My annual Pirelli catch-up at the Autosport Show was a little different to usual, as Paul Hembery had moved into his new role early last year, meaning I had to opportunity to meet with Head of Car Racing, Mario Isola.
This gave me the opportunity to quiz Mario a little on his career, and discover how his passion for motorsport had led him to Pirelli, as well as touching on the challenges he faces, the 2018 compounds, and efforts for fan engagement. Mario was more than happy to indulge me, and I’m happy to say, was smiling throughout!
Sarah Merritt: Mario, as it is the first time that we at Badger GP have had the opportunity to chat to you, I thought it would be interesting to hear from you about how you got into Motorsport. I understand that you used to race karts when you were younger? How did that path lead to Pirelli?
Mario Isola: I started racing go-karts when I was 12, up until I was 21, and then I had to stop – my dad said ‘if you pay for yourself then it’s okay, but otherwise you finish now’ (laughs). That is a common problem, as motorsport is expensive, but I’ve had the passion since I was a child. I then studied mechanical engineering and then I had the opportunity to join Pirelli whilst I was still studying.
I joined Pirelli in 1996, a long time ago (Mario smiles), as a test driver. I was selected and started working as a test driver, but then I realised that it was not exactly my dream job and I moved to design.
I designed tyres on road cars for a couple of years and then was involved with the first time that we designed winter tyres – before it had been a chain on the car. Then, after a few more years, I wanted to move to motorsport. I was trying to watch for any opportunity, and at the end of 2000, I was able to move and I started with the FIA GT.
We started a project with Maserati and was in charge of this project and in 2005, we won the championship – happy – and then my boss then gave me the responsibility for the rally activities. It was a big challenge for me. I was not an expert on rallying – it meant I had to learn a lot, but that was good because if you are a motorsport fan and you have the opportunities to see different categories, it’s important. I managed the rally team until 2009, and then we started with GP3 in 2010 and Formula 1 in 2011 and so on!
SM: At Pirelli, you’ve worked in many other race series before you came to F1, so I wondered if there were any stories or particular highlights from that time?
MI: I had so many different experiences and challenges, but yes, of course when we won the championship in 2005 was a big, a big moment. Rallying was a big challenge as well. There are a lot of nice memories of my career in motorsport – first race, first grand prix in 2011 in Melbourne, which was our (Pirelli’s) very first race. You can imagine the level of pressure we had! (laughs)
It was big emotionally because we are the sole supplier, so we won that race, and today we win and lose all the races, so it was a big challenge to be in Formula 1. The race was good and everybody was happy.
SM: At the start of last year, with Paul Hembery moving into his new role as CEO of Pirelli in Latin America, you became Head of Car Racing. What has the last year been like for you?
MI: Of course, it is a change, but not a big one, because together with Paul I was taking on more and more responsibility, so I didn’t have a sudden big step or such a shock. It was quite a progressive situation and now I have a different responsibility. I have to manage a big team because for Formula 1 – on track, we have 55 people. If we have Formula 2 and GP3, there are an additional 10, plus all the activities on GT, rallying, etc, so it’s a big team of people. Never enough, but a big team! We have a lot of championships, and it’s nice to be so involved in motorsport.
SM: Especially when you love it as much as you do!
MI: Absolutely. I am proud to be part of the team that started 18 years ago. We were quite small. I would say there were 10/12 people, but now we have a lot more. We were involved in WRC and in 2001, we won the title. 2003 with Petter Solberg and 2001 with Richard Burns. Our biggest activity was WRC and also the Ferrari challenge, but not a lot of championships. Now we supply 224 championships, everywhere in the world, in all the five continents, so it’s a lot more!
It’s important because motorsport is an open laboratory for our technicians and our engineers so we can test a lot of new materials, new ideas, new concepts. Thanks to Formula 1 especially, we were able to upgrade all the factories to have new methodologies for indoor testing and new simulation tools. We work a lot with the teams to create a vehicle tyre because this is the future – less track testing and more simulation. When you learn from motorsport in general, you can export these experiences straight to road car tyres.
Obviously a Formula 1 tyre is a lot different from a road tyre but the tools are the same – all the testing we do on materials indoors, the quality controls in the factory, the production processes. There is a lot you can learn from motorsport and all of this is valuable for our colleagues and you can supply a product to your customer that is much, much better.
SM: For this year, with your compounds moving to be softer, you have launched the softest compound yet; the pink Hypersoft, which you engaged with fans over naming on social media – and I highly commend that, it’s great to be getting F1 fans involved. It got 62% of the vote, I believe?
MI: I was not happy!
MI: Because I voted for the Megasoft! (Mario laughs) But that doesn’t matter – we respect the fans.
SM: That’s a real change involving the fans in that way and it’s what they wanted. Do you have any more plans to do that kind of thing?
MI: Why not? We are very open to any suggestion because it was a good test. The previous year we involved the fans with the colour of Ultrasoft and they voted for purple. I was happy then as I voted purple. It’s nice. We had a lot of comments. We had a lot of both positive and negative, but that doesn’t matter – it means they are talking about tyres and this is positive. We had half a million interactions; the web is a crazy world and you can really generate numbers that are incredible! Half a million interactions on the name of the tyre…likes, comments, you know, sharing, all this kind of stuff. A lot of people were talking about tyres. We had more than 30,000 votes.
SM: And this was introduced with an objective of seeing two pit stops at most races in 2018, am I right?
MI: Yes, and this is quite a delicate balance because to have more pit stops, it means we need more degradation. If you don’t have degradation, there is no reason to stop and change your tyre, but more degradation means that there is a potential that the drivers are not happy because we are talking about thermal degradation, that is a bit different to surface overheating.
Surface overheating is what the drivers don’t want because when they push, they lose performance, but obviously, surface overheating and thermal degradation are connected. Our target is to increase thermal degradation and to reduce surface overheating but it is not always possible.
The first step is to move all the compounds to the softer side. Last year we were too conservative, which was acceptable. I believe that if you ask me if I’d make the same choice, I would say yes because it was the first year with the new cars with performance that is crazy. We now move one step softer with all the compounds, and on top of that, we have the new Hypersoft.
With this range, we have the possibility to select compounds at each event that are more certain. The target is to give the teams three compounds where all three are suitable for the race. Not to have one that is too hard or too soft on the other side. We are trying to have the right flexibility to do that and obviously with all the tyres one step softer more of a show and more overtaking. We are targeting 2 pit stops. I’m not sure yet if we will have 2 pit stops but…” (Mario shrugs)
SM: We shall see soon! Isn’t it difficult to be a tyre manufacturer that has to produce a degrading product, the total opposite, I would imagine, of what your normal aims would be?
MI: It is. I remember at the beginning in 2011, where we had not only to produce a tyre with high degradation but also to explain to our customers that we were doing that on purpose. It is not easy because some will say that Pirelli tyres are degrading and I say yes, they are degrading because we design the tyre to degrade. ‘No, no, it means that you are not able to make tyres that do not degrade!”- it was a difficult message.
We then moved to less degradation because drivers were not 100% happy, and then at the end of 2016, we had a big decision as with the new cars, we developed two families of compounds – one was the old family, upgraded but with the limited possibility to operate because we were already developing this family of compounds for many years so the rate of development was quite flat. Or a new family of compounds, completely new, new ingredients, new technology, but also a bit risky.
The new compounds, the new family, had huge potential, so we decided to take the newer one for 2017. We were brave, but right, and now the new compounds for 2018 are all coming from the new family.
SM: With the introduction of the Superhard this year as well, the Pirelli “Rainbow” now consists of seven compounds, plus the intermediate and full wet tyre taking it to nine. Many fans are confused; how many tyres in total does that now mean you are bringing to each race?
MI: The same amount. The regulation is the same that was, so you will have three compounds. Forget the Superhard – the Superhard is our insurance – so that if for any reason we have underestimated the performance of the car or something like that, we have it in our pocket, but we have no plan to use it during the season.
The range is from Hard to Hypersoft plus the Intermediate and Wet to cover all the different circuits. We have 21 circuits, we have 10 teams, so with this rainbow, we are now happy – three compounds, 13 sets of slick tyres per each car, 10 sets selected by each team.
There are three sets selected by Pirelli, because two he compulsory for the race and one for Q3, so it is the same. About the colours – yes, we have a lot of colours but don’t forget that each race you will still have only three, so it’s not so difficult to remember three.
SM: These new compounds were tested by the teams after the Abu Dhabi race at the end of last season. Was feedback good?
MI: Yes, absolutely. It was a very, very important test and we want to repeat it in the future, hopefully this year. With this test, we had the opportunity to collect a lot of information in November, but when you have no time to make any reaction. It was important to race drivers, it was important to all the teams, because we need to produce a tyre for all the teams and not just the top teams, so it’s important to validate the product with all the different teams. Now we base our selection on the numbers that we have from the Abu Dhabi test.
Obviously, when we start the season with the pre-season tests and Melbourne and so on, we will have more numbers to put in our tool to generate strategies, but at the moment what we have is just the Abu Dhabi test. Consider that previously we have basically no numbers so the selections were made on the feeling, on the experience but not based on numbers.
SM: Will you then make further changes based on the feedback you get? There’s not another test before the season starts is there?
MI: We have the winter test, the pre-season test, but no, because of the regulation we have to homologate the specification of the construction by September, and the compounds by December. So after November, it is done for a year. Obviously, we will prepare a different tyre for next year – an upgraded tyre.
SM: Lastly, do Pirelli have anything planned that we can share with our readers? Opening up the tyre tests to fans, perhaps?
MI: The tyre development test system is the same system we used last year. This means all the teams in one, two-day session on slick compounds, a dry test, and then we have a few teams with an additional session on wet conditions for the development of wet and intermediate tyres, as sometimes it is more difficult to develop a wet and intermediate than a slick tyre. This is the plan for this year, and we are not looking at the moment to open these development test to spectators, but we will see. Last year, the Abu Dhabi test was open.
SM: This was good as some people can’t afford to go to a race itself…
MI: Consider that a tyre development test with one car is really not exciting, so for the spectators, maybe they stay in the grandstand for hours and the car maybe has an issue and does not run. It makes sense to open the collective test where we have all the cars, and all the drivers, if there is an opportunity to involve more spectators.