Why are Formula 1 Tyres Smooth?

vtornet, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It seems to go against all convention; you would think a smooth slick tyre would slip around more on the tarmac. Like comparing ice with sandpaper. But in reality, every F1 car on the current grid uses slick tyres, unless the track is wet of course.

Since Formula One is always in pursuit of the fastest possible speeds, this would mean that slick tyres are the way to go. But why exactly do they provide more grip than standard road tyres that you see on public roads?

The simple answer is that there is more rubber touching the road surface, and therefore there is greater adhesion between the rubber and the tarmac. More friction means less wheelspin off the line and faster cornering speeds on grip-limited turns.

Morio, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Formula 1 has not always used slick tyres. Between 1998 and 2008, the FIA banned the use of slick tyres and grooved tyres were forced to be used. This was all in the name of slowing the cars down, for better safety and to make the racing more competitive. But as other regulations vastly slowed down cars for the 2009 season, the smooth type of tyre came back.

Martin Lee from London, UK, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

As mentioned previously, slick tyres are preferably not used when it is raining or the track is wet. F1 teams have the choice to put intermediate or wet tyres on their vehicles, with the former being for when the track is wet but beginning to dry. The grooves in these tyres are for the sole purpose of displacing water so that the car is essentially driving on a slightly drier surface than its surroundings.

Jake Archibald, Flickr

Within the slick tyre category, there are different compounds. Soft, medium and hard: as the names suggest there are different levels of softness of the slick tyre. The softer the rubber, the grippier it is. This comes at an inherent downside of wearing down quicker, requiring an earlier pitstop for a tyre change.

Creator: Zak Mauger | Credit: Zak Mauger / LAT Images
Copyright: Motorsport Images

As well as having a greater coefficient of friction, soft tyres are able to conform better to the indentations of the tarmac track surface owing to its higher value of viscoelasticity. OK, maybe that’s a bit too much jargon. Let me explain in simpler terms. Basically, the softer the rubber the more it acts like super glue, momentarily filling all the tiny cracks and crevices in the track surface for better grip.

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