F1 tires – Hard vs Soft – Explained


Formula One races are decided by the drivers’ choice of tire and how well they manage their condition throughout the race. Tires play such a crucial role in the performance of an F1 car, the entire race strategy is focused on which tire to use and when. With drivers being forced to use 2 different compounds in a dry race, how do they know when to pit for the soft, or hard tire?

One thing that makes the F1 season so enthralling is the enticing cocktail of fast, flowing GP circuits and narrow, technical street circuits, that let the drivers showcase their individual skills in a variety of challenging environments. To gain an advantage over their opposition, teams try to pick the tire they feel is most suitable under the track conditions. Meanwhile, the driver must do all they can to extract the most performance possible from the tire, driving as fast as possible without causing damage or a puncture.

Redbull F1 racing cars on red carpet display

What are the tire compounds in F1?

Pirelli produced a range of 5 tire compounds for dry racing, from which they select 3 compounds for teams and drivers to choose from for any given race weekend. Teams are notified in advance of which tire compounds will be available for the weekend, as the range on offer differs from race to race.

The respective tire compounds in the dry category are coded from C1 to C5, with C1 being the hardest tire and C5 being the softest tire available. During a race weekend, the 3 tire compounds will be symbolized by their color, white for the hard tire, yellow for the medium, and red for the soft.

Tire compounds explained:

C1 (White) – The hardest tire available to drivers, the C1 tire is specifically designed for tracks with fast corners, or where ambient temperatures are very high. The C1 tire takes longer to warm up to its optimal temperature when compared with softer tire compounds, but what it lacks in mechanical grip, it makes up for with an impressive lifespan of up to 50 laps.

C2 (White/Yellow) – The C2 compound is fairly similar to the C1, yet it’s a touch softer, so it’s a bit faster than the C1, at the expense of a slightly shorter lifespan.

C3 (White/Yellow/Red) – One of the most commonly used compounds, tires in this range are ideal for circuits with a mix of fast, sweeping corners and tight, twisty sections. Performance and longevity are arguably the most balanced in this range.

C4 (Yellow/Red) – The C4 compound represents the very soft, sticky tires often the favorite at labyrinth-like circuits such as Monaco and Singapore, where drivers need tires that warm up fast and offer them excellent grip for 10-15 laps.

C5 (Red) – The evolution of the Hypersoft tire, the softest and outright fastest tire that can be fitted to an F1 car. The C5 soft tires provide unrivaled adhesion to the track, allowing rapid acceleration, cornering, and superb braking. These tires will be favored for setting the fastest lap times, and short stints either at the start or towards the end of a race.

Pirelli F1 racing tire choice display

For wet weather conditions, there are 2 choices available to drivers: the intermediate tire with a green band, for moderately wet conditions, and the full wet weather tires which have a blue band, reserved for heavy rain and standing water.

F1 tire rules

  • Teams are allowed 13 sets of dry tires for a weekend. That’s 2 sets of hard, 3 sets of the medium, and 8 sets of soft.
  • For wet weather, teams have access to 3 sets of wet tires, and 4 sets of intermediate tires.
  • Drivers must use 2 different dry tire compounds in the race unless the race is declared a wet race – at which point they are not required to use the specified dry tires.

Which tire manufacturers are in F1?

Pirelli is the sole tire manufacturer in F1, producing the dry, intermediate, and wet compounds for every race. Since 2010, Pirelli have an exclusive agreement with the F1 bosses to produce high-quality tires that demonstrate the performance of the cars, while remaining safe and durable. The FIA rules even state that Pirelli tires are the only option that can be used.

How long do F1 tires last?

Typically, a set of soft tires will last between 10 and 20 laps, depending on how well they are maintained. A set of hard tires, on the other hand, can last from 30 up to 50 laps, but there’s no guarantee. Many factors can affect how long a set of tires will last at their best before they run out of grip and need to be replaced.

Ambient temperature, track temperature, humidity, weather, and the driver’s management of the tires can all affect the rate of tire wear. If a driver needs to attack, or alternatively defend their position, they may need to drive more aggressively, pushing the tire harder, and wearing it out faster.

Why do F1 tires not have any tread?

In racing, the larger the contact patch is between the rubber and the track surface, the more grip is available. Tire tread is designed to provide grip in a range of situations, whereas a slick F1 tire is solely designed for dry conditions. By making the tire surface as large, smooth, and sticky as possible, they are able to offer tremendous amounts of grip once running at their optimal temperature.

For wet weather conditions, the intermediate and full wet weather tires feature deep grooves to help disperse all the unwanted water that compromises the car’s grip.

How do F1 drivers manage their tires?

From the moment a fresh set of tires are fitted to the car, the driver must follow a procedure that ensures the best chances of making the tires last to their full potential. Because the tires in F1 only work as they should when they are warmed up to the correct temperature range, the drivers must try to get some heat into their tires as quickly as possible, otherwise, they will be vulnerable on the race track.

Often within half a lap, to a lap, the tires have reached their ideal temperature and the driver has the grip they expect from the tire. Now, the task remains, to drive as quickly as possible, while wearing the tires as little as possible. Turning and braking smoothly are a great way to preserve tire life. Locking up the brakes, riding the pianos too often on the exit of corners, or letting the car slide through the corners are all ways the tire’s life can become compromised.

Conclusion

Now that we’ve answered the most pressing questions when it comes to tires in Formula One, it’s easier to appreciate the importance of tire choice and tire management in the sport. That explains why tires are talked about so much over the course of a race weekend, everyone’s waiting anxiously to see who’s using what tire, in which session.

For us fans, it’s a guessing game, one that provides endless suspense and drama, but when a team gets it right, their driver is often unstoppable. In 2022, who will we see make the wisest tire choices and who will be able to make them last in order to scoop up the victory?

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John Cunningham

John is a writer, classic car and whiskey lover, men's shopping enthusiast and self appointed DIY expert. His greatest passion is repairing in the workshop, making old classics look and run like new again!

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