Inside Pirelli’s Massive Formula One Tire Operation

Inside Pirelli’s Massive Formula One Tire Operation

When trawling through a Formula One paddock very briefly for the first time back in 2015, my first thought (after I got over the glamour of it all) was, my God there are a lot of tires here. Each team had stacks of tires lined up outside of their garage. Tires were being carted from a giant tent dedicated to fitting them onto rims off to their final destination. After a session, it was impossible to walk anywhere without ducking out of the way to avoid a puddle left by someone washing a tire, or a Pirelli engineer running off somewhere with rack of them.

The more races I attended across all disciplines of motorsport, the more fascinated I grew with the logistics of that whole tire thing—so I was pretty stoked to have the opportunity to follow Pirelli around for a race weekend to see how the whole thing actually worked. As it turns out, I was only seeing a fraction of Pirelli’s massive set-up.

(Full Disclosure: Pirelli flew me out to the United States Grand Prix as a media member of its Paddock Club. It set me up in a swanky hotel, paid for my food and booze, and was more than happy to entertain my every question and whim.)

In a paddock littered with tents and motorhomes that cost more than my future house, Pirelli manages to take up a pretty significant portion of the overall square footage. Along with its massive fitting centre, where every single tire is put on a rim before the weekend even starts, is Pirelli’s very own Paddock Club suite and a catering tent. It was in that catering tent that I got a chance to sit down with Mario Isola, Pirelli’s head of F1 and general car racing.

Isola has been overseeing Pirelli’s F1 operations—and plenty of its racing ventures, of which there are 342—since 2011. When we spoke ahead of the United States Grand Prix, he kicked off the conversation lamenting the impact of back-to-back races on the tightly-run ship he travels with from race to race.

“The mechanics are destroyed. At the end of the day, we spend a lot of hours here at the track,” he said. Then, shaking his head in disbelief: “I work mainly at the computer, but can you imagine—working on the car!”

Isola makes it sound like he’s not doing any heavy lifting himself, but the sheer size of Pirelli’s F1 enterprise is mind-boggling, and Isola has to make sure it’s a well-oiled machine. There are at least 55 people working at the track on any given race weekend: twenty fitters, one engineer assigned to each team for a total of ten, three support engineers, and a bevy of security, communication, marketing, and logistics personnel to keep things moving. During a European race weekend that also sees Pirelli managing the tires for the Formula 2 and Formula 3 cars, they need even more people on board.

Pirelli has to bring 1,800 tires to a race. Each car requires thirteen available sets of slick racing tires along with three sets of wet-weather tires, just in case the weather turns. During an F2 or F3 weekend, that number increases to 2,500 to 3,000.

“It’s not the biggest operation in our motorsport activity,” Isola told me, much to my surprise. “We are the sole supplier of the Blancpain series. At the 24 Hours of Spa, we have 120 people, roughly, there. This year, we had 13,000 or 14,000 tires.”

Inside Pirelli’s Massive Formula One Tire OperationPhoto: Elizabeth Blackstock

If that on its own sounds absurd, then know in your heart that no tire is used for two weekends. Even if it didn’t rain at, say, the Mexican Grand Prix, F1 teams can’t bring their unused wet-weather tires with them to the US Grand Prix. Hell, there is yet to be an occasion where a team even came close to using all its tires. Instead, it has to turn them all back in to Pirelli, who ships them back to their Didcot research hub in the UK. Then those tires are recycled.

It sounds like waste on a pretty massive scale, but quality control is the reason behind it. Each tire is equipped with its own individual barcode, which not only enables Pirelli to keep close tabs on individual tire performance, but also ensures that tires will be randomly allocated to all the teams. Every team, then, needs all new sets of tires. Lord knows there’d be a whole bevy of problems any time someone found out they’d gotten assigned a week-old tire.

Tires, then, have a pretty damn short lifecycle. It’s less than a year from initial R&D to a tire being recycled. I’ll let Isola himself describe that process, because it can get pretty complicated—especially the first step of determining the actual qualities that go into each compound:

We agree with the FIA, FOM, teams, and drivers a document called the target letter, where we have some numbers—some targets. So when we develop a product for the following year, we take this document as a reference.

For example, in the current target letter it is written that the delta lap time between compounds should be in the range of 0.9 to one second. When we test different levels and different compounds, we target this time

We are going to race in 21 different circuits with 20 cars and drivers. It’s impossible to have a perfect tire unless you design a specific compound for a specific circuit. We have a total of five compounds to cover a season, and we select three compounds each race.

At that point, all the information that has been decided on is taken to the drawing board, where the actual tire starts to come into its own. At Pirelli’s Milan headquarters, engineers specifically dedicated to F1 tires start from a computer-based model that is then provided to teams, who use it in multiple simulations to see how the initial design works out on the track. Then comes the fun part:

After that, when we are happy with the file, the material, the geometry, we start to build the first physical prototype. It is tested with a lot of indoor tests with different machines to represent high speed, integrity, different load, and so on in order to be 100 per cent sure that when we run on track we have no issues.

Pirelli’s main motorsport tire production factory is located in Romania, meaning that the design and the actual production is undertaken in two different countries. And, just in case anything really major happens in Romania, Pirelli has a whole entire backup factory waiting in Turkey that can start production at the flip of a switch.

Inside Pirelli’s Massive Formula One Tire OperationPhoto: Miguel Medina/AFP, Getty

Then comes the actual testing time:

The last part of development is track testing with the teams. They supply a car and a driver, we organise a specific session for a tire development test. During a season, let’s assume we start at the end of March or the beginning of April, and we finalise construction at the beginning of September. So, about five or six months. Then we have another couple of months to fine tune the compounds. Then the compound for the following year must be ready.

Because it can take a while to produce tires, F1 teams have to put in their requests for a race weekend long before they’ll actually know what track conditions will be like. For European rounds, tire choices need to be selected eight weeks ahead of the event. For flyaway races, like the US GP, that has to be done fourteen weeks ahead of time. If you’ve ever wondered why everyone seems woefully unprepared for an unexpectedly cold weekend in Texas, it’s because teams made their choices based on nothing but data-provided average temperatures and conditions way back in July.

Pirelli personnel are some of the first to actually show up to the track, usually starting the tire fitting process on Wednesday or Thursday—long before any on-track action can begin. Each team designs and manufactures its own rims, which means Pirelli’s engineers have to collect all those rims, fit them with tires (which takes an average of 2.5 minutes per tire), and then return those tires to their rightful owners. At thirteen sets of tires per car, it’ll take a little over a half an hour to make sure a single car is ready to go for the weekend—or, about ten hours for the entire grid.

At COTA itself, teams have a whole garage dedicated specifically to the storage of their sets and sets and sets of tires. There, they heat tires (100 degrees Celsius for the rear tires, 80 degrees for the smaller fronts) to make sure drivers will actually have some grip when they get out on track. This is no rapid process, though—to get a set of tires warmed and ready for on-track use, team mechanics have to start warming them up four hours before a session.

Inside Pirelli’s Massive Formula One Tire OperationPhoto: Elizabeth Blackstock

Even before the race is over, teams start returning tires back to Pirelli’s fitting area, where the rubber is removed from the rim. Rims are returned to teams, while the tires go back to Didcot to be catalogued and recycled.

I was surprised to learn that, once Pirelli has finished collecting all the data it needs, it has very little to do with the actual recycling process itself. Tires are crushed into small pellets which can be burned at very high heats to power cement factories. While burning tires is usually really fucking bad for the environment, Pirelli’s situation is a lot different. From a Pirelli press release:

Acea and Pirelli Ambiente communicate that their 50/50 joint venture A.PI.C.E. will operate in the sector of renewable energy from waste, bringing together the skills and strong territorial presence of Acea with the experience and technology of Pirelli Ambiente to realise projects for manufacturing of CDR-Q (High Quality Solid Recovered Fuel From Urban Waste), to be used in thermoelectric power stations and cement kilns.

CDR-Q is all-natural and is added to the tire pellets, which becomes a source of fuel that, when burned at high temperatures, produces a lot less of the harmful emissions that the tires themselves would. We’re talking seven million tons less of carbon dioxide emissions. According to the EPA, that’s the equivalent of driving 27,543,784,840 kilometres, burning 3,471,152,599 kg of coal, or consuming 16,206,480 barrels of oil.

Basically, we’re talking about a pretty damn sustainable form of energy coming from F1’s tires.

Inside Pirelli’s Massive Formula One Tire OperationPhoto: Mohd Rasfan/AFP, Getty

Pirelli has had its fair share of troubles with some of its latest ideas (think: its explosions in 2015, its ultra-super-duper confusing naming system in 2018, its equally confusing compound situation in 2019, the prospective 2020 tires that drivers already hate, and its very frustrating tire graphics), but Isola says that he has high hopes for the future—especially the 2021 regulations. At the same time, though, he’s just as aware that plenty of people are sure to be disappointed by lower-degradation tires and, frankly, overly critical.

“Formula One is technology, it’s a sport, and it’s a show,” he said, outlining the three features as points on a triangle. “You want to keep the level of technology very high, but sometimes that means that you don’t have the better show. Look at fuel consumption—it’s better technologically to have one tank, but sometimes that means drivers have to manage fuel and they cannot attack, which takes away from the show. You’ll find people who don’t like DRS because, yes, there’s more overtaking, but it’s not for the purity of the sport.

“It is the same with standard parts. We will have more fights and more overtaking, but people say, this is not in the DNA of Formula One! You have to find the compromise. But I think the new regulation is going in the right direction.”

It’s a fair assessment, one that sheds some light on why F1 fans, and even some teams, are perpetually hard to please (see: all those recent complaints we mentioned above).

Inside Pirelli’s Massive Formula One Tire OperationPhoto: Andrej Isakovic/AFP, Getty

2021 isn’t the only thing on Pirelli’s future radar, though. As sustainability becomes more and more important in motorsport, the tire manufacturer is looking for ways to stay ahead of the curve. Next season, Isola told me, Pirelli will be entirely single-use plastic free—a tough feat for anyone, but especially for an operation that travels around the world to countries that aren’t quite as hip on the whole sustainability thing as others. It also has a research team dedicated to figuring out ways to produce natural rubber tires, as well as consolidating operations in such a way as to reduce its carbon footprint.

Ditching plastics may seem like just one small step, but it’s massive in terms of keeping F1 on the forefront of modern technology—and one that’s sure to make a pretty quantifiable impact given just how huge the Pirelli operation is.