, but F1 tyres have undergone several changes over the decades, in a bid to spice up the racing.
Nino Farina, driving for Alfa Romeo, won the very first Formula World Championship, but note the tyres. Like road cars, the tyres of competitive racing cars have dramatically altered with the passage of time. Some of this is due to the progress of technology, both with tyres and the design of the cars. Some of it down to the rules.
Irrespective of the era, tyres and managing them successfully have been a core component of Formula 1 for decades. Push them too hard and you use up their useful window, ending up having to tip-toe around the circuit. Not pushing hard enough will cool the tyres, which in turn affects their grip. The right groove (no pun intended) will allow a driver to maintain decent lap times, until the moment comes to unleash more pace.
In the era of Prost, Senna, Mansell et al, the rules on tyres did not mandate that drivers stop for new rubber at all, if they didn’t want or need to. This conveyed its own risks – it was entirely possible to get a set of tyres through an entire race, but even during this era, tyres had a finite lifespan. Pushing the tyres (or sometimes, just not changing them) could have terrible consequences…
For Nigel Mansell, tyre failure in Adelaide in 1986 denied him the world championship. His misfortune also ended Nelson Piquet’s title hopes, for he was brought into the pits as a precaution by Williams, which handed the lead, race and title to Alain Prost. It was bad luck to be sure, but it highlights the dilemma – stop for fresh tyres, thus losing time and hoping you can catch up, or risk a problem?
In 1987 stopping proved decisive for Mansell at the British Grand Prix. He was running behind his teammate Piquet when he stopped for fresh tyres, emerging some 29 seconds behind with 28 laps remaining. On new rubber Mansell was able to really push, breaking the lap record several times as he chased down and eventually passed Piquet.
As the seasons progressed, the approach to stops changed. At one stage tyre stops were banned completely (see the 2005 season), but owing to some serious safety concerns they were reinstated a year later. In 2007 there were four different compounds of tyre, of which two were made available at any given race, and teams would have to use each compound at least once during a race. The softer compound would offer up more grip and therefore faster lap times, but would degrade quicker, whilst the harder tyre would offer the reverse scenario.
From 2011, with the arrival of Pirelli as Formula 1’s tyre supplier (another story for another time), we’ve had more or less the current situation. There are softer compounds and harder compounds, with the softer ones normally made available at tracks where grip is vitally important (like Monaco) and harder compounds are used at tracks which place a lot of high-speed pressure on the tyres (such as Monza).
As always, there is a trade-off for drivers and teams to consider. Will a shorter stint on the faster tyre yield enough of a gap to the car behind in order to pit and emerge in a position of strength, or will the time lost in the pits render that tactic moot? Tyre management remains a big part of a driver’s skill set. I suspect it always will.