The Brutally Secretive Life of the Racing Tire
Midway through last week’s Austrian Grand Prix, the right rear tire of Sebastian Vettel’s race car exploded. The blowout sent his Ferrari careering across the track and flung bits of rubber everywhere, like a pinwheel firework throwing off sparks.
The German driver climbed out of his car unharmed, and probably didn’t think about that Pirelli P-Zero tire again except to curse it. Pirelli engineers, however, did not move on nearly so quickly.
With some help from the race stewards, they sent a crew out to walk the track, picking up very last shred of the late tire. That’s because, Pirelli says, you want all the evidence to help figure out what went wrong. But you also want to protect your intellectual property.
Sure, that seems fully nuts. But motorsports are where automotive technology evolves, there is no way Pirelli will let a competitor get its sticky hands on the black stuff, even if it is the sole supplier in Formula 1. Rivals like Michelin and Bridgestone defend their intellectual property with similar fervor, and routinely deploy people to gather up every ounce of rubber left on the circuit. Each company meticulously tracks every tire used by every car, collects them after each race, and fines anyone who loses one. Used tires go to incinerators in unmarked trucks, accompanied by security guards.
If all of this seems a bit much, you probably think these are just tires. But they are the most technologically advanced products these companies produce, and everything about them eventually makes its way to the tires on your car. And that is where the real money is made.
“People don’t really grasp how much technology goes into the average tire,” says Dale Harrigle, who runs race tire development for Bridgestone. Michelin, Continental, Pirelli, Dunlop, and others been fighting for customers by fine-tuning the tire since the 19th century. Today, Harrigle says, the work is “around the edges.”
These companies constantly experiment with chemistry and engineering, seeking new combinations of rubbers, curatives, and polymers and better ways of improving traction, durability, and comfort. The goal changes with each type of tire—the tire on your car is vastly different than the tire on Vettel’s racer—but it’s always some combination of reducing rolling resistance, increasing grip, and maximizing durability.
Motorsports is in many ways the ultimate R&D program. Pirelli’s tires are built to handle the rigors of an F1 track, whether it’s heavy on the straightaways or the curves, and depending on the weather. Firestone, a division of Bridgestone, supplies 59 different kinds of tires to IndyCar, each tailored to specific weather and track conditions.
The famed Indianapolis 500, where cars top 240 mph on the oval’s 3,330-foot straightaways, demands thinner, stiffer tires that handle higher inflation pressures and won’t blister below 240 degrees. For the slower, curvier Long Beach track, cars wear softer tires that offer more grip. And despite the differences, Harrigle says, “every tire has all our technology in it.” So every one is worth protecting.
That’s why Bridgestone, Michelin, and Pirelli stamp every tire with bar codes and track their use and location. It’s why they don’t sell their tires to the race teams, they lease them. And it’s why Harrigle found himself driving around the Long Beach circuit with his boss after a race in 2007, collecting bits of rubber that disintegrated in a collision. “We puzzled them back together,” to ensure they got the entire tire. He won’t say competitors have spies at each track, but “it’s not a risk we want to expose ourselves to.”
Ken Payne, Michelin’s North America motorsports technical director, went through the same knee-bending routine last year, after the Petit Le Mans race outside Atlanta. When the sun went down, he grabbed a flashlight and kept looking. That intense protection of intellectual property is why his company threatens race teams with a million euro fine for each lost tire (it’s never come to that, he says).
Most tires reach the checkered flag intact, only to be destroyed later. No one wants to leave anything to chance. Pirelli ships its tires to its UK facility, then incinerates them. Michelin grinds them up, then incinerates them. Bridgestone smashes them into pancakes just four inches thick and trucks them to the same place where the Secret Service destroys currency—and incinerates them.
It’s not the most environmentally appealing process, especially since the 22 cars competing in an F1 race use 160 tires in three days. But for the folks making the rubber, the risk of anyone getting their IP is just too great.