Tyres, refuelling, aerodynamics & politics: The debate over F1’s 2021 rule changes

For more than two years, Formula 1 has been preparing a radical rule change in 2021 aimed at making the racing closer.

Last month, a $175m (£141m) budget cap was secured and it was agreed to delay the finalisation of sporting and technical rules until October.

But suddenly, the sands have shifted, and what had appeared to be a refinement process around a generally agreed package now looks anything but.

Over the British Grand Prix weekend, FIA president Jean Todt revealed that the return of refuelling was on the agenda. And a series of other senior figures said that, for the first time, a major focus had shifted on to tyres.

Now, many find tyres boring. And that’s not just you, dear reader. A good proportion of the F1 media feel the same way.

But bear with me, because we are going to delve into the very heart of the debate over the future of F1.

Driver pressure beginning to make waves

Many people in F1 feel that the Pirelli tyres are perhaps the single biggest reason why drivers struggle to race hard and close.

Prime among those are the drivers themselves. After years of trying to change things behind the scenes, they have stepped things up a gear and are subtly exerting pressure, both with public utterances and in private meetings. And it seems to be paying off.

F1’s bosses – particularly managing director Ross Brawn – have until recently brushed off questions about the tyres being a major concern. But things are changing.

From apparently not listening, sources say F1 and the FIA have now woken up to this being a serious issue.

Todt, for example, has refused for years to admit publicly that there was an issue with the tyres. But at Silverstone he described the right tyres as “essential”, and emphasised the need for the FIA, F1 and Pirelli to work together to make it happen.

And with this, all of a sudden, have arisen all manner of questions about the 2021 rules. Including even whether some of the bigger changes planned might not happen at all.

Why are the tyres so important?

There are a number of factors as to why F1 drivers find it so hard to overtake. One is aerodynamics – a car following another encounters disturbed air, which means that it creates less downforce, produces less grip and therefore cannot go as fast in the corners.

But another big influence is tyres, especially when they behave in the way the Pirellis do.

The tyres used in F1 only work in a narrow temperature range, and they are much more prone to overheating when worked hard than previous tyres supplied by other companies. When they overheat, they lose grip and the driver has to fall back to cool them down again. And this happens very quickly, so typically a driver has only a lap or two in ‘dirty air’ before suffering this problem.

Pirelli has worked on improving this for 2019 – and has succeeded to a degree. But the fundamental characteristic remains.

Here’s Lewis Hamilton explaining why he had to back off from attacking Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas after four laps at the British Grand Prix: “If we did not have thermal degradation, I could have just stayed on his tail and kept racing. But I eventually had to give up because after so many laps behind the tyres give up.

“I’m hoping in the future they can make a tyre that goes longer, and you will see closer racing.”

Or as one senior engineer put it: “Want to fix racing? Just make tyres that don’t saturate behind another car.”

Pirelli, to be clear, was asked to produce tyres that had high levels of degradation, although it’s a moot point whether the way the tyres behave currently is what was actually meant.

F1 technical chief Pat Symonds, a very experienced engineer who has worked for Benetton, Renault and Williams, said: “We were asking completely the wrong things of Pirelli over the last few years. The high-degradation target was not the way to go.”

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