Has Formula 1 finally found the solution to its alarming tyre failures?


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Companies enter into partnerships with the cutting-edge platform that is Formula 1 for myriad reasons, but primarily to enhance their brand or products, and, where applicable, to benefit from the sport’s unique technologies and attributes, then apply these lessons to their products. The latter could take on many facets, ranging from product development through systems to manufacturing techniques and quality control.

When Pirelli re-entered F1 in 2011, replacing Bridgestone – who became F1’s first officially-appointed sole tyre after Michelin’s 2006 departure – the Italian company did so to tick all the above boxes. Executives spoke of enhanced road tyre technologies, rapid prototyping, streamlined manufacturing processes and enhanced global awareness.

There is, though, a flipside to the appointment: F1 and the teams are effectively Pirelli’s customers, and dictate the terms and parameters of supply – more recently via the so-called ‘target letter’, which outlines the lap time ‘deltas’ (differences) between compounds in order to enhance ‘the show’ via degradation and varying strategies.

Understanding this customer-supplier relationship is absolutely crucial to understanding F1’s tyre dynamic: the supplier (Pirelli) is required to deliver precisely what the customer (F1) demands. This state of affairs was outlined during one of the first in-depth interviews granted by Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery following their 2011 arrival.

Stroll suffered a tyre failure before Verstappen in Baku
Speaking during a 2012 test at Mugello after criticisms from drivers, most notably Michael Schumacher, surfaced, he explained: “We were asked to come up with a certain approach, and that was agreed with the teams.

“The leader for the teams’ views was actually Ross [Brawn], and he told us that Canada 2010 was the model they wanted, and that is what we worked on.”

At Canada in 2010 – not unlike last weekend at Paul Ricard – teams were caught out by unexpected tyre performance which prompted them to make more pit stops than expected, producing a lively race of uncertainty and lead changes.

Brawn, today F1’s managing director, was at the time Mercedes F1 team principal, but simultaneously acted as technical delegate and spokesperson for the (now defunct) Formula One Teams Association. He was speaking in that capacity – in other words, on behalf of all teams.

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Hembery then expanded on the thought processes: “What do we want? One car to disappear into the distance? The public turned away from the sport when that happened, so there was a very clear decision made by the sport to address the racing.”

He stressed that Pirelli was required to adapt to F1’s demands. “We can supply tyres that don’t degrade and allow [drivers] to push, as we did [in 2011] when the hard and medium tyres had negative degradation, [when] the loss of performance from the tyre was less than the loss of fuel.

“We would [be open to change] for the sport, but it’s not just the drivers [who decide] – it’s the teams, the promoter (F1). The team principals tend to be quite pragmatic and look at the bigger picture, and I would be very surprised if they asked us to do anything different.

“At the end of the day we do what they want and also the right thing for the sport: it is not us on our own deciding a direction, you have to work together as a partnership.”

Hembery later moved on within the wider Pirelli group, then left the company (and F1) to pursue his entrepreneurial interests, with his role in car racing taken – though not, saliently, at board level – by his former lieutenant, Mario Isola. At the instigation of the FIA in 2019, the Grand Prix Drivers Association – notably via Lewis Hamilton who has often criticised Pirelli’s rubber – has input into the target letter.

That said, the association has been remarkably reticent about coming forward about the spectacular Baku tyre failures unless asked directly for comment, as RaceFans did to GPDA director George Russell during the build-up to the French Grand Prix. The gist of his reply: “Definitely, safety is first and foremost in our sport paramount. I think it is the duty of all of us to try and put an end to all these issues.”

Still, Pirelli holds ultimate responsibility to provide safe products capable of withstanding the 5G forces and sustained energy levels expended by current F1 cars, and to this end it has imposed operating parameters, some of which are now imposed via the race director notes issued on a daily basis by the FIA during race weekends, and technical directives outlining detailed operating procedures, the last of which ran to 12 pages!

All this begs some simple questions: Why would a supplementary 12-page document be required to ensure that highly qualified engineers – all of whom are acutely aware of the safety implications of any missteps – adhere to prescribed tyre pressures and camber angles? Why should a variance of 1 psi make the difference between track or barrier?

Has F1 become overregulated or has Pirelli, in its ongoing quests to provide its customers with what they demand, introduced such complex technologies that increasingly stringent operating procedures need be imposed? Or, as its fiercest critics suggest, is Pirelli incapable of delivering tyres capable of withstanding the considerable performance demands of current F1 cars, undoubtedly the heaviest and overall most powerful in history?

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Talking the last one first: Pirelli is a world class company with a considerable competition history – it shod the world championship winner in 1950, the Alfa Romeo 158, a car weighing 710kg versus the 740kg of current cars – and there are absolutely no doubts that it has the competencies required to deliver safe, fast and durable tyres.

F1 had a spate of tyre failures at Silverstone in 2013…
Had there been any doubts whatsoever about Pirelli’s integrity the FIA would not have approved the company as supplier, sole or not. Still, the tyre supplier’s incident record since re-entering a sport in which safety is absolutely paramount is concerning:

Note: the above list is not exhaustive, but excludes incidents where the cause of tyre failure was demonstrably team- or car-related.

Although kerb damage or debris have regularly been blamed for tyre issues, it is noteworthy that that such causes are seldom fingered in other categories which compete on the same circuits and use similar car construction materials.

Component failure can be expected in F1 due to the extreme demands placed on all its technologies – ‘long-lifing’ and simulation techniques have reduced such incidents to the degree that retirements are the exception rather than the rule as they once were – although there is a perception in the paddock that Pirelli has been rather badly served by coincidence when it comes to kerb and debris damage.

…one of which cost Hamilton a potential win
Those perceptions were underscored following the seventh such failure in a 12-month period. Max Verstappen gave voice to them in the wake of the 320kph crash which took robbed him of victory in Baku: “It will be related to debris, it’s like that,” he said. Pirelli identified other, unspecified, causes – indicating Red Bull’s tyres were running outside prescribed pressure parameters.

During Friday’s French Grand Prix Isola stated that all components have operating parameters that need to be respected: “I think tyres are not different to engines, wings, suspensions, just to respect the parameters they are designed to work in with so we have a very clear set of parameters that we need to respect on the tyres, they could be pressure, temperatures, camber, whatever.”

He has a point, of course, but the teams who suffered failures in Baku – Red Bull and Aston Martin – are alleged to have raced with lower than prescribed pressures despite passing stationary checks, the implication being that they somehow circumvented the regulations. But using 100rpm more on an engine is not a safety critical issue, nor is an additional one degree of wing angle. However one psi or two seems to have made all the difference.

An analysis of major tyre incidents suffered by F1 this century recalls just one outside of those listed above, namely during the 2005 United States Grand Prix, where Michelin admitted to having gotten it wrong on the banked portion of the Indianapolis track after it was re-surfaced. No major Bridgestone (1997-2010) incidents spring to mind despite the two brands having been embroiled in intense tyre battles during 1997-98 and 2001-06.

A number of lap and top speed records set during that era endured for 10 or more years; Pirelli is not under pressure from any other brand, so cannot blame the pressures of competition for failures. However, at the height of the ‘war’ the teams tested virtually non-stop – at times seven days per week – with many of their costs underwritten by their respective tyre suppliers. In the process the suppliers gathered mountains of data.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Silverstone, 2020
Last year’s Silverstone punctures prompted car changes for 2021
Under F1’s current test restrictions – this season teams had just three days to prepare, with in-season testing banned save for tightly-controlled tests of 2022’s 18-inch rubber – Pirelli does not have that luxury; equally, simulation tools and tyre modelling programmes have developed to such a degree that intensive testing is no longer required.

Clearly, though, F1 has not found the correct balance between on-track testing and simulations and Pirelli is carrying the can. Testing costs money – heaps of it – yet the fact that Pirelli undertakes less testing than its predecessors does not mean it spends less on F1 overall.

In fact, a case could well be made that it spends more in a season than did either Bridgestone or Michelin – even on an economics adjusted basis – whose budgets funded research and development and the actual costs of going racing, with little or no contributions paid to F1 for marketing programmes.

In order to obtain the supply contract, the successful tenderer is expected to contribute substantially to F1’s coffers. Although numbers are confidential, Pirelli is believed to spend around half of its $100m annual F1 budget on title sponsorship and ‘bridge and board’ advertising, with the balance spent on development, manufacture and race operations. That’s $50m for marketing and the same on all the rest…

Could F1 tyres take WEC levels of punishment?
Perusal of 2006 trackside and podium photographs show not a single visual of either tyre supplier as race or billboard sponsor; shots from the recent past show various races sponsored Pirelli; imagine how much better their tyres could be with another $50m thrown at them annually.

During the 2014 round of tenders a Michelin insider confided that his company was willing to match any spend by the competition subject to the full amount flowing into the F1 programme, with its marketing programme effectively being the brand’s on-track performance. Clearly that would not fly with F1; hence Michelin did not bother to go through with the tender, instead turning (very successfully) to WEC with Porsche.

Consider: the Porsche 919 LMP1 is around 100kg heavier than current F1 cars and similarly powered, yet drivers remarked that they were able to push for the full duration of WEC stints, even ‘double-stinting’ at times. Indeed, a WEC car delivers around 300km – a grand prix distance, give or take a lap or three – on a set of mediums even when driven hard.

True, WEC cars generally have four-wheel-drive which spreads traction and thus tyre wear, so possibly F1 truly has reached the limits of adhesion for 1,000bhp two-wheel-drive cars, a situation under review for 2025-onwards, as F1 technical director Pat Symonds exclusively told RaceFans when he shared his plans for F1’s 2025-onwards future.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Imola, 2020
Another failure cost Verstappen second place at Imola last year
The good news is, however, that 2022’s regulations mandate ‘smart’ tyres with integral sensors to monitor tyre pressures and three critical temperature parameters – air, carcass and rim – which not only enable tyre supplier and governing body to monitor tyres on-track for compliance but provide early warning of potential failure. These 19-inch tyres were scheduled for this year as part of F1’s ‘new era’ package, delayed due to Covid.

Every F1 stakeholder – from drivers and teams through FIA and FI to Pirelli and even circuit designers – is to some degree implicated in the events in Baku, and playing ‘blame games’ with safety critical items and pointing of fingers will not solve the issue. That said, there is no escaping the fact that ultimate responsibility for the integrity of Pirelli’s tyres rests with Pirelli.

F1’s ‘new era’ is likely to prove Pirelli’s last chance in F1, for the mandated sensor technologies will leave the company – or any replacement – with no place to hide if the tyres are not up to scratch.


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23 comments on “Has Formula 1 finally found the solution to its alarming tyre failures?”

  1. Very thorough read, thank you!

  2. This kind of buggs me. Every time i go back and rewatch old races/season reviews i am baffled by the fact that tyre failures have apparently pretty much always happened in similiar ways to today it was just never made into an issue. Well except for that one time in indy.

    1. RandomMallard (@)
      23rd June 2021, 13:13

      @mrboens I agree in many ways. It’s easy to look back at the past with rose tinted glasses and forget just how many tyre failures there used to be, especially through the 1980s and 1990s (both Rosberg and Mansell in Adelaide 1986 most colossally, and Hill in Monza in 1993 as well). People just forget about them after a while, due to a mixture of both time passing and it turning out to be insignificant in the long term, either because it happened to a small team or just didn’t affect the championship at the end of the day.

      Whether Baku will be this year’s “AND COLLOSSALLY THAT’S VERSTAPPEN” moment we are yet to find out.

      1. RandomMallard (@)
        23rd June 2021, 13:18

        I’ll tag @mrboerns correctly this time around shan’t I…

    2. @mrboerns @randommallard @bascb The biggest difference between tire failures of the past & failures today is the way in which Good Year, Bridgestone & Michelin were always open & transparent with teams/drivers & able to provide clear proof as to what caused the failure to occur. And in every case the supplier would go away, Look at the data & improve the product if they felt it was necessary to do so.

      The problem & difference with the Pirelli’s of the past 10/11 years is that in far too many cases they have been very guarded in terms of the cause of failures & not presented any of the evidence that led them to whatever conclusion they came up with. They say debris, kerb damage etc.. yet virtually never present the evidence to give teams/driver confidence that they (Pirelli) really understand what caused the failure.

      And of course in the past the various tire suppliers never went to the FIA & started pushing for new regulations to be brought in to ensure the tires were run in a very specific way. Certainly with the previous 3 suppliers there was never at any point a concern that the tires would fail if run slightly outside any guidelines.

      I would also without going back & checking every incident that there have been more tire related problems in the 10 years of Pirelli than there was the previous 10 years. And with that i’m not simply taking about outright failures but also things like cuts & other unusual things such as simple spins at low-ish speed burning holes down to the canvas which is something you never used to see (High speed spins/locks ups yes, But slow-ish spins like Vettel’s at Bahrain in 2019 no).

      1. Yes, it is quite true that this part is the thing that keeps coming back time and again in the last decade – a lack of transparency (and the hint that might be due do a lack of understanding) about what is going on with the tyres.

        Could it be that is in a significant part due to not being able to test much?

      2. RandomMallard (@)
        24th June 2021, 16:05

        @gt-racer I do agree that the lack of transparency is sometimes concerning. I don’t always understand this perceived lack of transparency though. For example, at Silverstone last year, they said it was partly down to the kerb at Chapel. People didn’t believe it, but they altered the kerb and the next weekend there were no failures even on softer tyres (yes most people were on a 2 stop, but a few, e.g. Leclerc, managed to make a one stop work without a failure). But yes there is often a worrying lack of transparency, and is the first time a tyre supplier has had to push for regulations over tyre safety (you could argue Michelin were part of the coalition that pushed for the 2005 regs change because they had harder tyres that would work better than the Bridgestones over the whole race). And again, those tyres didn’t fail if they ran slightly out of the guidelines (unless you count Michelin’s 10 lap guidance at Indy 2005).

        As @bascb points out above, part of this, not all of it though, may be down to having less testing time than other suppliers had. The modern Pirelli era has taken place (almost?) entirely during a testing-limited era, while Bridgestone, Michelin and Goodyear had almost infinite testing time to get the best product. I mean there are even stories of Schumacher flying back to Fiorano (Ferrari’s test track) after Qualifying on a Saturday, lapping the track all evening long and then flying back to the race circuit overnight/in the morning. Meanwhile, when Pirelli organised 1 extra day of testing with Mercedes in 2013 it ended up in the FIA Courts. And those 2013 tyres needed more testing.

        Your other thing about more cuts/flat spots on the tyres is interesting as well. You could argue that the tyres are much more likely to get cuts nowadays because the teams are on the kerbs much, much more than they used to be (and the rise of street tracks means debris is more likely to get onto the racing surface). The part regarding flat spots is a different story though. The build of the tyre is completely different. For most of the Bridgestone/Goodyear era, the tyres were grooved, so the really big holes were much less likely to form/be visible. They were also built for cars that were generally a lot lighter as they were smaller and carried less fuel, and the cars were slower so put less forces through the tires. Also, I don’t really think that Vettel’s spin in Bahrain can really be described as ‘slow speed’. Ok it isn’t the fastest part of the track but it is pretty quick nonetheless. Pretty much any tire will flat spot like that if you spin it at that kind of speed.

  3. Martin Elliott
    23rd June 2021, 13:07

    Isn’t the point to some extent, as said, Pirelli can only attempt to produce tyres to the F1/FIA specification including the ‘target letter’ but with all the overlapping factors, is it possible to be 100% perfect? After all, all the cars are a comprimise between many possibilities.

    That is partially discussed, but I don’t see any reasoning around the gap in failures 2016-2020. Maybe the specification made it ‘easier’ to avoid catastrophic failure in that bracket, and changes in the requirements have brought raised the risk slightly?

    1. Vettel, Austria 2016, Rosberg, Belgium 2016 Free Practice, Vettel and Raikkonen Silverstone 2017, Bottas Baku 2018, Kvyat in Austria and Silverstone 2020, Bottas, Hamilton, Sainz in Silverstone 2020, …. just off the top of my head.

      1. RandomMallard (@)
        23rd June 2021, 15:49

        Vettel and Raikkonen in Silverstone 2017 were almost certainly due to just running those tyres far too long in the race on a set up that was very harsh on tyres, to the point that they’re going to puncture if you keep running them for that many laps. Bottas in Baku 2018 was running over debris; very few tyres are going to survive that. Kvyat in Austria 2020 was a suspension failure due to spending too long on the kerbs, not a tyre failure, while at Silverstone there was a mechanical failure which overheated the tyre bead (which holds the tyre onto the wheel), which caused the tyre to ‘fall off’ the rim. However, Austria/Belgium 2016, and Silverstone 1 2020 were all cases of Pirelli just (generally) not building a suitable tyre.

        1. @randommallard

          Vettel and Raikkonen in Silverstone 2017 were almost certainly due to just running those tyres far too long

          The thing is though that even if that was the case a tire should lose performance before simply going pop without warning.

          For a tire that is still offering good grip & performance to just fail without warning due to wear is highly unusual & should be seen as completely unacceptable. You would/should expect to see a substantial drop-off before a tire ever reaches the point of a pure wear/life failure.

          And in some cases drivers were also still within the Pirelli recommendations in terms of expected stint life with the Pirelli tire engineer’s that are embedded in every team also telling them tires were good to carry on not too long before the failure occurred.

          1. RandomMallard (@)
            24th June 2021, 15:26

            @gt-racer Vettel had been reporting for several laps by that point that the tires were completely ruined, so there was definitely a drop in performance, and Pirelli’s official explanation (taken with a pinch of salt) is that it was a slow puncture, which does seem to make a bit more sense than normal as the tyre didn’t burst into a thousand pieces like they did in 2013 at Silverstone. I’ve done some more research and they claimed Raikkonen’s was down to ‘external contact’ due to the marks they found on the tyre. However, his didn’t really fully deflate like Vettel’s did, but more just started to shred at the surface which I find odd. It is nothing like any of the other Pirelli failures we have seen in the last 10 years. Pirelli are blaming it on debris, but to me (not a qualified tyre engineer for the record) it does look like something just caused by too much wear more than anything else. I’m a bit confused about that failure.

  4. FIA and Pirelli need to monitor better the teams. We don’t want another controversy in which a team is exploiting a technical “cheat” to gain an advantage under the radar. Coupled with the fact that this sport is already extremely high in technical parts and mechanics of the cars, it just makes it unfair for all the teams.

    I do wonder if we will ever get back to the speed of 2019-2020 when the cars were just insane in terms of grip, but it looks like Pirelli are incapable of producing tyres that can cope with the speeds and forces of those two years. It’s a real shame if that will never happen.

    1. RandomMallard (@)
      23rd June 2021, 13:17

      @krichelle I’m not sure if the problem would just be with Pirelli though. Even the fastest drag racing cars (Top Fuel) have to have their speeds limited to around 335mph because the tyres can’t cope with anything more (Goodyears, if you’re wondering), and that’s only going in a straight line. I don’t necessarily think the same problem wouldn’t happen to other manufacturers with the amount of grip you’re talking about. Michelin certainly don’t have a good reputation for that already. Of course you could build a more robust tyre, but that would mean a slower tyre that in turn would mean we couldn’t reach the speeds of 2019-20. Like so many things in this sport, the two ideals in this scenario (a very fast but robust tyre) are almost complete juxtapositions of one another.

  5. The problem is that by creating a high degradation tyre (by making it softer) it’s just more susceptible to be damaged by debris, kerbs, or slightly lower pressures.

    For example I bet that if you grab a sharp object and try to push it into a Pirelli F1 tyre it’s going to go much easier than your typical road car tyre, and once it’s at running temperature it would probably be like a hot knife through butter.

    So the question is simple, how to degrade the performance of a tyre (thus meeting F1 requirements) but without reducing the overall hardness of the rubber.
    After 10 years Pirelli haven’t been able to do it, so maybe it’s impossible. But without other manufacturers trying we just can’t be sure.

  6. what irks me is Pirelli claim they were ask to make tyres that spiced up racing to ensure 2 stops, and everytime they come under criticism they’re quick to remind us of this… but forget they were also asked to make a race tyre too. Something which clearly they are incapable of doing

    its like they were handed a get a jail free card.. o well, if our products crap we’ll just say its what they asked for

    if you ask me, it was always evident a race tyre & and tyre that degrades fast were ALWAYS going to be incompatible and they should have said so from the start. they are after all the professionals and should have known this

    by its very nature, if somethings made to wear out, obviously the harder you push it, the quicker it will degrade

    it is simply impossible to make a tyre that degraded at a certain rate per lap however hard you pushed it

    inevitably racing was always going to suffer

    1. @the-edge But there is well within the chemical makeup of the tire the ability to change how it wears, be it by thermal degradation of by tread wear degradation, of course with temp always being part of the equation. They can also alter at what stage a tire wears and whether or not it is gradual or like hitting a cliff where suddenly they are gone. Bottom line for me the tires are designed this way on purpose and could easily be designed another way to suit another purpose. Sure in general the harder you push the more the deg, but they can easily make tires that can be pushed for many laps or they can make them so that pushing hard (or too hard) or even not heating them up enough, takes them out of their optimum operating window.

      1. @robbie spot on.

        I’d also add that they should surely be able to manufacture a tyre that has a far wider optimum operating window. Its so narrow these days that only the very top teams have a chance of being able to design downforce etc. that can ensure cars get in that window and even then it seems to be difficult for them.

  7. Barry Bens (@barryfromdownunder)
    23rd June 2021, 18:08

    Pirelli is not under pressure from any other brand, so cannot blame the pressures of competition for failures

    Very nice puns :^)

  8. What do we want? One car to disappear into the distance?

    Quite funny because that’s exactly what we’ve had since 2014, too short years after that statement was made!

  9. That said, there is no escaping the fact that ultimate responsibility for the integrity of Pirelli’s tyres rests with Pirelli.

    If the teams are using the tyres completely incorrectly to get around the mandated pressures while on track (by not even putting plain air into them) how can Pirelli be responsible for that in the slightest?

    It would be like not having enough air intake then saying the engine manufacturer is responsible when your car blows up.

    On one hand you say they all have a part while with the other place the blame fully on Pirelli.

    Anyway, can’t wait for next year. These cars, the tyres, the lot, are all past their use by date.

  10. Hembery then expanded on the thought processes: “What do we want? One car to disappear into the distance? The public turned away from the sport when that happened, so there was a very clear decision made by the sport to address the racing.”

    I remember that quote from the time & remember saying at the time that he was wrong with that line as even in seasons where you had a dominant team or driver the TV ratings always remained strong & had also in-fact grown in some of those periods.

    Additionally the TV ratings had been consistently growing over the years before Pirelli entered the sport in 2011 so the claim that Paul Hembrey actually repeated a few times about how F1 was declining before Pirelli entered with the high degredation concept was actually completely incorrect.

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