Michelin tests supercar tyre in Dubai

The tyre-maker hopes enthusiasm for the Pilot Supersport, which it tested at Dubai Autodrome, rubs off around the rest of the world.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Ð Nov 22: Media personals having a test ride in the performance cars during the Michelin tyre testing event held at Dubai Autodrome in Dubai. (Pawan Singh / The National) For Motoring. Story by Richard Whitehead
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Try as you might, it is hard to look at tyres with any great wonder and affection. Michelin, however, might just have changed this with the launch of its new product, the Pilot Super Sport.

According to Gary Guthrie, the group vice president of marketing at the French company, this is no less than a revolution in tyre design. "It is the fastest and safest tyre ever built for a road car," he said at the global launch of the rubber, which took place at Dubai's Autodrome this week.

Tough talk, then, from one of the leading purveyors of the auto world's necessary but unsung heroes.

Early tyres were made of iron and used on carts and wagons. A wheelwright would heat the tyre on a forge and place it over a wooden wheel before quenching the red-hot metal with water, causing it to contract and hold fast. The first rubber tyre was invented in 1887 by Scotsman John Boyd Dunlop for use on his son's bicycle. Since then, tyres have come a long way.

Guthrie says the new Michelin Pilot Super Sport represents the biggest leap in tyre design for a generation: "It is the fastest tyre in the world, and it wasn't me who first said that," he explained. "It was tested by German standards agency TÜV, who found it to be the safest tyre on dry roads, but they also recorded that in more demanding road conditions, such as in the wet, it brakes three metres shorter than its predecessor. That can sometimes be the difference between life and death."

Indeed, at Le Mans this year, one set of the tyres did 627km at an average speed of 243kph - four times the distance than a tyre manages in Formula One. Overall, during the 24-hour race, the Pilot Super Sport broke three longevity world records and reduced the number of tyre sets required by a car to 11 from 14.

Coming from Michelin's annual €500 million (Dh2.5 billion) budget for research and development, it has taken four years to develop and will be sold at the same price as its predecessor. It is meant for "enthusiastic drivers who want to combine driving pleasure with safety", according to Guthrie.

The model was initially developed in partnership with Porsche: "They are extremely demanding; that's why we love working with them," said Guthrie. Over the past four years, AMG, the performance arm of Mercedes-Benz, BMW's M and Ferrari have also come on board to develop versions of the tyre for their own cars.

The Pilot Super Sport uses a combination of a high-density fibre known as Twaron and bi-compound tread. The Twaron is used as part of the process to tighten the tread more than the shoulders of the tyre to give it more of a flattened appearance, rather than an arched one. As a result, centrifugal force that causes this arching is more effectively overcome and pressure is more evenly distributed. Another key feature of Twaron is that it is five times tougher than steel at the equivalent weight.

The tyre also uses different rubber compounds on the left and right sides of the tread. The reinforced outside is designed for endurance when the corners are tight, while the high-grip inside is designed to break through surface water and adhere to even the slightest irregularity in the road.

By this point, many people tend to get a glazed look in their eyes and switch off from the subject of tyres. But past the dry facts and the theories and engineering, there's one thing that makes the science of tyres really interesting, and that's actual testing.

In this case, Michelin test drivers had a field day, with a Gumpert, Koenigsegg, Lamborghini Gallardo, a few racing Porsches, a couple of 458 Italias, a 1,015hp Mercedes-Benz SL and gullwing SLS, some BMW Ms and an Audi R8 putting the tyres through their paces.

"We will approach these laps as we would in testing," Pierre-Antoine, Michelin's AMG specialist test driver, told us as we set off in the SLS. "Our first lap is to warm up, so that we know we have a benchmark."

The second lap saw an increase in pace to a 120kph average and an illustration of hard cornering - namely yanking the wheel to the left and right and showing the response. What was interesting here is how highly tuned a tyre test driver's perceptions must be as he senses the most minute changes in behaviour. From our point of view, we could feel some quite significant grip below.

The next, faster lap was devoted to understeer and throttle lift-off. Pierre-Antoine would simulate a corner taken way too fast - one you would normally have no chance coming out of in one piece - and showed how the tyre did have an uncanny ability to regain grip within a split second and pull through back to the parabola. In a lift-off situation, with heavy oversteer, the same again was true. The smell of rubber was by now filling the cabin.

But the hot lap would provide the substance. With an AMG-tuned 6.3L V8 engine coiling and then exploding through the corners, even as a passenger you can feel the tremendous grip from this rubber, even when the wheels are being positioned - with all due respect to Pierre-Antoine - by a maniac.

This was a test driver who was doing everything he could to get it wrong: wrong line, wrong approach speed and wrong adjustments. But still, each time - all at very high speeds - he would rely on the Michelins to pull the SLS back into shape, which they did rather effectively.

This might well have been the moment when tyres finally became sexy. Even on F1 cars, they are just the black things that get their own puffer coats; commentators talk more about team tyre strategy than tyre technology. But when all your senses can pick up on all the hard work your rubbers are carrying out on your behalf, you are finally ready to accept your tyres as things of beauty.