Having entered the sport again in 2011 following three previous stints in the 1950s, 1980s and 1990s, Pirelli is now embarking on its seventh season of Formula 1 as part of an agreement that runs until the end of 2019.
But this is set to be the most revolutionary year of them all from a tyre point of view, while there are some very significant technical changes to the cars as well. This new era of Formula 1 will be seen on track for the first time in just two weeks, when the teams take part in the first official test session at Barcelona: one of the fastest, most abrasive and technically demanding circuits of them all.
The most obvious visual difference is that the tyres are now around 25% wider, both front and rear, increasing from 245 to 305mm at the front and 325 to 405mm at the rear. The actual rim size remains unchanged from the traditional 13 inches.
This is part of a package of measures expected to cut lap times by around five seconds relative to 2015: although the improvement might be even bigger.
Most of that extra speed has been found through corners, as the cars have got wider and will generate at least 20% more downforce compared to last year thanks to bigger wings and increased aerodynamics.
These faster cornering speeds – to the extent that some corners have now effectively become straights, already leading to circuit modifications – have imposed significantly increased loads on the tyres, meaning that there is a completely new philosophy behind Pirelli’s 2017 range.
Having followed the brief to provide deliberate degradation for the past six seasons, there is now a new directive to make tyres with less degradation that are more resistant to overheating for the latest generation of much faster cars. As a result, the tyre structure and compounds are brand new this year.
Arriving at the correct specification was a considerable task, especially because none of the new cars yet existed when the test programme was being carried out last season.
Instead, Pirelli had to rely on simulated data and ‘mule cars’: modified 2015 cars provided by three teams (Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull) that were adapted in an attempt to replicate the expected 2017 regulations.
In total, 24 test days were dedicated to the wider 2017 tyres with the mule cars from August onwards, covering around 12000 kilometres on five circuits. There was also some earlier testing of 2017 compounds and structures before the summer break using normal 2016-size tyres.
However, the real performance of the 2017 cars is likely to be considerably more advanced than the simulated mule cars, with a rapid rate of in-season development. There are also still a number of question marks over the effects of the new regulations: only some of which will be answered in Barcelona shortly, where conditions are likely to be a lot cooler than the rest of the season.
As a result, the teams will all have the same tyre allocation for the first five races of the year. Pirelli has additionally prepared a range of back-up tyres, more similar to the 2016 range, just in case the behaviour of the latest cars does not correspond to expectations. These are available to be introduced at any point early in the season if needed.
The new 2017 range of Formula 1 tyres represents the very top of Pirelli’s ultra-high performance technology. Created in Italy, but seen all over the world.