Original equipment and the state of the art
Continental in OE
The vices and virtues of the collaboration between tyre and vehicle manufacturers for the supply of OE tyres: to shine some light on synergies, progress and what goes on behind the scenes, we spoke to Continental Italia
By Mino de Rigo
If the needs of top range vehicles are answered by the UHP tyre for which noble materials are customary and cost is of less importance than handling, stability and braking, satisfying requests for cars in the lowest segments is like continually squaring the circle
For premium brands, the product supplied to car manufacturers as original equipment is the jewel in the crown and on western markets it usually expresses their best technology. State of the art is now more than ever under the spotlight in terms of partnerships that are always fairly lively and complicated by strong and continual increases in the price of raw materials and, as a consequence, the desire of tyre manufacturers to maintain their position. It is obvious that if the demand for tyres exceeds the offer, sales to the replacement market could guarantee a multiple mark up compared to selling the same tyre as Original Equipment.
What logic connects the collaboration on original equipment between the tyre and car industries? And on the basis of developing the segment, in what way have the main selection criteria changed? And if development does not stop but is accelerated by the regulation that will lead to next year's debut of the new European label, on what basis will it continue? These are the reasons for taking a look behind the scenes, for removing the veil from the reality and direction of a partnership under the command of product development. "Nowadays" - said Alberto Bergamaschi, head of original equipment relations at Continental Italia - "it is increasingly difficult to optimize. Especially with regard to tyres for small saloons and city cars: if the needs of top range vehicles are answered by the UHP tyre for which noble materials are customary and cost is of less importance than handling, stability and braking, satisfying requests for cars in the lowest segments is like continually squaring the circle", with price an absolute requisite; everything is complicated by the fact that because containment of production costs is mandatory for today's city cars, in the long run they need high level qualitative solutions, even compared to similar models of the past. And if this is the case, tyres need to give greater performance and less noise in a product segment whose strength lies in maximum savings, and these aspects have to be reconciled with mileage and fuel economy.
If on the UHP front manufacturers can simply focus on performance, when it comes to larger volume products, the overall situation is complex. "In addition to low noise and rolling resistance" - Bergamaschi continued - "the criteria on the basis of which car manufacturers select the suppliers of OE tyres after putting out tenders are traction, precise steering, road holding and braking on wet and dry surfaces. For this purpose, first they issue a list of requirements and then wait for the manufacturers to reply with a declaration of the points they can satisfy; then comes the comparative evaluation of the products". An activity that at one time was the almost exclusive prerogative of test drivers, but now that tests are carried out on the bench, they have a say only when it comes to handling and, in part, to braking performance. Special simulations provide the answers about mileage and rolling resistance. "Also considered are parameters concerning the structural strength of the tyre, its appearance and even size, given that even a slight difference in size can compromise the operation of electronic stability and traction controls on the vehicle to be equipped".
Simulations are the predominating part of tests that use virtual prototypes and analysis techniques on finished elements which allow them to study all the different parameters in different conditions of use. As Bergamaschi observed, "it is a collaboration that primarily aligns criteria linked to equipment and measuring methods (which are not always the same for vehicle and tyre manufacturers), which lead to an interactive process where the requests for improvement are followed by modifications and so on to the final prototype of the tyre". In order to win the order, the supplier has already invested in setting up the required production capability: "This is why the agreement is usually multi-year; but if during that time the vehicle is modified or if new versions are proposed, other manufacturers may be brought in to share the supply. During the life of the vehicle sizes may also change: the more the vehicle "ages" (and production costs have been amortized), it can be made more appetizing by mounting ad hoc kits with bigger rims and tyres. "Moreover" - Bergamaschi explained - "the technology that has peaked today will be a high level solution tomorrow and a product in current use the day after, with the passage from premium brands to standard brands to budget brands. Obviously with reference to the demands of the replacement market".
But as the partnership with the car manufacturer is an element of distinction and a declaration of technological ability, it also expresses the state of the art.
• Sportcontact 5P, OE means prestige at Conti
Italia Continental's OE business is for the brands in the Fiat group, but it can also boast Maserati among its top range clients, which is undoubtedly the preferred outlet for original equipment. At home, however, the German group can count on various partnerships for supplying UHP tyres for supercars like the Mercedes SLS "gull wing", the Audi R8, not mention various Porsche models in addition to supersporty Jaguars and Aston Martins. The common denominator is the ContiSportContact 5P series; launched last year, it has taken obvious steps ahead compared to the previous generation.
The compound, tread profile and most of the structure are new. Renewal has focused mainly on the ratio between rigidity and grip, which has been resolved by using a compound based on the Black Chilli Technology that was successfully used on tyres for sporty high performance motorbikes. Available for rims from 18" to 23", with section up to /25, the ContiSportContact 5P has different models for the front and rear axle designed, respectively, to foster direction and steering precision and to improve stability when discharging power to the ground. The key characteristics in terms of performance are asymmetric blocks at the sides of the tread which prevent the rolling effect and guarantee a wider contact surface, and transverse edges that divert water like a windscreen wiper.