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.