As much as Formula 1 is a sprint to see who can cross the finish line first, endurance also plays a massive role in a Grand Prix. Aside from the physical endurance the drivers must have, they must also be able to get their cars to the end of the race, and this involves tire management.
F1 drivers manage their tires by driving as smoothly as possible, reducing their aggression in the corners and under acceleration. It’s a balancing act between maintaining a fast race pace while not using up too much of the tires’ grip too soon, to ensure they last until the end of the stint/race.
There are a lot of factors that influence tire wear in F1. These are important to consider as teams and drivers often calculate the life of their tires as precisely as possible to ensure they’re running the best race strategy. Below, we consider tire management in more detail.
What Is Tire Management In F1?
Tire management in F1 involves driving the car in a such a way as to balance tire wear with race performance. Some drivers are exceptionally good at it and it means that they can make their tires last much longer than others. This is a skill that is really important for an F1 driver to have.
Being able to manage your tires in Formula 1 is not easy. Many of the younger drivers struggle to make their tires last longer, and the more experienced the driver is, the better they are usually able to manage their tires. Drivers learn how to drive their cars more smoothly while keeping their speed up over time as they grow more confident in the car.
Tire management has always been important in Formula 1 to an extent. However, ever since Pirelli became the exclusive tire partner for F1 in 2011, tire management became even more important. Pirelli uses softer compounds of slick rubber than its predecessors, which become hotter and begin to wear out much faster than the harder (and sometimes grooved) tires of previous F1 seasons.
Why Is It Important For Drivers To Manage Their Tires?
Tire management, as a skill, is one of the most important factors that Formula 1 teams consider in their driver lineup. A driver that is able to manage their tires properly has a lot of advantages that the team can make use of.
For example, if a driver is able to make their tires last longer than others, it opens up more strategic avenues for the team. Having the ability to push a stint on one tire for longer without having to pit is always helpful in being as flexible as possible with their pit strategy.
A driver who is able to save their tires will also have to pit less often, which will give them an advantage in the race. On top of that, some drivers could also preserve their tire life early on, in order to go faster towards the end of the race when other drivers begin to struggle with the tires that they are on.
Tire management therefore plays a key role in the strategic planning of F1 teams and drivers. But what kinds of things affect tire wear and tire management in F1?
How Does Tire Wear Work In F1?
Modern day Pirelli tires are made out of varying soft rubber compounds that heat up quickly due to the friction between the surface of the tires and the tarmac. The most tire wear happens when the car is turning, as the surface of the tire slides across the tarmac, causing more friction and an increase in the tire temperatures.
When the tires reach their optimum temperatures, they will offer the most grip as they are effectively “stickier.” However, this will also cause the tires to wear out faster as the stickier tires will be offering more grip and higher cornering speeds, ultimately making them work harder.
As the tires are used up, layers of rubber will be scraped off the tires. We often see this towards the end of the race when the marbles are thrown to the sides of the circuit. Eventually, when the layers of rubber are too worn out, the tires will either lose all their grip or they will fail altogether in the form of a puncture.
There are a few factors that influence how fast the tires will wear throughout the race. These are the main elements that teams use to determine how long their tires will last throughout the course of the Grand Prix, and to estimate their pit stop strategies.
One of the most important factors when discussing tire management is the condition of the track. Each track is different, not only in terms of its layout, but also in terms of the tarmac that is used to build the track. This makes a big difference in how quickly the tires wear out.
Some racetracks use more abrasive tarmac to build their circuits. There are two main influences that abrasive circuits have on the tires of a Formula 1 car. Firstly, it will offer them more grip, as the abrasive tarmac gives the car more traction by preventing the tires from “slipping” as much.
However, this will also cause the tires to wear out much faster than usual. If the tarmac is smoother, as we often see at newly resurfaced tracks, the level of tire wear may be lower, but the oils that seep out of the asphalt often make the circuit more slippery, reducing the overall grip the cars have, especially in the rain. We saw this phenomenon at the Turkish Grand Prix in 2020.
The weather conditions are always an important factor that teams and drivers must consider when they plan their strategy for any Grand Prix. Teams will always keep a close eye on the weather radar, even if there’s no rain on the way, as temperature plays an even more important role in tire management.
The track temperature has an impact on the tires and how quickly they will wear out. The hotter it is out on track, the faster the tires will reach their ideal operating temperature, but the easier it will be for them to go past this temperature too. This means that higher track temperatures will cause the tires to wear out much faster.
The opposite is also true, as colder temperatures will generally allow the tires to last longer. However, colder temperatures also mean that the tires take longer to heat up and drivers may struggle to keep their tires in the optimum operating window, which will cause them to struggle for grip.
In terms of how well the drivers can control the wear of their tires, it all really comes down to driving style. We always see some drivers that can use their tires for 50 laps or more, even when other drivers are struggling to manage 30 laps.
The key to making your tires last as long as possible is smooth driving. Jenson Button is widely regarded as one of the smoothest drivers in the history of the sport, and he was always able to extract every little bit of performance out of his tires, while also making them last.
Driving smoothly involves braking firmly but gently enough to avoid locking up and straining the tires, accelerating as smoothly as possible, and turning the steering wheel into the corner and back out again with one long and smooth turn of the steering wheel. Fighting the car in any way, be it through understeer or oversteer, is a sure-fire way to wear your tires out faster.
How Do F1 Drivers Know When To Change Tires?
F1 drivers usually know when they need to change their tires purely based on feeling. The majority of drivers are experienced enough to know when their tires have gone past what is known as “the cliff.” The cliff is a metaphor for the sudden drop in grip that a driver will experience when their tires are too worn out.
While most drivers will know when this happens, it’s only the most experienced of drivers who can sense the cliff approaching before they actually hit it. These are often the drivers who will make the perfect call on when to head into the pits for a change of tires.
Being able to find that perfect time to pit is difficult, but it will prevent a driver from being out on track losing time because of worn tires. Many drivers also change their tires as a reaction to a driver ahead of them or behind them pitting. This reaction is purely strategic to cover off an overcut or an undercut, even if their tires aren’t worn out yet.
Are F1 Teams Able To Keep Track Of Tire Wear?
There’s no way for a team to physically measure the tire wear while the car is out on track. However, the teams have developed strategies and technologies that help them to estimate the amount of life that their drivers’ tires might have left, as well as just looking at the tires on the TV footage as well.
The first bits of tech that Formula 1 teams use are tire temperature sensors. Each of the car’s tires has a temperature sensor in it which tells the team how hot that tire is. The team will then use calculations to determine roughly how many laps the tires can last.
They know this by using free practice sessions on the Friday and Saturday morning, along with massive amounts of simulation data, to determine how long each tire compound is likely to last under various conditions. During these sessions the tires are put to the test and the team will analyze all of their data and telemetry to form an idea on how the tire wear works at that particular circuit.
Is The AWS Tire Wear Graphic Accurate?
The AWS tire wear graphic is sometimes accurate, and sometimes not. It works using data that Amazon Web Services has access to, such as tire pressure and temperature, to gauge how much life is left in a given driver’s tires. This is then displayed to the viewers as a percentage.
A couple of years ago Formula 1 introduced the Amazon Web Services (AWS) tire wear analysis graphic. This graphic shows up on the TV footage with some data of a particular car’s tires and tells the viewers how much life is supposedly left in the tire, based on the data they have, such as tire age, the driver’s pace, and tire pressures and temperatures.
While this graphic is based on science and data that has been collected throughout the Grand Prix weekend, it’s not always entirely accurate. Just like the teams, this is purely an estimation of the tire life, and it’s not 100% accurate.
There have been many occasions where this graphic has been wrong, and there have been some occasions where it has been right. Importantly, the graphic doesn’t take into account the way the driver may change their driving style as tire wear increases. This means that, while it might say the tire only has 10% of its life left, the driver may drive smoothly enough to make it last many more laps.
F1 drivers manage their tires by limiting the rate at which their tires wear while also maintaining good race pace. Drivers must take into account their cornering speed, rate of acceleration, braking force, and the track conditions when managing their tires to make them last as long as they can.