This season, teams will face rule changes, aerodynamic testing restrictions and cost cap limitations, but possibly the most crucial factor they must deal with this year is the latest tyre compounds from Pirelli.
Last season saw the long-awaited introduction of 18-inch wheels into Formula 1. For 2023, following complaints about the degradation of front tyres last season, there is a stiffer and stronger build for the front tyres in all of the slick compounds.
The C1, which was the hardest compound in 2022, has now been made softer and closer to the C2 while the old version of the tyre effectively continues to exist as a new C0 compound. Pressures at the front and rear have also been lowered by two and 2.5 psi respectively.
Pirelli brought the C1, C2 and C3 to the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, with the latter two also being used in the next two race weekends, starting today in Saudi Arabia. But after just one race, on a track known for its highly abrasive surface and for being far more rear-limited compared to the high-speed tracks that are next on the schedule, what was the initial assessment from drivers about how tyre management has changed on the 2023-spec rubber?
“I think the rear has taken a step in a worse direction,” offered Red Bull’s Sergio Perez.
“But I think at the end of the day it’s good, because I think last year’s tyres were really terrible. and the front was just degrading while the rear was staying fairly consistent and it was just getting worse and worse. So at least they have a more manageable platform, the tyres, where you have a place as a driver, you can do something.
“Whereas last year it was just the front going to die, because it was a very weak tyre. Now I think both tyres are more together. Probably the rear is still a bit on the strong side, but generally isn’t going to push as much as the front, I feel.”
Perez is renowned for his tyre management prowess, but admits he “couldn’t do anything” with that skill set on the 2022 compounds due to the speed at which the front tyres degraded. Now there’s a more consistent loss of grip between the front and rear, he thinks “it will help everyone to have a more manageable tyre wear”.
Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas praised the usability of the revised C1 compound, which is “raceable” now it is softer and therefore should have less of a pace deficit to the grippier C3 which it will normally be nominated alongside when used in race weekends.
“I think it’s definitely more usable than the old C1,” Bottas explained. “It feels like it’s closer to the C2 that it used to be before,” he said. “So I think it’s good because quite often teams were trying to avoid the old C1, but now I think it’s actually raceable, so no surprises in any of the compounds, really.”
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Williams’ Alex Albon, who if not for F1’s compulsory pit stop rule could have taken a single set of tyres the full distance in last year’s Australian Grand Prix, said he could already see how different the management demands of this year’s rubber are after just one run.
“The tyres are so different, in my opinion anyway, to last year, just the way that they feel. Slightly different how the race runs are managed,” he said.
“I think we all knew that the front has performed a bit better, the front is a better tyre than last year. The rear is quite similar, feels kind of the same. But in terms of the way the tyres are last year, it’s very important to keep the fronts alive through the whole race. And this year – from the one race run I did [in practice] – it could be a bit more traditional, a bit more of what we’ve had before with rear degradation.
The driver feedback corresponded with the expectations of Pirelli’s chief F1 engineer Simone Berra, who correctly predicted teams would end up staying away from the C2 medium compound during the opening race.
“We have seen most of the teams trying to get rid of the C2 because it seems that the C2 is not a proper race tyre, because it’s in the middle between C3 and C1,” Berra explained. “It’s not providing any consistency like C1, but neither the grip as the C3.
“Obviously you have to manage a lot with high fuel, and with the temperatures. So the risk is to overdrive the C3, and then to lose the pace.”
In the race, Red Bull demonstrated unparalleled ability to manage the C3 soft compound that they were able to choose that tyre for two of the race’s three stints. Meanwhile, their competitors mainly opted to run two stints on the hard tyres after starting the race on the softs, as they did not believe they could maintain a strong page while managing their soft tyres.
Even Berra predicted that latter strategy as “a good option” for teams wanting to avoid using the C2, which Berra estimated pre-race to be between 0.2 and 0.3 seconds faster than the C1 – but he had not anticipated Red Bull being able to run long on the C3 instead. He was, however, able to pick out that the potential of that softer tyre was “1.2 to 1.3s per lap” faster, showing the advantage Red Bull gained their strategy and from a car that did not aggressively use the tyre.
This weekend, Pirelli’s Mario Isola expects that the three compounds chosen for Jeddah – the C2,C3 and C4 – will offer a different challenge to the ones teams have already faced in Bahrain.
“For the rapid Jeddah track, we have confirmed the same compound choices as last year as they showed very good consistency throughout the race weekend,” Isola said.
“The first race in Bahrain was all about traction and braking but Jeddah instead focuses on lateral forces, with completely different characteristics to Sakhir.”
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