You had a tough year last year in many respects, what was the winter brief coming in to this year?
It's pretty similar from the teams and an FOM point of view; they wanted two to three stops, something that is in line with what we've been asked to do over the last few years. We were asked to come up with less marbles if we could, do something to the rain tyre if possible … that was it really. It was more of the same, but maybe a little bit less aggressive.
Clearly we have a different vehicle to work with, something that is quite dramatically different. We started working back in September time with data from the teams and on the simulators it clearly indicated a vehicle with a lot of torque, the ability to wheelspin in fourth gear or fifth gear and a team dramatically in terms of downforce. Also 50kg more weight which you're travelling with throughout, so it was quite a different brief and something that replicated really our first year coming in because we didn't have the ability to do much testing.
It was quite late confirmation as well for this year, so was it a bit of a struggle for time to get everything ready?
No, not in the sense that we were already working. It was more of a formality in some respects as to finalising contracts. We had verbal OKs quite early on so we had to work otherwise we would never have been ready.
And what have the signs been from the tyres in testing?
Well Jerez I think you probably have to let go – that was more of a shakedown test – but coming to Bahrain was a very positive move. We were certainly one of the partners in the sport who were pushing very heavily to get here – or Abu Dhabi at least – to have what we would describe as representative testing on a circuit that, particularly when we were having the day races, was probably the hottest circuit of the year and one of the most difficult in terms of traction. So for the last three years in terms of tyres it probably took us right to the limits of the previous generation of tyre.
So it meant for us coming somewhere with 30C+ of tarmac in a winter period, so it was a good choice coming here. The feedback is in line with our expectations, by and large. We've probably seen less wheelspin than we anticipated but that's probably due to the drivers so the vehicle is trying to avoid wheelspin knowing that will just create overheating and cause you go to slower.
Some teams have had issues with power units so some have been running at full power and some haven't; does that make it hard to look at your data?
A little bit of course, because you don't know what that chassis in particular is going to create when you start running a lot of laps. From the other point of view we've picked up on some good positives. If you go round the track in the evening you're seeing a lot less marbles – which was one of the objectives of the season – so it looks as if we're in the right direction for that.
It's one of those things that when you're running with just one or two cars you don't really know if you've achieved what you want until you actually get here. Wear levels are dramatically reduced; we still have a thermal degradation which in any case you would expect here because of the type of track. It's a traction track and a lot of wheelspin if you're going to get it is going to be here and there are quite high temperatures, so we're pleased with that.
The step in terms of performance level between the four compounds is a good step. They're not too close together, so that does mean if we make the right choices we can deliver what the sport is asking us to which is the two to three stop races.”
Because you have got such different machines that you're working with but you're basically given the same brief what are the main differences that you've had to go for with the tyres to achieve that?
You've got to be slightly more conservative because at one extreme you could end up with some cars going much quicker than others and that in itself is something you need to be aware of. Particularly the rate of development is something that we're very conscious of this year. Last year it was one of the aspects that we learned during our experiences last year and we need to be much more attentive in terms of speed and rate of development.
As you can imagine, with new rules there is great potential for improvement in performance throughout the year; what we see [in testing] will be quite different to what we see at the end of the season. Already in terms of lap times if you take in to account 50 kilos – which is two seconds per lap – we are very close to the performance of last year already.
You can imagine with a normal two second per season improvement we will definitely be quicker than last year, and with the potential that we have for developing the car and the powertrain then you would have to anticipate we will be quicker.
But you are able to make changes to the tyres throughout the year now on safety grounds…
On safety grounds – we've always been able to do that – but there is now a better platform for getting a change made of that nature. You have the strategy group which involves FIA, FOM and six of the main teams, so if there's a need we can go to that group and they can make a decision, whereas in the past we had to get the majority of the teams and that in itself ended up going in to unnecessary politics, unfortunately. So there is a better structure for making change this season.
So realistically you don't need the agreement of the teams at all if the rest of the strategy group agrees…
True. You'd want to do it primarily on safety but there could also be performance reasons. If we do find that there's a big jump in performance from one or two teams – and that's something that you have to be aware of – then sometimes it might be foreseeing a potential problem and you maybe need to act earlier. So you can't generally say it's safety but it could become an issue if you allow it to carry on without making changes.
This year is it almost an impossible brief to hit the whole season with two or three stops because the cars will change so much and the teams' knowledge of the tyres will change as the year goes on?
I think all of us will probably have to see the evolution of the cars and also the differences between the powertrains. There is clearly going to be – certainly in the initial part of the year – differences between qualifying and race pace of the different powertrains. That's something that we will learn as well. What is the absolute pace over a 55-lap race? Because peak performance with the fuel restriction means nothing if you can't maintain it in the race.
That's something that we also need to be learning and we'll be watching. We need to be very careful, look at all the data and ask for more data if we feel like we're not getting it. Something new that we've been observing is on the brake-by-wire for example, we've seen a few more lock-ups and flat spots compared to the past on the rear. That's something that we're looking at closely to try and understand what is going on, because they're not just flat spots they're actually very dramatic going right the way through the whole belt pack. So it's not just a superficial thing that you would just release and carry on, it's something that would stop you. So things like that we're checking; of course I'm sure that will change as the teams get used to the new vehicles but it's something that we're looking at from our point of view and it's something that we're raising saying 'Look, go careful'.
So if a team wasn't on top of a brake-by-wire problem and it had a lot of rear locking then that could turn in to a race-ending issue?
Well as you've seen some people have had a huge spin, locked up all four and basically ground their way through the whole tyre! There's not a lot you can do there. It's so extreme at the moment that it would stop you anyway, but it's degrees of flat spot as well. So while we may not get the bigger flat spots that we've seen in the initial days of testing, if we get something in between then it can still become a significant issue if you decide to keep running and you don't make a tyre change. So it's an area that we're always monitoring.
In general we've seen on a classical type of flat spot and a lock-up in braking then the cars are able to continue. There's less of an impact compared to last year and they're able to brush it off. So that's a positive, but it's the extreme lock-ups which we've seen that we're keeping a watching brief on.
Have you noticed any difference working with the teams this year? Both after what happened last year and also because their focus is on power units and other issues?
Not really. They're still obviously as demanding and searching as ever. Last year in the end we had a few issues but then we had a lot of races without any issues, so maybe because it was a bit of a boring year we became the only story or something! But Formula One is uncompromising, it's demanding, and yes they are looking at other things at the moment but that doesn't stop them looking at our product. We're still getting plenty of requests, plenty of data because there are people in the teams that are focused just on the performance of the tyre and the chassis together. That won't change. There might be other elements of the car that they're looking at but that doesn't meant they stop looking at the tyre.
It seemed to be quite tough to get the sport to cooperate at times last year, just how close did Pirelli come to quitting?
Well I think it's best to say that in the end there were some very good changes in the sport. The governance in itself, while I understand it won't please all teams, but having a body that we can go to that allows all aspects of the sport to be looked at – and I'm talking about the strategic group – is certainly for a company like ourselves a much better basis. You're not trying to find peace between 11 teams; you can put it on a platform where the various points of view can be put forward, be it the safety or sporting spectacle. That was missing, so we believe that's a big step forward and it's probably true to say that to avoid us having to get in to a similar problem in subsequent years. It was an important aspect for us in continuing.
Did you get all the desired changes or are there still certain aspects that you're still pushing quite hard for?
No, there's some good changes. In-season testing is fantastic, the exception made for the December test was correct to allow us even a sporting chance to be ready for this season in the correct way. Seeing the results I'm very confident that that was a very significant concession by the sport. We've got the controls with the FIA that we're making in terms of running characteristics. We had a small wet test in Jerez which wasn't ideal but there was never going to be a perfect solution and we could start seeing the results of the wet tyre changes that indicated that we're in the right direction. So there are a lot of positive things that have happened which we believe will assist us today and also going forward.
As far as you're aware is the qualifying tyre rule change definitely happening?
Well we've made the tyres and we've sent them so we hope it's happening!
So there will be an extra set in Q3?
Well all the way through but it means in Q3 that you have got to hand a set back so there is no incentive for not running.
There is still a bit of detailed discussion, but the concept is that certainly in Q3 there won't be any incentive for not running, you'll just lose them.