During the Mexican Grand Prix, I had a chance to sit down with Paul Hembrey, the current motorsport director of Pirelli, the sole tire provider for Formula One.
What follows is a conversation with the man who takes the flak from media, drivers, and teams alike whenever tires come in to question.
Ryan Jurnecka: This is the first F1 visit to the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in 23 years—new surface, modified corners. Tell me about some of the challenges Pirelli is facing coming into this weekend.
Paul Hembrey: A lot of the new circuits we go to have a very smooth tarmac at the outset, and what you tend to get is a leaching of the chemicals to the surface from the bitumen, and when you get rain on top of that, you can imagine, it makes the surface very slippery. So we've seen a lot of evolution of the track during the couple of days of running as the surface starts to bed down.
On circuits that don't get used a lot, such as Sochi where we went back to, it stays like that for years. Whereas you go to somewhere like Austin, where there's a lot of action, there's a lot of racing there, and eventually the bitumen wears away and you start seeing the aggregates of the surface coming through and it becomes far more abrasive. So it's very, very slippery, and the teams were obviously struggling to understand if it was just the surface, or whether there was something they could do with the car to get the performance. But as I said, the track has evolved very heavily. And for [the teams) of course with the slippery track, it means the mechanical grip is really important, and aero plays less of a role in this particular instance because they haven't got a good interspatial grip between the tire and the track.
RJ: How do you prepare for that going into it? Do you use simulators runs?
PH: Yeah, we do. We take measurements of the surface. We come here and actually roll the surface. We take it back and get an average run on an average car that we run in the simulators, so we have an idea. But unfortunately, because there's a chemical reaction between the tire and the surface, you can underestimate that.
In fact, it looks like the lap times are a little bit slower than we anticipated. But the importance for us is to know the loadings of the tire, the pacing of the loadings, because that's where you can have issues of integrity, so we had to simulate that. It's obviously a very quick track, you know it's a fast track, and has some demanding corners…it's a nice track, actually! I think when we come here in future years, and [the track] settles down a bit, it's going to be a very interesting race here.
RJ: Now, let's talk about 2017 and your ideas about the new tire. I know one of your conditions for the renewal was for more testing of the tires.
RJ: I assume, then, with your handshake with Bernie [Ecclestone] you'll be granted this?
PH: Yeah, I mean you can imagine for next year…we have one. We're doing a test at Abu Dhabi [this year] on the Tuesday after [the race] where we're doing 12 hours of testing with nine teams—we're calling it a "mini-Sebring." We're doing a 12-hour session.
But going forward, the big changes to the regulations are in 2017, where the car will change dramatically, the tires are going to have a different dimension, well width anyway, much wider tires, and we have to prepare for that. We've got to have some testing, because the performance levels, from what we're indicating, are going to be 4 seconds, possibly 5 seconds quicker than today's car. Now, that's a huge step forward and most of that performance will be coming in corners. OK? So, corners means tires, and tires will take the grunt of all that energy and performance, so it's a big, big change for all of us. So we have to have testing. We haven't yet formalized how we'll create that testing program, because until they decide the regulations, we don't know if we can test or we won't know if the teams tell us we can test on the current car modified, or whether they need to build a prototype car to represent what the '17 car is. So there's a little bit of the unknown for us.
We do a lot of structural work in the laboratory. You simulate race distances, the load.
RJ: Some of the drivers were saying there's no way Pirelli is going to be able to please all of them, that that's going to be an impossible goal. Would you agree with that consensus?
PH: To be honest, it's really a bizarre situation because the only component that's the same between the winning car and the last-placed car is the tire, so the last thing they should be worried about is that. It's the one thing they're guaranteed they've got [that's equal to competition]. So in this case, if Hamilton's champion, the tires he uses are exactly the same as the guys who come last in the championship, so they need to be looking at the other thousands of variables if they're not winning.
RJ: The team bosses are somewhat critical of increase in testing; they think it's going to drive up the cost. They think it should be more centered on simulator use.
PH: Well they don't design tires—it's easy for them to say. There are also a lot of teams saying that there's a dramatic lack of testing. So I think from the public's point of view, running around in wind tunnels, simulators is not particularly exciting. These teams have huge budgets, all spent on technologies that are invisible to the public, so I think there's also a very good argument that you actually get back on the track again, the driver will drive more than just 20 weekends a year, and the public would actually get the chance to see cars on a non-race weekend basis. It's one of the few sports in the world that actually doesn't practice. So the teams are split. It depends—some of them would say they don't want testing because they feel like they have an advantage with the simulators or CFD. Others want testing because maybe they feel they're not as well up to it. There's no perfect solution. It'd drive costs up? Teams have budgets—the top ones have 250 million euros, so it's more about spending money elsewhere; it's not about driving costs up.
The sport needs to be more visible, it needs to be accessible. Bear in mind, a lot of the teams are European-based. We'll have obviously a U.S. team next year, but the analogy I give them is when the English Premier League Soccer team is in its preseason, there are about four or five teams that spend all their time in North America, either in the U.S. or Canada, and the other half are all in Asia promoting the sport, and that's something you can learn. You need to go beyond just hiding away. You have to go out and create your public and create awareness in the public, and that's something that Formula One, being a global sport, needs to do more of.
Our motorsport involvement in the U.S. is becoming more and more expansive. Every year we're growing our involvement into U.S. motorsport, and we wouldn't mind adding a few more major championships in the U.S. So I wouldn't exclude that from our plans going forward. Certainly our business is growing rapidly.
When you see Checo here, the stands go crazy because there's an emotional connection. They aren't cheering for Force India, they're cheering for Perez.
Pros of closed tire competition sport—brand awareness, equal competition of tires, reduces costs. Cons of open competition—when the team does well, they boast about the driver and car. When the team does poorly, they blame the tire. Doesn't do much for the image of the brand. It's better if you're associated with the pinnacle of that category of racing—like F1 or Pirelli World Challenge.
RJ: Just to clarify, obviously it doesn't look good for Pirelli to be criticized by these drivers—think Vettel at Spa earlier this year—but does your association with the sport outweighs any negativity that comes from that?
PH: The problem is, you guys, the media, don't write the nice things, you know? So, if I get nine, nice, wonderful positive comments—nobody writes about it! I get one negative. So I get all you lot going, "Hey, how about the negativity?" And you know what? I really don't get that much negativity, because there are all these nice comments as well. But unfortunately, the media, in all forms of life today, tends to focus on the negative aspects. So you have to take that. You're in a sport that's highly visible. It's a political sport, adrenalin-driven sport, so you have to take the rough with the smooth. You know? You have to be quite realistic—it's not always going to be perfect. And provided you believe that you are doing the correct thing, or you have to change things because you're not, you have to demonstrate your ability to change and your ability to understand what to change. Because if you're floundering and you don't know what to do, then that, of course, becomes a big negative. So I understand why you ask the question, but the reality is, there's a lot of positivity as well. I can tell you yesterday, Jean Todt had a meeting and he was asking about the tires. He just said the teams are basically very happy with Pirelli and they've chosen Pirelli [to continue in the sport]. But nobody's reported that as you can see! (laughs). Now, if you said the teams are unhappy with the tires, then it'd be the first headline! So, you understand, it's the way the media system works, and it's rare that you see a headline where you have someone complimenting someone, whether it's in sport or any other walk of life today. It doesn't sell papers, it doesn't sell media.
RJ: That's true, I admit. Now, tell me more about this 2017 tire. It's going to be a big change. Tell me more about some of the anticipated challenges that you'll face in this project.
PH: Well, assuming we get a representative race car that gets us the ability to test, we have to redesign all the compounds because we're going to be going much quicker 5 seconds a lap, probably 2 to 3 seconds faster coming just from the tire. And that in itself changes everything we know up to now, because all the wear profiles of the tires, the chemical degradation of the tires and such, obviously it's such a wider tire, it's going to be much more camber-sensitive as well. You don't want to be leaning on one shoulder, so we'll have brand-new challenges in the integrity… it's just huge. It changes everything. It's like starting from scratch.