Silvestone: an extreme test for the tyres

Silverstone: an extreme test for the tyres

History bears this out: the Formula 1 World Championship was born in Silverstone in 1950 and there has been a British round run with clockwork regularity ever since. From a sporting point of view, it’s equally significant: in the 67 races that have been held up to now in England, the winner has gone on to claim the championship on no fewer than 27 occasions. So, it’s worth keeping an eye on the race about to take place this weekend: Lewis Hamilton has won there four times and on three of those occasions (2008, 2014 and 2015) the title was his at the end of the year. Vettel has won there once, in 2009, and didn’t go on to win the title that year – although he stood on the verge of that extraordinary sequence of four consecutive titles from 2010-2013. 

Already on Saturday 13 March 1950, the official beginning of Formula 1 as a world championship, Silverstone represented the ultimate symbol of speed. There are many enduring memories of that day: the drivers lined up in front of the future Queen Elizabeth; proud looks and ceremonies captured in black and white photographs conveying the tangible relief that the nightmare of the Second World War, which had concluded only five years earlier, was finally well and truly over. Back then, Silverstone wasn’t really even a circuit: instead a loop using interconnected runways om an old RAF base. On those flat-out straights, connected by rapid corners, the average lap speeds were record-breaking even back in the day. Once the 1980s came along, with its mad rush of unfettered turbos, the speeds became truly mind-boggling. Foot flat to the floor and no real braking: instead everything was down to the driver’s skill, bravery and resistance to g-force. The winner of that first British Grand Prix in 1950 was Alfa Romeo’s Luigi Farina, who would also go on to become the first champion of the modern era of Formula 1 as we know it. The tyres were Pirelli, completing an all-Italian line-up of success.

Today, the British track is something else entirely. With the arrival of more corners and chicanes, it can now be defined as a medium to high-speed circuit. In 2016, for instance, Lewis Hamilton’s Silverstone pole position was set at an average speed of 237.5kph. Last Sunday, on the green rollercoaster of the Red Bull Ring in Austria, Valtteri Bottas was fastest in qualifying at an average speed of more than 241kph. At Spa-Francorchamps, the home of the Belgian Grand Prix, we can expect to see average speeds that are even higher. But at Silverstone there are still some corners that are truly on the limit. There, lateral loads will be important – with heavy demands on the cars, the drivers’ necks and of course the tyres.

That’s why Silverstone represents an important test for Pirelli’s 2017 tyres. Thanks to the increased downforce provided for in the current regulations, as well as the bigger footprint thanks to tyres that are 25% wider than a year ago, the cars will be extremely quick around the corners. Those corners in Silverstone are completely lacking in elevation, with the track betraying its airfield origins. So, the drivers can let the cars go, exploring the fine line between the limit of adhesion and a trip into the scenery. There’s one aspect to this year’s P Zero Formula 1 tyres that the drivers are particularly pleased about: they can push to the limit whenever they like, going right to the edge when it comes to braking and cornering. This was much in evidence last Sunday in Austria, with the supersoft and ultrasoft tyres sometimes affected by blistering towards the end of the stints, but still able to push to the limit in a fight for the podium that came down to the very last corner. Silverstone could be a similar story, with the supersoft – a guarantee of high performance both in qualifying and the race – making its debut on the historic British track.

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