When Pirelli discovered signs of damage to its race tyres after Friday practice for the 2023 Qatar Grand Prix, the matter was reported to motorsport’s governing body, the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile), which was quick to act. It imposed a maximum tyre life of 18 laps for the Grand Prix.

Graham Duxbury

By Graham Duxbury

This is a clear example of the important role which modern Formula One tyres play in the sport.

Over the years, F1 tyres have been supplied by Dunlop, Englebert, Firestone, Continental, Goodyear, Michelin, Bridgestone and – since 2011 – Pirelli.

Today, race results are often influenced by the choice between different specially constructed rubber specifications (compounds) from Pirelli which provides hard, medium and soft tyres with different grip levels.

According to the regulations, drivers are required to use a minimum of two compounds during a race. This adds a tactical component to the order in which tyres are selected and the number of pitstops a team may wish to schedule.

Compound selection is closely allied to a driver’s ability to “get the tyres in the window” from a temperature perspective so as to ensure maximum grip.

A driver’s skill in terms of deriving the most performance from a set of tyres by driving in a way that minimises degradation or “drop-off” is critical to maintaining targeted lap times over longer race stints.

Back in the early days of the F1 world championship, tyres were not as critical to race outcomes. Tyres were treaded and capable of handling all weather conditions. Dry weather “slicks” were yet to be invented.

Legend has it that Firestone – a major F1 tyre supplier in the late 1960s and 1970s – despatched a set of “uncut” tyres to Ferrari for testing with plans for a technician to hand-cut treads at the circuit.

The technician was delayed and the team went ahead with its testing programme using smooth tyres. Surprisingly, they proved faster. It was a eureka moment for the sport.

That said, it was a rival Goodyear-shod car – Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell – that posted the first Grand Prix win for a slick-shod car. It came at the 1971 Spanish Grand Prix at Montjuic Park.

Since the 1970s, F1 tyres have undergone a number of changes with significant developments in carcass design as well as compound formulation.

Tyres have also borne the brunt of some bizarre rulings by the FIA. In 1998, grooves were required on slick tyres in a move to reduce mechanical grip and so emphasise drivers’ skills.

Curiously, tyre changes were banned in 2005 with extra-hard compounds introduced to last the full race distance. However, tyre changes were reinstated in 2006 in the wake of the 2005 US Grand Prix debacle.

The 2005 US Grand Prix was held on the site of the famous Indianapolis banked circuit, where a road course making use of one of the Indy circuit’s banked corners was laid out.

In practice, Michelin tyre users found their grooved tyres failing due to loads imposed by this banked corner. Ralf Schumacher had a nasty accident as a result.

Bridgestone tyre users experienced no such issues. Unlike the 2023 Qatar Grand Prix, where the sole supplier was able to make decisions that affected all the cars, neither tyre supplier could find common ground on a solution. As a result, this Grand Prix is remembered as the race in which only six cars started after all Michelin-shod teams withdrew.

The race also signalled the end of the so-called tyre war as Michlin left the competition to Bridgestone. And ever since then, F1 has had a single tyre supplier.

Thankfully, grooved tyres were replaced by full slicks in 2009 in a bid to place more focus on the mechanical grip required for overtaking.

Pirelli became F1’s tyre supplier in 2011 and at the Malaysian Grand Prix it introduced a coloured band around the softer of its two dry-compound tyres. Today, the use of coloured bands is still favoured to identify tyre compounds.

How long will Pirelli continue in F1? The Italian company recently won the contract to supply F1 teams with control tyres from 2025 to 2027. It has an option to extend an additional year. This, despite a competitive pitch from Japanese brand Bridgestone.

However, this may well be Pirelli’s last F1 contract as it is expected to bow out, probably after the 2028 season, making way for Bridgestone.