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Analysis: F1 drivers still trying to unlock 'secrets' of 2017 tyres

A cooler Russian Grand Prix weekend on a low-abrasion surface with not many high speed corners means that tyres will be a top talking point in Sochi this weekend.

Felipe Massa, Williams FW40, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB13

Just three races into the new Formula 1 season, it has already become pretty clear that success in this phase of the championship rests on unlocking the potential in Pirelli's tricky new rubber.

If you wanted any proof about just how hard F1's 2017 tyres are to manage, then look no further than the fact that Max Verstappen and Felipe Massa's spat after qualifying at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Their clash - which prompted the infamous 'Brazilian' remark - came not because they tangled on an actual Q3 lap, but instead while they were preparing for one.

The seconds that Verstappen lost as Massa was unwilling to compromise his chance of keeping his tyres in the right operating window were enough to leave the Dutchman realising his best Q3 effort was over before it had even begun.

One of the big themes from the post-race Bahrain test was that teams and drivers are doing everything they can to understand how best to get to grips with Pirelli's new wider tyres - and particularly getting them in the right operating window.

Pirelli's F1 racing manager Mario Isola said on the final day of the test last week: "I spoke to a lot of teams during these days and everybody said: 'The secret is to understand the tyre – the tyre behaviour, and how to warm up the tyre in a proper way.

"We had a lot of comments about the preparation lap, especially in qualifying, to have the best possible warm up and the tyre ready for the first timed lap in qualifying."

"It is not that the window is narrower or wider, it is the way you use the tyre and the way the car is stressing the tyres."

Why so difficult?

Pirelli Super Soft tyres
Pirelli Super Soft tyres

Photo by: LAT Images

The new construction and compound choices for 2017 have resulted in a tyre that is more durable – so drivers can push harder for longer – and one that does not suffer the thermal degradation that has been a hallmark of Pirelli's recent era in F1.

However, one of the consequences is that the peak grip of the rubber is not there as quickly as before, which makes it harder for drivers to get the tyres into the right operating window when needed.

For Force India's Esteban Ocon – whose car struggles to switch its tyres on in qualifying but is well-suited to longer race runs – the step change from last year is clear.

"It is all about tyres – it is all about understanding them temperature wise, how they work and what to do really," he told Motorsport.com. "It is dominant beyond anything else."

When asked if managing tyres was as important as last year, he said: "It's more important. They are more manageable but the window to get them right at the beginning is very, very small."

Getting it wrong from the off can have big consequences. In Bahrain, for example, Daniel Ricciardo rapidly fell down the order after the safety car period when he had failed to keep his tyres in the right operating window.

"The main thing was everything cooled way too much," explained the Australian. "Once they were so cool, the restart happens and you are pushing and fighting, and then you are sliding, and then the temperatures – one is hot and one is cold, so it spirals.

"After a few laps the temperatures come up, but then the rear is way too hot and the front is cold. So it is something we are aware of."

Name of the game

Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing RB13
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing RB13

Photo by: LAT Images

Getting the tyres in and out of the window makes a difference not only for the safety car, but also in qualifying, especially for those who are lacking the kind of downforce that Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull can deliver.

Furthermore, some chassis seem more benign than others. Cars like Ferrari, Haas, Toro Rosso and Williams seem to manage good single-lap pace and consistency in races, while others like Mercedes – and to a much greater extent Renault – are brilliant on Saturdays but face more issues on Sundays.

That could be related to cars being more sensitive to balance – issues that can be overcome for a single lap in Q3 but become more evident for two hours on a Sunday afternoon. A car that slides more with oversteer or understeer will overheat its tyres and increase degradation.

The fluctuating form of the midfield contenders certainly appears to be based an awful lot on how they are getting their tyres to work.

Marcus Ericsson believes Sauber's up-and-down fortunes – from being pegged at the back of the grid to being a points challenger – is all down to tyres.

"We are fighting with the midfield when we get it right, but when we don't get it right we can be one second off," he said.

"We have been struggling to consistently find or get the tyres in the right window – so we are up and down, sometimes we are too low, sometimes we go over, and we haven't really found a way to get it right.

"That is something we worked on in testing – to try to control tyres and get them where we want. And in slow laps, how to get them in right window. We found some interesting stuff there."

Getting them ready

Marcus Ericsson, Sauber C36
Marcus Ericsson, Sauber C36

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / LAT Images

Preparation certainly seems key – and it was in this area, rather than running through a raft of new update parts, that teams focused their efforts in testing last week.

One of the biggest differences we have seen so far is how teams and drivers vary their preparation for qualifying – with some outfits running flat out ahead of their qualifying laps and others taking it much slower.

And from what we have seen so far, there seems to be no solution that is right for all occasions.

Ricciardo added: "It is tricky to manage it for sure, and I would say the tyres this year do seem more complex. China, I remember in qualifying, a Mercedes was going really slow, and I went past it on an out-lap.

"And over the Bahrain weekend I was going really slow and they passed me really quickly on the out-lap. I think we are all trying to figure out what works."

Managing degradation

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes F1 W08, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W08
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes F1 W08, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W08

Photo by: Zak Mauger / LAT Images

While switching tyres on remains one area of focus, the other issue is managing longer run form – with Mercedes in particular knowing that this is an area it needs to address.

But while Bahrain highlighted the fact that the team was not as top of tyre management as rivals Ferrari, it is important to stress that the Sakhir circuit does deliver some unique challenges that are not replicated elsewhere.

As Isola explains: "Bahrain is a circuit where the traction is so important and the stress on the rear tyre is so high you feel this effect more.

"You are stressing the tyre a lot in traction because you have a lot of traction required and the tarmac is quite rough."

Russia this weekend will be a totally different story – with a low-abrasion surface, low energy corners and cooler temperatures meaning that degradation will not be a problem at all.

In fact, the real issue may come in qualifying.

Ericsson added: "Sochi is always a special track with the way the tyre behaves. Over the last couple of years with high degrading Pirelli tyres that has been no degradation there.

"So I think now when we come there with new tyres, with a lot less degradation – maybe it will be F3 style where we do 10 laps in qualifying and the last will be the fastest!"

By Saturday afternoon we should have a pretty good idea about whether teams and drivers have made progress in understanding what needs to be done - or if Pirelli's secret remain hidden for now.

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