The breakthrough Ferrari must find in the "meaningless" Austin Pirelli tyre test times

Formula 1's second visit to the United States in 2022 began with Ferrari sweeping both sessions at the Circuit of the Americas on Friday. But it was an unusual opening day that offered little in the way of meaningful clues as to what the true pecking order is right now.

The breakthrough Ferrari must find in the "meaningless" Austin Pirelli tyre test times

Ferrari swept the board in practice for Formula 1’s 2022 US Grand Prix on Friday, but unusual circumstances for both sessions meant they provided little insight for form prediction regarding Sunday’s race.

They did, however, give F1 a glimpse of the young talent competing in other categories and also offer the teams a chance to understand a critical factor for the coming 2023 campaign.

Here is what we learned from the opening practice running at Austin.

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari F1-75

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari F1-75

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

The story of the day:

Carlos Sainz was quickest in FP1 – prevailing in an exchange of fastest times with Red Bull’s newly-crowned 2022 world champion Max Verstappen after the one-hour session had been halted early-on due to Antonio Giovinazzi crashing.

The Italian was running at Haas in place of Kevin Magnussen, as the American squad assess him as a potential replacement for Mick Schumacher for 2023. He was joined by four F1 rookies – Logan Sargeant at Williams, Robert Shwartzman at Ferrari, Alex Palou at McLaren and Theo Pourchaire at Alfa Romeo – sent out by those squads to as part of the requirement for all teams to twice run up-and-coming drivers or those lacking F1 experience as part of the new rules for 2022 practice sessions.

Giovinazzi lost the rear end of Magnussen’s car running through the long Turn 5 right hander in the middle of Austin’s thrilling sector one Esses complex, caught out by a gust of wind when not on a push lap.

Although he was able to get going after being initially caught side-on against the barriers, which meant FP1 was red-flagged for four minutes, Giovinazzi could not then remerge from the pits as his car’s clutch had overheated and Haas feared the gearbox was also damaged.

After this, Verstappen forged ahead before Sainz deposed him – with the Red Bull not getting back ahead despite completing two late charges on the soft tyres. Lewis Hamilton slotted the updated Mercedes W13 into third – the team feeling its 2023-focused upgrade produced results that “looks in line with expectations”, per team director of trackside engineering, Andrew Shovlin.

Although the full quota of 2022 F1 drivers took part in FP2 – with Magnussen, Nicholas Latifi, Charles Leclerc, Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas back aboard their usual rides – that session was even more unusual.

This was because it was essentially dedicated to 2023 Pirelli tyre testing on unmarked compounds from the harder end of the manufacturer’s planned range for next year.

Antonio Giovinazzi, Haas VF-22, crashes in FP1

Antonio Giovinazzi, Haas VF-22, crashes in FP1

Photo by: Carl Bingham / Motorsport Images

These are not set to be a wholesale redesign, but rather smaller tweaks – with a key aim of eliminating the understeer in slow-speed corners that has proved unpopular with drivers on the 2022 variety.

But that had to be put to one side initially, as Leclerc, Bottas and Ricciardo used the 35-minutes allocated for drivers that had sat out FP1 to get up to speed at Austin on the usual rubber. This option was eschewed by Haas and Williams, which gave Magnussen and Latifi 2023-tyre-only run plans in FP2.

Ricciardo and Bottas led the way on the 2022 mediums before Leclerc ploughed ahead on the softs. The trio then switched things around, with Leclerc also prevailing on the mediums – his best time a 1m36.810s that edged Sainz’s soft-shod 1m36.857s from FP1 by 0.047s.

Leclerc then conducted a high-fuel run of five laps, also on the medium tyres – during which time Bottas pipped Ricciardo to second in FP2 as they completed fliers on the softs. Bottas’s best time came in 0.715s slower than Leclerc, with Ricciardo 0.102s further back.

The rest had a set run plan to complete from Pirelli over FP2’s course. This would be a total of 26 laps maximum for each car – split into two runs of five laps and two of eight.

The five-lap runs were considered ‘performance’ evaluations, with the drivers told to push hard for three laps either side of their in- and out-laps. These were conducted on fuel loads of 20kg per car, with the longer stints run with tanks filled close to the brim at 100kg fuel total. Set-up adjustments between runs were not permitted.

Sainz led the way with the fastest prototype tyre time of 1m38.232s, followed by Schumacher, Lando Norris, Verstappen and Hamilton. Pierre Gasly and Sergio Perez closed out a top 10 that was in essence meaningless given the differing circumstances of the three leading drivers running the softer 2022 tyres and due to the overarching ‘test’ element of the session.

As such, the two prototype compounds were supposedly given to the drivers ‘blind’, but, as will become clear later on, several knew what tyres they were using.

Two things really stood out in FP2. First was the dramatic slides many drivers had on the prototype rubber, which had the added factor of only being heated to 50°C in the tyre blankets rather than the usual 70°C – which until the end of 2021 was 100°C (front) and 80°C (rear).

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

This foreshadows a rule change coming for 2023 ahead of the plan to drop tyre blankets altogether in 2024.

Fernando Alonso had lurid slides through Turns 1 and 11, while Hamilton and Norris had to catch oversteer snaps through the penultimate corner, which spat them wide onto the exit kerbs and into harsh bounces on their stiff, ground effect rides. Norris also had a wild entry to the pitlane during the early running.

The lower tyre blanket temperatures meant the drivers were sliding particularly badly on out-laps, but after one tour where finding things much more normal. The hot Texan sun – the mercury hit 31°C air and 37°C track during FP2 – will have helped this, but suggests the drivers will really struggle at events staged in cooler climates or seasons next year and beyond.

The other main takeaway was the dull ending to the elongated 90-minute session – with only Leclerc, Bottas and Ricciardo running throughout the final 20 minutes as the rest had finished their 26 laps and pitted in sequence. That trio ended up with higher lap totals because of the running on the 2022 compounds - 37, 37 and 40 laps completed respectively.

The was also confusion regarding DRS use in FP2, with the activation system disabled after 41 minutes by race control following a Pirelli request. It is understood that DRS should’ve been off from the start and so that not being the case may have altered the findings of the 2023 tyre test given expectations were that no teams would use it…

Indeed, the tests are only happening here and in Mexico because, A, the teams are understood to have refused to a Pirelli request for dedicated in-season test days to evaluate the new rubber so late in the campaign to save parts milage. And, B, because the test of the softer 2023 compounds could not take place as planned in Japan due to the wet weather there. That will finally get done next week in Mexico City.

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin AMR22

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin AMR22

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

What they say on the 2023 tyres:

Sebastian Vettel: “[Car balance differences with the 2023 tyres was] a little bit – mostly because we start with lower blankets. The warm-up is quite poor, so it takes quite a while. That was the biggest difference. Then I had the hardest compound, so it was quite slippery and slower.

Max Verstappen: "We knew FP2 was going to be different and I tested the C1 tyre, which probably isn’t the best for this track, it was difficult to get a proper grip on it. But at least we completed the programme.”

Lewis Hamilton: "It’s like a fun experiment to be honest, just to get out there [when] you don’t know what to expect. And there’s always just a different balance, [with] the tyres reacting in different ways each time you go out when you’re trying something new. So, sometimes the front tyres are stronger, and sometimes it could be in the low-speed corners. It could be an initial turn-in or mid-corner. It could be on traction. It could be on high-speed support.

“It’s interesting. As you’re just trying to get into the groove and try and feel what the difference is and try and store what those differences are. When you come in, you have to like jot them all down. And when you’re doing a blind test, you hope that your feeling is right, but you just have to say how you feel.

“You couldn’t just go out and push because the tyres weren’t there [with the lower tyre blanket temperatures]. You just have to build up, build up and build up, and just like trying your luck.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W13

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W13

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

What this means for the rest of the weekend and 2023

FP2 essentially being dedicated to the 2023 tyre testing meant the teams were forced to squeeze qualifying simulation runs and early long-run data gathering into FP1.

This was similar to what they have to do on sprint race weekends, but they can expect more of the same later today in FP3, which at least provides additional time to get set-ups adjusted ahead of qualifying and the race.

FP3 starts at 2pm local time, which is the same as the race on Sunday. This means the teams can gather direct conditions comparisons, with the weather for both forecast to be sunny and reaching 31°C once again. Heavier wind for race day could be a major factor in unsettling cars and therefore increasing tyre wear with the extra sliding.

The teams’ early set-up work had an extra dimension in 2022 as Austin is the bumpiest track so far for the new ground effect cars to sample.

Although most of the first sector and from Turns 12-15 later in the Austin lap has been resurfaced, the low ride heights required to be quick in these machines means the cars are running very low over the remaining bumps and are bottoming out dramatically in places.

Getting things right over the bumps this weekend is considered so crucial that Verstappen, who normally doesn’t bother with pre-practice track walks these days, headed out to complete the 3.42-miles on foot to judge the potential for big impacts for himself.

Alex Palou, McLaren MCL36

Alex Palou, McLaren MCL36

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

An added benefit, he noted wryly, was that it was “also good for me to walk off the steaks I’ve been eating”.

Autosport witnessed wild rides through the Esses for several drivers in FP1.

The Williams cars were struggling in the wind – as they often do due that package’s inherent weakness with gusts – that caught out Giovinazzi. The Mercedes cars were bottoming out hard on the exit of the rapid Turn 4 right, while Schumacher’s Haas was doing likewise entering Turn 3.

The Red Bulls appeared smoother, but Verstappen still had to make a big save seconds before Giovinazzi’s crash at the same spot. He later adjusted his approach accordingly – gliding through Turn 5 without lifting, as Perez and the Ferrari drivers had to do.

Some teams reckoned the trade-off challenge of low-ride versus peak-aero was actually easier than in previous years thanks to the resurfacing. But the challenge remains getting the drivers comfortable to reach the best lap times over a still-tricky. At the same time, Austin’s high-energy, demanding layout means degradation levels witnessed in FP1 were high, and could be worse on Sunday given the predicted higher winds.

The tyre wear factor will of course also critical for eventually running the 2023 tyres in competition. And here we might consider an extra importance for one 2022 title protagonist.

This is Ferrari, which was undone in its battle against Red Bull in a large part due to its tyre wear weakness at many races in 2022.

This has been a particularly one-sided fight since Hungary and Sainz said in the pre-event press conference at Austin that sampling the 2023 prototypes was “going to be a key part of understanding where we’re lacking on tyre management for next year, to try and improve”.

Now it has extra data to see how the tweaked compounds altered the handling balance on the F1-75 with a direct comparison to FP1, the Scuderia will need to interpret this correctly if it is to finally cure what is really a historic weakness of recent campaigns.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB18

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB18

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

What they say on the car form looking to Sunday:

Sergio Perez: “I think we have a bit of balance [work to do] with the high speed versus the low speed. We need to improve a bit the balance to be able to improve degradation and then everything will come together.”

Verstappen: “We should be alright, but let’s see [in FP3] first of all how we are over one lap. I think the long run is a little bit more of a question mark, just because we all missed FP2.”

Charles Leclerc: “It was a positive day overall, the feeling in the car was good from the start.”

George Russell: "I think Aston Martin were very fast in FP1. If there’s anything we can learn from that, then maybe that gives us a small direction. Red Bull didn’t look as fast as they normally are, [so] we might try and learn if they did something different that was probably hindering their performance. You’ve always got to keep your eyes open."

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari F1-75

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari F1-75

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

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