Enthusiasts may obsess over them, but for the average motorist the black rubber rings under each corner of their car probably don’t occupy much thought until it comes time to replace them, and then it’s just another out-of-pocket inconvenience.
Bridgestone is aware of this. The company’s marketing campaigns attempt to connect consumers with the stark reality that the couple of tonnes of fast-moving metal they’re strapped into rests on four hand-sized blocks of tread in contact with the ground.
That’s about as much contact as you would have on your hands and knees, but with 20 or more times the weight, to control at speeds far beyond what you could ever manage on all fours.
Perspective like that brings home the importance of good tyres. Bridgestone knows this, and it also knows it hasn’t done a great job of engaging media outlets like CarAdvice as well as it could over the last few years.
That’s why I’m at Phillip Island. Bridgestone’s new Potenza S007A tyre is the star of the show, but to go with the new rubber, Bridgestone’s executive team had plenty of brand messages to impart.
Like, if you were wondering, what the state of the tyre industry looks like. Right now Japanese company, Bridgestone, leads the global tyre market with a 14.5 per cent market share, only nominally ahead of Michelin with 14 per cent.
Goodyear is a larger step back at 8.6 per cent and Continental holds 6.7 per cent.
In Australia, Bridgestone commands 18.2 per cent of the tyre market while in New Zealand it holds an even stronger 24 per cent. The company employs over 1500 staff here and runs 530 retail locations though its Bridgestone Select and Bridgestone Service Centre shopfronts.
As the flagship brand, Bridgestone is probably the name you’re most familiar with, but the company also heads up brands including Firestone, Supercat and Dayton.
Australia’s new car market has over 150 individual models fitted with Bridgestone tyres as original equipment. And there are over 100 original equipment tyre lines offered locally, and eight Aussie warehouses to ensure stock on hand meets demand.
Under the Bridgestone brand, tyres are divided into product groups, like Potenza for performance, the newly launched Alenza for highway SUV tyres, Ecopia low-rolling resistance ‘eco’ tyres, Dueler for all terrain and mud, and Turanza for passenger car all-rounders.
Bridgestone’s flagship Potenza S001 has now come up for renewal, with the new S007A taking its place. And like any new product, it promises to do everything its predecessor did, only better.
In the case of the Potenza series, that promise includes better dynamic stopping and cornering grip, improved wet weather handling, and at the request of S001 owners, longer tyre life.
To put it to the test, BMW turned Australia’s motoring press loose on a version of the track-focussed BMW Driving Experience, with a focus on putting the Potenza S007A to the test and even – a little surprisingly – providing an opportunity to test it against its predecessor.
The back-to-back test may not be as dramatic as you'd expect, but it certainly highlighted the difference between the two generations of tyre. In fact, it’s downright simple but shows (more tellingly than just about any other test could) the difference good rubber can make.
The first part is an easy, steady 80km/h run into a braking zone before hitting the brakes as hard as possible. On the older S001 tyres, the BMW M240i coupe used as the test sled pulled up quickly and safely, sure. But, swapping into an identically-specced car running on the new S007As showed that stopping distance could be reduced by as much as half a car length.
That doesn’t sound like a great deal, but, in the real world, that could potentially be the difference between an expensive shunt or a damage-free pass.
The second part of the demonstration used a similar set-up but terminated in an emergency lane change while hard on the brakes. Once again the new-generation tyre displayed a marked improvement in stopping distance, but also tracked more accurately as it pulled up.
While the car itself will do its best to avoid a lock-up, thanks to ABS, it was still possible to pull a puff of smoke from a skidding tyre on the S001. The S007A meanwhile, translated its opposing directional forces into meaningful grip. Impressive stuff.
To get results like this Bridgestone runs a massive amount of validation tests. Every month, each of the company’s 10 R&D centres tests around 10,000 tyres – not just the Potenza S007A of course, but across the multiple lines of existing and upcoming products.
With comparative testing out of the way, high-speed agility demonstrations, using an M4 around the Phillip Island circuit came next. There was no opportunity to test old and new tyres back to back, and trying to factor out the M4’s inherent talents and focus on the rolling stock alone isn’t always easy.
Nonetheless, the Potenza S007As impressed. I’ll be honest – Phillip Island scares me a bit. Its fast, double-apex corners always seem to trip me up, and when you combine those two things in error, the results can be white-knuckle inducing.
Add in the constant threat of kamikaze geese who refuse to get out of the way of cars travelling in excess of 200km/h at times and you can probably understand my apprehension.
I’m not going to pretend that a set of high performance tyres in isolation made for a transformative experience, but maybe I did relax just a little. There were no unpredictable break-away at moments when I applied too much throttle, or not enough brake. That controllable predictability is actually pretty important.
In my garage at home I’ve got an Abarth 124 Spider on a set of Michelin Pilot Sport 4s (which I rate highly) and a Mazda 6 MPS running on Nitto Invo tyres (which I still question on track at times, but hey, I have to run to a budget).
Neither car is as ballistic as an M4, or even remotely conceptually similar if I’m being honest, and I’m sure Bridgestone shudders at my mention of rivals, but the comparison – as indirect as it may be – holds up. Based on my experience at the Island, I like the Potenzas. A lot.
That could also be because Bridgestone was nice enough to give me time behind the wheel on a sodden skidpan in an M3. That’s another predictability indicator, according to Drive Experience staffers, but my mash-happy throttle response didn’t give me the kind of elegant arching drift intended.
That was low speeds, but what about higher ones? At the hands of an instructor (wisely) we have one final blast around the track. The first lap at full-tilt and the second in drift mode.
Both times the car felt fairly secure by the seat of my pants. No squirming, no squealing, even with a handful of opposite lock and smoke billowing from the rears at speeds over 130km/h.
Admittedly, that’s not the fastest way around any track, but Bridgestone claims proper use can see a reduction in laps times of around 2.5 per cent on S007As next to S001s. That means in a production car (and a fairly fast one at that) you could shave off around three seconds around Phillip Island. Not bad.