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Analysis

Pirelli’s race to improve the tyres Hamilton called “dangerous”

Will Formula 1 run as originally planned without tyre blankets in 2024, or will the move branded “dangerous” by Lewis Hamilton be postponed or even dropped?

Sir Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14

A decision on next year will be made in July, and in the interim Pirelli has to develop and test tyres that the drivers, teams and the FIA are satisfied with. It’s not only a race against the clock, but it will have to be done with limited track running.

Pirelli has just three slick test sessions with which to meet its target. A selection of teams will run for two days in Bahrain next week and again over two days following both the Spanish and British GPs, after which the call on 2024 will be made.

Pirelli has been working towards a blanket ban for some time, largely for laudable sustainability reasons – it will mean less electricity will be consumed by teams at the track, and blankets won’t have to be flown around the world, which represents a cost saving.

“The idea to remove blankets is something that we discussed years ago,” says Pirelli F1 boss Mario Isola. “And it is a common target - which means FIA, F1, teams, Pirelli, promoters - to achieve carbon neutrality for 2030.

“Any step to make our sport more sustainable is important. One of these steps is to remove blankets to avoid using electricity to warm up the tyre before usage.”

In recent years there has already been a move in the right direction thanks to lower temperatures and shorter storage times – Isola suggests that heating F1 tyres in 2022 consumed half the power used a decade earlier.

The next step is a full ban, which was originally outlined in next year’s FIA regulations. However, after the recent meeting of the F1 Commission the rule was changed, so the current default position is that blankets will be retained.

Pirelli technicians in the pit lane

Pirelli technicians in the pit lane

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

It was agreed that after further testing a vote would take place in July. If F1 and the FIA both support the move, only five teams will have to agree, a process put in place so that one or two teams can’t block the change on opportunistic grounds.

That decision is in respect of an overall ban that covers slicks and intermediates. The same meeting agreed to make a special case for full wets. In essence Pirelli’s testing of those has been so successful that the Italian company wanted to introduce them within this season. They will be used from round six in Imola onwards.

“We tested before the Christmas break some wet weather tyres,” says Isola. “That was also our priority because last year drivers were not happy about wet weather tyres. We found a new compound that is able to work without blankets.

“We made a comparison with the old tyre with blankets, in cold conditions, because in December we didn't have warm conditions. And we tested in Paul Ricard, Fiorano and Portimao.

“And in all the three different circuits, with three different teams and five different drivers, the comments were positive - better warm-up and better performance.”

The next step for Pirelli is to create intermediates and slicks that will allow drivers to push hard straight out of the pits without being pre-heated, but that hasn’t been the case so far, because both cases are far more complex and challenging than the wets.

What happens with the current prototype slicks is a little like pitting for dry tyres too early and slithering around on a damp track for a couple of laps until they come in and work at their optimum. That slow warm-up has a big impact on strategy options and hence how races work, but for the drivers the main concern is safety.

Hamilton is one of the few who has tried the latest iteration of the slick, having run alongside George Russell at both Jerez and Paul Ricard earlier this year. He wasn’t happy with how it performed.

“I think it’s dangerous,” he said, when asked by Autosport about the new tyres. “I’ve tested the no blankets, and there is going to be an incident at some stage. So, from a safety factor I think it is the wrong decision.

Sir Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, wrapped in a tyre blanket

Sir Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, wrapped in a tyre blanket

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

“You have to drive multiple laps to get the tyres to work. The whole argument is that taking away the blankets is going more sustainable and more green, but in actual fact we just use more fuel to get the temperature into the tyres.

“More of a concern is when you go out: you are skating around and it is very twitchy. If someone else is on tyres that are working, you can easily collide with them. So it is a pointless exercise.”

“I still don't understand why F1 is moving away from blankets,” added Carlos Sainz. “Because for me it makes no sense. You're burning more fuel to warm up the tyres.

“I just don't understand the philosophy but also putting the drivers at risks with these lower ride height cars, but it's the direction F1, the FIA and Pirelli have decided to take, so we need to adapt."

Sainz acknowledged that the new wet should do the job: “The only one I tested with no blankets was the wet, so I can only give my opinion on that. It feels like it should be okay. If anything, they were faster than the normal wets.”

A driver of Hamilton’s stature using the word “dangerous” in relation to tyres is a PR man’s nightmare, but in F1 such situations come with the territory, and all Isola can do is supply some context.

“Lewis tested the tyres in Paul Ricard beginning of February,” says the Italian. “It was quite cold in that period. And clearly, we tested some tyres that are not in their final shape or are not the final version of the tyres that we want to homologate without blankets.

“I understand the comment, because also consider that the drivers are used to exiting the pitlane and to drive a car with tyres that are able to generate more or less the grip that that they have when they stabilise. So it's a completely different approach also for them.

“I understand the point that if in the out-lap one car is, I don't know, 10 seconds slower than another car, this is creating a speed differential that must be considered. I believe that Lewis's comment was also related to this. And it's a fair comment.”

Like Sainz, those who have tried the wets that will be run this year are happy with them, but that’s just the first box ticked for Pirelli.

“The next step is I hope we are successful this year to find an intermediate tyre that is able to work without the blankets,” says Isola. “And at the same time, we have a development plan for slick tyres. We have asked for few days more than usual to develop these new tyres without blankets to achieve the target to remove the blankets in 2024.

McLaren Pirelli tyres and wheels

McLaren Pirelli tyres and wheels

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

“So it's a long journey. It's just the first step. It's a big technical challenge because we have to redesign completely their construction and all the compounds.”

That’s a very important point – Pirelli has a range of six compounds these days, and they will all have to work without blankets, but it’s the construction that Isola sees as the bigger challenge.

“When you start with the tyres that are cold, we can drop a little bit of pressure, but not too much," he says.

“Because when they exit the pitlane, they push immediately on the tyres. So we need to be 100% sure that the construction is able to resist to this stress at a low pressure.

“That means we are designing a new construction able to resist more at low pressure, and then the delta pressure from cold to hot will be 9/10psi, maybe more. So you can imagine which is the impact on the construction and the change of profile, pressure distribution under the footprint, temperature distribution and so on.

“We need to be sure that we have a good warm-up, we need to be sure that we don't have too much overheating when the temperature stabilises. So we need to redesign all the compounds in the range. It's a lot of work behind designing tyres that are able to work without blankets.”

Of course many championships around the world operate without them, including some where Pirelli is the supplier. Isola is well aware that such comparisons are often made.

“One question that I had a lot of times is you supply F2 without blankets, so what is the difference with F1,” he says. “The difference is 10 seconds per lap. So that means that if you translate that into the energy that an F1 car is able to put into the tyres, it's a different world.”

As noted earlier a key consideration is the impact on strategy, because a slow warm-up will discourage teams from making multiple stops. Isola stresses that it will be a factor when the FIA, F1 and the teams debate the subject in July.

Mario Isola, Racing Manager, Pirelli Motorsport

Mario Isola, Racing Manager, Pirelli Motorsport

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

“We will decide altogether if we are at the right level, or if we need more time to develop a tyre able to work without blankets and without affecting the show,” he says. “Because another important thing that we have to consider is that last year we had a fantastic championship.

“We had a lot of action, we had a lot of different strategies, we had a mix of one-stop, two-stops, that is exactly what spectators want to see. We don't want to change this situation.

“That means that we want to provide a tyre able to work without blankets but with the same characteristics as the current tyres. This is an additional level of difficulty.”

It’s important to note that the tyres to be tested after the British GP won’t be the final versions, so July’s decision to stick or twist can only be made with the information available at the time.

If blankets are indeed gone then there are further sessions scheduled with various teams after the Belgian and Italian GPs, and then all drivers will try prototypes on Friday at the Japanese and Mexican events.

That will be the first time in decades that F1 cars have run on a race weekend without blankets.

The teams that are doing the testing could have the advantage of knowing that blankets are definitely gone and that the tyres are getting closer to their final spec, making that running very valuable for them.

It’s not clear what will happen if it’s a “no” to blankets for 2024. Will those later tests continue the blanket programme with a view to 2025, or will Pirelli switch its focus to honing the current slicks for 2024?

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Teams are open-minded about the blanket saga. The general view is that they are happy for them to be dropped – after all there will be a useful saving on annual freight costs – but the new tyres will have to do the job.

"I think what we ought to do is make sure that they're completely to the right standard before we ban tyre blankets,” says Alpine’s Otmar Szafnauer.

“Let's see where we go. I hear Pirelli have done a good job on the wet weather tyres without needing blankets, so that's great. But before we ban them, we all have them, they all exist, they're all purchased, you don't save any money.

“So you might save a little shipping cost. But they're not that heavy. So I think we should be using them until a time where we're all happy that without them it'll be safe and good.”

Pirelli tyres allocated to Red Bull are sorted into blankets in the paddock

Pirelli tyres allocated to Red Bull are sorted into blankets in the paddock

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

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