For the first time in 2011, Formula 1 will have a true control tyre. Bridgestone was the only supplier in the paddock from 2007 to 2010, but the Japanese company's technology was a carry-over from the ferocious tyre wars that raged with Michelin from 2001-2006.
Pirelli, by contrast, started with a clean slate and a very clear set of objectives - to create tyres that enhanced the racing. In Abu Dhabi last week, teams and drivers had their first opportunity to evaluate what Pirelli has come up with ahead of its return to the sport next year.
The Italian company, which last raced in F1 in 1991 with Benetton, Tyrrell, Scuderia Italia and Brabham, didn't get confirmation that it had landed the tyre supply deal until June. Granted, work was already underway on the tyre design, but even so it's an astonishingly short lead time. On 17 August, Nick Heidfeld took to the track at Mugello to run the tyres on an F1 car for the first time, giving Pirelli just under three months to be ready for the Abu Dhabi test.
When the 12 teams finally got their hands on the rubber for the first time, the feedback was positive. Okay, some complained about the balance of the tyres and the resulting oversteer, some moaned about degradation of the medium (prime) compound and a few pointed out that the Pirellis appear to be a couple of seconds slower, but not one driver even tacitly suggested that what Pirelli had produced was substandard. In fact, the way the Bridgestones behaved wasn't so very different from the Bridgestones. Renault driver Robert Kubica's response was typical.
"All in all, expectations were not really high because it was not easy for Pirelli," says the Renault driver. "They did tests with the Toyota, but it's never easy to build tyres for F1 cars, which are really demanding on the tyres, so we can be quite happy about what we have seen."
Most - but not all - reckoned that the front tyre was stronger, which came in response to calls from the teams to ensure that was the case. This followed the reduction in width of the front tyres from 265s to 245s for 2010 and although it's possible that the rears will be made slightly grippier before next season, the stronger front will remain.
Pedro de la Rosa carried out much of the early development work
None of the feedback came as a surprise to Pirelli, but it was certainly a relief that the development direction set upon using the 2009 Toyota TF109 test hack had not sent them down the wrong path. In effect, the test validated its progress to date.
"It exactly ties in with what we experienced in the last few weeks of testing," says Pedro de la Rosa, who succeeded Heidfeld as Pirelli's test driver. "It's reassuring because we know the weak spots that we have to improve and the Abu Dhabi test has shown us that we are moving in the right direction.
"It was especially important to test in Abu Dhabi because of the track temperature difference. This is the first time that we have tested at higher temperatures with the latest tyre and we did not know 100 per cent that it was going to react the same, but it has.
"It has reassured us that the work we have done is moving in the right direction. The tyre is technically good and we still have the Bahrain test, where based on these results Pirelli will refine the compounds. After that, it's up to the teams to decide what they want."
That Bahrain test takes place on December 13-16, with de la Rosa getting back behind the wheel of the Toyota. By then, it is hoped that the tyre compounds will be close to the ones that will be used in F1 next year.
"We have some additional tuning to do and the compounds have to be reset for all of the different circuits," says Pirelli research and development boss Maurizio Boiocchi. "We have to rebalance the stiffness of the tyres front and rear a little to improve the characteristics, but the test was fantastic. We are not too far from the final package."
To understand what Pirelli is trying to achieve in finalising a control tyre as opposed to merely supplying the best possible rubber, pay close attention to de la Rosa's point about it being down to the teams to decide what they want. In fact, Pirelli has already had a fair bit of advice about the kind of tyre that is needed to improve the show.
Over the course of the 2010 season, a clear strategic pattern emerged. For the most part, the cars started on options, particularly those in the top 10, then stopped somewhere around the lap 15 mark depending on when the gaps in traffic opened up before running to the end on primes. Only in the Canadian Grand Prix did tyre strategy vary across the board, with two stops the norm.
Montreal 2010 was a model for how aggressive tyres can create great racing © LAT
What happened in Montreal is now hailed as tyre nirvana - but although Pirelli is on the right track to deliver the tyres to render that kind of race as the rule, rather than the exception, motorsport director Paul Hembery is honest enough to admit that it might take time.
"The problem is that, at the moment, they make one change and that's it," says Hembery. "The request from Bernie Ecclestone and the teams - although it depends on who you speak to because the technical directors might have a different opinion to the team principals - is that they would like to see a two-stop strategy.
"There are no longer any fuel stops, so we don't want a procession. From our point of view, two pitstops would be ideal, but that means a very aggressive approach. That will come with time, when we know what the circuits are about and how the tyres are being used on the 2011 chassis. Two stops would make strategy more complicated and add more to the show.
"Canada is the only example recently where they have had to manage the tyres, which from the public's point of view was very interesting. How to stage-manage that for every event is another challenge for the sport and we have to work with the teams to get to that level."
For 2010, it's also important to bear in mind that the tyre regulations remain the same. Four compounds - super soft, soft, medium and hard - will be selected pre-season (although Pirelli has the opportunity to try alternative compounds in Friday practice should tweaks be needed) with two allocated for each event. Within that framework, used by Bridgestone, there is little margin for strategies for diverge. Because of this, Pirelli is going to look at changes in the future.
"We haven't really looked too far forward," says Hembery. "There is the potential to change the regulations to allow a lot more strategy. We've not discussed this, so from my own perspective there are solutions - you could have more compounds, or you could set groups of races where you have four different compounds and you have to choose your tyres for each event from those four knowing that you can't have as much of one compound as you want. Then you have to decide which races you want to be optimal.
"There are different ways to approach it, so it's not an ideal situation. But that's something that we need to work at with the teams."
As for the teams, their job is simple - to make sure that their 2011 cars suit the new Pirellis. With the rubber used in Abu Dhabi not so far off what will be used for pre-season testing and the front/rear balance likely to mean that the prevailing characteristics will be of oversteer, rather than the understeer tendency of the Bridgestones, they will already have a decent idea of what needs to be done.
While some clearly revelled in the tyres - Kamui Kobayashi, Felipe Massa and Rubens Barrichello for example - it's down to the teams and drivers to adapt. The best will do so. Michael Schumacher, who was positive after his first day in the Mercedes on Pirelli rubber, hit the nail on the head with his comments. All year, the team has blamed a weak front tyre for Schumacher's struggle in particular as an attempt to get front end to bite better simply saturated the Bridgestones, but it's easy to forget that the tyre is only part of the equation.
Michael Schumacher ponders the Pirellis © Sutton
"Whether [or not] you can say the front tyre is now stronger and that's going to suit my style, what is very important is how next year's car is going to suit these tyres," says the German. "That's very important.
"But for the first step, from what we have seen here, I feel positive about the tyres."
And therein lies the key - the teams must adapt their cars to the new Pirelli rubber after at least four years running Bridgestones. Early next season, there will inevitably be complaints from the strugglers, but be in no doubt that Pirelli is certain to produce worthy F1 tyres. In Abu Dhabi, we had a glimpse of just what is in store for the 2011 season, and with improving the show top of the agenda and a tendency towards oversteer, it is only good news for the fans of the sport.
It might not be until 2012 that we start to see the behaviour Pirellis really shaping the course of a grand prix strategically to the extent that is hoped for, but just a few months into the programme it is already on the right track. And next time you hear a team or driver moaning about the tyres, remember that it's the same for everyone...
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