Believe it or not, motorsport is one of the best ways to develop technology. Whether it’s Mercedes in Formula One, or Audi and Toyota in the World Endurance Championship (WEC), carmakers are going racing to develop cutting-edge tech at a rapid pace – and it’s the same for tyres. Falken is one of Japan’s leading tyre companies, and it’s innovating not just in a lab, but at one of the most famous, old-school tracks in the world: the Nürburgring.
Lurking in the foggy mists of the Eifel mountains and surrounded by dense forest, the Nordschleife or Nürburgring oozes racing folklore, and feels like a track frozen in time. Dubbed the Green Hell by three-times world champion Jackie Stewart, the 25km-long circuit has escaped much of the tinkering and sanitisation you’d expect in 2016 – and that makes it the ultimate test for tyres. That’s why last weekend Falken took its own Porsche 911 GT3R to the N24, a gruelling 24-hour race around one of the most demanding tracks in the world.
Why the Nürburgring?
The N24 isn’t refined like modern tracks such as Yas Marina or Silverstone. Instead it’s a patchwork of rough and smooth tarmac, and abrasive banking like the Carousel: “The N24 offers a circuit which can deliver a variety of surface and weather conditions, all in one lap. A lot of the track is just like the roads you drive on,” Stephan Cimbal, head of marketing at Falken Tyre Europe, tells us. “There are bumps, surface and camber changes, as well as kerbs and lots of traffic. It provides a great venue to test tyres to the limit but also show how the tyres perform against the competition.”
This year’s N24 was one of the most chaotic ever, with the weather playing a huge role in proceedings. Baking hot weather at the beginning of the race was followed by torrential rain and HUGE hailstones, causing the race to be stopped. After the restart, temperatures plunged as night crept over the ring, and the rain began to drizzle again. “This is real-world, perhaps extreme, but it offers the best place to get such varied conditions,” says Falken’s Cimbal. And because the 88-corner Nordschleife is so large, cars had to deal with very different weather conditions on different parts of the track.
Where do the tyres go?
After a solid showing at the Nordschleife, Falken’s tyres are now making their way to Japan, where engineers will analyse them to the nth degree. “We cut them down and send sections back to Japan to be analysed including X-rays and other inspection techniques,” explains Cimbal. “They look at how the construction and chemical compounds have reacted during the race, comparing them to the data on the car. We can also look at wear and resistance to damage. Our Porsche is a real development lab!”
Of course, like most companies, Falken also uses simulation models to test their designs before a tyre is even produced. One of the company’s most recent tyres was partially developed on a supercomputer usually used for climate simulation.
What’s the data for?
Falken is going to extreme lengths because modern tyres are deceptively complex, and our demands on them are growing by the day. “A tyre has around 200 components, and each has a role to play: support the weight of the vehicle; absorb vibration and shock from the road; deliver traction, torque and braking forces from the car’s drivetrain; and assist with the direction of travel,” says Cimbal.
“Tyres need to satisfy multiple demands – fuel economy, wet grip, dry grip, safe braking, wear, noise, comfort and steering response. So you’re looking for the best performance you can, deciding which attributes are the most important for your application.”
As well as moving towards an overall increase in performance, tyre makers are also now looking to cater their products towards different vehicles. “For example, for an EV we want to have really low rolling resistance, but for a sports car, we would emphasise grip together with more driver involvement,” adds Cimbal. “You’ll see tyres become more specific to the car and application. We already make special versions of some of our tyres for a particular car, such as our tyre for the latest VW Passat.”
Data from the N24 could also go towards making tyres free of unsustainable fossil fuels: “Falken has already shown a fossil-free tyre, the ENSAVE 100, manufactured from 100% natural raw materials. Normal tyres now use around 60% synthetic material,” says Cimbal. “As well as their obvious eco-friendly benefits, ENASAVE 100 tyres are claimed to wear better and deliver better fuel efficiency and wet-grip performance.”
The technology trickle down has already begun
Although trickle down often sounds like a gimmick, companies really do learn a lot from racing, and the benefits soon reach the road. “We have a number of technologies that are directly descended from N24 racing. The race spec compound used in some of our high-performance tyres came from our race tyres,” confirms Cimbal. “We also use the same tyre-bead profile – the part that holds the tyre on the rim – on our road tyres after learning which one worked best on our race car. Our race drivers such as Peter Dumbreck also drive our road tyres and provide feedback. They can talk to our engineers about things they feel, sometimes feelings you can’t get with simulators.”
This year, the Falken Motorsports car finished the race in ninth after completing 130 laps, and although that signified the end of the race, it’s just another chapter in Falken’s programme to improve road tyres.