18-inch ruler | Pirelli

18-inch ruler

Piling on the inches

During Europe's lockdown period, when we all had the chance to enjoy the benefits of our home luxuries for an extended period, quite a few people said they had gained a few inches.

But in the case of Formula 2 – the support series to Formula 1, where the stars of tomorrow race – that gain was dramatic: five inches to be precise. The equivalent of several waist sizes.

Yet this wasn't down to overindulgence: it was planned all along. The Formula 2 championship finally got away in Austria last weekend, featuring 18-inch tyres for the first time, after several years of running with 13-inch tyres (the same size currently used for Formula 1).

The idea behind supersizing the tyres is a simple one: no road cars – apart from very small ones – actually use 13-inch wheels anymore, so a bigger size in racing adds up to a much more modern look, which is also much more relevant when it comes to technology transfer: the whole point of going racing in the first place.

Formula 1 was meant to use these bigger tyres next year, as part of a raft of technical changes designed to make the competition even more spectacular. But then Covid-19 happened, and it was decided to postpone the new Formula 1 rules to 2022, to help give teams more time to recover from the financial and logistical impacts. 

It was always the plan to use 18-inch tyres in Formula 2 already from this year though, as part of the test and development programme leading up to Formula 1's new bigger size. And luckily, that plan didn't change.

Not just a pretty face

So as the Formula 2 cars took to the Red Bull Ring in Austria last weekend, they sported big 18-inch tyres: giving them quite literally an extra dimension. Compared to the previous chubby 13-inch tyres, these new covers were low profile too: making them look much more up to date.

They weren't entirely new to the Formula 2 drivers, as they had been tested in Bahrain earlier this year as part of the usual pre-season build-up (before the season was dramatically curtailed).

Pirelli also carried out a number of private tests with 18-inch Formula 2 tyres last year, to ensure that the new tyres would be fully up to speed with the demands of F2 competition – which features performance that isn't too far off Formula 1 pace. The whole idea is to prepare these drivers for Formula 1, after all.

But Austria was the first time that Pirelli's 18-inch tyres would be raced in anger. From the beginning the drivers were impressed: not only with the speed and sheer grip delivered by the supersize tyres but also by their consistency, which allowed competitors to push hard from start to finish. With the previous generation 13-inch tyres there was a limit to how much you could push, and for how long. But these new tyres were another thing altogether. And the results could clearly be seen on track.

The hills are alive

Over the short, sharp, up-and-down lap of Austria's Red Bull Ring – which takes less than a minute and a half to cover, at an average speed of around 190kph, and peaking at nearly 300kph on the straight – the Formula 2 drivers were able to do some incredible things, showing exactly why they are Formula 1's future.

Frenchman Giuliano Alesi, for example (the son of legendary Ferrari driver Jean Alesi) went from 18th on the grid to sixth at the flag: thanks to a different tyre strategy to most people and the unremitting aggression needed to push the envelope from start to finish.

His Ferrari Driver Academy team mate Calum Ilott, who won Saturday's race, said: “Even on the hard tyres, it felt like we had a lot of pace once we got them up to temperature.”

Those who were on the soft tyres were able to complete much longer stints than before as well, because the performance just kept on coming, with no real drop-off.

The next Formula 2 race at Austria this weekend (the result of a re-jigged, post-Covid calendar) has a different tyre nomination, which should shake up the action a bit and also give the drivers experience of all the new Pirelli F2 compounds for this season.

That in-depth knowledge of exactly what these innovative 18-inch tyres are like could be very useful when it comes to negotiating a Formula 1 seat for the year after next…