By Chetan Narula
In an exlcusive interview, Paul Hembery, Pirelli (Tyres) Motorsport Director opens up on all things Formula One.
When Bridgestone left after 2010, why did Pirelli feel the need to step in?
Formula One provides a huge opportunity for any automotive company and supplier for branding, and that is throughout the world, given that there are 20 races in a season and in different countries. It is a unique world championship and there aren’t many other sports doing so. We have come to India, before that we went to Korea, so Asia has been touched upon. We will be going to Russia soon and also to America. So it is a very compelling proposition for a tyre-company like Pirelli.
Bridgestone’s last season was quite drab in terms of strategy and pit-stops. Teams got by on single pit-stops and it was becoming very predictable. Did it influence Pirelli to make the spectacle more exciting?
Our inputs were a little different to those given to previous tyre suppliers. The teams told us to make it more exciting and we tried to give them interesting tyre compounds. And we too wanted the tyres to be involved in all the strategy decisions. But they are all very smart, as you can see. By the time we get down to the end of the season, they start doing races on one stop and that is because they learn very quickly. All the excitement is for the first half of the season, first ten or so races.
It becomes a little risky involved in a sport like this. You want people to talk about your tyres, so you try to make things interesting. Then drivers and teams look to win, and it’s usually the cars or their skills that help them in. But if something bad happens, they don’t qualify or win, then it’s the tyres’ fault. But we are ready to accept that bad publicity as well (laughs). Atleast they are talking about Pirelli. So it is an unforgiving environment. I recall someone asked me once, why would anyone want to be a motorsport tyre-supplier?
Considering that you were asked to make such tyres, how fair is it then when someone like Michael Schumacher compares them to egg-shells?
Everyone in Formula One, from a team principal to an engineer to a driver, has got an opinion. And all of them want to be in, all the time. Michael talking about us in that way also brought Pirelli to prominence. But he has an individual point of view and it is a valid one. He is the greatest champion of all time and we respect him. In the past things have been done the way he suggested and he has won a lot. We can go down that road too, but we have received different inputs. And we have to cater to the whole grid and not just one individual or one team. You can never please everybody!
Testing is so limited now in Formula One. How is the challenge to deliver different compounds every season, different not just in one particular year but also from the previous compounds?
It is very, very difficult. For example, the only thing that helps us for next year that the rules are continuous and the cars shouldn’t really change too much from this season. So in this example, we have enough co-relation of data from last season until now, with which to proceed ahead. If Pirelli does carry on being the tyre supplier from 2014 onwards, then it is a very big challenge for us, as the rules will be changing and the cars will change accordingly. The biggest point will be that there is no current car that will be similar to those rules and hence we will be short of options for a testing car. It is a definite issue, but similar to the one facing engine manufacturers for 2014. They also do in-house testing, like we will do if we are in F1 that time. But you do need some data from the tracks, so that you can understand the last small percentage in race conditions. So it is definitely a limitation and there is no perfect answer for that. Maybe in-season testing can help sort that out.
There was an in-season test this year and teams really aren’t in favour of doing one next season.
I think we didn’t go to an ideal location this time around. Perhaps if we had gone to, say Barcelona, we might have been able to give them more valuable information. It is a matter of costs for the teams and they have to use the same personnel for testing. With twenty races it is very difficult to find that gap. So there can be a lot of reasons why they weren’t so keen for next year.
Pre-season testing happens only in Europe and there are a couple of designated tracks where it happens every year, like Jerez or Barcelona. So when new tracks come in, or even for older tracks elsewhere in the world, how are you able to deliver the proper tyre compounds for a particular race-weekend?
We collect a lot of information before-hand. We send out teams to almost all tracks before hand to do the calculations. Last year we came here in advance to take in the circuit and how it might affect the tyre wear, considering the layout and track composition, its micro and macro roughness. Then we are able to run our own simulations and decide what tyre compounds to choose, based on energy and loads that might go into the tyres. But having said so, at new circuits, there are many conditions that cannot be taken into consideration. How dusty they are or is the oil coming through, low abrasive surfaces. Like we have seen in Korea or India, we could do with a little more wear here in Delhi, a little rougher surface (laughs). Also, we have only four compounds to choose from, so it is not that tough. Going forward though we would like to have more compounds and this is something we might include in the 2014 regulations if we continue to be in F1. We want a bigger range so that we can convert one-stop races into two-stoppers.
Don’t you think it is a bit late to decide that you want more than four compounds to choose from in 2014?
Not really. The good thing is that we are supplying tyres to all the teams. So everything being equal, there is no difference in what everybody wants or gets. They all get the same tyres and the same compounds to work with. And F1 teams relish new challenges, and are quick learners. So you can say that is a helpful aspect.
How big a logistical challenge is it to hop from country to country and make sure that these tyres are in place for every race weekend?
It is a tremendous challenge obviously. We have to maintain a team at the races at all times and we face the same logistical and travel difficulties as the teams throughout a season. As a practice we have five different sets to cater to the sport’s needs. For example, the tyres for India will go back to our base in England after the race here. The Abu Dhabi tyres are already there and the tyres for Austin are on their way. We know a whole lot in advance which tyres we are going to use for any particular race and we ship off our containers two months in advance. The teams don’t know it and they won’t know it unless we tell them when we do, or unless they steal our containers!
And finally, what are the on-road applications that Pirelli have used from their experience in F1?
Well we are primarily in the premium car segment. So, we find this information very useful for building simulators. That is where the road car industry is slowly headed towards, giving them a fair bit of idea of performance on the roads. F1 already uses this technique to a high extent. So we are perfecting this technique through F1 and we are already beginning to apply in our road-car experiences.
There are also other advantages such as material applications and learning to maintain temperature in the tyres, giving stability to the structure of the tyres. While there is a huge difference between a Formula One tyre and a road car tyre, there is a healthy level of pass-over of technology between the two. We supply to Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Audi, Aston Martin, BMW, Porsche, Mercedes, Bentley, and so on, and there is a reason why they choose to fit Pirellis.
(Chetan Narula is the author of India’s first book on Formula One, titled History of Formula One: The Circus comes to India.)