In the technologically advanced, adrenaline-driven sport of Formula 1, the four pieces of specially-crafted rubber known as tyres often don’t get the attention they deserve. These components, however, play a pivotal role in the sport’s evolution and often hold the keys to a team’s success or failure in a race. This article takes a comprehensive look at the rich history of Formula 1 tyres, tracing their evolution from the sport’s earliest days to the complex compounds and strategies of the 2023 season.
The Early Days of F1 Tyres
Formula 1 was officially established in 1950, marking the beginning of a new era in auto racing. Tyres in these early years were not much different from those found on ordinary road cars. The most common type used were treaded tyres, similar to those used on road vehicles of the era. With these tyres, the primary focus was on durability rather than outright performance.
Manufacturers such as Dunlop, Continental, Firestone, and Goodyear were the main suppliers during this period. Their tyres were made from a combination of natural and synthetic rubber, providing the necessary toughness and endurance for the high-speed rigours of Formula 1 racing.
The Introduction of Slick Tyres
As the sport evolved, so did the technology. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new type of tyre emerged on the F1 scene: the slick tyre. Unlike their treaded predecessors, slicks had a smooth, treadless surface. This feature increased the contact patch with the road surface, offering improved grip and, consequently, higher cornering speeds.
The shift to slick tyres brought about significant changes in racing strategies and car design. Teams now had to consider tyre wear in their strategies, as the increased grip offered by slicks also led to quicker degradation.
The Tyre Wars
The late 1970s to the early 2000s saw what came to be known as the “Tyre Wars.” Multiple manufacturers such as Michelin, Goodyear, and Bridgestone supplied teams during this period, leading to intense competition. Each supplier was constantly innovating, aiming to create the fastest and most durable tyre. The result was rapid advancements in tyre technology.
During the Tyre Wars, the designs became more specialized, with different tyre compounds for varying weather conditions and track types. Rain tyres with deep treads were introduced for wet weather, and manufacturers began creating a range of slicks with different hardness levels for dry conditions.
The Grooved Tyre Era
In 1998, in an attempt to curb the increasing speeds and improve safety, the FIA introduced new regulations requiring the use of grooved tyres. These tyres, which featured three or four grooves on the surface, were intended to reduce grip and thus lower cornering speeds.
The grooved tyre era was not popular among teams and drivers, as the reduction in grip led to less exciting races. Many felt that the regulations were counterproductive, as teams were forced to push the boundaries of aerodynamics and other technologies to compensate for the lost grip.
The Sole Supplier Era
The landscape of F1 tyres underwent another major shift in 2007 when the FIA decided to appoint a single tyre supplier. Bridgestone was the first to be awarded this contract, which lasted until 2010.
In 2011, Italian company Pirelli took over the role. The move was designed to level the playing field, preventing any team from gaining an advantage due to a better tyre supply. It also allowed the FIA to have greater control over tyre performance, which was seen as a critical factor in improving the spectacle of the sport.
The Pirelli Era and the Introduction of Degradation
When Pirelli took over in 2011, they were given a specific mandate: to make races more exciting. To do this, they introduced a new element to tyre design — high degradation.
The tyres were designed to wear out quickly, forcing teams to make more pit stops and adding another strategic element to the races. Pirelli also introduced a wider range of compounds — from ultra-soft to hard — and a rule requiring teams to use at least two different compounds in each race.
However, this new approach was not without controversy. Critics argued that the high degradation rates made races more about tyre management than outright racing. Nonetheless, this approach added a new strategic dimension to the sport and produced several memorable races.
The Present Day: Larger Rims and More Durable Tyres
In 2022, a significant change occurred: the switch from 13-inch wheels to larger, 18-inch rims. This change affected tyre design significantly as the new, lower-profile tyres had less sidewall flex, placing more emphasis on the car’s suspension.
For the 2023 season, Pirelli introduced an evolution of the previous year’s tyres. After feedback from teams about reduced grip at low speed, particularly on the front tyres, Pirelli made adjustments for improved performance. The allocation for every driver in 2023 includes eight sets of soft tyres, three sets of mediums, and two sets of hards, adding further strategic elements to races.
From basic treaded tyres to the advanced compounds used today, the evolution of Formula 1 tyres mirrors the sport’s continuous quest for speed, safety, and excitement. As we move forward, we can expect further innovations in tyre technology, adding more layers of strategy to the thrilling spectacle that is Formula 1.