2021: First low-profile tyre test offers glimpse of F1's future

The future of F1 tyre design: Pirelli will switch to low-profile tyres on 18-inch wheels in 2021. Pirelli (Steven Tee / LAT Images)

Pirelli has offered a glimpse of Formula One's future after the first test of low-profile tyres for 2021 got underway on Thursday.

As part of a raft of rule changes in 2021, F1 cars will run 18-inch wheels and low-profile tyres. This year's F1 cars feature 13-inch rims and balloon-style tyres, which have been synonymous with the top level of motor racing for decades.

Pirelli took to the Paul Ricard test track on Thursday to run its initial prototype on last year's Renault F1 car, which has been modified to simulate the expected downforce levels for 2021. After the two-day test this week, two more tests are scheduled with low-profile tyres in Paul Ricard this year, with McLaren due to test in October and Mercedes in December.

The switch to low-profile tyres is partly driven by aesthetics but also technical and cost reasons. The way the current tyres flex under aerodynamic load is hard to replicate in CFD and the wind tunnel, meaning teams spend huge amounts of money trying to factor the distortion of the tyres into their aerodynamic simulations. A lower-profile tyre will not flex and distort to the same extent, and that should help smaller teams with fewer resources more accurately simulate the impact of tyre behaviour on aerodynamics.

The 2021 season will also see Formula One ban tyre blankets, which are used to heat the tyres to their optimum operating temperature before they go on the car. That will allow teams to reduce the amount of money they spend on tyre equipment and the cost of shipping it around the world. One of Pirelli's targets for the 2021 tyres is to have compounds with a wider operating window so that performance is not so closely linked to tyre temperature.

Formula 2, which is also supplied by Pirelli, currently runs without tyre blankets and will switch to 18-inch tyres next year to help Pirelli gain an understanding of how the change in dimensions will effect tyre behaviour. An extensive F1 test programme will run in tandem with the learning from the F2 championship to develop tyres capable of dealing with the extra power and aerodynamics loads of an F1 car.

Isola said the three 18-inch tyre tests this year will be focused on defining the basic construction of the tyre.

"We start with a baseline, obviously," Isola said at last weekend's Italian Grand Prix. "The test will be more on construction. That is what happens usually, when you have a new size, a new challenge. I have not got a clear idea what to expect.

"We started already the F2 tests with 18-inches. That is going quite well, so hopefully we have the same result with Formula One.

"It's obviously more... I don't want to call it a 'shakedown', because we are going to test for two days and we have a programme that is quite big. We want to test different solutions to have a better idea.

"We have these three sessions to understand and assess the baseline for next year and then, obviously, we will have a full year of development next year to finalise. The challenge is big, as I've said many times, and we are happy and excited to start very soon."