How Imola tyre trial could offer path to better racing in F1

With drivers forced to use the hard (Q1), medium (Q2) and soft (Q3) compounds in the three sessions on Saturday, rather than having complete free choice, it could serve to shake things up in terms of the fight for grid positions. 

However, perhaps the biggest impact of the way the new tyre experiment works may be felt on Sunday, as it could produce an interesting case study about one way of making the racing more exciting in F1. 

In a season where the spectacle has suffered from predictable one-stop strategies, the trial could actually help open the door for two-stops to be back on the table in the future. 

Improving the show 

The reasons for the racing not being as good this year as it has been in the past are wide and varied, and no single factor has caused it. 

Increased outwash of the cars and higher downforce being generated, shorter DRS zones limiting overtaking opportunities plus the preference for one-stop races have all whipped up a perfect storm in a season where one team is totally dominant. 

With car designs now set for the season, the only variability throughout the campaign that could shake things up from now on are Pirelli’s tyre compound choices. Softer rubber means a higher chance of multi-stop races. 

However, Pirelli also has to be careful in not pushing things too extreme and turning grands prix into three or four-stop races, which equally can be unpopular as they end up being chaotic affairs that are hard for fans to follow. 

Teams will have to use the three different compounds of Pirelli tyres in qualifying at Imola

Teams will have to use the three different compounds of Pirelli tyres in qualifying at Imola

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Also, tyres that degrade too fast prove to be unpopular with drivers and teams as they force them to take things too easy, rather than feeling that they can push hard on more consistent rubber. 

What has always been difficult is pushing teams towards a two-stop strategy rather than automatically favouring the one-stop. Time loss in the pits, the risks of getting dropped into traffic when overtaking is difficult, and not having enough of the right compounds available, are all factors that contribute to teams taking the conservative route. 

Pirelli’s head of car racing Mario Isola says that turning races into two-stop strategy affairs goes far beyond just making tyres degrade more. 

“What we have learned in previous years is that if we go too soft or too aggressive, there is a general tendency to manage the pace in order to have a one-stop race,” he told Autosport. 

“But one important element is how difficult it is to overtake. You can take the risk to go back into traffic if you know you can overtake. But if you cannot overtake, then you don’t take the risk, you stay in front and you protect the position.  

“So, I believe that only by [looking at changing] the tyres, we will not be in a position to find the proper solution, and we will continue to go in a circle with higher degradation, then lower degradation, then higher degradation, and then lower degradation. That is not making anybody happy.” 

Forcing the issue not an answer 

One suggestion that has cropped up in a bid to encourage more two-stop races is to make them mandatory. Just as one-stops are the minimum now because drivers have to use two different types of tyre compounds, so a two-stop race could be forced on teams by making them run the soft, medium and hard in the race. 

The switch makes plenty of sense and should in theory throw up the possibility of strategy variety, as teams would have to pick the right moment to run on the tyre that is not good for the race – either the soft because it degrades so much, or the hard because it is not competitive. 

But Isola has poured cold water on the idea of this working. He says discussions about imposing this very rule have taken place in the past – and concluded that it would not succeed in delivering a better show with more variety.

More pitstops won't automatically mean better racing, according to Isola

More pitstops won’t automatically mean better racing, according to Isola

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

“We made some analysis on that together with the sporting directors many years ago,” he said. “We ended up with the conclusion that the more you make new constraints, then the more teams will come to the same strategy.  

“So, if you give them the constraint to use all three compounds, probably at the beginning they will have different strategies, because they have to adapt to the new situation.  

“But in the end, they will eventually choose the same. So, we will have the same pitstop times, the same choices and so on. We have to accept that.” 

For Isola it is important not to force teams into running a set number of stops, but instead having a strategy option where it makes sense to be more aggressive on pure competitive grounds. The two-stop has to be at least equal to the one-stop on the stopwatch. 

“We can try to encourage different strategies, but at the end that there is one that is the quickest,” added Isola. 

This very possibility of giving teams an alternative route to the chequered flag is what could emerge from the new tyre allocation that is being tried for the first time in Imola. 

New rule test 

The Imola trial is taking place to help F1 and tyre supplier Pirelli better understand the impact of a more sustainable approach to F1 weekends, with the aim being fewer wasted sets on Sunday night. 

The normal allocation of 13 sets per race weekend is being reduced to 11, with a clear shift in the numbers of each compound available. 

At normal weekends, the 13 sets are divided into eight softs, three mediums and two hards. For the Imola trial (and the other venues where the experiment will take place), the 11 sets are split as four softs, four mediums and three hards. 

Will the experiment yield improved racing at Imola?

Will the experiment yield improved racing at Imola?

Photo by: Erik Junius

Forcing drivers to use the hard in Q1 and the medium in Q2 will mean a very different approach to qualifying, but the consequence could well be seen more in Sunday’s race. 

That is because the way the tyres are allocated over the weekend means that drivers should now end up in the race with at least two sets of hards and two sets of mediums. 

Up until now, more often than not, drivers end up with either one medium or one hard for the race – and sometimes just those two tyres alone.  

With the soft rarely good enough for a race stint, it has meant that teams are automatically pushed towards a conservative one-stop strategy that rarely provides great entertainment. 

The change in allocation for Imola, and the fact there should be at least two sets of hard and medium available, has allowed Pirelli to be more aggressive with its tyre choice for the Imola weekend – safe in the knowledge that teams are not going to run out of rubber on Sunday. 

For this year’s Emilia Romagna GP, Pirelli has opted to go one step softer than last year, having picked the softest allocation possible. 

As Isola explained: “We need to find a way not to end up at the race with one set of medium, and one set of hard, as they [the teams] keep all the softs for qualifying and they are useless for the race. So, thanks to this [new allocation] approach, we decided to move one step softer at Imola.  

“The original allocation was C2, C3, and C4, but now it is C3, C4 and C5. With the alternative tyre allocation, all the teams will have two sets of hards, two sets of medium and two sets of soft for the race.  

“So, we can go one step softer, and even if that increases the number of stops, they have enough tyres.  

Mario Isola, Racing Manager, Pirelli Motorsport

Mario Isola, Racing Manager, Pirelli Motorsport

Photo by: Alexander Trienitz / Motorsport Images

“With the current system, I don’t want to say it’s risky, because it’s just they have to do more pit stops, but if they come to the race with only one set of hard, one set to medium, and all the rest is soft, and the soft is too soft, it’s not ideal for the race. Then we have a situation that is not natural and not what we want.” 

How Imola plays out is hard to predict right now, and could yet be derailed by bad weather throwing a curveball in to the tyre choices. But Isola thinks that F1 is on the right path in allowing such trials to take place so everyone can better understand what works and what doesn’t. 

And even if Imola does not throw up a two-stop thriller, the other event that will run similar allocations later in the year (potentially the Hungarian GP) should help provide a clearer picture. 

As Isola said: “If things work, we keep them, if it doesn’t work, we come back to the previous one. The approach is the right one because unfortunately, even if you try to predict any possible detail, there is always something that is not predictable.” 

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