2011 F1 season preview
Moving rear wings and hybrid engine systems are the attention-grabbers in the new 2011 rules.
But the change of tyre supplier is surely going to have an even more profound effect on F1.
Testing has shown F1 has swung from extreme to another: from rubber that lasts a whole race to tyres that need changing several times.
While the tyres are very different to what we had last year, the rules have changed little.
There will still be four different dry-weather compounds; they will still be called hard, medium, soft and super-soft; two versions will be brought to each race and drivers will have to use at least one set of each during the race.
The dimensions of the tyres has stayed the same too – but how they perform and how long they last couldn’t be more different.
They are a couple of seconds per lap slower than last year’s tyres and they wear out more quickly – particularly the softer compounds.
Pirelli have not gone in this direction on a whim. They were asked to do so by the teams who took note of the thrilling race at Montreal last year (rated best of the season by F1 Fanatic readers) which was produced by tyres that wore out quickly.
The days of drivers completing almost an entire race distance on the softest tyres available, as Sebastian Vettel did at Monza last year, are history.
Just how often they may need to make pit stops is hard to judge and has been the subject of considerable speculation. Vettel raised the possibility of four-stop races this year but Pirelli have consistently said their data indicates it will not be as many as that.
Doomsayers have predicted tedious races of drivers tiptoeing around to keep life in their tyres. But the strategic options available to drivers should be greater than that, particularly at tracks with short pit lanes like Valencia.
Qualifying just got harder
A by-product of the change of tyre supplier could be more unpredictable grids.
Drivers have noted in testing that after doing a hot lap on a set of tyres there’s no chance of getting a similarly quick lap out of them.
So in qualifying they will be under pressure to deliver their best lap on their first effort and will have fewer opportunities to improve it.
The desire to keep as many new tyres for the race as possible will keep them from bolting on a fresh set and trying again.
That will also have an effect on the amount of practice running drivers do. The FIA have already confirmed drivers may be given extra tyres for Friday only for additional running.
Drivers who qualify in the top ten will once again have to start the race on the same tyres they used in qualifying. Last year drivers opted for the softer tyre at every race with few exceptions, because they were so durable. That will be a harder decision to make this year.
Spot the difference
Many unanswered questions remain. Theories over which drivers can coax the most life out of their tyres will be put to the test. Teams may find trick methods of getting the tyres to last longer, or gamble on unorthodox strategies.
Testing has also shown the tyres produce more ‘marbles’ – lumps of rubber that come off the tyres and sit off the racing line, making it more treacherous. They can also stick to cars disrupting their aerodynamics and impeding cooling, with obvious consequences.
What also remains to be seen is how we’re going to be able to distinguish between the tyres. Pirelli will make an official announcement in Australia but the final pre-season test at Barcelona gave a clue to the direction they’re heading in.
The dry-weather tyres appeared with either silver or yellow lettering, the full wet tyres had green lettering and the intermediates tyres – shown on Pirelli’s Twitter feed but later removed – had blue letters.
Heading into the first races of the season we know Pirelli will supply the hard and soft tyres for the first three rounds.
Beyond that very little is known – and it’s precisely that unpredictability that should make the tyres an exciting part of this year’s championship.
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