Tires: Of all the components of motorsports from the teams to the drivers to the cars and the tracks the humble tire stands out from the rest as the single most important point of focus in racing. As an example, you hear more talk of tires than any other topic during the commentary of any race. In racing, indeed everything matters but also everything must go through the tire. It is the single point of convergence in racing. What happens where the tire hits the road surface is simply all that matters.
When I was contemplating writing Optimum Drive the thought that really compelled me was the epiphany we’ve selfishly always set the car up for the driver. What we should always be doing is setting the car and driver up for the tire. Winning is largely accomplished by being more efficient with your tires.
Sometimes people struggle with the concept of efficiency in racing, it seems a contradiction in motorsports. Motorsports appears to be all about wasting things on the surface, you burn through everything at startling rates in motorsports compared to road driving, that part is true. The crucible of motorsports and how it pulverizes and punishes everything at an alarming rate is the very thing that makes it interesting and useful (and expensive and frankly fun). Want to know how your car will hold up in a hundred thousand miles? Just race it for a hundred, you’ll go though all the tires, brakes, clutch, engine wear, you name it and then some.
So racing is hard but why is it efficient? Due to the stresses it places on everything, if you can get those thousands of components of the car to just last a little longer than the other guys you gain a huge advantage (whether it is 100,000 miles on the road or 100 miles on the track). The two that matter the most are: Fuel, if you can have the same straight line speed as the other guys and use less fuel you have a fantastic advantage due the less frequent fuel stops and less weight in fuel that you have to carry. The second is of course the topic here; tires. If you can produce the same grip but at the same time do less wear (called degradation in engineering terms) you, just like the fuel efficiency example, have a measurable advantage. As the others consume at a higher rate, their speed difference (or delta) between the first lap on the tires and their last is greater. By the end of the race or stint on those tires (if it’s a race with tire changes) they will be a sitting duck. This is due to a result of the degradation; the tires get slower every lap after they have reached operating temperature. There may be a small plateau of a few consistent laps but then the degradation inevitable sets in.
If you’ve ever wondered why a car that qualifies well slowly drifts back in the race you now have your answer. It is relatively easy to get a set up in the car that is fast over one flying lap and much more tricky to reduce degradation relative to the other teams. The qualifying setup is about efficiency of speed over one lap while the race setup is about the fastest average lap time over the life of the tire. Two very different goals. That’s what the teams are doing when they talk about “focusing on long runs not lap times” during testing and practice. It’s tempting for teams to go for the glory of topping the test times for the day but that’s a bit short sighted because winning races is about reducing the degradation delta and giving in to the absolutely most important component of the car… the humble tire.
The humble tire is actually quite complex, as I wrote in Optimum Drive, I, like many other racers, didn’t think tires were that complex or that different. Man, was I wrong, all it took was doing some work with a tire manufacture, it’s actually more complex than any other component on the car as well. The vast sums of development money and overwhelming number of choices (variables) in their construction make the rest of the car seem like it comes from the Stone Ages.
When I started doing tire testing for Michelin I was handed a “subjective handling sheet”, I had seen these before doing vehicle validation and testing for vehicle manufactures and you assume since the vehicle manufactures sheet (since it included not only the tire but the entire car) that it would be longer, only makes sense right? Wrong, very wrong, you know the saying that the Eskimos have 100 words for snow? That is Michelin and tires, the subjective handling sheet was pages long and had many, many terms (and sometime made up Michelin words that were an interesting mix of French and English) to describe all of the individual characteristics of the tires in stunning, vivid detail.
I learned over time that they all had a subtlety different connotation that were not only measurable objectively but could, with considerable practice, be felt. Add them all up and those differences really started to matter, to define the character and performance of that particular tire. They had sliced it up so many times that you could start to define the feel and confidence that particular tire provided. It was far beyond what I had seen any vehicle manufacture do, it was just part of their “so much is riding on your tires” culture they had refined and perfected over the course of a hundred plus years of continuous development.
There are many variables in tire construction, there is also considerable technology. Those two statements would be a pretty big surprise to most average consumers (but you are not average are you). They think tires are all simply “round and black” and the premium ones are just overpriced, overhyped versions of the cheapest ones. Perhaps the saddest thing I see at “Cars & Coffee” is a wonderfully complex, lovingly developed vehicle with $40 tires on it. Tells me all I need to know about this undeserving owner thinking they are smart and savvy by saving money on tires. I have the same comment for people who live in snowy climates and are too shortsighted or misinformed to put dedicated Winter tires on their car. No people, even the best All-Season tire does not preform nearly as well as a good Winter tire.
The bottom line here with all of this tire talk is that whether we are setting lap records, winning races and championships or perhaps just out on a Sunday enjoying the finest piece of machinery we can modestly afford or maybe just out getting some milk on a snowy night, nothing has a greater influence on our joy and success than the humble tire.