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Behind the scenes: things you didn’t know about F1 tyres

TG gatecrashes Renault’s garage to get a closer look at the Pirelli wheels

  1. “Don’t fall over, don’t break anything and don’t get in the way.”

    This is the inner monologue running through my head as Renault’s ‘Tyre Man’ Rob Sprules explains the ins and outs of the team’s setup at Silverstone. Development driver Sergey Sirotkin is out on circuit working his way through an intense programme which will provide vital information for the rest of the season, and they can’t afford any delays.

    They’ve been lucky already because Silverstone has extended its customary 5pm noise restriction deadline by one hour to give the teams more running time, and it looks like the forecast rain is going to hold off. The last thing they need is some bloke from Top Gear causing unnecessary mischief.

    So to keep me out of trouble, they’ve set me a task: fetch a set of tyres from the paddock and have them ready for when the car next enters the pits. Simple, right?

  2. Erm, not so much. When Pirelli replaced Bridgestone as the sport’s sole supplier at the start of the 2011 season, they were asked to design compounds that would force teams to make multiple pit stops in the hope that grands prix would become less predictable.

    As a result of that request, F1 tyres are now immensely delicate items; sensitive to changes in temperature and not much use if driven too aggressively for too long.

    So if the blankets are fitted incorrectly and the rubber fails to hit the regulation 110 degrees Celsius before being bolted onto Mr Sirotkin’s car, at best the team’s data will be rendered worthless and at worst there’ll be a nasty accident. And guess who’ll be to blame?

  3. Luckily, wrapping the tyres is a fairly simple process. Laying everything out on the floor, the wheel is positioned so that the valve on the rim aligns with the Velcro joint when the blanket is eventually sealed.

    This is so that mechanics will know exactly what to expect when they open it all up again, which can save vital tenths of a second when, for example, they’re preparing for a pit stop in a hurry.

  4. Once that’s done, two drawstrings need to be pulled tight and sealed to the outer edge of the blanket to create a snug fit that will keep an even temperature across the circumference of the tyre.

    This is followed by what is effectively a lid, designed to stop heat loss through the uncovered rims, which is again affixed with a strip of Velcro. Nothing to it, really.

  5. Admiring the handiwork, the weight of the whole package suddenly becomes apparent. Minus the wheel rim, the front tyres weigh about 8.5kg, with the rears tipping the scales at roughly 10 kilos.

    Spare a thought for the mechanics, who will be dealing with even heavier loads next season. With F1’s regulations changing to give cars more mechanical grip in 2017, Pirelli’s new fronts and rears are expected to weigh in at about 9.5kg and 11.5kg respectively.

    If everyone’s biceps look bigger next year, you’ll know why.

  6. The next step is to link everything up to the control system, and handily all of the cables have been colour coded with electrical tape to ensure there are no mix-ups.

    It’s at this point that the sheer scale of financial outlay begins to hit home. Each set of four tyres comes with its own monitor, which has the sole purpose of setting the temperature. But despite its limited functionality, it still costs something in the region £4,600.

    A single rear blanket meanwhile will set you back one and a half grand, and a smaller one for a front wheel isn’t much less. In total you’re looking at £10,000 per set, and Renault maintains a stock of 33 units at any given race weekend.

    Even by modern standards, that amounts to one hell of a heating bill.

  7. With the five-figure payload ready for delivery, I begin to make my way to the garage where in a few moments Renault’s young Russian driver will be expecting his order.

    Immediately though, there’s a problem. It’s impossible to see over the stacked tyres without being 6ft 5, and unable to make up those final few inches (stop laughing at the back), I tilt my head sideways to get a view of the path ahead.

    For £4,600, you’d think that the monitor would have a camera mounted somewhere on the front of the trolley. Alas, it doesn’t.

  8. The other issue is the trolley itself. The wheels are smaller than those found on your average supermarket version, which means every bump becomes a perilous obstacle.

    Wary of tipping it over, I cling on to the top of the stack approaching the edge of a mat, and just about keep everything upright as the frame jolts downwards.

  9. Things get easier entering the garage itself, where the floor is smooth and unsullied by carpets and wires. There are a couple of blind turns though, and all I can do is hope that no one is coming in the other direction in a rush.

    Almost there…

  10. Perfect timing. Sirotkin pulls into the pit lane just as I’m hooking the tyres up to the overhead power rig built to keep the blankets working in preparation for a pit stop.

    Keen to preserve what has so far been an incident-free job, I retreat and let the mechanics take over. The tyres coming off the car will soon return to the paddock so that the brake dust can be cleaned from the rims, and eventually they’ll be sent back to Pirelli for stripping and disposal.

    There’s no museum afterlife for these wheels, partly because there are too many: Pirelli provided the grid with 35,964 individual tyres last year. That’s a lot of burnt rubber.

  11. Fresh wheels on, Sirotkin ventures back onto the circuit to continue with his programme.

    The striking thing about the session is that everything they learn tyre-wise will become completely irrelevant in four months’ time when the chequered flag falls at the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi.

    The new regs mean that all of the teams will be starting from scratch in 2017, with the exception of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, who have been selected to help Pirelli develop next year’s compounds.

    Pirelli says it will prevent these three outfits from gaining an advantage by hiding the identity of each compound over the course of the test runs, with neutral data presented to all of the teams once the development stage is over.

    Even so, rivals believe their understanding of the tyres will be better initially, meaning pre-season shakedowns will be even more crucial than usual.

    Whoever said testing was boring?

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