Since 2011 Italian tyre manufacturers Pirelli are back as Formula 1’s exclusive supplier. Motorsport director Paul Hembery has had a rollercoaster-life ever since.
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The 2010 Canadian Grand Prix changed both the direction of Formula 1 and the life of Paul Hembery. The then tyre supplier Bridgestone had been delivering durable rubbers, which led to numerous, hardly exciting one-stop-races. However, that Sunday in Montreal, Lewis Hamilton triumphed in a Grand Prix featuring several pit stops. The action was back and people loved it. So Bernie Ecclestone and his Likes decided it was time for a change. However, instead of parting with its philosophy, Bridgestone opted to bail out of F1. Hence, Italian rubber boffins Pirelli were convinced to return to the sport having enjoyed previous spells in 1950–1958, 1981–1986 and 1989–1991.
Pirelli entered at the start of 2011 and intense times for Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembery followed. “We were approached to make it a bit different and we bought into that. It was quite brave in many ways at the start, but we wanted to take a different approach.”
West Country lad
Born in Yeovil, his first job was working in the tyre industry for 20 years, working in research and development and later working in a commercial role. He was first employed by Pirelli in 1992. Hembery was the CEO of Pirelli Asia Pacific, before taking control of the company’s engagement in the World Rally Championship in 2008. When the Italians decided to return to F1, he was named the man in charge. Hembery may now be the top man at Pirelli’s motorsport section, but he has not forgotten his North Somerset roots. “I was raised in Cleeve, and I’m old enough to remember when Bristol City were in top flight, beating teams like Liverpool. I still try getting to as many games as I can at Ashton Gate, but my F1 commitments mean a lot of world travel.” His main base is now Milan, but he also owns a holiday home in Cheltenham, which allows him to visit Bristol. “But being a Bristol City fan has always been frustrating – I sometimes wonder why I do it to myself,” he laughs.
You go through the eras of Formula 1 and there’s always been a different challenge at a different point in time.
The divorced father-of-three admits his life stepped up a gear after he managed to talk Ecclestone into bringing Pirelli back into Formula 1. “We’ve long been known as a supplier of tyres for all the main car manufacturers around the world for decades, but getting into F1 simply justified our position in the industry and our reputation. For me, it meant a complete change in lifestyle back to being much more hands-on, getting to be on the grid at every F1 race.” The science of tyre technology has always fascinated Paul saying, “I did an engineering degree in London, and jumped at the opportunity to get into the tyre industry when a job came up with our French competitor. I had a few years learning the science and the business, but also getting to have fun with the fast cars the tyres were attached to.” Hembery joined Pirelli 20 years ago or so and has never looked back. “I’ve been lucky enough to work all over the world with the company, but have been Milan-based since the early 1990s. Milan is a lovely city, but I am still missing Bristol, and I’m amazed when I do get back how the city has progressed. Walking around the Harbourside today, I wouldn’t recognise it from the place, where I grew up. I still have a lot of old friends there, and when we meet at Ashton Gate, it’s like I’ve never been away. I’m still a West Country boy at heart.”
Controversy has surrounded Pirelli’s Formula 1 tyres several times. Then-Mercedes-driver Michael Schumacher was the first to publicly criticise Pirelli claiming that managing tyres weren’t in the essence of the sport. “You go through the eras of Formula 1 and there’s always been a different challenge at a different point in time. At the start of the millennium, it was always about getting everything maxed out: engines, tyres, etc. In 2003, most lap records were set. And now it’s all about efficiency”, Hembery counters. Ahead of 2013, Hembery had warned that “the tyres will heat up a lot quicker. They’ll be a lot more aggressive in the corners, so that’ll put the compound under pressure.
2012 was a combination of our changes together with the dramatic changes on the cars, particularly at the front and with the blown diffusers. 2014 will be the big year.” And he was right, stacked against his own company. At the 2013 British Grand Prix, seven tyres failed and drivers Sergio Pérez, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Esteban Gutierrez, Jean-Eric Vergne and Felipe Massa suffered some mind-boggling crashes. The incidents were described as “unacceptable” by F1 drivers.
“The first job obviously was to understand what had happened. We needed to understand that quickly and it came through quite quickly on Monday morning when we had the tyres in the lab and we had a chance to analyse it. So then we had to press a button to make some changes for Germany, we knew that we had a race coming up. We had to work miracles to get some tyres made from Turkey, get them shipped in and it cost us about 1m Euro. But it was a fantastic job by our team over in Turkey at Izmit.”
I’m told that 2017 will also bring a whole raft of other changes to the sport and it would be the ideal date for making wholesale changes.
At the 2013 Belgian Grand Prix Vettel and Alonso experienced further failures. The Spaniard complained that “the quality of the tyres is very much on the limit”, while the German said, “they are really disappointing.” Back then, Hembery admitted the tyre failures were “a worry for the sport” apologising to the teams. In the Korean Grand Prix Pérez locked a front tyre heavily, which then exploded on the subsequent long straight. Rivalling French rubber makers Michelin were quick to announce, they could replace the Italians for 2014. In preseason testing for the 2014 season, the tyre on Rosberg’s car failed, sending Rosberg into a 200mph spin. The 2014 wets were criticized by Adrian Sutil as “the worst I have driven” and by Jenson Button as “twitchy”
But Hembery kept as calm as possible, at least on the outside. “There were a lot of factors involved and we got excellent support from the FIA, who was very active and supportive of anything that we asked to. We made changes and are continuing to monitor them with the FIA. That comes from working together at the end of the day, and in doing so, you get the best results.”
He sent his team testing tyres day and night. The Italian tyre manufacturer tested six new compounds and eight constructions during the 2014 two-day test in Bahrain, with as many as 250 experimental tyres brought to the Sakhir circuit. “The opportunity to test with the current cars is something that we have always wished for and it was vital to have this written into the regulations this year. In previous seasons, testing at a cold Barcelona, it wasn’t until you got to China that you really knew what was going on. The teams were able to learn more about tyres over the four days in Bahrain than they could in Jerez two weeks ago, thanks to increased running time and optimal weather conditions. So it was much better going to a relevant circuit. That was really positive. We will be making a comment that we still feel that the sport should be having at least one session in Bahrain, preseason before that’s a lost opportunity.”
With the problems that Pirelli was facing last season, which saw them under scrutiny by the FIA, they appear to have learnt their lessons already. Since the major regulation shift to the new Power Units for 2014, there have been no further failures for the Italian tyre manufacturer that is contracted to the end of the 2016 season as the sole supplier for the sport. Pirelli admits it has taken a conservative route for 2014, but Hembery repeated that the company is willing to make changes if necessary.
“Despite the regulation changes for 2014, we’ve had less wheel spin than anticipated. Sliding at the start of the year was heavy. That made them slow, they put a lot of energy into the tyres and they degraded heavier than what we knew would be the case as the season progressed. Now they’ve got relatively low levels of degradation and the cars aren’t sliding as much. They’ve still got low levels of grip as they haven’t got the rear downforce they had in the past. So we see, we need to do some work in the centre of the tyre; there’s a bit of a concentration heat build-up there, so we just need to even out the footprint pressure.”
Back to the roots
In an FIA request to return to the much bigger sized rear tyres, as was common in the 1980s, Pirelli had premiered a new 18-inch tyre at an official two-day test in the UK with Lotus F1 providing the base for the new tyres to be put through their paces. The Silverstone test was the finalisation of next year’s structure. “With the compounds, we’ll wait until we get to the end of this season as we still want to see the development rates. Teams will still be pushing, unlike last year, when a lot gave up mid-season because they were working on this year. I don’t think we’ll see any huge changes in compounds.”
Today’s cars run 13-inch wheels and the Italian firm has been promoting the use of larger wheels since it first entered F1. Pirelli argues that larger wheel and tyre sizes reflect modern market trends, with the adoption of a larger size invariably leading to even greater technology transfer between Formula 1 tyres and road car tyres.
Hembery added that they don’t want to be the ones to instigate change in Formula 1, but “our role is to help teams and drivers make the most out of the equipment, regulations and resources they have at their disposal – whatever they decide that framework is going to be. The 13-inch tyre is no longer relevant to the everyday road use because even an 18-inch tyre is used by standard vehicles these days. In order to underline F1’s role as a testbed for future mobility solutions, we believe that it benefits everyone to have a close link between road car tyres and competition tyres.
The road cars that we have nowadays are getting quite extreme and that means that we have to use a lot of racing technology in road cars.” He also pointed out that it was Pirelli who introduced the low profile tyre from the racetrack to the road in the 1970s. Formula E will be running 18-inch tyres in their first season, however, provided by Michelin, as it is a one-make series, to begin with, meaning that other car manufacturers don’t have the opportunity to use them in an open-wheel motorsport environment. Regardless, with Formula 1 and Pirelli starting to set the wheels in motion for an 18-inch tyre change, there might be more open-wheel categories making the jump to larger wheels soon.
“For us, it goes back to the F1 Commission. I’ll prepare a little booklet for them, a couple of pages showing the images and any comments that we pick up. They can then make a qualified decision. The idea was really to provoke the discussion. So instead of just talking about hypothetical situations, we’ve shown everyone that’s what a current F1 car would look like. By and large, people are positive. It’s not our decision, but we will do whatever the sport asks us. The engineers will probably want to stay on13-inch tyres because change costs money. But I’m told that 2017 will also bring a whole raft of other changes to the sport and it would be the ideal date for making wholesale changes.”