Exclusive interview with Pirelli's Paul Hembery
7 December 2012 – Following on from a thrilling title showdown in Brazil, GPUpdate.net sat down for an exclusive interview with Pirelli's Motorsport Director, Paul Hembery, to discuss the season from a tyre point of view, the higher levels of degradation we can expect in 2013 and just how long the company intends to remain in Formula 1...
Before we get into the serious business Paul, let's talk about those cowboy hats in Austin. The podium ceremony was certainly a popular one with fans...
It was something different! To be honest, it was an idea I had and together with a couple of colleagues we evolved it. We needed to make it a surprise by not telling anyone. It was a one off, so it won’t happen again and it won't happen in Austin again, but it was something that we thought would be fun. It sort of matched the feeling of the event and the way Austin got behind their Grand Prix. We thought it was fun.
We witnessed a truly fascinating title battle in 2012. Did the best man win?
Over a 20 race season it’s going to be the best man who wins, there’s not really much left to chance over 20 races. You obviously get races where somebody gets a rare reliability issue or has a crash, but over 20 races it’s always going to be the best team. It’s not just the driver as there are 600 or 700 people behind all the top teams. The driver is one element and behind them there’s a huge team making a great car. I would say the best driver and team won, yes.
We saw seven different winners from the first seven races. Was it a surprise for you, as Formula 1's tyre supplier, to see such an unpredictable start?
I guess it was a surprise in some ways because in reality the performance of the cars became much closer together. With the blown diffusers and the flexible noses that went away at the start of the season, which were there again at the end of the season, the performance of the cars closed up and often in the second stage of qualifying we would see one second between 16 cars. If you take the previous year, there was often half a second to eight tenths between the first and second cars. That was a very significant change, so every small detail had a very significant impact on performance and that created a very interesting and stimulating start to the season.
From a tyre point of view, how satisfied are you with the 2012 campaign?
At the start of the year, the changes we made to the tyres meant it was more difficult for the teams to get the maximum performance out of their chassis and tyre package. I wouldn’t say it took them a while to understand the tyres, but they maybe couldn’t get the car to do to the tyres what they wanted at a certain point. That changed over the season; they had some big temperature imbalances from front to rear but by mid-season towards the end of the year they dominated that.
From our point of view, we felt that we added our little bit into that mix with the rule changes to create a much more competitive Formula 1 at the start of the season. As we went through the season you saw the teams with larger resources starting to pull away from the others a little bit and at the end of the year became rather dominant. We were probably a little bit conservative with some choices at the end of the season, but that’s always easy to say afterwards as we make decisions a few months out.
Going forward we know that if you give teams a challenge, whilst they might complain at the outset, the pragmatic side of the chief engineer is that as long as they have the same challenge as the team next to them then it’s up to them to be the better engineers and get the best out of the package. That’s a pleasing aspect and, although we all like to say it every year, I think we saw one of the most exciting F1 seasons in recent times. Clearly with eight different winners and a season that ended at the last race we did have a very, very strong F1 season.
The first 2013 specification tyres were rolled out in Friday practice at the season finale in Brazil. How has the feedback been from teams and drivers so far?
It was only a limited amount of driving and it was on a green track as well, but overall it pretty much matches what we saw in our own testing. They didn’t try any of the new compounds, it was the existing Hard tyre that they used, but it showed us that the improvements we were looking for we could find. Some found more, some found less and some didn’t find anything so it was a bit of a mix throughout the field.
I think it allowed them to get an idea of the direction we are going in and the main point was that it didn’t dramatically upset the balance of the car or at least in a way that they couldn’t change with normal developments to maximise it for next season.
Jenson Button expects higher tyre degradation and a wider operating window with the new 2013 rubber. Does this match what you have been aiming for?
That’s pretty much it. There’s a more rapid warm-up and more temperature going into the tyres, basically because they are working harder and because we’ll have a bigger footprint in cornering. With the changes we’re making to the compounds we’re trying to bring back some degradation levels, because quite frankly at the end of the season we were in negative degradation and maybe not where we were asked to be. We were maybe repeating some races from the past where we were down to one pit-stop and I’m not going to say it was too easy, but teams were dominating the situation.
We saw a few people saving tyres in the final phase of qualifying this season. Looking at the future, are there any more plans for a dedicated qualifying tyre?
It won’t happen next year. Maybe going forward, if we renew our contract for 2014, then it’s something we could offer. At the end of the day it’s down to the teams to decide. The qualifying format is actually a good one - it works very well. The only area it doesn’t work is if we do have people saving tyres which as a company we get criticised for. Our view is we’d prefer to find a solution to that; it could be extra sets of our existing product or preferably from our point of view to produce a qualifying tyre. It would put a little bit more spice into it. It's down to the teams and at the moment they feel that even when cars aren’t running it creates a tactical interest and it’s not an issue.
Our view, because unfortunately as the tyre manufacturer we get the criticism, is that the fans want to see people running and they don’t understand teams not running in qualifying. It was less prevalent this year as the cars were so close together and you really needed to run because with two tenths you could make up maybe four or five positions. It forced people out because row position is still very, very important in F1. From that point of view, it probably wasn’t such an issue compared to last year.
You mentioned Pirelli's Formula 1 contract, is there any more news on a renewal?
We’ve always said that we saw it as a medium term project. If in the next months, and I guess it will be decided early next year, the sport feels that they would like to keep us and the economic conditions remain affordable then it is something we would be keen to do. But you only know that when you go forward; we’re like every automotive company as we have positives and negatives all around the world - Europe in particular is a very tough market for everybody. Fortunately we have a global presence and other markets are managing to sustain business performance levels.
But you never know, the longer it goes on maybe we’ll fall into a really black hole and it may be that we can’t afford to go on. That’s something we’ll hopefully understand over the next few months, certainly at the moment the Pirelli board is very happy with the performance of our presence in Formula 1. We would like to continue.
And finally, will you be using a new car for testing in 2013?
If we’re testing next year, whilst we need to do some work on our wet tyres, it doesn’t really matter that we carry on using the same car as we did this year. Though, I would say that going forward for 2014 the test car probably becomes less relevant as the cars are going to be so dramatically different. However, for some of our compound work the 2010 car is more than sufficient. What really needs to happen for 2014 is that we’ll do more and more work on simulators, so there’ll be more virtual testing.