tyre research

saving a few pounds by changing the fitted tyre on your car to something cheaper may seem like a good idea but it could well cost you in the long run - in safety as well as money. we find out why

If pressed to identify the one component of your car that has undergone the most exhaustive research and development process few would identify the round black things that keep their alloys off the ground as the recipients of all that R&D budget. Yet the manufacture of a tyre is not something that's best left to amateurs. The difference between a premium tyre and a budget boot is enormous.

That being the case, you'd expect to find the average performance car driver taking great care over his or her choice of rubber. And you'd be wrong. Rightly or wrongly, the average buyer of a hot hatch, a roadster, a sports coupe or even a supercar assumes that the tyres chosen by the manufacturer are always ideal for the purpose. That's not always the case.

Sometimes, corporate agreements mean that engineers simply aren't allowed to select the best rubber when developing a performance model. At other times, they have to compromise, bearing in mind that many users don't want anything overly focused. Think how the most capable performance cars are used most of the time by most people. Issues of ride, refinement and tyre roar take precedence over ultimate grip. Which is frustrating if you've bought your performance car to enjoy its ultimate performance.

Yes, there are manufacturers who take a great deal of care in tuning their original equipment (OE) tyres to suit suspension setups - Lotus is one that springs to mind and BMW another - but in the most part, buyers get compromise tyres. When the time comes to change that tyre you have a choice. Replace like for like or look for something of superior quality. Continental gave us a glimpse into what goes into making a tyre that's a cut above the norm.

The first stage is to create a pre-prototype assessment using computer-aided design (CAD) to virtually simulate tyre design concepts. The computers can predict grip rates, wear rates, sidewall stiffness, water dispersion abilities and many other design parameters but the acid test comes in building the tyre, fitting it to a car and getting somebody to put miles on it. A lot of miles.

Continental claims that its lab staff create more than 200 new rubber compounds every day and perform over 100,00 tests per year to chase that magic formula of high wet and dry grip, low noise, low wear and low rolling resistance. Of course, compromises need to be made and it's managing these compromises and offering a balanced product portfolio from long-lasting budget tyres to super sticky quasi-track tyres that stick like glue that distinguishes an A list tyre manufacturer.

Man hours being expensive, tyres are first run for millions of miles in a robotised test rig environment. Only when measurable benefits are achieved does the human testing process begin. With over 18 test facilities around the world, Continental has the ability to test in both hot and cold weather environments on both subjective and objective bases. Sound like a fun job to you? You'd first need to undergo a two year training programme and the margin for error in this business is thin. Binning a test car during an industry pool day at the N??rburgring would likely spell career doom.

Only the very best test drivers prevail and a continuous policy of assessment means that a high level of consistency across subjective evaluations is maintained. Each team will typically spend over three years developing the tyre in question through a battery of exhausting tests.

Next time you're shopping for a set of tyres, pass by the Wanjang Ditchfinders and stick to a brand that has put the hours in on research and development. Yes, you'll pay a little more for the privilege but this rarely if ever proves to be a false economy.