After four races where Pirelli's latest specification of F1 tyres has been one of the major talking points, this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix should give a more reasonable assessment of their potential.
The biggest cause for concern has been the rate at which the tyres have degraded, although Pirelli has only been working to a directive requesting its help in spicing up the on-track action and strategy options.
Despite calls for a wholesale return to last year's rubber, Pirelli has so far resisted the temptation to revert, although it continues to 'adjust' individual compounds on a race-to-race basis.
A revised version of the hard tyre will be introduced in Spain, closer in characteristics to the 2012 tyre and designed to give a wider working temperature window. Although it delivers a little bit less in terms of pure performance, it should allow the teams to work to an even wider variety of race strategies than before.
The Circuit de Catalunya is an established stop on the pre-season testing tour, hosting two four-day sessions in both 2012 and 2013 before the teams embarked on the 'flyaway' races that opened the campaign.
Barcelona is popular as a test venue because its fast-flowing technical nature produces high lateral energy loads that ask a lot of the tyres, particularly as the teams can usually expect high temperatures to go with the track's abrasive surface. The Spanish venue now plays host to the first European round of the year, and F1 veteran Jean Alesi is confident that there will be a better opportunity to judge the latest rubber.
“I think Barcelona is the place where we will really be able to assess the tyres properly for the first time, as it's the first European race of the year on a circuit that is a well-known reference point without any particular peculiarities,” Alesi commented, “It's a circuit that I personally always liked as a driver, although it is very complicated, especially Turn Three, which is extremely demanding on the tyres.
“Traction is a key area of performance, which also puts a big emphasis on the tyres, so this is one of the most important races of the year because it acts as a really useful indicator for the season ahead. On the whole, though, the teams should be very well-prepared for Barcelona as they have a lot of data from testing at this circuit. The big question is how much of that data will still be relevant, as ambient and track temperatures will have changed enormously since the teams were last there.”
Pirelli has confirmed that the tweaked hard compound will accompany its standard medium this weekend. Last year, the hard and soft tyres were selected, but this year's compounds are generally softer than their 2012 equivalents, so the current medium is broadly equivalent to last year's soft.
The top five finishers in last year's grand prix ran a three-stop strategy, having all started on the soft tyre. The best-placed two-stopper – demoted polesitter Lewis Hamilton - came eighth, having started from last, and a three-stop strategy is expected to be the favoured course this year.
“I remember it always being quite hard to overtake there, and this is one aspect where Pirelli has transformed the race in Barcelona, thanks also to the DRS,” Alesi concluded, “Introducing an extra set of tyres for free practice is a very smart move, as it's bad for the sport to have the cars sitting in the garage for a long time. It will be interesting to see as well the effect that the new specification of hard tyre has on the race.”