Tires are one of the most fascinating, debated and important objects in Formula 1. Always the focus of rule changes, design changes and engineering attention, tires are the only point of contact between the spectacular Formula 1 single-seaters and the
circuits on which the world championship is run.
This consideration, only seemingly trivial, carries with it some fundamental corollaries. First, different tracks and different conditions require different tires. Second, the efficiency that various teams manage to create according to various tires concurs with the success-or otherwise-of said team in each Grand Prix.
What are the different tires in Formula 1
For several years, F1 tires have been manufactured and supplied by Pirelli. The Milanese giant, which has been designing and manufacturing the world’s fastest tires as an exclusivist for years, offers the championship 5 types of dry weather tires and 2 types of wet weather tires.
P Zero dry weather tires, characterized by a smooth surface, or slick, are divided by degrees of softness: the C1 compound is the hardest, while the C5 is the softest. At each round of the Formula 1 calendar, Pirelli chooses three of these five compounds to supply to the teams and divides them into three colors: red the softest, yellow the medium, and white the hardest.
There are only two wet tires, which Pirelli calls Cinturato, instead: intermediate, characterized by green color, and full wet, characterized by blue color.
The hardness of the compound is extremely important. A harder tire will offer less grip but last longer in terms of degradation, while a soft tire will allow more performance but have higher wear. The balance between these different characteristics greatly affects the outcome on the track.
How many tires and what tires each Formula 1 team has at its disposal
Each Formula 1 team receives tire sets from Pirelli for the two cars entered in the event. Each driver has 13 total sets of slick tires for the entire weekend, divided as follows: 2 sets of hard tires, 3 sets of medium tires, 8 sets of soft tires. For the same weekend, Pirelli also provides each driver with 4 sets of intermediate tires and 3 sets of wet tires.
During free practice on Friday and Saturday, each driver must return two sets of tires to Pirelli after the FP1, two sets of tires after the FP2 and two more sets of tires after the FP3. At the end of these operations, each driver is left with seven total sets of tires.
At the end of free practice, the cars face qualifying, for which each driver has a set of the softest compound to face Q3, which is the last part of qualifying that decides the top 10 on the grid. Those who qualify for Q3 will be obliged to return this set, while all other drivers can keep it for the race. It is a small advantage given to those who start further back, who thus have an extra set of soft tires at their disposal.
Changing tires in the race: rules and benefits
Beginning with the 2022 season, and unlike before, all F1 drivers are allowed to choose which tires to use at the start, regardless of the compound with which they faced qualifying.
In the case of a dry race, however, the rules require that each driver change at least one compound during the course of the grand prix and thus always use at least two of the three types of dry tires brought by Pirelli to the race.
This makes a tire change essential, not only to switch to a fresher tire, but also to switch to a different type of tire. This detail is fraught with pitfalls, as cars that perform very well on soft rubber will not necessarily have the same results on harder tires, or vice versa.
It is again good to remember that in Formula 1 different tires have not only different performance, but also different durations. The choice of different tires requires teams to devise dedicated and ever-changing pit stop strategies: those who start on soft compound will be forced to stop earlier, while those who choose harder tires will be able to postpone the pit stop.
What is undercut in Formula 1
Although Pirelli tells the teams what the optimal performance ranges are for each compound and gives guidance on the duration of stints (i.e., the period of the race in which a car is in the race without interruption), each race wall decides for itself when to stop its driver during the race depending on the strategy studied.
One of the moves that F1 strategists can play in this challenge is the undercut. By “undercut” we define the choice to call the driver to the pit lane for a tire change one or two laps before the scheduled stop, thus getting ahead of the rivals. In this way, when exiting the pits, the driver will find himself with fresh tires and thus higher performance in comparison with opponents who are still running on slower, soft compound.
Of course, this strategy also has some downsides. The first -as is easy to guess- is that the driver who plays the undercut card will have more ruined rubber and therefore slower at the end of the race, since he will have mounted it before his opponents. Second, the chances of running into traffic or missing the opportunity to take advantage of a possible safety car.
Finally, the undercut is opposed by the overcut, or reverse maneuver. The overcut in Formula 1 is to purposely stop a few laps beyond the scheduled stop, to make sure you have an advantage in the final stages of the Grand Prix with fresher tires.
Tires in the Sprint Race in Formula 1
On “sprint” race weekends drivers are free to choose whichever compound they prefer to tackle the race. Typically, given the short duration of the Sprint Race, all teams on the grid opt for the softer tires, which provide more performance at the expense of higher wear.
Unlike the traditional Grand Prix, in the Sprint Race drivers are not required to pit stop to change tires, and they can finish the race on the same tire they started with.
For the Sprint Shootout, i.e. qualifying for the sprint race, SQ1 and SQ2 must be approached compulsorily with a new set of medium tires, while SQ3 must be approached with a set of soft tires, but these do not have to be new.
Formula 1 tires, between fascination and complexity
Like every other ingredient in this incredible sport, the tires in Formula 1 encapsulate an extraordinary level of technology and sophistication. The tires that these exceptional single-seaters mount must be able to withstand tremendous acceleration, deceleration and stress, while at the same time providing a very high level of grip.
To ensure this performance, however, tires must be prepared, warmed up, and used intelligently and technically, and these are also the aspects that distinguish great drivers from champions.
The regulations that manage the use of tires have refined over the years to become the complex system of rules and corollaries that we know today and that has been described in the lines above. There is debate among practitioners and fans about the need to have such stringent regulations that are so difficult to digest, and above all, constantly changing. Where some complain that the difficulty is too high, alienating the casual fan and preventing him or her from understanding what is going on, others respond that Formula 1 is par excellence the sport of complexity and that such regulatory tools serve to build and then ensure competitiveness on the track.
As always, difficult to determine which of the two schools of thought is the correct one. What is certain is that tires and their management, perhaps more than any other detail, are now capable of deciding the fate of a Grand Prix and sometimes a season, and that they remain in the collective imagination one of the most vivid symbols of this incredible sport.