The latest news is all about the allocation of compounds that the drivers will have at their disposal for the first few rounds of the championship. The current procedure is tried and trusted: of the 13 sets that each driver has available for every race, 10 are chosen in advance by the team and three are chosen by Pirelli. The number of sets of each compound varies not only from team to team but also from driver to driver within the same team – and that often helps to spice up the action. But at the very start of next year, it’s not going to be exactly like that. The FIA World Council, which met during the week before the Malaysian Grand Prix, announced that for the first five races of 2017 each driver will have exactly the same tyre allocation: namely two sets of the hardest compound available, four sets of the medium compound available and seven sets of the softest compound available. The overall scheme here actually mirrors the pattern of what is generally happening even when the teams can choose, although recently we’ve seen drivers pick up to eight or nine sets of the softest tyres: largely because these are mostly used in practice and especially qualifying, before almost always being used in the race as well. Yet this free choice is going to be replaced by an obligatory allocation for these five races. How come?
The answer is quite simple. The first five grands prix of 2017 (from Australia on March 26 to Spain on May 14) will take place too close to the date when the teams will have to choose their tyres for each race, according the current regulations. Specifically, tyres have to be chosen 14 weeks before the race for a flyaway round and eight weeks before the race for a European weekend. With pre-season testing provisionally pencilled in for February or March (although no dates have been officially announced) the choices for the first four grands prix – Australia, China, Bahrain and Russia – would have to be made at some point between mid-December 2016 and mid-January 2017: in other words before the teams will even have had a chance to test the new wider tyres in their definitive specification. The same is basically true of the Spanish Grand Prix, for which the tyres would have to be chosen by mid-March: straight after the tests, with little chance to analyse the data collected.
From a technical point of view of course, Formula 1® is heading in a brand new direction. The idea is to have cars that are approximately five seconds per lap faster than they were in 2015. This year the cars are already around two seconds a lap faster than they were last year, so the progress needed is ‘just’ another three seconds per lap to hit the target. But many experts reckon that the cars will be even quicker than that. This is thanks to new regulations that will bring in an aerodynamic downforce increase of 20% compared to current levels. The result is faster cornering speeds, more downforce acting on the car, and bigger lateral forces. All this clearly requires more support from the tyres – and that’s why Pirelli is introducing wider rubber next year. The front tyres will go from the current 245mm width up to 305mm, while the rear tyres grow from 325mm to 405mm. In total, this means the tyres are 25% wider.
Formula 1® normally measures evolutions in tenths of a millimetre, while a 100-gram saving is actually worth far more than its weight in gold. So these are enormous leaps; which Pirelli has been undertaking since August with three teams (Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull) via a dedicated tyre test programme that will conclude in Abu Dhabi on 29 November: two days after the final grand prix of the season. But this doesn’t mean that the work is finished then. A busy winter of analysis, optimisation and refinement will take place, aiming to define the final specification that will take to the track at the first official test around three months later. It’s a huge amount of work. But the truth, as always, will be seen in the stopwatch.