The 2017 season brought with it revolutionary rule changes - among them tyres that are 25 percent wider and significantly faster than before. On top of that is a new philosophy for tyre performance: less degradation and fewer peaks of temperature, allowing drivers to push hard during every stint of a race. Seven rounds in, do Pirelli feel they have achieved their aims – and have the changes had a positive effect on the racing? We sat down for an exclusive chat with the Italian company’s motorsport coordinator, Paul Hembery, to find out…
Q: Paul, in 2017 everything is different: the cars and the tyres. How big a challenge was this for Pirelli - and how satisfied are you with the result so far?
Paul Hembery: Well, because of a lot of unknowns coming into the season it as a bit tricky. We didn’t have an actual car to see all the changes when we started with the tyres and only at the Barcelona test we did see the new cars and how they worked with our tyres. All the time before that we worked with three different hybrid cars, which helped as we could fit the tyres, but that was not exactly what we saw when we got to Barcelona. Yes, there have been a lot of virtual simulations and a lot of data exchange with the teams, but there is no real substitute for getting out on track.
Q: In previous years the teams complained about the tyres deciding races. 2017 should be different, but that doesn’t seem to be so. Why?
PH: Well, we always start off with the fact that whoever wins has the same tyres as the driver coming in last. And if you haven’t won a race you could eliminate tyres from your equation, because all the tyres are the same. So it is all up to the teams. Sure, there are situations where one team got it ‘more right’ than the others in terms of how to get better performance from the tyres, but that is part of the sport.
Q: So the cleverer team wins?
PH: Or somebody with more money! (Laughs) To be serious, we have an interesting championship to start with, and it hasn’t been as clear cut who would be the leading team. Maybe the gap between all the teams is a bit large – between the frontrunners and the rest – but that always happens if you have a significant rules change. Just remember how it was when the new engines where introduced: a few people were leading and the rest lagged behind. Now we have two teams who are very close together.
Q: Mercedes, in particular, have at times struggled to get the tyres into the right operating window – and even when they do it’s not necessarily on both cars. They are no doubt firing questions at you…
PH: Ha, you’d have to ask them why that is. It’s an engineering challenge. In all fairness they have said that to us - they said: ‘We know what we want to do, but we can’t do it.’ But it’s not like they are having a poor season, is it? They have already won races this season. And look at Montreal: Lewis put the car on pole position with a dream time - if that is struggling then everybody would like to struggle that way! (Laughs) We have two teams fighting each other hard and we had thought that Red Bull would be joining that group - but yes, they are chasing a moving target as Ferrari and Mercedes will not be standing still. The championship is alive and I think right now nobody could predict who is going to be world champion. That is fantastic.
Q: Lewis Hamilton especially has had issues finding that elusive ‘window’. He was asked if more mileage on his side in last year’s development testing would have made a difference. Would it?
PH: No. Yes, Sebastian (Vettel) did a lot of testing. It was very intense and he gave us a lot of feedback. We thank him for that. That is what we wanted: the top drivers giving us good feedback. But because he didn’t really know what he was testing – he was blind-testing – it might have helped him psychologically, but I doubt that it helped practically. And actually Mercedes’ issue is linked a bit to certain circuits: in Barcelona they were fine - and in Silverstone and Spa they will be as well. It’s the lower-grip circuits where they’ve had a few more problems, but I am sure they will resolve any issues as we go through the season.
Q: We have had quite a few one-stop races. It was feared that strategy would play a minor role this season, but it seems to be quite the contrary: are you surprised by how much strategy there is in a one-stopper?
PH: Absolutely! We didn’t really envisage some of the strange scenarios that we have seen. I do believe that the majority of the races will be one-stop races. Think of some of the surprising results we have seen despite that: Sauber doesn’t have the fastest car, but with clever strategy they bagged good points. So that element is still there. Maybe we will see a more aggressive approach in Silverstone - there we probably will see a two-stopper.
Q: The ‘undercut’ is yesterday - ‘overcut’ is the name of the game this season. Were you expecting this to such an extent?
PH: Ha, I believe we confuse a lot of fans with ‘overcut’ and ‘undercut’. But in fact the tracks dictate what you do - if overtaking is possible or not. And, of course, the longevity of the tyres helps keep more windows open. I personally think that in Silverstone we will see where we are with the sport. You can overtake, you have big corners, the drivers will have to be very fit - so it could be a defining race this year.
Q: Have you been surprised by the longevity of the tyres?
PH: Honestly, at most of the tracks we could do the whole race distance on one set of tyres. So track position, safety car eventuality and the layout of the track will open up opportunities for the teams.
Q: Based on what you know so far, will there be any changes for 2018? What is the spectrum of wishes from the teams?
PH: A long list! (Laughs) We have to be careful with the performance of the cars - where they are going. If we make too radical changes - to go to maybe more aggressive compounds, which is actually what they want as the cars are working with the tyres very well - it might get tricky. Right now all the teams have a very balanced wear: we have no blistering, graining is no issue. So we are in a good place and we have to be careful about making changes for the sake of changes. What we are really working on is the rain tyres. There we need the warm-up improved. We are testing continuously on the rain tyres.
Q: So it sounds like whoever wins the titles this year, Pirelli will be winners too! No complaints so far…
PH: It is a good cooperation with all teams and drivers - that makes us all winners!