Pirelli has become synonymous with international GT3 racing during the past decade. Whether it's at Spa, Shanghai or Sonoma, the Italian manufacturer is a constant presence, a common link between competitors and circuits at opposite ends of the globe.
As sole supplier to a host of leading championships, including GT World Challenge Powered by AWS and Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli, it is a key player at some of the sport's biggest events. The most significant is the Total 24 Hours of Spa, where Pirelli has supplied the entire field since 2013. In fact, the brand's participation goes back even further, with the iconic Maserati MC12 winning overall in 2005 and 2006 using Pirelli rubber.
For a clearer picture of Pirelli's involvement with global GT3 racing, particularly the 24 Hours, we spoke with Matteo Braga, technical manager of the firm’s motorsport department. He began by explaining the process behind the new slick compound that was launched ahead of the 2020 season.
"Since we started to work with SRO on the GT3 class, we have always kept developing our product to follow the evolution of the cars and the needs of the drivers," explains Matteo. "2020 is the fifth step in the evolution of our products. We decided to introduce a new combination of front and rear slick tyres that are specifically designed for the new generation of GT3 cars."
"We worked a lot with the manufacturers in the last couple of years and created a solution that is not too far from the previous one. This means that teams did not start from zero, but it's a good step in terms of consistency and drivability, especially for gentlemen drivers."
"We always want to keep in mind that GT3 is customer racing, and customers want to find something that they enjoy. Our main target is always to find something that can cope with all the possible situations around the world, because we supply the same product in Europe, the U.S. and Asia."
Developing a tyre that suits many different cars and a wide variety of drivers is a unique challenge. How does Pirelli go about developing this one-size-fits-all solution?
"We work at different levels," says Matteo. "We have people who are in contact with manufacturers, so we get feedback from them. We also have a group of engineers that is in contact with the teams, and they report feedback from drivers. Now, with COVID, it's a bit different, but usually they were always in the garages."
"We also take feedback from professional and gentlemen drivers," he continues. "Obviously the professional driver can be more accurate, but when you hear feedback from a gentleman driver and they are all asking for the same thing, it means that something has to be changed."
The Total 24 Hours of Spa is the biggest event of the year for almost everyone involved, and that certainly includes Pirelli. But it is not just a case of producing and fitting tyres: the Italian firm has also drawn on the event's global status to develop its own expertise.
"Something special for us, which unfortunately we cannot do this year due to COVID, is making Spa a sort of worldwide Pirelli motorsport event. We have different motorsport departments all around the world – for example in Brazil, the U.S., Japan – and Spa is a chance to bring everyone together. We use these people to work in the fitting area and in the pit lane, along with our HQ team. This a very powerful team building experience, better than any meeting that we can ever plan in our offices."
"For example, when we had Japanese teams racing we would use a Japanese engineer; for an Australian team we had the Australian engineer. It means that at Spa they can work with the teams and drivers that they have met in the local GT World Challenge series. We see a lot of engineers and drivers that go from Europe to Asia, and from my point of view it's important that they can find the same faces."
"What we have seen in the past is that people thought Pirelli in Europe was different from Pirelli in Asia. When you speak with a person in Pirelli uniform, we want it to be that you are speaking with Pirelli. That message has been improved and was very efficient in the past two or three years."
Anyone who has visited the Total 24 Hours of Spa paddock will know just what a vast operation Pirelli undertakes at the event. Their fitting area resembles a small village and is always buzzing with activity. This is especially noticeable during the night, with the amount of work never seeming to diminish. As Matteo explains, it is a colossal undertaking.
"This year will be different because of the restrictions on travel, but in a normal year we bring around 100 to 110 people. We have different functions: the fitting area is 60 to 70 people, maybe 20 people are in pit lane and engineering support, and then we have logistics, marketing and communications."
"The number of tyres is always variable. Usually we start producing in April or May with a target of 13,000. As we get closer to the race the entry list and the weather are changing, so we can vary between 11,500 and 13,000. We always wait until the last minute to make the final shipment and fine tune the mix between slicks and wets."
"We have around 34 trucks, so it's a very big operation that we work on all year. You need to find people, find trucks, make sure everything is planned. And this year the biggest challenge is that we have many championships concentrated in a few weeks, so we will arrive at Spa quite warmed up!"
As Matteo mentions, the 2020 race comes at the height of a very busy period for the motorsport world, with many series and events pushed back following the shutdowns that took place earlier in the year. Spa will run outside the summer months for the first time, but will this be of significance to the tyre supplier?
"From a product point of view, racing in October does not affect us much," says Matteo. "We have only one type of product (wet and dry tyres) with a wide range of uses. If it's very cold then we won't be within the ideal working window, but it will still work. From a logistical point of view we need to plan some new infrastructure. We will need to add some heaters and change uniform, because I expect the night will be very cold!"
Come rain or shine – or both, as is usually the case at Spa – Pirelli can be relied upon to deliver in the Ardennes. On the eve of its eighth event as sole supplier, the brand remains as committed as ever to the Total 24 Hours of Spa.
"Endurance racing allows us to work very closely with the manufacturers that we supply with our street-legal product," says Matteo. "It means we are very close to the end user, the type of customer buying our product. It's also a proving ground where we can validate our technologies, materials and designs."
"I don't want to upset my colleagues from Formula 1, but I think that this is the biggest event for our motorsport department," he continues. "The number of cars, the number of people, the effort that goes into the event – it's unique. It's bigger today [than 2013], but we know how and when to take decisions. Eight years ago we were less conscious of what the race was; now, we know what to expect."
This year's Total 24 Hours of Spa may be taking place later than ever before, but partners like Pirelli will ensure that it runs as efficiently as ever. The fitting area will still be a hive of activity from start to finish, with a huge team keeping the competitors supplied with the tyres they need. The only difference will be a few more long sleeves and Pirelli pullovers than we'd usually see in July.