It's dawn, and my stirring senses note a fluid symphony courtesy of Mother Nature. The gentle rhythm of rainfall drums the roof, as gutter-spouted runoff splats flatly on terra firma. Trees murmur and sigh in the wind, distant thunder reverberates, and the crescendo of tires on wet asphalt softens, as a car passes slowly. Cozy and snug, a cup of herbal tea and a good book beckon. The jarring alarm ends this tranquil reverie.
Forty-five minutes later, running late, I sprint out the door, clutching an umbrella and a travel mug of strong joe. The metronome-like slap of windshield wipers punctuates a bleak talk-radio traffic report, as I merge with the rest of humanity for a soggy commute.
With this scenario in mind, european car sat down with Andrew Comrie-Picard to talk tires and tread, inclement weather, and safe driving. Comrie-Picard's resume includes: championship rally driver, stunt driver, television host, and Team BFGoodrich member.
When did the first rain tire appear on the market?
Andrew Comrie-Picard: "Rain tires" is really a racing designation. For the street, we talk about "all season tires." Over the last 30 years, or longer, tire manufacturers have been trying to figure out ways to deal with moisture and standing water on the road. That's led to the inclusion of silica in the tread compound, a Michelin innovation. Now pretty much all tire companies have some kind of silica, but the quality of the silica and even the dispersion on the surface of the tire is a very difficult technology to master. A truly ultra-high-performance all-season tire is a relatively recent innovation, and there are engineering challenges to achieving that breakthrough.
Low ambient temperature, combined with moisture, slush, or standing water, is really a diabolical formula for a tire. Summer-only tires can turn into hockey pucks in temperatures of, say, 45 degrees Fahrenheit or below. In these conditions, you really need a high level of engineering and innovation in order to stick to the road. Achieving the level of performance to work in that range of conditions has only been possible in the last five to seven years.
Isn't an all-weather tire just a compromise between a rain tire in motorsport and a dry weather tire?
ACP: It's not a compromise any longer because of technological advances in compounding. Silica is very important for wet and moist tracks. When you have the potential of hydroplaning, it is very important to have a tread pattern design that correctly utilizes the tread void area. The problem with standing water is it doesn't have anywhere to go when the tire rolls over it.
But how do developments with the intermediate race tire contribute to an all-season tire?
ACP: Let's say we are racing at a track. There's a storm report and a strategic decision is made whether to go on wets, intermediates, or a slick. There's an understanding that if circumstances change, the driver may have to avoid certain conditions. If you are on a slick and it starts to rain, you tiptoe around the places with standing water. If you're on a wet and conditions dry up, then you start measuring tire temperatures and wear. However, the driver of a road car doesn't get to make pit stops. There is one set of tires on his or her car, or two sets in some parts of the country—a winter and a summer, or an all-season set.
What's been the single greatest advancement to date in wet weather tire development?
ACP: My first answer would be computers, because in order to manage the incredibly sophisticated compounding, engineers are working on a microscopic level. If I have to say one thing, though, I'd say chemistry. A high lateral load at an ambient temperature of 100 degrees, with maybe a track or road temp of 140 degrees in the sun, in the dry and then to have that same piece of rubber work at 30 degrees or 28 degrees, in slush and snow, is an insane range of conditions.
A tire doesn't hold a perfect circle as it rolls on the road, and the way that the tread blocks attack the road has really been refined—in the way they touch the road, what they do when they have pressure on them as they roll through at the bottom of the circle. The tread block's shape and design, even the camber on the edge of the tread block, have been engineered so that when they expand and contract through this procedure they don't resist each other. This creates less noise and more even tire wear.
In a 40-mile-an-hour panic brake situation, people rarely consider the hundreds of thousands of engineering hours involved to produce the ability to stop 20 feet shorter.
What about comparing computer simulation with real-time testing?
ACP: The simulations on computers today are amazing, but ultimately people are not using tires on their computers; they are using them on their cars, so it's important to achieve excellence in both areas. The tire must be engineered at the highest levels possible in the lab and then tested at the proving grounds. Then we do what I call "Redneck Testing," where a performance team provides feedback using the tires on cars in the real world. All three assessments are important.
The great thing about BFG is that our team is a bunch of racers, backed by the engineering expertise of an extremely sophisticated company.
How does your rally experience with tires used for specific conditions and stages compare to testing wet-weather or dual-use production tires?
ACP: In rallying, we start with a general, say, gravel tire and if it gets muddy or wet, we might put extra cuts in that tire for a place for the water or the mud to go. The Targa Newfoundland, for example, is a five-day race, 1,200 miles around this island. Four of the days are usually pretty dry and cool, but almost every year we get a near hurricane for one day.
We use street tires, so I get to test the tires at 120 mph along the edge of a cliff, with the ocean below. That's how I test tires, I go "ripping testing." For the Targa Newfoundland, we test different tires during the weeks leading up to it.
Driver's education in schools really doesn't prepare students to drive in inclement weather; do you think that's something that should be included in the curriculum?
ACP: Absolutely. I'm from Canada originally and you'd think training for snow or wet-driving conditions would be essential to obtaining a driver's license. Unfortunately, that is not the case in North America. In Europe, driving is taken more seriously and is regarded as a privilege, not a right.
Can you offer some pointers for our harried, rainy-day freeway driver?
ACP: Ultimately, every driver will become a performance driver at some point. It might be a panic brake moment, such as a swerve when a soccer ball rolls across a suburban street. However, inclement weather, heavy rain, standing water, aquaplaning, and black ice can all contribute to a situation where suddenly a driver has to be very good. When it's 70 degrees and sunny, anyone can drive, more or less. Add a little water on top and panic can set in. Frankly, the law has allowed the tread depth to get too low, and for standing water, tread depth matters. We always do the penny test. Take a penny, put it in with the president's head down and if you can see the top of his head, you don't have enough tread.
And should a panic situation occur?
ACP: Always look where you want to go. Drivers often look at the car, telephone pole, or object they are about to hit, and in that situation, hitting what you are looking at is virtually guaranteed. If a vehicle is blocking the road, don't look at it, look for a way around. It's a proven physiological concept; the steering wheel imperceptibly follows the body, and will move all the controls toward your focal point. So it's crucial to focus psychologically on getting around the problem.
Additionally, people are driving too close to their cars—sometimes only two car lengths ahead. At 60 miles an hour, that's too close. A driver should be looking as far down the road as possible at all times.
A lot of amateur performance drivers have the idea that in order to drive fast, they need to make fast movements. They brake fast, steer fast, and hit the throttle hard, but cars don't respond well to sharp inputs. Get in a car with any professional race driver, and everything happens slowly—the steering inputs are smooth, braking is progressive and soft.
The weight of the car should be pressed forward, instead of throwing it around. Hit the brakes too hard and the springs impact too quickly, the car bounces back, causing a moment where it doesn't steer very well; it unloads a little bit.
When I'm racing, it's like there's a symphony playing in the car. It's quiet and I'm making all these slow, smooth movements. That reasoning applies to negotiating standing water or black ice on the road. The worst thing you can do is turn the steering wheel and hit the brakes. Instead, take a deep breath, ride it out, and be smooth.