Tread Shuffle! Not Wall Street!
Tyres! Here at Pitpass Financials - sorry, Towers - we are actually going to talk motor racing for an entire column! At the start, middle and end of each day, tyres are the only thing keeping any car, racing, non-racing or otherwise, connected to terra firma, via the only interface existing between your vehicle, and the surface on which you are travelling. Be that sealed road, unsealed (graded gravel) road, mud, sand or snow.
Here in Western Australia (WA) we have a delightful form of pea-gravel which makes our graded gravel (i.e. dirt) roads a particular challenge. Back in the day we held a round of the WRC, all the drivers spoke in hushed tones of the challenge of keeping it all together on this difficult surface. At anything above a walking pace it presented a mix of oil slick, ice, melting snow and "who knows? I cannot feel a thing!" To challenge the finest pilot. Indeed the height of my driving ignominy was spinning my mother's Mitsubishi Magna Wagon on a fast flowing dirt road... while my mother and father were in the back seat! Being WA (a land of rather large distances) this resulted in the final three hours of the drive home being a very uncomfortable silence.
Around the same time, late in the 20th century, your pun-affected scribe was seeking to have his trusty steed re-shod. I went for top of the range Bridgestones for my wheel size. To which the trusty blacksmith - sorry I mean tyre merchant - responded, "The car is old, and under-powered, why buy such nice tyres?" To which yours truly replied: "The laws of Physics do not alter as your car grows older. I need to grip the same road, in the same weather conditions, while obeying the same laws of physics, as a brand new Ferrari."
"Never viewed it like that," replied our blacksmith.
"Best if you did. Gimme the Bridgestones please."
Some weeks later, in lashing rain, your scribe in a decades old Toyota Corona Wagon drove around the outside of a then current Toyota Celica on a (dual lane) rain hammered roundabout. It would not have been possible with the tyres my blacksmith had recommended.
Physics and tyres! Pirelli. Ye gads. Said it. Typed it. Off to find the mouth rinse... The sole tyre suppler for F1.
I've mentioned in articles past about my horror journey through time with the "P" tyres. BMW, Audi, Ford, Citroen, Toyota, Mazda, Lexus, Subaru and Jaguar. Each improved by way of ditching the "P" tyre. Yet here we are with them the only tyre in F1. Which is not to say they are all bad. No. There are cheaper, harder road going tyres which perform worse than a Pirelli, it is just that equally, there are usually road going tyres which perform better. Frequently much better, for a similar price.
It is each vehicle's only interface with the planet, so it is best to get it right. I never tire of talking tyres because they are so impactful on performance. I'm paid by none of the tyre manufacturers and have to purchase all my own tyres with my own hard-earned currency. I tend to recommend Michelin, followed by Continental, followed by Dunlop, and Bridgestone in a tie for third. On planet earth these four swap places as to who has released the latest grip monster for use by a joyful public. Based on latest release they swap places, but in most instances their best offering will usually out-perform the current "P" offering at the same price point. This is based purely on personal experience and my driving style in the cars I've been fortunate to pilot.
None of my preferred tyre manufacturers currently act as farriers within F1. But as road cars have moveable aero, adaptive ride height, computer controlled suspension settings and six million other software affectations all denied to F1, I'm rather confident that I'm not missing anything here. Once again the road relevance of F1 to the public road comes into question.
Consider the two differing requirement specifications. F1 dry track tyres (slicks) need last no more than 150 km (half race distance), must carry a car of around 798Kg, including driver but excluding fuel. Try finding a road car that light these days, let alone an SUV! Next, they do not require grooves to dispel surface water as that is covered by wet weather tyres. Finally, we have no direct completion to allow for racing competition to improve the breed. So for all we, or the teams, know this year's track going F1 control tyre is actually worse than those supplied a decade ago. What is there to drive Pirelli to improve? How can we know without competition to push the improvements, and against which to judge?
Back on the public turnpikes we all inhabit we want a tyre to last at least 30,000 kms. A typical SUV weighs more than 1,600 kg and can tow the same again. We must have grooves to dispel water because slicks are illegal on most public roads, and we need an all-weather tyre which can handle year-round typical weather conditions. There is endless competition to improve the breed as all the tyre manufacturers try to out-perform one another at each price point, and thereby win our business.
Rim size. The "Big Money" on street cars is now with 20, 21 and even 22 inch rims! All far in excess of the modest 18 inch rims that F1 has only recently discovered. Yet, as F1 used to know so well with smaller wheels sizes, the tyre wall is an integral part of the suspension set-up. Just ask Miss Physics, it is all related. So one has the joys of a massive rim perspective giving a great showroom ascetic, yet the bump-thump trauma of a tyre wall the thickness of a Bandaid.
In the cycling world we call it a "pitch-flat" when one thumps into a pothole, hammering the tyre so fast and violently into the rim that it pops the inner tube. Not good. SUVs on 22 inch rims suffer the same irritation. What relevance my F1 tyre with an 18 inch rim carrying a 798Kg car on 18 inch rims? Looks like bicycle tyres share more in common with road car tyres than F1 tyres these days!
There is an ideal rim to tyre wall ratio which, dependant on the vehicle weight and suspension settings, can vary wildly from situation to situation. Cruising on flawless German blacktop with no intention of taking your BMW X5-M V8 off road? Engage beast mode and get the 22 inch monsters.
About to cross the Kalahari Desert in your Defender 110 with 942Kg of urgent medical supplies in the back? I'd recommend steel rims of around 14 inches. What are you trying to successfully achieve?
Tyres play a unique role in your suspension reactance, your ride quality and your road noise. All of which have no relation to modern F1 cars, tyres or tracks.
Next? Grip. Pirelli are masters of advertising. They ran adverts some years back with the tagline "Power is nothing without control". Brilliant! So true! Do not deform during cornering, disperse water when asked, last more than fifteen minutes, be consistent under pressure so the driver does not have multiple kittens mid-corner as they saw at the wheel fighting over-steer, then under-steer in turn millisecond by millisecond.
Grip in the dry is good and required. Grip in the wet is a life-saving must have. Easy way to grip is super soft rubber which lasts a mere few thousand miles. The smart way to grip is a delightful brew of compound, softness, tread pattern, tyre wall give and tyre face construction. Like software development, generating the right tyre compound is part science, part arcane dark art. More side wall give, more bounce-bounce, more heat. Less side wall give, less bounce-bounce... more chance of bump-steering out of a corner on a bumpy country road. It all interrelates!
Compare how much running in the wet the average driver does in Wales compared to an F1 pilot! The charming Welsh driver will cover more miles in the rain over a bank holiday weekend than the F1 field does in an entire season! What transfer of technology to you think that yields?
A bicycle tyre generates grip in the wet by latterly cutting through the standing water to make contact with dry surface. The contact patch on a bicycle tyre is minute, so even with the combined bike and rider usually weighing less than 100Kg, the force per unit area through the contact patch is very high. By comparison, road car tyres, F1 intermediate and full wet tyres, generate grip via pressing the water into the grooves of the tyre and throwing it off the road, to provide a small damp patch for the tyre rubber to use in a desperate grab for road surface grip. Hence the amazing rooster tails of spray coming off the F1 cars when we actually see them running in the wet. Hence the massive mud flaps and side skirts on large trucks so that the water being thrown up in the air from their tyres does not drown any car next to or behind them.
Tyre life span. F1 changes tyres within a 305 km (not quite 190 miles) race. Would you be happy changing tyres that often? I'd be up for at least two new sets of tyres, per week! Road going drivers want comfort, grip and long life all at once! Not something F1 cares about. Especially when a control tyre means they are all in the same boat. Comfort? Forget it. Grip? They all want lots but can only have what Pirelli delivers. Long life? The FIA mandates a minimum of one tyre change so that in the dry two differing compounds are used per race! So to cry "here for road relevance, honest" is simply not true. The FIA want a tyre from Pirelli that does not need to cover more than 150 km! Lord Above! Here in WA we would not make it to the corner shop without needing new tyres!
The world of the humble tyre is 100% ruled by Miss Physics and her immutable laws. We each have a choice as to how much we wish to spend. I commend every Pitpass reader to never skimp on tyre spending for their car, bicycle or motorbike. In the wet, during emergency braking, that manic swerve to avoid the cyclist who just jumped off the pavement (sidewalk) in front of you... great tyres will play a direct role in saving the day, while dire tyres will drive you direct to the scene of the disaster.