From the Canberra Times
By STEPHEN CORBY
UNLESS you're walking on sand, you don't tend to give a lot of thought to what the tread pattern on your shoes looks like.
It's the same with tyres, for most of us, but there are those for whom the grooves run deep.
To the uninterested eye, tyre tread patterns look like they were designed by Mr Squiggle after he'd been sniffing around Miss Liquid Paper.
Those who don't doze off when tyre ads come on television will tell you that the patterns are carefully designed to achieve maximum grip by moving water away from the surface.
The fact is, that's only part of the story. Apparently the way a tyre looks is almost as important as how well it works - at least it is if you're a tyre designer working for Pirelli.
''Quite often we come up with a design that will work really well but then we take it to the marketing people and they say 'no way, how do you expect us to sell something that looks like that? It's too ugly','' Pirelli Australia's Simon Pool said last week at the launch of its new Ultra High Performance P Zero Nero.
''So it has to be a compromise between looks and performance.''
It should come as no surprise, then, that the new Nero is a sharp-looking tyre indeed, with what looks like rows of shark's teeth ready to bite the road.
But they can't be serious.
While people do fret over what brand they display on the sidewall of their tyres, surely no one but those with rubber fetishes really cares what the tread pattern looks like? ''We're Italian. Of course it matters how it looks,'' says Kai-Uwe Weick, managing director or Pirelli Tyres Australia. And he's not joking.
''I've been in meetings where there has been great debate over how the sidewall of a tyre looks, the shading, whether you can see the word Pirelli well enough. You have no idea how much goes into designing just the sidewall, let alone the tread pattern.
''But for customers who are very concerned with how their car looks, the kind who have metal tyre valve caps, everything matters and a good, aggressive tread pattern is very important.
''Obviously, performance has to come first and then the looks, but looks come a very close second. Very close.''
It is those customers, the kind who don't need to start the engine to enjoy their cars, that Pirelli is targeting with the tread pattern on its latest P Zero (pronounced Pizaro, as if to rhyme with Figaro). But it is drivers who like to spend their Saturday afternoons dancing on the ragged edge who will really appreciate the performance side of the Nero. After a day of track testing the tyres on various vehicles at go-directly-to-jail speeds we can report that the new Pirellis grip like Velcro to a blanket.
No matter how much you torture them, it's difficult to make them squeal. The Nero is aimed at the replacement market. Basically, when you buy your Porsche, BMW, Audi or other sports car you'll still get the P Zero Rosso fitted as original equipment (OE), but when they're burnt out you'll have the option of sticking with the Rossos or moving to the superior Neros.
''We're after the real enthusiasts who want the extra edge that the Nero provides,'' says Weick. ''Obviously with an OE tyre there's always a compromise because it has to take into account comfort factors, not just performance.
''Even the really high-end sports cars like Lamborghini and Ferrari these days must have comfort. If you drive an older Ferrari you'll see that was not always the case.''
In a truly rare bit of good news for those at this excessive end of the market, Australia will be the only place in the world where the Neros will be cheaper than the Rossos.
Everywhere else the two tyres will be priced the same and the choice will simply be one of performance. Here you'll get a higher-performance tyre for less money. In Australia the Nero is replacing the P7000, a slightly lower-performance tyre than the Rossi, which was typically 20 per cent cheaper.
The Nero will be between 10 and 15 per cent cheaper than the Rosso, partly to fill the market hole left by the P7000, says Weick, and partly because Pirelli needs to offer something cheaper to the customers it might otherwise lose to companies like Falken (pronounced by Pirelli people as if it was a swear word).
The Neros still won't be cheap, with prices for the 29 different sizes that will be available by the end of the year ranging from about $200 a tyre right up to $800 for a 19-inch wheel.
Not surprisingly, Weick says getting people to part with that kind of money is never easy, mainly because people see tyres as ''a grudge purchase''.
''A lot of the people who do up their cars spend big money on the car itself and then what they have left they spend on mag wheels to impress their mates and girlfriends. When it comes to tyres, they've got no money left.''
So what technological marvels do you get for your money?
Well, besides looking sexy, that tread pattern features extra deep grooves to force water through the tyre as quickly as possible.
The old line about designing the tread to move water from the middle of the tyre to the outside no longer applies, apparently, because modern tyres are simply getting too wide.
In fact, the modern tyre has a lot to deal with, particularly on performance cars and sports saloons, which have become both heavier and more powerful.
At the same time, companies like Pirelli are being asked to provide tyres that both fit wider rims and are lower in profile, thus reducing the volume of air.
The Nero meets these challenges by using new and improved belt pack materials and high Tg polymers, which provide something called good hysteretical characteristics. Hysteritical is apparently what you get if you sit through the technical part of a tyre presentation.
In a nutshell, the Pirelli P Zero Nero is designed to give better high-speed performance and enhanced grip in both wet and dry conditions. Pirelli claims it's the best performance tyre the company has ever offered - with the exception of the more racetrack-suited Pirelli Corsa.
The Nero also features a wide range of ''extra-load'' versions, for those big Bavarian barns on wheels with the whole fruit shop of options on board.
One thing's for sure, the revenge factor offered by the tyre's name should help it sell like hot rubber in Italy.
Imagine, Romans can sit in their cars and fiddle while Nero burns.