The age-old adage “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” has been the motivation for car companies to head to the track — practically since the dawn of the automobile itself. Seeing a Chevy or Ford take the checkered flag at a Sunday race lends cachet and credibility to a car, with the idea that consumers would then go to local dealerships the next day with checkbooks in hand. So does the same idea apply to tires? Pirelli seems to think so. The Italian tire company has been involved in motorsports for more than 100 years, and it’s not simply about bringing attention to the brand. Pirelli race tires are at the extreme edge of tire technology, and what the company learns from racing ultimately makes better tires for the street cars of everyday consumers. Pirelli invited us to the 2022 U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, to get a better understanding of the company’s relationship with Formula One and what it learns from this high-tech racing series.
Pirelli has been providing tires to motorsports teams since 1907, and first supplied tires to Formula One race teams more than 70 years ago. Over the years, the company intermittently supplied tires to F1, and in 2011 the Italian tire company became the exclusive supplier for every F1 team — a monopoly it will retain at least until 2024. Pirelli is also the sole tire supplier for World Rally Championship, and according to the company it is currently connected with about 350 car and motorcycle competitions.
Since the 1960s, Formula One cars have been racing with 13-inch wheels, although for the 2022 season the size increased to 18 inches. And while Pirelli provides a range of tires for varying conditions, Pirelli P Zero tires still carry the same tread width as before. The most important change is the sidewall, which now has a lower profile, much like a typical low-profile, high-performance Pirelli street tire that might be found on a variety of high-end sports cars.
Cars that compete in Formula One are among the most exotic, high-tech machines on the planet. These machines can cost upward of $100 million to develop and another $20 million to build, with each component designed to be as strong yet as lightweight as possible. Each car is powered by a 1.6-liter turbocharged V6 hybrid powertrain that generates around 1000 horsepower. With the ability to accelerate to 60 mph in about 2.6 seconds as well as produce extreme levels of downforce at speed, an F1 car’s tires need to be able to withstand extreme forces for extended periods.
Formula One races take place throughout the world in a variety of weather conditions on differing track surfaces, and the cars require tires appropriate for each situation. The F1 racing series has certain regulations and specs that every team and car must adhere to, but every car is different — as is every driver — so teams must make choices regarding which Pirelli tires to use for each outing. Pirelli offers three P Zero tires at any given race with compounds that are hard, medium, and soft — each with its benefits and tradeoffs. In addition, the teams are supplied with two wet-weather tires; Formula One does not cancel races due to inclement weather.
With no way to predict exact weather and track conditions, Pirelli will supply approximately 1,800 tires for every F1 race weekend. Each tire gets identified and tracked by a barcode, and all tires return to Pirelli. Unused tires will be saved for other races, and those that are no longer serviceable are transformed into fuel that powers Italian cement factories. Pirelli is also investigating methods to recycle the raw materials to create new tires, although it’s no simple task and will take some time to develop.
During the race weekend in Texas, we had a chance to speak with Pirelli’s Mario Isola, who has been in charge of Pirelli’s F1 tire operations since 2011. Isola explained that the company partners with Formula One to learn and gather data, testing tires under the most stressful situations in order to develop technology that will eventually trickle down to road tires. During a race, each tire has sensors that collect 115 data points to understand exactly how the tire is performing and where it might be having issues. The company learned a lot from the 13-inch wheels, but expects the adoption of the 18-inch wheel will provide information even more transferrable to road tire development.
When we inquired about how Pirelli’s F1 tire technology has changed the company’s consumer products, Isola told us that the bead of the P-Zero street tire (where the rubber meets the wheel) uses the same geometry employed in Formula One. “In Formula 1, the torque that we have here is crazy, it’s huge,” he noted. Pirelli needed to find a design that sealed the tire properly to avoid any sliding or failure under the extreme forces imposed on it by an F1 car. That same design is used in the company’s P-Zero line of high-performance street tires.
The idea of the run-flat tire is common today, but that hasn’t always been the case. Pirelli developed this technology for the World Rally Championship, reinforcing the tire structure to be able to continue functioning even with a puncture. Driving over rough terrain at high speeds, WRC cars are prone to tire punctures. Run-flat tires save considerable downtime for swapping or repairs, which is an important factor in this very competitive sector of motorsports. In 2001 Pirelli delivered its first run-flat tire for consumer use.
Tire production has also been influenced and revolutionized by Pirelli’s involvement in Formula One racing. Factory lines building F1 tires now employ robots, and that production method has been adapted for the company’s consumer tire line, improving the consistency and speed of production. Pirelli’s F1 tires get built on a different line than consumer tires, with one exception. The new high-performance P-Zero Trofeo tire — used on the new Lamborghini Urus Performante — is produced alongside F1 tires.
To properly showcase the connection between F1 racing tires and high-performance street tires, in 2018 Pirelli started a Hot Laps program. Hot Laps provides the opportunity for race fans to ride in supercars driven by Grand Prix drivers at high speeds on F1 tracks around the world. Of course these cars ride on Pirelli P-Zero tires. As Isola noted, “This latest initiative allows us to demonstrate the performance and technology of our road car product on the actual circuits used in Formula 1 with the best drivers in the world. We talk a lot about motorsport being our ultimate development tool: now everyone can see that for themselves.” In Texas we had the opportunity to ride in a McLaren 720S with two-time World Champion and F1 legend Mika Hakkinen behind the wheel — a thrilling ride, and perhaps the ultimate way to showcase the developmental relationship between Pirelli race tires and street tires.