Tyres are black and round, right? Well, of course there’s more to it than that, but when I got chatting with a friend last weekend about the likelihood of all-electric rallycross taking off as a sport, the challenges presented to tyre manufacturers by motorsport became ever more apparent - and the solutions they develop ever more relevant to all of us.
The theory, being pursued by senior folk at Volkswagen and Peugeot, is that rallycross is the perfect form of motorsport to showcase electric cars. The races are short and spaced out throughout a day, so the batteries don’t need to be massive and can be regularly charged, and the racing is hugely spectacular and therefore a great showcase for the technology.
As such, they are lobbying rule makers to change regulations and make it a reality. It’s a controversial move that has many purists up in arms - not least because of the risk such a formula would pose to the noisy, flame-spitting delights of today’s rallycross supercars.
Conventionally powered supercars already pump out around 700bhp with 1000lb ft of torque. But my friend, who knows a thing or two about this, speculated that an optimised electric rallycross car could be capable of 1000bhp and 2000lb ft of torque, all of which could be available from the moment the green light flicks on at the start of a race.
Such are the advances in electric motor and battery technology that he reckoned developing the car would be relatively easy - but the challenge would lie in developing tyres that could handle the power, and especially cling to the wheel rim while trying to lay all that performance on the road.
The key to it all is the tyre bead, a composite loop that locks the tyre on to the wheel to prevent it from slipping off. Complex stuff, and quite an eye-opener if you consider all tyres as being black and round. Forgive the layman’s explanation, but roughly speaking the bead includes a steel wire loop, filler and protection for the tyre and sidewall - plus something known as a flipper, which holds the bead in place.
It’s an ultra-competitive area of tyre technology, and nobody is about to spill their secrets. But it’s clear that there are answers out there that could be applied to the challenges of electric rallycross from other motorsport divisions, none more so than Formula 1.
Today, Pirelli makes tyres that stay on the rims while enduring the huge demands of being shod on 900bhp Formula 1 cars. And while Pirelli has the F1 contract, there’s no shortage of other tyre manufacturers who would like to have it. As daunting as the demands may sound, tyre manufacturers have, to date, come up with the answers posed by grand prix racing. In electric rallycross, it would surely be the same - so a tyre suitable for handling 1000bhp and 2000lb ft on asphalt and gravel could well become a reality.
And the knock-on benefit to ordinary motorists? According to Pirelli, you don’t need to drive a Bugatti Chiron to benefit from the road tyre advances developed in racing. Its recently relaunched P Zero tyre, designed for sports cars and luxury saloons, has new underlayer compounds that are designed to improve handling and rolling resistance, innovative polymers to improve wet and dry grip and a new tread pattern with deeper longitudinal grooves to help resist aquaplaning.
It also has - you guessed it - new bead technology, derived from lessons learnt in F1. While the challenge isn’t so much about sticking the tyre to the rim, keeping the tyre rigidly attached around the bead area allows the tyre to transmit steering forces more directly to the road, offering improved steering response and feel.
So while electric rallycross cars may provoke as much fear as excitement among purists, the knock-on benefits of taking on and conquering such new challenges could well be enjoyed by us all.