If I told you that it was genuinely hard work to test a new tyre with a bunch of supercars at a world famous Formula 1 circuit, you probably wouldn’t believe me.
Well, it’s true. It is actually hard work. With these types of events, there’s no reference tyre available, nor is there a method of quantifying tyre performance. It’s all about previous vehicle reference and getting a feel for what the treads are doing under foot.
So, to ensure we could effectively test Pirelli’s all-new P Zero and Dragon Sport tyres, we used a mix of self-drive and professional race driver activities.
This was designed to give us a feel of the tyre at the helm of a range of cars, but also feel the upper limits of the tyre at the hand of a professional race driver.
The new Pirelli P Zero tyre has been designed for the highest end of performance cars. The P Zero has been homologated to over 1000 cars since it was launched around 30 years ago. Some of these great names include the Ferrari F40, Pagani Huayra and Lamborghini Centenario, just to name a few.
The Dragon Sport on the other hand was engineered to suit aftermarket fitment to cars due for a tyre change. It’s available in a number of sizes to suit most vehicles. It’s a sporty tyre that aims to bridge the gap between entry-level tyres and the performance-oriented P Zero.
To begin with, we hit the incredible Shanghai F1 circuit in a 991 Porsche 911 Carrera S. This rear-wheel-drive car is the perfect test for this tyre because it rewards a patient driver that works to exploit its incredible levels of grip.
As luck would have it, the rain set in fairly early so our entire day was spent driving in wet conditions — perfect for putting the P Zero through its paces.
On turn in, the P Zero offers an incredible amount of grip, even in the soaking wet. As the pace increases, the tyre exhibits a progressive failure mode that relinquishes grip gradually, instead of suddenly. Tyres like the Michelin Pilot Sport range can offer loads of grip until they can’t offer it any longer and the turn is quite sudden.
Next up is the Ferrari 488 GTB. This takes the Carrera S’s tendency to oversteer to the next level. The turbocharged V8 is progressive, but hits its torque curve quite hard.
The 305mm-wide P Zero Corsa treads just don’t let go. Even in the wet, the car behaves like it’s dry — it’s totally uncanny and shows the incredibly grippy nature of these tyres.
Given my driving experience at the Shanghai F1 circuit is quite limited, and I’m far from a race driver, we swapped seats with a set of race drivers.
We stayed in the same cars and went out for hot…well, they were actually blistering laps. To demonstrate the progressive nature of the tyre, the Carrera S driver switched off the stability control and we set out.
Out of the pits, the first set of right-hand turns leads into a hairpin corner that stretches out into turn four at high speed. The driver was essentially flat to the board in the wet providing only minor corrections, wrapping the engine all the way around to redline in first, second and halfway into third before jumping on the anchors.
The levels of grip were simply stupendous — keeping in mind that water levels on the track were getting to the point of saturation.
It was the same story in the Ferrari with the race driver. Aside from some understeer on the outset, the Ferrari had the same character traits. It hooked up beautifully and kept riding its traction curve until the forces of physics set in.
P Zero treads can now also be customised with a coloured wrap around the sidewall. This Formula 1 inspired design motif is currently available in yellow, but will be expanded with extra colours by the end of the year.
At the other end of the spectrum, our track activities for the Dragon Sport tyre revolved around lower-speed driving with sharper driver inputs.
Some of these included slalom, hairpin turns and emergency stops.
One of the things that surprised us the most was sudden direction changes in the wet through the slalom. Our test vehicles were a pair of front-wheel-drive Audi A3s.
Even in totally wet conditions, the cars could be reefed around the cones with tremendous pace. Pirelli’s claim of a 10-per cent wet handling improvement over comparable-spec competitor tyres really showed.
While there wasn’t standing water on the track, the tyre’s external shoulder rib and squared footprint contributed to the impressive wet handling performance.
Our tests focussed on front-wheel-drive cars where torque is sent through the same wheels that control the car’s direction.
During higher-speed tests in the Volkswagen Scirocco TSI, we found that the tyre was prone to succumbing to understeer under throttle with lock. Again, it was quite wet at the time, but there was a clear performance difference in comparison to the more expensive P Zero tyre.
I’d be lying if I said that we didn’t enjoy punting some amazing cars around a race track. And, while we couldn’t draw immediate comparisons to competitor tyres, we were ultimately blown away with the high-speed cornering performance of the new Pirelli P Zero.
Equally, we were impressed with the low-speed performance of the Dragon Sport tyre.
While pricing is yet to be announced for the Dragon Sport, the Pirelli P Zero tyre will retail for $1600 for a set of four tyres on a car such as the Audi R8. Prices will differ depending on size variations.
Click on the Photos tab to see more images of the new Pirelli P Zero and Pirelli Dragon Sport tyres in action.