Pirelli is one of the biggest names in tires. Pirelli tires feature prominently in our best all-terrain and best-winter tire buying guides; Pirelli makes the stock treads for everything from the Pagani Huayra supercar to the Rivian R1T pickup. Sure, Pirelli doesn't produce the world's premier restaurant guide or sponsor the pre-eminent non-rigid airship, butut even if you know nothing about tires, you may have heard the name Pirelli because of one factor: their sponsorship of Formula 1.
As of this story's writing, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are battling for the F1 title over the final races. But whoever wins will do so on Pirelli tires, and sport a Pirelli hat on the podium. And it's Pirelli that will spearhead one of the sport's biggest historical changes for the 2022 season. Formula 1 is abandoning its 13-inch wheels — the standard for decades — for 18-inch ones.
Moving to bigger wheels is not a change that teams, in particular, were itching to make. The lower profile tires force designers to rethink not just suspensions but almost every other part of the car. But there are some compelling reasons Pirelli and F1 have decided to go that route.
The new wheels are important for branding
F1 and Pirelli sell the sport as the pinnacle of automotive performance. But for that to work, that performance has to resonate with the broader automotive world. Pirelli got involved with F1 to sell its tires, and the sport has increased its profile, particularly in the eastern part of the world. The new 18-inch wheels look far more like the performance tires they sell than the dated 13-inch wheels with chunky tires and a potbellied sidewall.
Not looking dated is also important for Formula 1. For Mario Isola, Pirelli Motorsport's head of F1 and car racing, shifting to 18-inch wheels is also part of a comprehensive effort to update the sport's image.
"Why the change? I believe it’s part of the process that Liberty Media started a few years ago to give an image to Formula 1 – a more modern image," Isola said.
The new wheels help Pirelli develop road tires
Pirelli argues that F1 is not just a banding gambit, it's vital to their testing and development for their road tires. Knowledge learned at the extreme limits in Formula 1 trickles down into their consumer product, and moving to 18 inches — far closer in shape to the tire they would sell for a Ferrari — makes that testing even more valuable. "Racing at this level pushes innovation," Pirelli's R&D head Piero Misani said. "And what we can experiment in the world of racing is immediately transferred."
Formula 1 helps Pirelli in a few key areas. One is developing tires for electric cars. EVs are heavier than combustion cars, F1 cars are not — but the extreme downforce they generate can replicate the increased load heavy EVs put on tires. "The downforces coming from Formula 1 are by far the highest you could have in any car competition," Misani said. "What in Formula 1 is downforce is, in the electric vehicle extra weight. High load capacity. But the mechanism is the same."
F1 is particularly important for testing materials when constructing a tire. The most advanced polymers and grip-enhancing resins often get their start in F1 before ending up in road cars. Pirelli also learns a great deal for its tires when it comes to rain performance. One of the reasons F1 cars can go racing in the wet (most of the time) is they displace an incredible amount of water with a limited tread profile.
F1 has also dramatically enhanced Pirelli's development process, as the sport uses some of the world's most advanced virtualization technology. Virtual tire development that started in racing is now critical to Pirelli development with OEM manufacturers. And it leads to better tires.
"With virtualization you have a clear understanding of the change you made and the effect you get," Misani said. "You become faster, cheaper — but also cleverer."
The new wheels may make F1 racing better...potentially
Pirelli believes its new 2022 tires will address many of the drivers' complaints about the current tires — inconsistency and overheating. This should create an environment to help the drivers — not the tires — be the center of attention.
"Tires next year will be more consistent," Isola said. "We tried to design a new family of compounds with a different concept, with less overheating, with a wider working range. The potential risk is that we have the majority of the races on one stop because of the characteristics of the tire."
But Isola says that less tire-strategy-dominating races would not necessarily be a bad thing.
"This doesn’t mean that races will be boring or worse because of that," Isola said. "If we have action on track and drivers that are pushing and they overtake each other, that is good for the show. So this is exactly what we want to see. It is not that two-stop or one-stop is making the race better or worse."
One note of caution Isola offers is that the new 18-inch wheels have not been tested on the 2022 cars yet — because those cars don't yet exist. Much of the testing was performed on retrofitted 2019 cars. So we won't know the true characteristics until they officially get on track.