Most icons are instantly recognizable: Apple iPod, Swiss Army Knife, Porsche 911... they trigger synapses and ping our consciousness in a nanosecond. However, the Pirelli P Zero is something else entirely.
To the untrained eye, it’s a tire like any other: round; black; tread pattern; that’s about it. To the driver of a high-performance car, the P Zeros can be the final piece of the equation. Experience gained from a century of motorsport has filtered its way into these tires to make them an industry legend, and one which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
Its extraordinary heritage explains why it comes standard on so many machines, like the Aston Martin DB9, Audi R8, Ferrari 599 GTB, Lamborghini Murciélago, many Mercedes-Benz AMG, several Jaguars, and now the latest McLaren MP4-12C.
The P Zero skidded onto the scene in 1987 as the world’s first ultra-high-performance tire for the legendary Ferrari F40; a car that could hit 60mph in a smidge under 4sec and was the first production car to exceed 200mph.
“The F40 was dramatically different... It was a racecar for the road,” said Maurizio Boiocchi, managing director of Pirelli’s R&D operation (Pirelli Labs) and chief technical officer.
Regarded as the father of the P Zero, Dottore Boiocchi is currently working on Pirelli’s F1 tire program but we caught up with him before he went to Spa for the 2012 Belgian Grand Prix.
Despite its exotic supercar debut, the P Zero’s development began on rally stages with the Lancia Delta HF Integrale. “We had a different way of designing tires: Nobody else was using asymmetric patterns. We were combining two separate tread compounds 20 years before any other tire companies,” Dr Boiocchi told us.
In ’94, the introduction of the Corsa system on the Ferrari 355 utilized one tread pattern on the front, with an asymmetric pattern on the rear, allowing the tires to deal with the tasks of directional stability, traction and steering.
A new generation P Zero tires arrived in 2007, augmented by aramids (also known as aromatic polyamides; although “aromatic” doesn’t refer to its odor). These man-made fibers are found in body armor and, as well as being super-tough, they retain integrity at high temperatures. So the P Zero construction employs aramid sidewalls.
“In the early days, it was performance, performance, performance,” said Boiocchi. “Then we started looking for a more complete tire, a balance of dry and wet handling, less noise and better wear rates. Aramids were unique at the time, at the edge of the available technology.”
Today’s P Zero has evolved to cover a spectrum of performance scenarios, from the road-going Silver to the racing Trofeo. And after 25 years, almost 55 million P Zero tires have been sold – an astonishing legacy for the Italian manufacturer established by Giovanni Battista Pirelli in 1872.
The famous Pirelli logo was created in New York in 1908, inspired by Giovanni and his sons who elongated the P in their signature. It’s become an iconic design for the Milanese company, alongside the P zero, which got its name by chance: Pirelli’s marketing guys followed the template of P2, P3, P4, etc. Yet they hadn’t made a decision for this product, so the technicians called it P Zero as a joke, and it stuck!
Today, Pirelli provides all the rubber for F1, GP2 and GP3, as well as World Superbike and Motocross, plus a host of national series such as the SCCA Pro Racing World Challenge, GT3 Cup and Ferrari Challenge, etc. There’s even a P Zero clothing line, with a stunning flagship store in the hometown of Milan (pirellipzero.com).
Let’s not overlook the other Pirelli icon: the famous calendar featuring artistic photography of elegant but sparsely dressed women. What once graced the walls of workshops is now hung in museums, and the P Zero has similarly elevated itself from mundane tire to a household name and a favorite of driving enthusiasts (pirelli.com).