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The Goodyear magic in tyres

April 12, 2008 13:40 IST
Sometimes I feel sorry for the chaps who work in the technical and development side of the tyre business. It must rank as one of the most thankless jobs on the planet. You see, tyre science is a pretty advanced sort of thing.

I wouldn't be far off the truth if I said that those featureless black things that connect your car to the tarmac are probably some of the highest technology items on your car, despite their rather uninvolving appearance. It's a cliched story opening, isn't it? You're right, let me drop this and pick up the Goodyear Assurance, okay?

What I said about the technology, mind you, isn't untrue. Tyres are complicated things to build, and the number of factors that determine a design are too many to list. In the case of the Goodyear Assurance, the tyre was developed for the mid-size car market.

To be launched shortly in India, the range will cover 14-, 15- and 16-inch tyres, which is a spread from cars like the Ford Fiesta to cars like the Toyota Corolla and even the Camry. Goodyear conducted a customer survey (no surprise there) before the development work began roughly 18 months ago.

Not surprisingly, the demand from the segment was for a tyre that produced good wet grip and a comfortable ride quality. Given that the ASEAN is the primary market for the tyre, and most of it is tropical and hence rainy, that demand was to be expected, right?

Goodyear's new tyre has four key innovations that, according to the tyre maker, help it provide a solution to customer demands, the first of which is Kevlar. Now, you already know that Kevlar is used in a number of places.

Personally, I come across Kevlar most often when I put my riding gloves on, where the palm has a Kevlar membrane stretched across it.

The synthetic material, developed by DuPont, also takes headline slots in a number of far more exciting applications, like bullet proof vests, which should tell you what it does in the tyre, right? A band of Kevlar seated under the tread area helps the tyre with puncture resistance. That said, the company is clear that the tyre is resistant, and not puncture proof.

The second innovation is what Goodyear calls the Waffle Blade system. Effectively, the vertical edges of the outer tread pattern are not simple vertical surfaces.

In fact, they are carefully designed to deform optimally under pressure and produce more grip. Of course, it is a bit more complex than that, but it would take too much time and space to explain. Does it work? I'll tell you in just a little bit.

The third thing is the four grooves that run the full circumference of the tyre. These are simple grooves which ensure that a phenomenal amount of water can be squeezed out from between the tyre contact patch and the road, postponing aquaplaning.

Finally, there is a mention of silica, which I don't understand because a lot of tyres, according to my understanding, already have silica compounds in them. The silica helps the tyres get up to temperature quickly and has some durability effects as well.

On the track, the tyres, I must admit, are impressive. We had three separate opportunities to try out the tyres. The first was a half lap of the Sepang International Circuit, with turns two and three beset by sprinkler systems to keep them soaking wet. The second and third were both slalom runs, one dry and one soaking wet, positioned down the main straight of the circuit.

The mandatory cribs of not enough driving time, too much waiting time between events, et cetera all apply, but anyway, in the one lap of the half-circuit that I got, the tyres did impress. While you're still building speed for turn one, the tight turn into the next corner is pretty scary.

A bunch of cones shows you the line you're supposed to take and there is a surprise chicane inserted in the wet area just for, um, fun. I was driving an automatic Mazda and I came in to turn two determined to behave as if the track was, in fact, bone dry. This entirely failed to excite any form of surprise or protest from the tyres. They basically worked and I did not even hear a squeal.

At the chicane itself, which comes up rather fast, I did hear them squeal as I made a huge, sudden steering change to round the appropriate cones, but again, at no point was the car heading even slightly towards oversteer. Given that we were clipping along at a fair velocity, this does mean great wet grip.

The rest of the lap included one ninety degree right hander, two relatively open sweepers and hard braking while turning into pit lane, as the final turn is effectively curtailed for the half lap. So you get on the power of the exit of the previous turn, just for a second or so, before you have to get on the brakes and start turning into the pit lane.

Again, in the dry running, the tyre seemed to behave perfectly. Braking into the ninety degree corner felt very strong and stable and over the kerbs, the car didn't get unsettled and neither did the ride quality go south.

Since we're not familiar with the Mazdas that we were driving, I won't go into how much of the ride was Mazda and how much was Assurance. It was good, nevertheless.

It is in the slaloms that the tyres truly impress. In both the faster dry slalom and the slippery-looking wet one, you could hear the tyres squealing, the two Corollas rolling heavily around the cones, but neither car, ever, broke traction.

That's in the hands of almost 500 journalists, ranging from what's-that-pedal-do-again to respected-club-racer. In the dry, the car rolls heavily, but the tyres keep the car pointed and responsive to inputs. Even at the last two cones, where the squealing, rolling and all reach fever pitch, there wasn't a problem.

In the wet, the story is the same. The tyres work well enough to remove all water between the tread and the tarmac, and you could hear them squealing away at the last two cones. There wasn't any run off on the main straight, but at the end of a day's worth of slaloming, there were no incidents at all.

That alone makes the tyre impressive. And in a sidelight, both the instructors in the slalom cars commented that the Indian drivers were uniformly fast.

It appears that almost every magazine journalist recorded slalom times in the sub-8 second bracket for the wet run and the sub-14 second bracket for the dry run (yes, even me!), which is some sort of record. I personally spotted wild times on the man's clipboard, including an 18-second dry run and a 14-second wet run.

The afternoon was a bit sleepy -- upshot? Vikrant Singh, who now works for AutoBild, recorded the fastest average time for the two slaloms and was rewarded with a fast, fully sideways drive in a Ford GT that rolled out into the setting sun.

So while Malaysian and Philipino journos won the best photo-caption contest and the "touch-and-guess-what-tyre-it-is" (really) contests, it was an Indian that smashed the slalom down. I think the instructor's words were, "You all go racing back home, eh?" We wish.

Goodyear will manufacture this tyre in India for our market, and it should go on sale shortly. Prices will be announced at that time. Goodyear says the mid-size car tyre market is almost 24 million tyres, of which India makes up a paltry 0.3 million.

However, the Indian share is growing at nearly 20 per cent, so it remains one of the few markets that is racking up significant growth rates. While the Assurance will be offered in the replacement market first, Goodyear will also begin including the tyre in OEM proposals for the next set of car models.

Shubhabrata Marmar in Mumbai