Last year’s tyres put the cars on a knife-edge at the beginning of the season as teams struggled to understand how best to manage the narrow working temperature ranges from track to track.
The unpredictability led to seven different winners in the first seven races and it was only in the latter part of the season that the leading teams and drivers worked out what was going on and how to design, set up and drive their cars to get the best out of the tyres.
The new tyres are supposed to be much more user friendly and teams first got to try them out in Brazil last year before the final race and again in the opening pre-season test in Jerez.
Neither of those gave the right conditions to really get a genuine feel for the tyres but today, at the second pre-season test in Barcelona, the teams will get to do just that.
Up to 35 sets of tyres from the entire Pirelli range will be at their disposal on a familiar track with the same tarmac properties and corner types to many of the tracks on the F1 calendar and a wealth of data from past running that will help compare the new with the old.
So what can they expect?
Put simply, across the range this year’s tyres are softer and faster and will be easier to make work - but on the flipside they will wear down quicker.
Tyre development is about compound and construction and Pirelli have changed both this year.
They have gone for a stiffer construction overall but they have softened the sidewall and created a stronger shoulder. For the compounds, they have used a more adhesive material that makes this year’s hard tyre, for example, similar to last year’s medium.
Tyres heat up through the forces exerted on them as the car drives around the circuit – and by changing the way the tyres are constructed, Pirelli has changed the way the temperature builds within them.
The new construction enables more energy to get into the tyres more quickly, but then spreads that energy to enable the tyre to work in a much wider operating window.
This wider operating range is important as it means the tyres should be less sensitive to car set-up and easier to work with and manage through the race weekend.
The construction has also been designed to use the cornering forces to enable better turn-in and better performance through the corner – as last year they tended to drop away in the middle of a turn.
With the tyres able to stay within the ideal working temperature range for longer, the compound should be more effective while a change to a more ‘sticky’ material will also help to increase corner exit traction.
Overall, Pirelli claims the new supersoft tyres – the grippiest of the range - could see lap times reduce by around half a second – but it comes at a cost of much more aggressive degradation.
Last year, when the tyres dropped off a cliff at the end of their life, it was because the teams were not understanding how they worked. Once they worked it out, the tyres were far more predictable and that resulted in a series of fairly processional races as the level of tyre degradation led to a clear preferred strategy.
This year’s tyres are designed to progressively deteriorate more over time – to help introduce unpredictability and vary strategy.
The higher wear should lead to a MINIMUM of two tyre changes per race, opening up the strategy options again. And with different drivers on different strategies facing major differences in tyre performance there will be greater potential for overtaking.
There will also, however, be a more delicate balance in qualifying as the tyres will quickly get up to temperature but could degrade before the end of a driver’s flying lap if they are not carefully managed.
The quick warm-up should also suit drivers with a smoother style – like Jenson Button – but they will also suit those who like a sharper turn-in – like Fernando Alonso.
The stickier compound, meanwhile, will provide more mechanical grip and that may reduce the reliance on downforce in higher corners – levelling the playing field for teams with less effective aerodynamics.
The compound choice will remain the same – supersoft, soft, medium and hard – but while the compounds have been softened across the board, the gap between them has been widened so now there should be around half a second per lap difference between the different choices – which will also impact the strategy decisions.
So there’s a lot to play with in Barcelona – and the teams will be keen to learn quickly as the opening race gets ever closer.
Last year, to get an understanding of what the tyres were doing, teams ran infrared sensors that measured the tyre surface temperature at all points of the circuit.
It allowed the teams to understand the levels of power they could put through the tyres at different points before losing traction and adjust their engine maps and set-ups to suit – resulting in reduced wheelspin, faster lap times and more predictable single-strategy races.
They will now have to go through all that again for the new tyres – although it should take less time because fewer significant car changes means fewer variables to consider.
But the big hope from Pirelli is that once the teams work out the tyres, they will still not be able to work around the degradation – so strategies should stay mixed up and we should get exciting races all through the season...