Opinion

Matt Prior: Is today’s rubber too tiresome for testing?

It was a novel idea at the time: we’d assess the cars first and largely keep the photographers at bay until later.

It was 2005, I think, and the idea of Adam, then Autocar’s road test editor.

We were planning a big race-track-based group test, to take place over several days. Previously, car testing and photography on jobs like this would have happened around each other – with photographers and hired hands nipping off in a few test cars at a time to unused parts of a circuit to take pictures, possibly of the car going sideways, while assessment carried on elsewhere.

But not any more: we’d noticed on-track photography wore down the tyre shoulders, affecting steering response and accuracy. So we should test first thing, on fresh tyres.

There might have been some grumbling from the pictures department at this. Track testing isn’t without its perils, and car damage or a breakdown could mean a car failed to proceed before there were many pictures of it. And as one of our old art editors used to say: “You can make up the words, but you can’t make up the pictures.”

Up to the mid-2000s, it simply wasn’t a worry. As Andrew Frankel told me, brakes would wear out on track, certainly, but set the pressures and tyres would largely stay fit over a couple of days of testing.

But if an increase in tyre wear was starting to be noticeable by 2005, today it’s on a different scale entirely. Pick the wrong car today and its tyres won’t fall off over several days, but over several laps.

For which you can blame – if that’s the right word – lots of factors, but they all basically come down to heat. Today’s cars are typically both much more powerful and much heavier than ever, yet at the same time they corner and stop far more capably, too.

All of that energy ends up between car and road via four patches of rubber no bigger than the palm of your hand. An astonishing amount of energy goes through them, and while they keep up with the demands of power and torque numbers closer to four figures than two, and with near two tonnes of mass behind it, something has to give. They have to be optimised for performance and not longevity.

So much so, mind, that we’ve largely abandoned setting lap times at our Britain’s Best Driver’s Car contest. Once, it was a nice idea to strap the VBox data logger to a car while testing it and casually see what it did. But when it gets to the stage where a manufacturer says they’d like to help with the tyres, fits a fresh set and says there are basically three fast laps in them before performance starts to fall off, it’s all a bit daft.

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