Pirelli Doesn't Want to Be F1's Main Character, and That's How It Should Be

Pirelli Doesn't Want to Be F1's Main Character, and That's How It Should Be photo
Pirelli Doesn't Want to Be F1's Main Character, and That's How It Should Be photo

The first Formula 1 race I ever watched on TV was, believe it or not, the 2005 United States Grand Prix. I was 12. And to a normal person, rather than a precocious preteen, a farce like that wouldn't turn anyone into a fan. Yet, for some, strange reason, the drama, the politics, and the fallout resulting from both hooked me. I suppose that's why some people get into WWE.

Many have said and will continue to say that F1 is far too obsessed with its status as a "show" in 2024, but when I consider the worst-case scenario of the tire war that we observed in Indianapolis nearly 20 years ago—the race that put F1's U.S. conquest on ice for at least five years—I don't think it's controversial to suggest that in at least one respect, the sport has improved. And plenty of that thanks goes to Pirelli.

Pirelli's been F1's sole tire supplier since 2011; in that span, it's seen three monumental rule changes, the biggest coming just two years ago with the step up to 18-inch tires and ground-effects aero. Yet another is due for 2026. The Italian tire maker representing the only game in the paddock might suggest to some that it doesn't really need to work to keep its much-vaunted spot. We've learned that competition breeds innovation; monopolies, not so much. However, Pirelli's still got plenty of work to do—it's just different than the work it might otherwise be doing if it was in a constant battle to one-up, let's say, a French or Japanese rival.

Pirelli Motorsport Director Mario Isola
Pirelli Motorsport Director Mario Isola

"Being the sole supplier, we need to guarantee the sporting equity," Mario Isola, Pirelli's director of motorsport, told The Drive during an interview in the paddock of the Miami Grand Prix. "We have telemetry data coming from all the teams that we analyze during the weekend. We have a laboratory in the fitting area where we cut the tires, we analyze the tires with a microscope and some other equipment to check that the integrity of the tire is guaranteed."


Isola mentioned that this was how Pirelli discovered the risk of failure during the 2023 Qatar Grand Prix and was able to act swiftly, notifying the FIA and all the teams so that the weekend could continue, albeit with a maximum tire life stipulation of 18 laps, effectively making the event a minimum three-stop race.

"Safety first," Isola said. "Obviously, you have to guarantee that your construction and how they operate the tire on track is in a safe way, because obviously all the teams are looking for performance, so we give them some limitation in terms of camber and minimum pressure to be sure that they use the tires in the right way. Once we do that, then the rest is a matter of performance. So the level of grip, the level of degradation, they are all parameters that you can tune, but [only] once you have the safety and consistency in production [achieved].

"This was a lot of work we did in the factory to guarantee that all the tires are exactly the same," Isola stressed. "It's not easy when you talk about tires. Quality is something that we guarantee in the company at every level. The problem here is the sensitivity is much higher. A small, small difference that you cannot feel on a road tire, here is one tenth of a second."

Sometimes, these preparations must happen when Isola and his team have no legacy data to go on, in the event of a new event added to the calendar (or worse yet, a sweeping change to car design). This season marks the first in some years that a new venue isn't debuting. In those cases—like, say, with November's Las Vegas Grand Prix—the advanced nature of modern simulation becomes especially valuable.

Even if Pirelli has experience with every track on 2024's calendar, "Formula 1 never stops," in Isola's words. "With the 18-inch tires, we decided to introduce a complete new family of compounds that obviously were not available in 2011. New polymers—obviously there is a lot of confidentiality around that—but let's say new ingredients in general that were not available, and they give us a better behavior of the car more in line with the expectation of the driver [and] less overheating." The tire's carcass and belt, Isola highlighted, are two parts that have especially evolved over Pirelli's 13-year tenure in F1.

I asked Isola, at the behest of some of my colleagues, what would happen if Pirelli took one of the exact same compounds it deploys in a Grand Prix into a mold for a road car-sized tire. How would the vehicle perform? His answer just accentuated the sport's rapid pace of development.

"You'd slide everywhere!" Isola laughed. "You need to put an amount of energy into the tire to warm the tire, that is probably not a possibility for a road car. Maybe for a supercar, for a performance car—but these [F1] cars, the step is huge, especially from 2017. When they decided to design a car with wider tires, they [became] a lot faster than in the past. From 2016 to 2017, we saw an improvement in lap time that was five, six seconds a lap."

Pirelli has, of course, been able to take learnings derived from its F1 research and development and imbue them into road cars. Every consumer-facing brand involved in motorsports has claimed this since racing's earliest days, but Pirelli's got a better argument than most, considering the Ford Mustang Dark Horse I enjoyed a hot lap in just before Sunday's main event rode on rubber constructed with a process Pirelli honed for F1 first.

In the end, though, safety and consistency remain Pirelli's north stars in building F1 tires. If the company is doing its job properly, it's not the star of the show—the teams and drivers are. The supplier merely gives the sport the product necessary to do its thing, while obviously engineering a certain, predetermined and repeatable pattern of wear so that the pit wall has no choice but to strategize.

That's a very far cry from the first F1 race I ever saw.

"I did a tire war—not in Formula 1 but I did it in GT, also in the American Le Mans Series when I came [to the United States]" Isola said. "Obviously for us, a tire company, it adds an additional... you are part of the team, you are part of the result, you develop tires that can make a difference. So it's a different approach. But now, even if we are the sole supplier, still you have a different technical challenge."

McLaren driver Lando Norris celebrates after his first career Formula 1 win at the 2024 Miami Grand Prix.
McLaren driver Lando Norris celebrates after his first career Formula 1 win at the 2024 Miami Grand Prix.

Beating your rival's product is a thrill of a different kind for a parts maker. But that personal glory doesn't always go hand-in-hand with the competition's best interests.

"In the past with [a] tire war, I believe that sometimes, the final result of the race was defined too much by the tires," Isola told me. "We need to be sure that the final classification is for the best driver first, and the best car second. Not the best tire. This is a situation that is for the sport, not ideal.

"For the tire manufacturer, it's fantastic—if you win! First of all, I am a motorsport fan, and I [am] lucky enough to work in an environment that I like. But as a motorsport fan, the real hero for me is the driver first and the team that is able to develop the best car."