Tires are a fundamental part of any car, and knowing how F1 tires work will give you new insight into the technology applied to the pinnacle of motorsports. F1 tires are high-performance parts designed to handle high temperatures and speeds, and how F1 tires work is quite a complex topic.
F1 tires work by providing the car grip with on the track. F1 tires come with different levels of grip, from soft tires to hard tires. These differences produce different results on the track depending on the conditions, and determining which tire is right for each circuit requires careful planning.
There’s a lot to know about F1 tires. To get a better idea of how F1 tires work, we need to look more closely at the various options available to the teams and how they work in different conditions. Below, we’ll discuss everything you need to understand about F1 tires.
First, let’s go through an explanation of the different F1 tire compounds to understand the range of tires available to the teams. Pirelli supplies five different types of tire compounds for the season. These compounds are hard, medium, and soft for dry conditions, along with intermediate and wet tires, both of which are for wet conditions.
Within those used in dry conditions – the hard, medium, and soft – there are six different compounds, ranging from C0 (the hardest) to C5 (the softest). These previously took on various names like hypersoft and supersoft, but Pirelli chose to simplify the naming system for the 2019 F1 season.
This concept of having C1 through to C5 represents both the durability and overall grip supplied by the tire. C0, which is the hardest tire, offers the greatest durability, but the least amount of grip. At the other end of the scale, C5 tires offer the most grip, but are the least durable of the available dry compounds.
Pirelli bases their compound choices each weekend on the circuit itself and the expected conditions. On circuits with traditionally higher levels of tire wear, Pirelli will usually opt for the harder tires. The same logic applies if hot weather is expected, as F1 tires will tend to wear faster in hotter temperatures.
Pirelli typically chooses tire compounds that are ‘next to each other’ in the list. This means on a circuit with high tire degradation, Pirelli might choose the C1 tire for the hard, C2 for the Medium, and C3 for the soft. On a lower wear track, they might bring the C3 as the hard, C4 as the medium tire, and C5 as the soft.
Note: There are some cases where Pirelli might jump around the compounds, such as at the 2022 Australian GP, when teams could use the C2, C3 and C5 tires.
What The Colors Mean
The different tire compounds have different colored markings on their sidewalls. This helps viewers see which tire is being used by a driver at any given time. The hardest tire on a given race weekend has a white wall, while medium is yellow, and the soft tire is red. The intermediate tire is green, and the wet tire is blue. Each tire color represents a difference in grip and durability.
Soft tires are faster because the softer compound provides F1 cars with more grip at a lower operating temperature than medium or hard tires. The extra traction means the driver can go faster in the corners and accelerate faster, but soft tires also wear faster than medium and hard tires.
Soft tires may be great when it comes to grip, but soft tires degrade faster than the medium and hard tires too. That means teams need to balance their faster lap times with how many laps they will get from the soft tires. On very high degradation circuits, the soft tire can be very unfavorable as a race tire because they may only last a small number of laps, meaning a costly pit stop is required.
However, because soft tires are all about grip and less about lasting lots of laps, they make an ideal qualifying tire. Drivers don’t need to worry about pit stops in qualifying, so they’ll push their tires on a hot lap as much as they can to go as fast as possible. However, they do still wear very fast in qualifying, so drivers need to ensure they don’t waste their push laps and ruin their tires.
Soft tires can be as much as a second or more faster than the medium and hard tires during an F1 race. Just how much faster soft tires are will depend largely on the specific track, and the conditions during the race, as well as how much fuel the car has left in the tank.
How Do F1 Wet Tires Work?
Wet F1 tires work by providing grip when the track is wet, even in standing water. Wet tires use deep treads to channel water away from the car and create better contact with the road, meaning F1 cars can still travel at very high speeds on a wet track. Wet F1 tires are only used on very wet tracks.
Wet-weather tires are made from a soft compound, and they can then work at a much lower optimum temperature than other tires. This is important, because water on the track naturally reduces the temperature of the track, so the tires need to be able to work at much lower temperatures than normal.
If the rain is continual, a driver will avoid larger puddles so the water can’t cool their tires too much. Alternatively, if the track is drying out, a driver might deliberately drive through wet parts of the track, because a dry track can cause their wet tires to overheat. Driving through standing water cools the tires before they can get to the pits and change to dry tires.
The grip on a wet tire comes via tread blocks, and the distribution of these blocks, along with their shape, is carefully designed to provide grip and channel water away from the tire. The edges of the blocks will “bite down” into the road, and that’s where the grip comes from. The gaps between these blocks are designed and shaped to displace 85 liters of water per second per tire.
But there’s a problem. Tire blocks degrade, just as any other part of the tire, and those sharp edges on the blocks gradually become worn down with use. On a drying track, these blocks heat up fast, and therefore wear very fast. That’s why there is an intermediate tire, for use on drying tracks or tracks that are too damp for slicks, but not wet enough for full wet tires.
How Intermediate F1 Tires Work
F1 intermediate tires work in a similar way to the full wet tires, in that they have some tread on them rather than being fully smooth like dry tires. However, their treads are not as deep, but they can still displace 30 liters of water per second. They still offer some grip on a drying track, although they too would wear too fast to be used on a fully dry track.
F1 drivers choose which tires to use depending on both the track layout and the conditions at the time. Drivers will always choose the softest possible tire for qualifying to set the fastest time they can, but choosing tires during a race requires much more strategy and planning.
Track and weather conditions play an important role in tire selection in F1. It’s all nice and easy when it’s wet, as everyone will be on wet tires for grip. However, it gets trickier when you move to a track where it’s still a bit damp, or when there is light rain. At that stage, intermediate tires work best, and teams will look at different criteria to determine when to switch.
But under normal, dry conditions, things like temperature play a key role, as if it’s really hot, the softer tires can overheat faster, and therefore wear out quicker too. If it’s really cold, the harder tires might take too long to warm up, and therefore become an undesirable tire choice.
Teams also employ various tire strategies during an F1 race. Sometimes starting on a softer tire allows the drivers to get more grip to improve their track position at the start, with better chance of overtaking those in front. But running a harder tire, sometimes called the prime tire, means the driver can go longer into the race before they make a pit stop.
Tire management therefore plays a key role in what tires F1 drivers will choose to use during a race. The longer a driver can make their tires last, the more strategic options the team has in terms of pit stops.
Drivers must also choose their tires in line with the rules. There are different tire rules, depending on whether it’s a free practice (FP) session, qualifying, or the race itself. During free practice, there are some specific rules that determine the number of tire sets that can be used, but teams may use whichever compound they like (of the 3 for that race weekend, plus wets/intermediates).
During qualifying, teams select tires from the sets they have left available according to the conditions. Previously, the drivers that reached Q3 had to start the race on the tires they used in the second part of the qualifying session, but this is no longer the case.
How many new sets of tires teams have available during the race will depend on how many they used in qualifying, and they may elect to use a set they used briefly in qualifying too. If the race runs under fully dry conditions, each driver must use at least two different tire compounds during the race. This means they must make at least one pit stop.
However, if it’s wet at the race start, this rule does not apply. In this case, drivers are free to run only the wet compounds if it’s very wet, or only the intermediate tires if they deem it not wet enough for the blue-marked wet tires. Throughout every part of the race weekend, intermediates and wets are always available if weather conditions change.
Each team is provided with the same number of sets of tires for the entire race weekend. Each team is given 13 sets of dry weather tires, usually split between two sets of hards, three sets of mediums, and eight sets of soft.
Also, there are four sets of intermediates, and three sets of wet tires provided to each team for each race weekend. It’s up to the teams to manage them well and to ensure they get the maximum use out of each set.
The rules state that each driver needs to use at least two unique compounds of dry tires supplied to them during the race. Which compounds each car uses and when will come down to the conditions, strategies, and driver preferences.
Each team must nominate a set of tires that will only be used in the first 40 minutes of free practice 1 (FP1). That set, along with one more set, must be returned, and they cannot then use it again at any other time during the weekend.
This is then repeated at the end of FP2, where two sets are nominated and then returned. The same thing happens at the end of FP3, leaving a maximum of 7 sets for qualifying and the race.
The rules also state that each team must keep a set of soft tires for the final part of qualifying, in case they make it through. Of course, half of the cars starting qualifying will not use them. For those that do, the teams must hand back a used set of that type of tire within three and a half hours of the end of qualifying.
Other rules exist for different running restrictions throughout race weekend, including tire pressure regulations, a tire’s maximum temperature, and the camber angle. For 2022, new sensors were introduced that provide more information on the performance of the tires during the race. Pirelli will mandate the minimum tire pressures at each race based on the track and conditions.
A tire warmer in F1 is a special heated blanket that keeps the tires at a constant temperature while the car isn’t racing. F1 tires need to be warmed before use so they are within the right temperature window to provide the car with enough grip, as cold tires provide almost zero grip in F1.
Tire warmers play an integral role in F1 as they bring tires up to a certain temperature before the car leaves the garage or the grid at the start of the race. This is because F1 tires only produce enough grip once they reach a certain temperature. Before this temperature is reached, the car will slide around as the tires offer very little grip.
F1 tires got bigger in order to allow the drivers to push their tires more and to make the tires used in F1 more relevant to the tires used on average road cars. The larger 18-inch tires are designed to provide more structural integrity and be less susceptible to overheating than the 13-inch rims.
Why Are F1 Tires So Thick?
F1 tires are so thick to allow the tire to function as a key part of an F1 car’s suspension system. This is for safety as well as performance reasons. A lot of force goes through the tires of an F1 car, and thick tires are stronger than thin ones, and therefore better able to handle the loads.
F1 tires work in a similar way to your road car’s tires, in that they provide the car with grip. F1 tires work at very high temperatures and must withstand very high loads. F1 tires come in 5 varieties: soft, medium, hard, intermediate, and wet, with each offering different amounts of grip and wear.
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