The Alternative Tyre Allocation rule was introduced to Formula 1 at the Hungarian Grand Prix, several months later than planned as it had initially been earmarked for the cancelled Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.
At a hot Hungaroring, the softest three compounds in Pirelli’s range were nominated, putting even more emphasis on saving tyres for what would be a multi-stop race. But Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and the two Red Bull drivers were the only ones to use a single set of tyres in second practice on a day interrupted by rain so less slick rubber was used than usual in first practice.
Regardless of how many tyres were used, the amount available reduced with each day as teams had to return sets to Pirelli. Some got their tyre strategy wrong in the race, but the concerns about the ATA format were less focused on race strategy and more on the impact on earlier sessions through the weekend.
Fewer Friday laps for fans?
If Friday’s wet weather didn’t dampen the spirits of spectators at the Hungaroring, then the fact only 13 drivers recorded lap times in first practice – with star attractions Hamilton and Max Verstappen only completing seven laps total between them over an hour of running – may have been a disappointment
Had they stayed to the end of the day, when the dry second practice session took place, then they wouldn’t have even seen the biggest teams running at a representative pace as they spent considerably less time on track than their rivals. Red Bull only ran 32 laps between Verstappen and Sergio Perez, eight fewer than the Ferrari pair, while Alfa Romeo, AlphaTauri, Williams and Aston Martin all ran almost double Red Bull’s total.
After the first day of the weekend, Hamilton expressed his concerns about the trial format.
“All these amazing people turn up on a Friday and want to see cars running around, and we have less tyres than normal,” he said. Hamilton suggested the FIA and F1 needed to “figure out how we can do better” with the number of tyres that are disposed of “rather than reduce the entertainment for the fans”.
“When we only have one set in the session, we have less running and already when they changed the rules many years ago, where we only have two sets in the session, it doesn’t lead you to a lot of running and we have less time on track as well,” he explained. “So, I’m not sure that was necessarily the best for the Friday.”
Williams’ Logan Sargeant agreed “it’s kind of sad for the fans that we’re not running more” and felt he “did not have enough tyres to get through the weekend”.
“From a driver’s point of view, we want to drive more,” the rookie continued. “I’m sure the fans want to see us drive more. And we’re stuck on tyres.”
However, on Saturday, spectators at the circuit and the worldwide television audience were treated to a thrilling qualifying session. After each driver was limited to running a compulsory compound in each of the three phases, Hamilton pipped Verstappen to pole by a tiny margin of 0.003s, with McLaren’s Lando Norris just 0.085s back in third. Even before the close Q3 showdown, there had been qualifying drama as Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu was the surprise Q1 pacesetter and Lando Norris led Hamilton in Q2.
Hamilton felt the ATA had provided “great entertainment” on Saturday, while his team principal Toto Wolff proposed to RaceFans that the sport could “combine somehow the best of both worlds” by having “more track running on Friday, but then make it mandatory for the tyre allocation on quali”.
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A solution for sustainability?
By reducing the tyre allocation for each car, the ATA was pitched as being a more sustainable way of running an grand prix weekend. But that argument didn’t convince paddock members straight away, and the selection of circuits for this new format – Imola, the Hungaroring and Monza – are the three closest to Pirelli’s F1 tyre factories. Making them the least impactful examples for reducing the number of tyres transported. Hamilton was not convinced.
“I think when we’re talking about sustainability, just taking one set of tyres or two sets of tyres away is not enough,” he said.
“Each weekend there’s a lot of wet tyres that get thrown away, every single weekend – we really need to push to figure out how we can make sure that doesn’t happen. There’s a lot more we can do there in terms of sustainability I would say.”
McLaren team principal Andrea Stella felt it was “a good direction to have less sets of tyres” but asked whether the environmental sustainability of that reduction was actually a sustainable format for F1 to use, he admitted “I don’t necessarily have the answer”.
A question of compounds
By not running on Pirelli’s hard compound tyres in practice, some drivers were left with no reference for when they did use it later in the weekend. And even of those who had been able to sneak in some laps with it found it tough to get the most out of.
“It was difficult going straight to quali on the hard tyre,” said Sargeant. “Neither of us had driven it, so we didn’t know where we would completely be at. Not easy at all to put a lap together.”
He added it was “not easy at all” to find references on the compound, with at least half a second – more than enough to move him from last on the grid to making it though to Q2 – that “was just left out there” by lacking the tyre understanding.
His team mate Albon missed out on reaching Q2 by 0.011 seconds, and said he usually enjoys qualifying “because soft tyres tend to hide problems”.
“When you go onto a hard compound tyre for qualifying, you’re not getting the band aid of a soft tyre. So it was always going to be tricky. I also feel like with harder compound tyres, they’re built for long runs, not for short runs. So you slide around so much on them that the surface of the tyre, it degrades more than a soft tyre.”
According to Albon, he was suffering from wheelspin and locking when trying to put a qualifying lap together, and had already run out of grip by sector three of the Hungaroring. His theory was that mandating hard compound usage in Q1 “penalises the lower downforce cars”, therefore actually reducing the chance of a more competitive or mixed up session.
“Generally top teams can afford to save a set in a quali session and they’re just going to be better prepared for Sunday,” he said. “We’ve got to try and do the same tactic because we don’t want to compromise our Sunday, but then we’re struggling because we need the two sets for quali, we need everything.”
Before Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc had faced his own struggles on the medium compound used in Q2, he had already watched others struggle and particularly in the first sector before tyres were fully up to temperature. His team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr possibly suffered the most with the mandated medium tyre usage, as he went from being fourth fastest in Q1 to 11th in Q2.
“I think the medium for some reason was struggling with warm-up,” Leclerc reckoned. “I also struggled on that, obviously a bit less than Carlos. We need to look at it, because it might be linked to our peakiness of our car. And whenever we get a little bit out of the window, then we struggle more than the others.”
That’s an ominous sign for Ferrari’s home race, when the ATA format returns.
While Hamilton had reservations about the supposed benefits of the ATA format in other areas, he admitted “it was great starting on the hard in the first session and then going to the medium” for qualifying. He felt that was still enjoyable even if there was a “big difference in balance” between compounds, as that posed a challenge in a qualifying format where there is very little time for analysis or preparation between segments.
“All the tyres generally felt quite good, and right at the end the soft tyre felt extraordinary. It’s just interesting how you have to prep the tyres.”
AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda also found it “fun” to have designated compounds for each part of qualifying, although he did not actually get out of Q1, and Russell noted that weather probably played a part.
“I mean, of all the tracks, this is the one where it is probably most straightforward,” he said.” This year’s hard is last year’s medium. And it’s obviously so hot out there that the hard’s working fine [over a single lap].”
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Does the ATA challenge drivers, or teams?
Fewer laps completed in qualifying not only gives fans less to chew over, but also teams. And for Tsunoda, it made Friday the “more tricky” part of the weekend rather than the 70-lap pace.
Aston Martin’s performance director Tom McCullough said teams need to bide their time before assessing the impact of the ATA rules.
“With all these regulation changes – like we said with the sprint regulations – you’ve got to walk through a few of them at different tracks before you make changes,” he explained. “And you can’t draw conclusions too quickly.
“It’s a real challenge for everyone. I think the teams who’ve done well out of it are going to say it’s great, the teams who’ve done bad out of it will not enjoy it.”
Stella’s interest was piqued by the “element of adaptability that you need to have from a driver point of view, from a team point of view” to be successful on a weekend where ATA is used, but recommended looking into a smaller reduction of the tyre supply for practice because he believed if Friday had been fully dry then his team “would have been a bit short of tyres”.
Alfa Romeo had little negativity about the format after Zhou qualified a career-best fifth, with team mate Valtteri Bottas two places behind.
“It’s different, but you just set all the sessions and everything slightly different. During the race, depending on what is your usage in the free practice, then in the race you have got used tyres, or how is your performance in qualifying, it will decide if you use in each quali only one set or two sets, then you have your used sets for the race,” said the team’s head of trackside engineering Xevi Pujolar.
“But that is the team’s choice, and maybe it’s giving a bit more advantage at the moment towards the top teams, the teams that have got more performance, but then we are flexible and we [should] adapt to whatever is better for the show, for the spectators.”
On his team’s qualifying result, their best since the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix, Pujolar added: “We took advantage of spending a bit more time trying some of the compounds in free practice and we gained advantage, and we did a mega quali result with that format.”
But they may not be able to repeat such form in future ATA events.
“Now next time, maybe teams when they see the results, they may take a different approach. Also for this track layout because it’s a bit more difficult to overtake [qualifying is more important]. If you do it in a layout where it’s easier to overtake, then maybe you save more tyres for the race.”
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2023 Hungarian Grand Prix
- Was F1’s Alternative Tyre Allocation test successful? Drivers and teams have their say
- How far can McLaren climb with car rivals now say is the second-fastest in F1?
- Why Ricciardo says McLaren’s car “speaks Lando’s language” – but Norris disagrees
- Mercedes reveal cooling error behind loss of pace in Hungarian GP
- Perez answered critics in Hungary but needs to qualify better – Horner