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Why Do F1 Tires Have No Tread? Why Are They Smooth?

If you have ever watched a Formula 1 race, then you have likely noticed that the tires that the teams use don’t have any tread on them. These tires are called slicks and they have a smooth rubber surface, unlike those on your road car. This may leave you wondering why F1 tires have no tread.

F1 tires have no tread as smooth ‘slick’ tires provide more grip than those with tread in dry conditions. Smooth tires allow for more rubber from the tire to be directly contacting the ground. This in turn gives the car more grip as it is traveling along the track, allowing it to go faster.

When watching an F1 race in bad weather though, you will notice that not all the tires that teams use are slicks. Not all slick tires are equal in performance either. There is a lot of strategy involved in choosing the right tire for each track, and we go into detail about all of this below.

Why Do F1 Tires Have No Treads?

F1 tires have no treads as slick tires provide more grip in dry conditions than tires with tread. While F1 cars will use tires with some tread in the wet, if it’s dry, the fastest tire to be on is the one with the largest contact patch on the ground, and these are slick tires.

Some people may have the misconception that treads on a tire are what give tires grip. Afterall, offroad vehicles often have very deep treads to give them more traction. This is not the case for cars that race on asphalt though. The amount of grip on tarmac is directly correlated to how much rubber from the tire is touching the track.

If two of the same cars are driven around a track in dry conditions and one car has slicks and the other has tread on their tires, then the car with slicks will always win – as long as we assume that in this thought experiment both drivers are equally skilled as well, of course.

Contact Patches

Contact patch size is incredibly important in F1. The size of a contact patch is determined by finding out how much rubber on the surface of the tire is physically contacting the track. The larger the contact patch, the more grip the car will have. Tread decreases the size of contact patches because there are pockets of open space that aren’t doing anything between the tread blocks.

One of the drawbacks of not having tread on your tires is that bad weather is not kind at all to slick tires. Tread is made for bad weather. If it is raining, water is able to be funneled through the treads and keep the tire connected to the track via the tread blocks, as opposed to the tire resting entirely on top of the water. This helps to prevent F1 cars hydroplaning.

There are two types of tires with tread that F1 teams utilize. These are the intermediate tire set for light rain/dampness, and the full wet tire set for heavy rain. So, if the weather starts to turn bad out of the blue, then teams are able to quickly make a pitstop and change to the correct tire for the track conditions.

If a driver gets caught out with slick tires on their car and the track is wet, the water will very quickly not be able to be moved out from underneath the tire and the car will simply glide on top of it, causing it to aquaplane. F1 wet tires on the other hand can disperse around 85 liters of water per second each at 186 mph.

How Do F1 Tires Provide Grip?

Formula 1 tires provide grip in the same basic way that all tires on any car do. They utilize large contact patches that ultimately keep the car connected to the road. However, there are some differences that allow F1 tires to perform better than your average road tire would, aside from the fact their lack of tread means the contact patches are far bigger than those of your road tires.

One of the most important differences is that F1 tires are made with a different consistency of rubber than you would generally find in your road car’s tire. F1 tires are much softer, which causes the tire to degrade very quickly in comparison to normal tires.

Tire Degradation

F1 tires don’t need to last very long – they’re often used for just a dozen laps or so (often less than 100 miles), depending on the compound, before they’re changed in a pit stop. Some may be able to last effectively a full-race distance, but this is still going to be less than 200 miles.

If you had to switch out your tires every few hundred miles on your daily driver, you’d probably get very annoyed by it! So, regular road car tires have a mixed consistency with some rubber and other chemicals added in to extend the life of the tire.

F1 tires are therefore much softer than your average road tire. Soft tires are better at increasing the contact patch between the track and the tire, and they provide more grip. Even the harder tires used in F1 provide much more grip than your average road tire, and their compounds are still much softer too.

The Different Types Of Slick F1 Tires

All Formula 1 teams use tires that have been produced by Pirelli and have done since 2011. Pirelli brings three different compounds of slick tires to each race, from a choice of five – the C1 through to the C5 tires. To simplify things for fans, the three compounds used at a given event are labeled either soft, medium or hard, and have colors that are easy to remember.

Hard Compound Tires

Hard compound tires are the toughest of the bunch. They are designated by the white outline on their sidewalls. They are generally much slower on average compared to the other two sets due to the harder material consistency that is used in their production. The benefit of using hard compound tires is that they last much longer than the other two.

There are some tracks where a driver might physically be able to complete the whole race with just one set of hard compound tires. However, F1’s rules dictate that drivers must use at least two different tire compounds in the race when it’s dry. Being slower on the track but spending less time driving down the pit lane makes the hard tire a viable option in some races.

Medium Compound Tires

The next option is the medium compound tire. They are designated with a yellow outline on their side walls. This is a very common tire to see teams using throughout any race weekend. The goal with these tires is to hopefully hit a happy medium where the car can still have really good pace, but also last longer than just a few laps.

Soft Compound Tires

The soft compound tire is the third tire type that Pirelli brings to the track. You’ll be able to recognize this one by the red line on the sidewall of the tire. This compound is the softest of the three. This means that it has the fastest potential one-lap pace, and is therefore used in qualifying. The problem is that they degrade very quickly compared to the hard and medium compound tires.

Depending on the track a driver might only get a handful of laps in on the softs before they need to pit for new tires. You’ll also see this tire used at the end of races if a team wants to secure the fastest lap. The driver with the fastest lap of a race gets 1 extra championship point, as long as they finish inside the top 10.

Have F1 Tires Ever Had Treads?

In the world of Formula 1, speed is everything. In the pursuit of finding the fastest way around racetracks, tires that had a completely smooth surface were introduced to the sport in 1971. Teams realized at this time that using slick tires instead of ones with tread on them allowed for better grip and traction.

F1 cars represent the pinnacle of what cars in general can do. So much time and effort go into creating a competition-ready Formula 1 car. Despite all of the engineering and time spent on creating the vehicle though, the only contact that the car has with the ground is through the tires! So, perfection in the realm of tires became very important for teams to explore.

History Of Formula 1 Tires

Before 1971, Formula 1 used race tires with tread on them. The tires still weren’t regular streetcar tires, but they did feature tread. These tires were good because a change in the weather during a race wouldn’t immediately be cause for a pitstop to change strategy.

The increase in speed that was provided by slick tires far outweighed the benefit of not needing to head into the pits to change tires when it started to rain though. But two decades later, the increased speed from slick tires, combined with other improvements to the cars, proved to be too much for F1.

The Reversion Back To Treads

By 1998 Formula 1 cars were becoming very quick indeed, especially in the corners. Along with improving the safety of the sport, the FIA also wanted to create more opportunities for overtaking and wheel to wheel racing. So, they made the decision to bring back tires with tread with the goal of slowing the cars down. Treaded tires were used again in F1 until 2009.

Slick tires were brought back for the 2009 F1 season. The regulation changes for the 2009 season focused on reducing the amount of aerodynamic grip the cars could have (i.e. by reducing their downforce capabilities) and they aimed to shift the focus to mechanical grip. Using slick tires helped achieve this.

Final Thoughts

F1 tires have no tread as the tires used need to offer maximum grip to allow the cars to be driven at such high speeds, especially through corners. Slick tires with no tread offer the most grip in dry conditions as the contact patch of the tire on the road is much larger than if the tire had treads.