All the elaborate engineering and sophisticated components in the world is for naught if a tire isn't up to the task.
The purpose of a car's suspension is to ensure tires remain in contact with the surface of the road under a wide variety of conditions. The tire has to not only translate the steering, braking and acceleration demands of the driver, it has to cope with rapid changes in load as the weight of the vehicle is transferred from side to side or fore and aft. All the while the surface of the road may be changing as well.
Managing this intricate interaction between vehicle and road - through the tires - is an engineering nightmare. Race teams employ specialized engineers for this purpose alone in the hopes of gaining an edge over the competition. This is also the case for production vehicles. From the lowliest subcompact fuel-sipper to six-figure luxury cars, manufacturers establish standards for tire manufacturers wishing to become original equipment suppliers, which would mean winning contracts for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of tires.
These design standards include parameters for road noise, wear, rolling resistance (fuel mileage), compliance (comfort) and, of course, price.
As you work your way up the price and sophistication ladder, less emphasis is placed on fuel mileage and wear and more on ride quality and noise levels for luxury vehicles and wet and dry traction and braking for cars with a sporty mien.
At the very pinnacle of this pyramid lie ultra-high-performance sports cars. How much tires cost and how long they last are not an issue at this level. Exclusivity and the ability to translate the work of extensive engineering to real world performance are the keys. Similarly, these more sophisticated suspensions have been developed with handling as the highest priority with ride quality a secondary consideration. The tire engineer has a much different set of principles to work with.
Here the volume of vehicles and tires sold is minuscule in the overall scene but monumental in terms of image. Tire and car companies work in harmony at this level throughout the design and development of the vehicle. Michelin's latest ultra-high-performance tire, the Pilot Super Sport, was developed with and certified by Porsche, BMW M and Ferrari.
Designed to highlight and enhance a vehicle's personality while being suited for both on-road and track use, it received the 2010 Ferrari Technical award and goes on sale this spring.
For each manufacturer with whom Michelin has a technical partnership, the tire underwent tests covering more than 10,000 km in low-grip conditions at a wide variety of test tracks and race tracks including Fiorano, Motegi, Estoril, Magny-Cours, Nardo, Charade and Nurburgring. Other tests included 1,000 hours at more than 300 km/h and being driven 50,000 km under peak loads double those it would support on a vehicle.
Michelin claims the Pilot Super Sport is the world's fastest series production tire. Designed specifically for super sport vehicles and street-legal cars tuned and modified for ultra-high performance, it integrates the expertise developed in international endurance racing, specifically the 24 hours of Le Mans where the company has scored 13 consecutive overall wins.
Floren Menegaux, president of the passenger car and light truck group and member of the executive board at Michelin, said Formula One tires may last 50 km, but Le Mans tires last 250 km with less than one-tenth of a second drop in lap times. "We are in racing because we believe that is the best testing ground."
Tires designed for endurance racing must provide a combination of performance and endurance since they are changed less often than in other forms of racing. The Pilot Super Sport contains three new developments: Twaron fibre, Bi-Compound tread band and Variable Contact Patch 2.0.
Twaron is a high-density fibre used in sports, aeronautics, military gear and motorsports. It provides superior high-speed stability that keeps the tread more evenly distributed under the extreme centrifugal and other forces generated at extreme speeds and during cornering. The Bi-Compound tread, developed for racing tires, uses different rubber compounds on the left and right side of the tread. That on the outside ensures exceptional endurance under extreme conditions while that on the inside is designed to break through the water's surface ands adhere to the slightest surface irregularities. Digital simulation was used to develop the second-generation Variable Contact Patch, which ensures the amount of rubber in contact with the road remains the same even though the shape of the contact patch changes during cornering.
Michelin gathered an array of high-end and exotic sports cars in Dubai to showcase the abilities of the Pilot Super Sport in comparison to the competition. During instrumented testing at the Dubai Autodrome, my braking times on a dry surface with an Audi TTS shod with the Michelins were 1.4 metres less from 90 km/h than in an identical car on the same course wearing Goodyear Eagle F1 Asmmetric tires and 0.5 metres less for one on Pirelli P Zero tires. In wet braking, the Michelins brought the car to a halt 0.5 metres shorter than the Goodyears and 0.1 metres less than the Pirellis.
The next exercise was on a wet skid pad in BMW M3s. The idea was to gradually increase speed while maintaining a constant radius until the tires let go while observing steering feel. The Michelins gave up at 63 km/h with ample warning and quick reaction to counter-steering inputs while a similar car on Continental ContiSport ConTact 5Ps lost it at 59 km/h with little warning.
Instrumented times were not kept during subsequent laps of a short course in Porsche Carreras or a longer courses in more exotic cars, but the overall impression was that Michelin has raised the bar at the highest end of the tire market.
The world of ultra-performance cars
Enthusiasts will surely recognize these names - Audi R8, Ferrari 458 Italia, Lamborghini Gallardo LP 570-4, Mercedes SLS AMG as 525- to 571-horsepower super cars. But what about Gumpert Apollo, Koenigsegg Agera, MKB Mercedes SL65 Black Series P1000 and 63/8, Schnitzer AC63 Sport and Alpina BMW B5 Biturbo?
These wild cars are part of the European exotic-car scene where obscene amounts of money are regularly spent.
Michelin gathered samples of all of the above at the Dubai Autodrome to introduce the company's new ultra-high-performance tire, the Pilot Super Sport, developed specifically for cars like this. They also had "lesser" vehicles - various Porsches, Audis, M-Series BMWs and AMG Mercedes on hand.
The Gumpert Apollo is powered by a 650-horsepower, bi-turbo Audi V-8. The $2.1-million, 2011 Koenigsegg Agera has a 910-horsepower, twin-turbo V-9 of its own manufacture, the MKB Mercedes SL65 Black Series P1000 an astonishing, 1,015-horsepower V-12 while its lesser sibling the 63/8 has to do with a paltry 581 hp, putting it in excellent company with the 552-hp Schnitzer AC63 Sport and the 507-hp Alpina BMW B5 Biturbo.
When money is no object and exclusivity is the goal, Europeans have a pretty impressive shopping list!