All good concoctions need a constant and a variable. Tonic is an ideal mixer for an alcoholic beverage for example – the constant – while the precise liquor you choose to consume with it is the variable. In the case of the 2021 World Rally Championship, Pirelli’s new range of tires is proving to be the constant and the variable.
How? The varying conditions on each of the first rounds has meant drivers are experiencing a new compound and pattern of rubber every time, and therefore everybody is constantly talking about them.
A slightly tenuous introduction aside, don’t underestimate the impact tires could yet again prove to have on this week’s Rally Portugal. On the Monte it was punctures and the number of spares bolted into the trunk. In Croatia it was dodgy selections for Hyundai and in Portugal it’s the weather. And more specifically, the effect the torrential rain that has fallen over the last week will have on the rally’s 20 stages.
But the first hurdle for the drivers to overcome is simply their unfamiliarity with the rubber. As Portugal is the first gravel round since Pirelli became the WRC’s exclusive tire supplier at the start of 2021, drivers don’t have a bank of knowledge to call upon.
“I don’t think that anybody knows exactly what the tires do, and again some part of it will be a bit of experience,” Thierry Neuville explained. “We have done some good testing, we have done a lot of mileage on gravel but I think there will be surprises.
“Obviously firstly, rally conditions [are] different than during testing due to the rain and during the weekend they will be even different compared to the recce. We are all missing experience to know exactly what to do but we have at least some directions we’re going to go which should be not too wrong and hopefully the perfect choices.”
Most of the teams completed their pre-event tests in wet conditions and peristing downpours on recce has left some of the stages more rutted than normal. Usually, this would prompt drivers to choose a softer compound tire; and herein lies, in Ott Tänak’s words, the “big topic”.
As per the FIA’s WRC sporting regulations, a tire manufacturer may only bring “one specification of tire being of the same construction and pattern, supplied in two compounds of which one compound shall be nominated by the FIA for use throughout each rally.
“Eight tires of the other compound may be available instead of the nominated compound.”
For Portugal, Pirelli’s hard compound tyre – of which 24 are available to each WRC driver (22 in WRC2/3 and 20 in Junior WRC) – is the nominated tire as it was expected to be better suited for the Portuguese stages.
As Pirelli’s rally activity manager Terenzio Testoni reasoned: “The surface in Portugal is especially tricky, with a hard and rocky base covered by softer and more sandy gravel: this is why we have chosen the hard compound as the main tire this weekend.”
Except it probably won’t be. The situation has left some drivers cautious, wary and tentative ahead of the start of the rally tomorrow.
“This limitation overall is quite strange to just have eight tires like we see now already this week it’s been raining a lot and it’s not the condition for the hard tire,” said Tänak.
We will need to use the soft tire but we only have eight tires so I don’t know how we will manage all of this. Because, if you see the conditions of the stages, they are quite softDani Sordo
“I guess we’ve been in the same situation like 10 years ago when it was only one choice of tire and now [for] some reason we go back there but let’s see. For sure there will be some situation where we need to drive on the tire that is not [in] optimum condition.”
Tänak’s Hyundai team-mate Dani Sordo is similarly apprehensive, predicting the lack of available soft compound Pirellis is going to be a “mess”.
“It went really well in the test, it was working well but the problem here is that it’s not just the brand of the tire, it’s that we don’t have many soft tires, so this will be a mess for me, in terms of grip,” Sordo explained.
“We will need to use the soft tire but we only have eight tires so I don’t know how we will manage all of this. Because, if you see the conditions of the stages, they are quite soft.
He added: “We will need to keep the soft tires for the last day, everybody knows this, but it will be challenging with the tires, with the grip and traction, but for me, all the rally will be very important to make the right decision.”
Toyota’s Elfyn Evans, who set the benchmark on Thursday morning’s shakedown, agrees. “it’s going to be a challenge to utilize” the soft tires as this “would be a rally that we’d probably have used quite a lot of the soft tire in the past”.
His team principal Jari-Matti Latvala adds more meat to the bone: “Last year when we were running Michelins we had more options between softs and hards but now this has chosen to be a hard tire rally and we can have only eight soft compounds which is not a lot.
“And it’s been raining here on Monday, it’s been raining still Tuesday morning so the road’s been wet. They’ve been pretty compact but the ground is still humid and how you are going to play your tires, how you’re going to use those tires, those eight tires during the weekend I think we’re going to see quite interesting choices between the drivers.”
WRC points leader Sébastien Ogier was more sanguine when asked how big a role tire tactics could have on the outcome of this weekend’s event.
“It looks like it, but the truth is that it’s something we are all still learning and personally, I cannot say I know already perfectly how all these tires are working in which conditions and what their best windows are and stuff like this.
“So like we’ve seen on the previous events, it will be a tricky tire choice I believe. And on top of that, you just mentioned that we have only eight softs and it used to be, at least with Michelin, the best compound for this kind of condition. So yeah, that makes the decision at which time to use it quite complicated.”
A pandemic-hit 2020 aside, Rally Portugal is a constant in the annual routine of the WRC’s finest, although the manner in which they will attack it this year is anything but predictable.
It’s yet another element of spice which is making this week’s return to gravel all the more mouth-watering. It’s amazing how the seemingly little details can make all the difference.