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Pirelli P Zero - Italian Tailored Tires

Driving Pirelli's latest tire on the legendary Estoril Circuit in Portugal

Jul 26, 2016
Photographer: Pirelli

Ah 1986, the US launch of the Nintendo NES, fans watched as Spock mind melded with a whale and vicariously relived a perfect day of juvenile delinquency with the help of Matthew Broderick. Porsche was hard at work on the groundbreaking 959, while down in Maranello, Enzo Ferrari was trying to figure out what to do with the 288 GTO Evoluzione developed for Groupe B racing when the FIA unexpectedly killed the category. The Ferrari F40 was born with a good portion of development work coming straight from that ill-fated racecar. Meanwhile, a couple of hundred kilometers away in Milan, Pirelli was developing a brand new tire for use on the ridiculously fast Lancia Delta S4 Rally Car. It was a multi-use, asymmetrical tire that much like the 288 GTO, needed a home after the end of killer-B days in rallying.

Pirelli p zero launch mclaren Photo 2/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Mclaren

The Pirelli P Zero was born in 1986, so this year we celebrate its 30th birthday. Yes the F40, the tire's first official fitment wasn't launched until 1987, but how much did you accomplish in your first year? The F40 used a 245/45 on the front and a still massive 335/35 in back, mounted on unthinkably giant wheels measuring a full 17-inches in diameter. It was the first tire to carry a Z speed rating, meaning it was certified to over 149mph. By September 1987 the P Zero had became ubiquitous in tuning circles and was found on just about everything fast and tuned at the Frankfurt auto show.

To celebrate the 30-year milestone and test out the brand new P Zero, Pirelli brought us to the Estoril Circuit in Portugal on what was billed as a really special trip. "Special" is akin to calling something "unique." The mystery started weeks before the trip with emails full of cryptic questions, "What color surrounds your life?" "Do you suffer from vertigo?" "What drink would you never waive?" These are a small sampling of the questions that arrived spread out over multiple emails. Finally, after retelling my life story as it equates to which salad dressing best represents my chakra, a flight itinerary was secured.

As with most trips, we check into our rooms, have roughly 28-minutes to freshen up after 19 hours of traveling before heading out to a product presentation. We are shuttled over to the track in a Mercedes V-Class, the first of many death-defying thrill-packed van rides. I'm not sure where they got these drivers, but they would make the most aggressive New York Cabby gasp.

Pirelli p zero launch wheel Photo 6/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Wheel

At the track we were treated to the traditional European welcome of tiny glasses of Coke, no ice, with lemon and the wonderful soothing sounds of techno-music. The assemblage of international journalists huddled anxiously as press kits were handed out. All hopped up on three ounces of Coke, I should add the "-A-Cola" so there's no confusion; the jet-lagged-journos were pushed into a dark theatre.

First, a beautifully crafted Italian suit filled with a tire executive explained in great detail how well Pirelli is doing economically. Have I mentioned the previous 19 hours of travel immediately before this event? Then a product guy explains product. Next, an actual tire engineer emerges. Before he is even introduced, he is recognizable as someone with valuable information as he radiates the comfortableness inherent with spending time in front of math books instead of large groups of people.

Pirelli p zero launch bentley continental Photo 7/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Bentley Continental

We begin to hear about the improvements in the new P Zero: a new compound, a noise mitigating foam layer inside the tire, different tread patterns for sedans and sports cars and even a new bead design taken from Pirelli's F1 tires. Suddenly, as things get interesting, something is awry. The engineer becomes completely at ease on stage. He says "thank you" and walks off as a tiny but muscular man in a black unitard flounces down the center aisle to the sounds of more techno, maybe the same techno as earlier, I can never tell. Without warning or alcohol our senses are mercilessly assaulted by a team of four lycra-clad interpretive dancers relating the innermost turmoil of a tire's soul through lifts, pirouettes and birdlike flailing. If that wasn't enough, the back wall of the theatre opens to the outside where drivers are valiantly trying to drift supercars in a space that wouldn't allow for regulation hockey, and I'm talking NHL not international. A McLaren, Zonda and Lamborghini are flung into awkward skids and half-hearted donut-segments. Oh, the humanity.

I ate dinner sitting next to Horatio Pagani, an incredible opportunity; he doesn't speak English, I speak less Italian. He apparently likes the new tire, thinks California has wonderful weather and enjoyed his main course.

The following day we arrive at the track Pirelli has assembled a decent fleet of cars for the test: the latest Audi R8, Lamborghini Huracan, Porsche 911 Turbo, Ferrari 488 and Mercedes-AMG GTS. Most tire companies choose cars like the VW GTI or BMW 3-series, cars we are more familiar with. I've never driven Estoril, I've never driven this tire, I'm short on sleep, the least powerful car has 503hp, let's do this.

Pirelli p zero launch wheel Photo 11/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Wheel

I begin my lapping sessions in Audi's brilliant new R8. Great balance, linear power delivery from the 610hp naturally aspirated V10, all-wheel drive, if you are going to be thrown into a situation like this in a supercar, you could do worse. I'm immediately comfortable. Straight-line grip has never really been a problem in this car, but there is very little squirm or uneasiness even during up-shifts, although the Audi transmission is pretty good at quick but smooth shifts, remember that for later.

The transition from straight line to turn-in is smooth as butter; there is no initial detent only the steering effort loading up. Lateral grip is instantaneous and plentiful. There is a big difference in tire size between the front and rear on the R8, a 245/30-20 on the front compared to a 305/30-20 in the back. The R8 carries nearly 60 percent of its weight on the rear axle, but the difference still seems extreme. Regardless, the handling balance of the car is perfect. Both axles will let go simultaneously on very light throttle, which can be turned into a rotation with additional throttle. The P Zeros release their grip smoothly and controllably. The tire also communicates well right at the edge of adhesion and will easily let you dance right on that edge, unitard optional. Braking is equally good, with no darting around, no sudden changes in grip and good feedback through the pedal.

Pirelli p zero launch tesla model s Photo 12/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Tesla Model S

Next up on the list was the 911 Turbo. What the R8 does gracefully, the 911 Turbo handles with a bit more brutality. The Turbo makes do with a mere 520hp but does deliver roughly 100 lb-ft more torque than the R8's V10. Acceleration out of corners in the Turbo is nothing short of the old rocket launch cliche.

It is worth pointing out at this point that every car we drove was on the brand spankin' new P Zero, but not the same exact P Zero on each car. Companies like Audi, BMW, Porsche, Lamborghini et al, are now working with tire suppliers to develop tires specifically engineered to the needs of each individual car. So, with that in mind, the tire on the Audi, does feel different than the same tire on other applications. If you will indulge my tangent, not only does that make it very hard to get a performance increase with a different tire, but we have heard stories about manufacturers blaming non-certified tires for mechanical failures on cars and canceling the vehicle warranty.

Back to the Turbo - unlike the R8, the tire's release wasn't so smooth and gentle. The P Zero on the Porsche stuttered and clawed for grip as it transitioned through full-grip to the opposite side. The all-wheel drive system and rear-wheel steering do everything possible to get the Porsche settled at low-throttle inputs, but the answer is really the old slow in fast out adage. Get the car down to the apex, roll into the throttle and let the torque - and torque vectoring - shoot you towards the next braking point.

In acceleration and braking, the P Zero felt just like the R8, which is to say stable and confident. The rear-engine car can use its brakes in ways other cars can only dream of.

Pirelli p zero launch tire tread Photo 16/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Tire Tread

The last car I was able to experience was the Lamborghini. Yes there were a couple of other cars at the event, but as it always happens on huge events like this, we ran out of track time. You might be thinking, "Isn't the Huracan just an R8 with a gold chain hanging out of its unbuttoned silk shirt?" Well, yes and no. Mechanically, this is essentially the same as an R8, from the engine to the suspension to the aluminum space frame. The gold chain comes out in the tuning and the fact the Huracan 580-2 is only rear wheel drive. While the standard all-wheel drive Huracan has the same amount of power as the R8 V10+, Lamborghini made the courageous and noble decision to detune the engine slightly to perfect the balance of the rear-wheel drive cars - an effort that will undoubtedly be undone almost immediately by anyone buying a 580-2 by taking the car to a tuner after the initial purchase.

To start things off, I barely fit in the Huracan. While all 6 foot 2 inches of me fits perfectly in a 911, almost as well in the R8, I am required to pour myself into the Huracan. Like anything with 500-plus hp, it feels fast, really fast, as fast as anyone needs to go. Even putting power down with just the rear axle, acceleration is frantic but not dramatic. It uses the same 305mm width in the rear as the R8, but mounted on a 19-inch wheel.

Pirelli p zero launch tesla model s Photo 17/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Tesla Model S

The first couple of turns are used to warm up the tires and get a feel for the different car, a few turns into my initial lap and I am drifting the angry bull around turns with its back end hanging out more reminiscent of rodeos than matadors. Turn 6, or Prabolica Interior as the locals call it, is a fairly big double-apex increasing radius left-hander. In the middle of an epic graceful drift, it dawns on me, this just isn't who I am. I'm not a drifting kind of guy. I don't own any flat-brimmed baseball hats, I don't build pyramids of empty energy drink cans in my parents basement, nor do I refer to things as "sick" or "dope," so what am I doing drifting? With a few mid-corner corrections to get the Lambo back in shape, I discover all this drifting REALLY isn't me. I mean, I'm not really doing it. Apparently Lambo has built a "drift-mode" into its cars so that any ham-fisted owner can drift around like Jeremy Clarkson before he punched his producer. I spend the rest of the lap trying to make the car not drift, which is a challenge in itself.

The best part of the whole situation was driving behind another journalist while he executed the biggest smokiest drift of the day in a Lambo. I later asked him if he realized just how sideways he was. I was behind him and was looking up track through both of side windows. He said, "Yeah, but I didn't mean to. I dropped my cell phone and was trying to grab it. Flicked the car a little to get the phone to slide toward me, the car just started sliding around and I let the car do its thing with one hand while trying to grab my phone with the other." So the Huracan can be drifted most effectively with one hand, distracted and with no real plan going into it. Say what you will about Lamborghini, it knows its customers.

Pirelli p zero launch pagani huayra Photo 21/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Pagani Huayra

The P Zero on the Huracan felt very similar to the R8. Trying to different driving modes, I was able to get the car a bit less drifty. The tire releases smoothly and gives plenty of feedback while it's loading up. It has a good transition from cornering to acceleration loads. Under braking, the Lamborghini didn't feel as stable as the other cars, but I have a feeling that's more car than tire. In acceleration it put down power well, especially when you consider the Lambo's transmission is programmed for masochists. It didn't exhibit any of the stuttering release of the 911 in cornering, again that might be something more to do with the car and possibly the individual tire tuning to Porsche's specs.

Pirelli p zero launch bmw i8 Photo 22/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Bmw I8

Those of you looking for a comparison to tires in the competitive set or even the old P Zero, will have to wait until we have an opportunity to do it on our own. Although I sometimes question the real value of tire companies hand picking the competition to compare its brand new tire against, they at least give something as a comparison. For whatever reason, Pirelli chose not to do so. I did get a chance to talk to a friend of mine at Porsche, who is using the new P Zero on the new 991.2 and he said that they have been really impressed with tire so far in their testing. A tire can make or break a car in terms of performance, comfort and even fuel economy. For an OE to select it for its signature car says something.

We did a road drive as well. It was a lead-follow event through tiny Portuguese seaside towns. The views were gorgeous, the roads were mostly broken and rough and the wind was hurricane-like. Between trying to keep a group of journalists together on unfamiliar roads, the unrelenting wind and less than ideal road conditions, I can't say the road drive was of much value.

Good Writers Are Better Readers

I'm always telling ec's newer writers "If you want to be a good writer, become a great reader." Marketing propaganda isn't exactly what I'm talking about, but it served its purpose here.

Although the technical presentation at the event was lacking in actual technical information, Pirelli PR was nice enough to provide a USB drive chock-full of 80 percent of the data we wanted.

Pirelli p zero launch tesla model s Photo 26/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Tesla Model S

We talk a lot about a tire's contact patch with the road. The old cliche of "four patches roughly the same area as the palm of your hand are all that keep you and your car from being flung off the road by Newton's First Law." It's as true now as ever, but when was the last time anyone brought up the contact patch between the tire and wheel? All those forces working to yank your car off the road are also working on that tiny little connection we call the tire's bead. Pirelli has been developing that interface for years in Formula 1 racing and the benefits are trickling down into its road tires.

A soft bead means slow and sloppy reactions between the wheel and the tire; a stiff connection can mean more road noise and difficulty in mounting the tire. The new P Zero has the most rigid construction yet for the Italian manufacturer. The loads are spread out over a larger area of the bead giving the tire a more linear response and more progressive breakaway.

Pirelli p zero launch bentley continental Photo 27/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Bentley Continental

Pirelli has also developed what it refers to as an "Extended Range Profile." It is said to keep the width of the tread flatter across the road for more even wear. How exactly it does this is part of that still missing information.

What Pirelli is more specific about is a 10% improvement in water evacuation ability along with a 15% decrease in rolling resistance thanks to the addition of more Silica in the tread compound. You've probably heard a lot about Silica in tires over the last decade, it has caused quite a revolution in the business.

First it's vocabulary time: Hysteresis - basically it's a material's ability to absorb energy while deflecting. So low hysteresis means that as a tire deforms it stores that energy and returns most of it. Conversely, high hysteresis means that energy is lost (usually as heat).

Tires need to exhibit, low hysteresis at low frequencies like as it is contorting from round to flat as it rolls over the road, but it needs to have high hysteresis as the compound works into the tiny irregularities in the road to create grip.

Pirelli p zero launch Photo 31/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch

In the past, carbon-black was used as the primary tire filler material and made a tire nice and soft, but was high hysteresis at both low and high frequencies. Silica changed all that, although at first, it represented some real challenges in compounding. Now we can have tread-life, grip and low rolling resistance all wrapped up in one tire.

The final aspect of the performance is how much quieter the new P Zero is compared to the last model and its competitive set. Besides the noise absorbing layer inside the tire, the tread design has also been redesigned to minimize noise from air-percussion. Yes, a great deal of road noise you hear is air being squished between tread blocks.

Pirelli p zero launch lamborghini Photo 32/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Lamborghini

Pirelli has clearly put a lot of work into the new P Zero line of tires. More interesting, to me at least, is the number of "Marked Tires" it is now producing in cooperation with car manufacturers. There are currently 60 cars being sold with P Zeros specifically designed for those cars.

Pirelli p zero launch tire tread Photo 33/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Tire Tread
Pirelli p zero launch ferrari Photo 40/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Ferrari
Pirelli p zero launch mercedes amg gts Photo 47/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Mercedes Amg Gts
Pirelli p zero launch mercedes benz amg gts Photo 54/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Mercedes Benz Amg Gts
Pirelli p zero launch mclaren Photo 64/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Mclaren
Pirelli p zero launch tire tread Photo 74/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Tire Tread
Pirelli p zero launch pagani huayra bc Photo 84/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Pagani Huayra Bc
Pirelli p zero launch pagani huayra Photo 94/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Pagani Huayra
Pirelli p zero launch lamborghini Photo 101/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Lamborghini
Pirelli p zero launch mclaren Photo 108/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Mclaren
Pirelli p zero launch lamborghini Photo 115/115   |   Pirelli P Zero Launch Lamborghini
Michael Febbo
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