Did Qatar GP show there is just too much tyre talk in F1?

How important are tyres in F1? Is there too much talk about Pirelli's rubber in Formula 1?

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Tyre talk. Some people love it, many people hate it. But, tyres are crucial in Formula 1, particularly in an era where how the driver and engineers treat their rubber has massive implications – positively and negatively.

The 2023 Qatar Grand Prix saw Pirelli and the FIA mandate a limit of 18 laps on a single set of tyres, forcing three pit stops over the 57-lap race on Sunday.

It was unprecedented but probably the right thing, as the FIA pointed out not enough data was gathered in their analysis from the Sprint Race to see if the tyres could last without putting the rubber into danger.

The consequences were huge, so much so, that the drivers pushed harder in each stint and were cooking in the cockpits due to the heat and humidity at the Losail International Circuit.

“I think we probably found the limit,” said Lando Norris. “I think it’s sad we had to find it this way. It’s never a nice situation to be in, you know, some people ending up in the medical centre or passing out, things like that.

“So, pretty dangerous thing to have going on. But it’s not a point where you can just go, the drivers need to train more or do any of that.

Qatar GP 2023 winner Max Verstappen of Red Bull and third placed Lando Norris of McLaren | Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

“We’re in a closed car that gets extremely hot in a very physical race and it’s frustrating. I guess on TV, it probably doesn’t look very physical at all, but clearly, when you have people who end up retiring or in such a bad state, it’s too much, you know, for the speeds we’re doing. It is too dangerous.

“I know that this race next year is later on in the season, and it will be a lot cooler a few months later, but it’s something that needs to be thought of and I’m sure we’ll speak about it because it shouldn’t have happened in the first place.”

Norris is spot on. We want to see the drivers pushed hard and don’t you be fooled into thinking the 20 guys, who give us sporting entertainment a couple dozen times per year in the fastest cars in the world should simply get fitter.

They could of course. However, it probably won’t make too much difference when the conditions are so extreme that multiple drivers end up in the medical centre. Thankfully, everyone was able to go home on Sunday night.

But back to tyres. It feels like F1 talks about tyres more than any other motorsport. Has this always been the case? In short, no…

Pirelli’s soft, medium and hard tyres | Total Motorsport

Pirelli in F1

The reason so much is made about tyres is because they degrade. This all goes back to the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix when there was surprisingly a lot of tyre wear and it created an exciting race. The tyre supplier back then was Bridgestone, but they were leaving at the end of the season.

Then F1 owner, Bernie Ecclestone, effectively told incomers Pirelli to make tyres that degraded from the 2011 season onwards. During the early Pirelli era, it was common for races to naturally feature a minimum of three pit stops, like we saw on Sunday in Qatar, except it wasn’t manufactured.

In 2017, F1 moved to bigger and wider cars, with it came wider tyres. That year saw tyre talk die down a little as Pirelli made a harder compound and the majority of races were one stop.

In came a new issue though. Tyre optimisation. The teams realised getting the tyres into the optimal operating window was crucial for performance.

You can probably gain up to half a second on your average race track from finding the right tyre range compared to being out of the window.

Drivers complained about the tyres being too sensitive and Pirelli have worked hard on this since this talk increasingly came about from 2018.

Sebastian Vettel leads the pack at the 2018 Singapore GP | Scuderia Ferrari

“The race is what needs to improve,” Lewis Hamilton said in 2020 about the tyres. “Reduce aero and give us better tyres. That’s a very, very important line there: we need better tyres.

“We’ve been talking for years and years and years and years about tyre degradation, thermal degradation, and we sat in the meeting room with Pirelli in Brazil and they had never heard of the thermal degradation. They said, ‘This is the first we hear about it!’

“We’re trying to communicate with them better. The target letter, I don’t know who’s written it this year but they obviously didn’t do a good job for the 2020 tyres. But I hope for 2021 that we have a better target and one that they’re able to meet or a manufacturer is able to meet.”

Has it always been like this in F1?

Back in the day, as your older relatives or friends like to say (or perhaps yourself) tyres were nowhere near talked about this much.

Perhaps a part of that is down to the evolution of F1 and the constant look for marginal gains in every aspect nowadays.

But, during the 2000s, when some hardcore F1 fans think the sport peaked in terms of the car, the tyres were rock hard, as in they didn’t really wear out.

Mitch Evans in action at the 2023 Sao Paulo E-Prix | ABB FIA Formula E

Most other racing series have tyres like this – think the World Endurance Championship, Formula E, GTs or Rallying. In all those series, tyres is a talking point, but it’s not on the scale of F1.

Maybe the media is privy to the tyre talk in F1 as Pirelli predict what the strategy will be and the drivers are asked about tyres too almost every time they speak.

Was the 2023 Qatar GP better with tyre limits?

It certainly made for more flat out stints but having three pit stops definitely made things very confusing for a casual viewer.

Alex Albon ran in the lead for nearly a full lap, but it didn’t really mean anything because he hadn’t pitted yet. The Alfa Romeos also ran high up the order, only to drop back and it was difficult to explain why this was happening.

For those who love their strategy, it was a dream. F1 is about the on-track racing though and we actually got some great wheel-to-wheel battles in Qatar and not all of the overtakes were slam dunk.

So did it make the Grand Prix better? You’ve got to say no. The race felt artificial because you knew everyone had one or two more pit stops coming. You already knew when George Russell came into the pit lane for example with 25 laps to go for hards, that he had to pit again. That’s just not right.

A lot of the overtaking is also done in the pits and we lost the potential for variation. Seeing a driver on a two-stop versus someone on a one-stop can create a natural scrap near the end of the race, like we saw at the 2023 Singapore GP when Hamilton and Russell were on a charge.

Lewis Hamilton in action at the 2023 Singapore GP | Mercedes

And that brings us back to where we began, is there too much tyre talk? The Singapore example from above and many other strategy races in the last 10 years, including your Verstappen versus Hamilton duels in Hungary 2019 and Spain 2021 – they were fantastic thanks to different strategy.

This element has become a part of modern F1 because the cars are so reliable and refuelling isn’t a thing. Before the 21st century, you didn’t know if a car would finish and that was part of the intrigue.

Fast forward to the 2020s and you know a leading car will almost certainly not breakdown anymore. Therefore, strategy and tyres has become a bigger factor in F1.

Can Pirelli do a better job when their next and final F1 contract begins in 2025? Absolutely. Tyre talk won’t be rubbing itself away and modern F1 all circles around strategy, just don’t let it become too artificial…

John Smith
John Smithhttps://total-motorsport.com
Editor at Total-Motorsport.com and all round Motorsport journalist specialising in Formula 1, IndyCar and Formula E.
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