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Opinion

How tyre development improves a racing driver

A two-year stint as Pirelli’s Formula 1 tyre tester was an invaluable experience for our regular Engineering supplement columnist, who wishes he’d acquired that knowledge sooner

Lucas di Grassi, ABT CUPRA Formula E Team, M9Electro

Engineering

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I have always liked the technical aspects of racing and felt that understanding the engineering aspect would work in my favour. Sure enough, I managed to beat drivers who were probably more talented than me because I understood better how the car works. For me, this was always as important as the driving skills.

Probably the years that I learned the most in my racing career were in 2011-12, when I was developing the Pirelli tyres for Formula 1. We used the unraced Toyota chassis, then in 2012 the Lotus. It was the best school, driving good F1 cars, learning the intricacies of tyres and having the engineers there to exchange ideas. In Formula E now you do around 2000km a year, so I did almost five seasons worth of testing! It was very useful in the next years of my career and gave me a lot of insights I wish I’d had when I started in F1.

We were using 20 sets per day – I think one day at Monza I used 26 sets and drove around 1000km – and these included tyres with very different configurations. We even tried tyres that were already cambered, which I didn’t know existed.

Instead of being completely symmetrical, the internal side had a smaller radius. Then there were different thicknesses of walls, different compounds and construction. We tried lots of combinations to see which tyres blistered or grained, and which tyres didn’t, across circuits with varying degrees of surface roughness, and some of them put more energy into the tyres than others.

Ultimately, it wasn’t up to me to decide the tyres that got carried forwards. Tyres that are softer normally degrade faster and lose lap time more quickly than harder tyres, and there is a crossover point where the harder tyres are faster. But many times we tried a tyre where the degradation was actually better; it was softer, faster and lasted longer. But this tyre was probably discarded from the batch because you needed a tyre that matched F1’s brief.

It wanted to move away from what we’d had during my 2010 season on the Bridgestone, which was a very conservative, stable tyre. We weren’t looking to find the best tyre; it was more about putting them in a window and giving F1 the possibility to choose which ones they wanted to have.

Di Grassi spent two years developing Pirelli rubber before joining Audi in LMP1

Photo by: Pirelli

Di Grassi spent two years developing Pirelli rubber before joining Audi in LMP1

Tyres are among the most important things on a racecar and, if you make a bad choice or if the right one isn’t available, your performance will be compromised. In LMP1 they were crucial because we had a free choice.

When I joined Audi in 2013, Michelin would give us a lot of options including a night and day tyre for Le Mans. The most interesting tyre that I raced was a rain compound, but without any grooves! In some situations at Le Mans, it was better to double-stint and change tyres, and other times we were quadruple-stinting, so we had to make tough decisions. A good feel for the tyres was definitely an advantage.

With the Michelin you would even compromise sometimes the energy you put on acceleration to reduce stress on the tyre and keep them in a certain window

Still now it is helpful to understand the techniques you need for generating or managing wear. But the Hankook we use in Formula E is very stable, so it’s hard to overheat the tyres like you did with the Michelins we had before.

The difference between a driver being very smooth or not is almost negligible, but with the Michelin that wasn’t the case. You would even compromise sometimes the energy you put on acceleration to reduce stress on the tyre and keep them in a certain window. A tyre that is less stable, harder to switch on or maintain means the differences between set-ups and driving styles extrapolate.

The next product for Season 11 [2025] I’ve been told is going to be grippier, and that should allow us to put more power down. Currently you can’t apply full throttle in a zero to 100km/h acceleration because that only results in wheelspin. Then hopefully also there will be more of a management process with the tyre which will create another element of difficulty and will be good for the spectacle.

Will the next generation of Hankooks allow experienced drivers to use more of their tyre expertise?

Photo by: Sam Bagnall / Motorsport Images

Will the next generation of Hankooks allow experienced drivers to use more of their tyre expertise?

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