Tires are an exigent factor to consider in open-wheel racing.
In this world, far gone is the monogamous relationship between NASCAR and the Goodyear Eagle boots which adorn stock cars at race tracks across the country. Instead, teams in Formula 1 and IndyCar pour copious amounts of brainpower, caffeine and stress into ensuring their drivers end up on the right kind of rubber at the right time, and many-a-race have been won and lost on the back of this heavy decision making.
Let’s not get lost in the soft-medium-hard minefield of F1’s Pirelli tires – you’re in the wrong article if you’ve already done that.
Instead, allow me to turn your attention to the NTT IndyCar Series, where drivers and teams are presented with two tire compounds which they must use in every dry race, and which have a knack for placing drivers in a lesser-evil scenario.
It’s rather simple, Firestone’s black-walled primary tires (blacks/primaries) are reliable and quick. This is the tire IndyCar uses at all oval events, barring one exception when the series is slated to bring both compounds to World Wide Technology Raceway on Aug. 27, though the series has been quiet on the details. The black tires have strong staying power and provide enough grip for drivers to wrestle their cars around a given road course or street circuit without an unreasonable amount of resistance.
Firestone’s red-walled alternate tires (reds/alternates) are of a more feast or famine nature. If the primaries are quick, the alternates are outright fast. This comes with a caveat. By being the irrefutably faster tire, alternates degrade at a much faster rate. At some circuits, drivers can only manage two or three laps at speed on alternates before the car becomes uncooperative.
Primaries are a driver’s reliable, predictable old friend, never causing a fuss, just playing their part. Alternates are Uncle Jack who has six arrests for disturbing the peace and brings fireworks to Thanksgiving dinner. Life wouldn’t be complete without both of them.
The crux of the issue for the drivers is that IndyCar has made sure you can’t live without both of them. Every driver, so long as conditions remain dry, must utilize both tire compounds at least once in a race. Often, the teams and drivers want absolutely nothing to do with Uncle Jack, but he’s here to stay.
The solution is simple, really, start the race on alternate tires, push like hell until they inevitably go bad on lap five, pit, and run the rest of your race on primaries. Alex Palou worked this strategy to perfection to win the Grand Prix of Indianapolis earlier this year.
On the flip side of the coin, Will Power won the 2022 Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on a two-stop strategy which saw the Australian start on blacks, take a fresh set at his first pitstop of the day, and use his second stop to strap on a pair of reds and then pray they survived to the end of the race.
Power was able to stretch the reds to the end, barely, having to compromise much of his driving and aggression in the process. But it worked. He won.
The verdict here? There’s no good answer. By mandating the use of both tire compounds, IndyCar has found a way to keep their drivers on their toes week after week. A fast driver can push lap after lap on primaries and jump their competition who are focused on sacrificing speed to preserve their alternates. A smooth driver on alternates can stretch their tires’ speed and life expectancy by keeping the car as straight as possible and living just within the limits.
No good answer. The tires are, in some real but not infinite sense, what the driver can make of them. And that’s beautiful.
About the author
Alex is the IndyCar Editor at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also Co-founded The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region, in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.
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