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Wheels roll at Silverstone on the future of F1 tires

By Sarah Holt, for CNN
updated 6:37 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Innovation is a staple of F1 but Pirelli's new 18-inch tires aim to bring the sport back to basics.
Innovation is a staple of F1 but Pirelli's new 18-inch tires aim to bring the sport back to basics.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pirelli debuts 18-inch wheel as the sport tries to stay in touch with road car reality
  • A switch to a more standard 18" wheel will be an incentive for other tire manufacturers
  • The taller tires will affect the aerodynamic flow, weight and suspension of the cars

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Silverstone, England (CNN) -- Formula One prides itself as the pinnacle of technical innovation and sports cars of the imagination -- but sometimes the sport needs bringing back down to earth.

So on Wednesday Pirelli showed F1 a possible back to basics vision of the future as it debuted a new 18-inch tire -- a size fitted to many everyday road cars -- on the final day of the Silverstone in-season test.

The concept tire is five inches taller than the sport's current 13" wheel and has a lower profile -- which means it's comprised of a larger wheel rim and less rubber.

Lotus test driver Charles Pic trialled the new rubber at the high speed Silverstone circuit, the stage for Lewis Hamilton's British Grand Prix victory on Sunday.

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A former Marussia and Caterham racer, Pic set a lap time of one minute, 44.728 seconds on the new tire -- nearly 10 seconds off the fastest lap set on 2014 rubber.

"We weren't looking for performance," Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery told reporters. "The priority today was to show people what a Formula 1 car would look like with a change in rim.

"From what I've seen and heard people seem to quite like the idea. Most people said it looked quite modern -- it didn't look strange."

Pirelli could roll out the new tires as early as 2016.

Producing F1 tires, which are the same specification as road car tires, would make it easier to share technology, as well as to reap the commercial benefits of being able to sell its customers replica F1 rubber.

"We don't actually make any 13" tires apart from for F1 and the GP2 and GP3 Series," explained Hembery.

"The tire today looks more like the product we sell on a regular basis.

"Our business is focused on large wheel diameters and 18" is almost standard for us, it's the sort of thing you get on a sporty road car.

"Others might say there's less advertising space so there is a strange conundrum.

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"Our high end business is in wheels around 20" -- so that's the other discussion to have, should we be really going for a much bigger wheel? Maybe F1 needs to do something more dramatic."

Assessing the tires after running on them for just 14 laps, Pic said: "The overall grip was very low and (the car) was five or six seconds off the pace, mainly for the reason that all the aerodynamics and the rest of the car are made for the tire we are running now and not the 18".

"I think in the philosophy it will be a type of tire that will react quickly, so the reaction you get in the steering wheel is more nervous and each time you get a snap it's quicker.

"If we go one day to this type of tire it will be a big challenge first for the team because they will have to build a completely new car around it and it will also be a challenge for the driver."

Asked by CNN if he liked the aesthetics of the tire he said: "Honestly, I thought they were a bit too big but maybe it was because it was the first time seeing them on the car!"

Pirelli took over from Bridgestone as F1's official tire supplier in 2011 but a series of dangerous blowouts in 2013 left it reeling.

After making substantial changes to its rubber, Pirelli's contract was renewed until the end of the 2016 season.

A switch to a more standard 18" wheel might be an incentive for other tire manufacturers, such as Michelin, to consider a return to the sport.

But any tire change will have to be agreed by the sport's governing body, the FIA, its commercial rights holder Formula One Management and the teams.

The taller tires -- which are almost as high as the sidepods of the Lotus chassis -- will affect the aerodynamic flow, weight and suspension of the cars.

"We know what 18" will mean -- it's a bigger challenge," Hembery continued.

"There will be variations in pressure, there will be sensitivity on the car's camber and in F1 you go over the curbs a lot more so you do have an integrity challenge.

"Today is a first step and it's in the hands of the sport to decide what they want to do."

After a major rule change, focused on new engine technology, for the 2014 season, the teams might be reluctant to embrace change again.

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As one team official whispered in the Silverstone pit lane during Wednesday's test: "Change is fear."

Hembery countered: "Change is expensive, change is challenging and I'm sure the team engineers will be scratching their heads going 'no, no, no.'

"But others will be thinking maybe it is one of the aspects that needs to change in F1 to bring a different look and feel to the sport."

The FIA might look more favorably on a tire development that would bring the sport closer to road car technology.

This season's new engine regulations were partly designed to align F1 with the "greener" hybrid technology now seen as essential to the future of road cars.

The future of the multimillion dollar sport -- which now only has Mercedes and Ferrari as the two major car manufacturers running teams -- also relies on its road car relevance for its long term survival.

Could a change of tires be another step towards securing its future?

It's all about the tires: Pirelli plan on hold

Pirelli comes out fighting over Formula One tire chaos

Mercedes and Pirelli face sanctions over F1 tire test

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