Pirelli engineer checks P Zero after track run
Pirelli engineer checks P Zero after track run. Click image to enlarge

By Tony Whitney

Dubai, UAE – If you buy a new sports car or sports sedan at the very top of the market, there’s a good chance it will be fitted with Pirelli P Zero tires. Over the years, the P Zero has become very much “the” high-performance tire, although it faces some stiff competition from several rival tire makers. Some of those competitive products are very good indeed, as I’m sure Pirelli itself would agree, but even so, the P Zero holds its ground in the supercar business and continues to add new upscale automakers seemingly as each month goes by.

The list of cars bearing P- Zero rubber reads like a roster of the world’s most desirable automobiles – names like Lamborghini Ferrari, Jaguar and Aston Martin. You’re likely to find P Zeros on premium BMWs, Volvos, Mercedes-Benz AMGs, Porsches and even the upcoming (and spectacular-looking) Audi R8 coupe. Of course, these tires are available in the aftermarket for all kinds of cars, but only a dealer can advise whether the tire is “right” for your particular car.
Pirelli is in the news at the moment because it has launched an all-new P Zero which is claimed to have many benefits the earlier version lacked – though few would complain of any recent P Zero’s performance capabilities.

Pirelli chose an unusual location for the world media launch of this tire – Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. As it happens, Dubai has a great track facility – the Dubai Autodrome – which is FIA certified and has a very wide range of specialized areas for tire and vehicle evaluation.

The main track is 5.3-km around and has fast straights and challenging “technical” corners. It’s the only FIA-sanctioned track to have asphalt runoff areas, possibly because the constant desert wind would all too easily blow sand or gravel into the corners. The track can be sub-divided into three separate tracks and that’s what Pirelli did with their program. The world class track is home to the final round of the FIA GT Championship and they even run a 24-hour race for touring cars. Other facilities include a racing school, kart track and even a world class medical centre. It proved a great place to put the new P Zero through its paces. It wasn’t a good spot for wet weather testing to be sure, but Pirelli took care of that as we’ll see later.

The new tire - note the asymetrical tread pattern
The new tire – note the asymetrical tread pattern. Click image to enlarge

Pirelli’s new tire – the company jokingly calls it “P Zero the Hero” – is being launched in conjunction with the Italian maker’s 100th year in motorsport. It has a new tread pattern aimed at providing even better all-round performance than the last version – plus some futuristic compounds and an innovative carcass structure. The tire took two years to develop and is protected by no less than five patents.

At the track, a Pirelli tire development engineer explained the process by which a new tire is developed. She showed me over a test car that was festooned with complex equipment designed to evaluate every aspect of a tire’s performance. Various sensors around the vehicle detect any shortcomings in tire performance well before a production model rolls out of the factory. She emphasized that initially, Pirelli starts with a custom-made prototype tire with hand-cut tread patterns which are changed and upgraded repeatedly during the evaluation process.

Eventually, a final design is decided upon and early production tires are given a thorough work-over on road and track. Naturally, computers play a major part in tire development and one test vehicle I was shown even had a Satellite-based GPS system in place to feed positioning details to laptops bolted into the cockpit. There’s a lot more to tire design than most car owners think, but the work pays off handsomely when it comes to the performance and handling of a vehicle.

Pirelli says that the principal feature of the new tire is that it “guarantees optimum performance in wet or dry conditions throughout the lifetime of the tire.” Many performance tires do tend to lose some of their best characteristics as they wear. Tires are technically complex, but some of the main benefits this tire offers, according to Pirelli, are based on the asymmetric tread design, nano-composites in the tread compounds and a hybrid cord system that allows the deformation of the tire profile to be controlled right up to speeds of 370 km/h. Acoustic comfort (low noise level) is another benefit and certainly our tests revealed a tire that didn’t squeal under heavy cornering loads. We didn’t get to try the tires on a freeway to discover anything about noise levels in normal use. The tire is claimed to provide optimum performance even during the first few kilometres of a drive when the rubber hasn’t warmed up properly. No more spinning your Ferrari two blocks from home because of cold tires!

Said Pirelli CEO Francesco Gori: “This tire represents the state of the art of the P Zero collection. The new tire has been designed and developed to control the ever-more-extreme performance of supercars and to offer even higher levels of driving satisfaction and safety for the most demanding drivers.”

We were able to try the new Pirellis in all kinds of situations at the Dubai Autodrome – including high speed wet-track tests on a skid pan. We used Audi TTs for this exercise and also tried cars with a rival product from Continental. Certainly, the Pirellis performed best when the surface was wet, possibly aided by the new asymmetrical tread design. The cars we got to drive included many of today’s most praised sports models and sedans, including products from BMW (including M-models), Audi, Mercedes-Benz AMG, Porsche and even Ferrari and Lamborghini. We used Mini Cooper Convertibles for a timed slalom segment and it was something of a surprise to me that you could buy P Zeros for a Mini.

Pirelli had this Ferrari on hand for track testing
Pirelli had this Ferrari on hand for track testing. Click image to enlarge

My personal “dream car” was there in all its splendor – the new Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione. Sadly, we didn’t get to drive that one, nor an Audi R8 and Aston Martin DB9 they had on display. Pirelli had a trio of race car drivers on hand to show us how the P Zero performed at racing speeds in Porsches, Ferraris and Lamborghinis. It was quite an experience to be riding around an F1-capable track at near-competition speeds on what are basically road tires.

Very few of us will ever write out a cheque for a Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano, but it’s good to know that if we do, the rubber between the car and the road has been the subject of endless development time and a legacy of 100 years of competition experience. As always, top tire manufacturers aim for the optimum combination of grip, refinement, safety and tread wear. The new Pirelli is also said to be very easy on the environment and actually meets a European law associated with materials used in tire manufacture that doesn’t come into effect until 2010.

Of course, you don’t have to spend several hundred thousand dollars on your new car to get the new P Zero tire – there are lots of affordable cars that come with these products as standard or your tire dealer can probably find you a set for the car you have right now. Interestingly, Pirelli has also developed a new wheel bearing its brand name – something that hasn’t been available for many years.
These P Zeros are far from an economy buy – especially in the more exotic sizes – but for owners of high-end, high-performance cars, anything less is false economy.

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