Why Do Pirelli F1 Tires Wear So Fast?

Published 08/18/2021, 9:25 AM EDT
Formula One F1 – Spanish Grand Prix – Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain – May 8, 2021 McLaren’s Lando Norris in action during practice Pool via REUTERS/Nacho Doce


The basis of race strategy, the rate of tire wear can make or break an F1 race. A recent, popular example of a broken race would be Valtteri Bottas’ 2021 French GP. Bottas was furious at the one-stop strategy which cost him a chance at victory. The tire wear caused the Finn to lose grip on the track, slowing him down.

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Therefore, tire wear is a crucial variable in the race. It is also highly dependent on track temperatures. The surface temperature of the track dictates how hot the tires will get, which will affect the grip and degradation rate.

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An extremely technical aspect of the race, the rate of tire degradation decides compounds, pit stops, team orders; so it’s important to understand why tires wear at the rate they do.

Understanding F1 tires

The Pirelli tires are built for performance rather than longevity. The tires complement the high-speed, extreme performance the sports calls for. This results in the rubber wearing off. The synthetic rubber used in F1 tires heats because of friction. The heat is usually higher in the corners of the track because of the excessive force on the tires. Before lights out, drivers take a formation lap, which they use to bring their tires up to temperature.

The tire is the only part of the car in contact with the tarmac; all the power in the chassis needs to get translated into speed- provided by finding a grip on the tires. The working temperature of the tires helps make the tire just right for racing- the heat making it softer over the rough surface of the track- giving the car a better grip.

The heat on the rubber changes it at a molecular level, hence fresh tires are usually softer and more sticky-providing better grip, while the used tires lose the softness, providing less grip and are therefore less useful. This happens over the course of the tire ‘lifespan’- which is more or less 50 laps depending on the compound used.

If the tire overheats, the inside of the rubber is hotter than the outside. This forms a hot pocket of air between the two layers, and it expands till a small part of the tire falls out of the outer surface. This is blistering, and tire management on the driver’s part plays a massive role in controlling it. It’s easy to spot from the board camera during the race as an uneven patch on the tire.

Formula One F1 – British Grand Prix – Silverstone Circuit, Silverstone, Britain – July 18, 2021 Williams’ George Russell during the race REUTERS/Peter Cziborra

If the situation is reversed and the outside surface is hotter than the inside, lateral forces in the corners of the circuits will cause the outside to tear off into small pieces. This is because of the heat, speed, and external force. Usually sticky, the torn bits stick to the surface of the tires, giving them a grainy look. Hence, called graining. The chunks that fall off are called marbles.

Tire wear

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All the above phenomena are aspects of tires. As mentioned, the lifespan of the tire is around 50 laps. This is because track temperature affects how hot the tires will get, which dictates the grip level and degradation rate.

This narrow operating window, of the perfect temperature, is when the tires are at the peak of their performance. Drivers have a good grip and can maneuver the track considerably well. Driving at a level below this sweet spot results in underperformance- no grip. While exceeding it can cause performance to drop and increase tire wear.

Formula One F1 – Hungarian Grand Prix – Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary – August 1, 2021 Williams’ Nicholas Latifi in action REUTERS/David W Cerny

Tire wear also affects lap time, slowing the car down by tenths of a second. This may seem small, but over the course of the race, it can add up to decide who wins and who misses.

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Additionally, front and rear tires degrade at different rates. They don’t operate at the same temperature and are affected differently by the track.

Formula One F1 – British Grand Prix – Silverstone Circuit, Silverstone, Britain – July 16, 2021 Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton celebrates after finishing first in the sprint race qualifying REUTERS/Peter Cziborra

However, drivers have some sort of control over how fast or slow their tires wear. If they want to increase the tire temperatures, they push harder, softening the tires and increasing grip. If the wear is too much, teams will instruct the drivers to reduce the pace to manage the tires better and increase their lifespan.

Watch this story: Lewis Hamilton’s Biggest F1 Crashes

Therefore, hot locations, high-speed corners, tire management, are all important aspects of the race. It affects team strategies, the completion on the track and can also be the difference between a DNF and a race win.

 

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Shreya Sanjeev

356 articles

Shreya Sanjeev is an F1 author at EssentiallySports. Having attained a journalism degree from St Xavier's College, she finds comfort in the sound of her keyboard while typing and excitement in the sound of F1 cars speeding on a track. A street circuit and Daniel Ricciardo fan through and through, Shreya claims the 2018 Monaco GP to be one of her favorite races of all time.

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