Car Culture

Managing Formula 1 tires is a complex job, here’s how Pirelli does it

Handling the development of Formula 1 tires is just the start of the job for Pirelli.

Pirelli

Pirelli has been Formula 1's sole tire supplier since 2011 and part of that role -- in addition to developing tire technologies and new compounds -- is running the logistical side of getting teams' tires for a race weekend. During a visit to the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, I was able to get a peek behind the curtain at just how complicated these logistics can be.

One of the most important things to know about tires in F1 is that at no point can a race team have unmounted racing tires in its possession. While all the teams are required by the rules to use spec tires, with there being several available compounds to choose from at each race, there is still a great deal of secret tire technology that goes into an F1 tire and preventing industrial espionage is a priority.

Mounting and balancing almost 2,000 massive tires per race weekend is an almost unfathomable challenge, but then Pirelli has to keep track of every single one too.

Pirelli

How then does each team get its tires for the weekend? Well, the process starts with a number: 1,600. That's how many tires all 10 teams are allotted by the F1 rules for a race weekend, and it's no small amount of rubber, particularly when you consider the physical size of a Formula 1 tire: 305/670-13 for the front and 405/670-13 for the rear. And while those numbers might look a little goofy for those of you used to looking at street car sizes, that's because the second number is a measurement in millimeters, rather than an aspect ratio.

To get this veritable mountain of rubber to each race, Pirelli employs one of two methods. For races in and around mainland Europe, Pirelli operates a fleet of trucks. In fact, Pirelli has more trucks in service than any actual team in the series. For races outside of Europe, Pirelli uses sea freight to bring around a half-dozen shipping containers full of tires to the track.

The shipping containers arrive well before the race weekend, and in the days leading up to the event, teams bring all of their wheels -- which are owned by each team individually -- to a dedicated tire fitting tent where Pirelli technicians mount, balance and fill each tire by hand, with each tire taking around two minutes. That works out to around 53.3 man-hours for all 1,600 tires.

F1 teams never have unmounted tires in their possession, this is to help curb industrial espionage.

Andrew Hone/Pirelli

This process is sometimes complicated by the fact that not all teams are equally well-funded, so some of the smaller teams may not have 40 sets of wheels, necessitating further tire changes throughout the weekend as tires are used. Well-heeled companies like Red Bull, Ferrari or Mercedes have the cash to procure enough wheels that they don't have to deal with changing tires on rims throughout a weekend.

Now, after much sweating, toil and gnashing of teeth, all 10 teams have their tires, and now each tire gets wrapped in a tire blanket. No, not a blanket like the one your nana quilted for you when you graduated high school. A tire blanket is a specially designed wrapper for the tire that has a heating element built in, allowing the tires to stay at a uniform temperature and reduce the amount of time it takes for a given compound to heat up once the car hits the track.

F1 tire blankets are especially interesting because they are all marked with the wheel position it's meant for (left front, right rear, etc.), and they are plugged into electronic controllers that intelligently monitor how much heat is being put into each tire. Beyond that, the electronic controller also manages air pressure in each tire, automatically compensating for things like heat and altitude based on what tire compound is being used. Each set of tires is placed on its own cart and is ready to be wheeled out at a moment's notice.

Each tire, once mounted, is put in its own electronically controlled tire blanket which keeps it a constant hot temperature and also maintains air pressure.

Pirelli

As the race weekend progresses and various sets of tires in multiple compounds are used, Formula 1 rules require that teams hand back tires to Pirelli after the three free practice sessions. The schedule states that one set has to be given back after the first 40 minutes of the first practice, another set at the end of the first practice, two sets at the end of the second practice and another two sets at the end of the third practice.

To keep track of all its tires, with all the hand-backs and so on, Pirelli equips each tire with a barcode and each of its tire techs with a scanner that tracks each and every tire, ensuring that everybody is on the level.

After the race ends on Sunday, the teams begin returning all of their mounted tires to Pirelli, which then goes through the dismounting process for all 1,600 tires, crushing the used tires when they're free of the rims. Once the tires are crushed, in the case of the non-European races, they are put back in their shipping containers and sent back to Pirelli to be analyzed and eventually recycled. The rims are then repacked and returned to their respective teams.

All of the available tire compounds feature their own unique color code that allows fans and officials to spot which tires a team is using at a moment's notice.

Lionel Ng/Pirelli

This same routine happens for every single race on the 21-race calendar. Pirelli makes, moves, mounts, dismounts, moves again, analyzes and recycles 33,600 tires a year for one 10-team racing series. It's a massive undertaking, one which goes on mostly behind the scenes, out of sight of all the race fans with their hats and banners but without all of the hard work put in by the folks at Pirelli, there would be no F1 championship.