Motor racing in the premier categories has always attracted not only the bravest and most skilled performers in the physical sense, but also the best and brightest thinkers – engineers and technicians who are responsible for what those elite athletes are riding on, in every sense of the term. But thankfully things have moved on from Pirelli's secret midnight raids of the 1980's where they would, under the cover of darkness, sneak onto a F1 circuit to dig up a section of track so that their developers could take it back to the lab for examination, as Pirelli Moto Racing Director Giorgio Barbier concedes with a hearty chuckle.
In the 1980's, Pirelli racing tire development was geared towards ultimate performance for F1, rally and the new motorcycle racing premier categories. The task then was to provide winning tires for winning teams regardless of the cost or how exotic the construction technology or rubber compounds got. Pirelli followed the tried and true "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" promotional and advertising brand image model to which so many of the racing manufacturers subscribed – and still do.
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These days the focus for motorcycle tires has changed. According to Barbier and racing compound development engineer, Fabio Meni, with whom we talked at Phillip Island recently for the first round of the WSBK 2012 season, now Pirelli's job as the chosen control tire manufacturer for WSBK is one of finding a motorcycle racing tire that will perform in a far broader range of conditions, and one that any sportsbike owner can then buy off the shelf. A compromise which reflects the rules of the production based category, and one that anyone riding from the public roads to a track day on their own bike shod with road tires will appreciate! And be aware that a WSBK pole sitter is now also quick enough to qualify on the front rows of a MotoGP grid, which means that engineering technology has found the ultimate limits of speed in even mass produced motorcycle manufacturing and no small measure of that is down to the tires.
Phillip Island has it's own unique place on the WSBK racing calendar for a few reasons. Not only is it the first meeting of the season - which means the uncertainty of rusty riders and teams using new, un-raced technology - but it is also the fastest circuit on the schedule with the most sunshine (UV), so potentially the hottest air and track surface temperatures. A confounding mix of variables for even the most astute competitors … there must be something about jumping in the deep end in Australia for Pirelli it seems, as Melbourne's Albert Park has also hosted the F1 (another Pirelli "client") opening round for the past eighteen years.
Maintaining tire performance or, more simply, grip, over time with an ever increasing range of variables has made the job of manufacturing them on a large scale more tricky and involved than it's ever been. And when you consider that tire grip is the most critical single factor influencing a road vehicle's performance, then you'll understand how important the job is.
For example, did you know that the molecular structure of a soft compound racing tire when cold is stiffer than that of a much harder one? So different before it reaches operating temperature, in fact, that under a microscope it actually resembles glass more than rubber. That's right, glass. It means that that heart-in-mouth first corner of the race is actually even scarier than it looks – if that's indeed possible!
The future of the motorcycle tire market is, as you would expect, throwing up wildly different technological challenges, not least of which is electrically powered sportsbikes. Just as Yamaha recently modified the crankshaft angles and firing order of their in-line four to enable better tire performance by letting the compound "cool down" in the nanoseconds between combustion pulses, the constant power delivery of electric motors will benefit from a close partnership with the tire manufacturers to steer their development at the sports end of the market.
For an explanation in more wonderful detail of their fascinating job, watch the full in-depth interview with Giorgio and Fabio below, but be warned, it goes for almost half an hour.