The difficult job of test drivers
Test driver. For many a dream job, one that stimulates the imagination of young people as well as other enthusiasts despite the occasional cutting remark ("tire spoilers", as some have unjustly labelled them). However, a few opportune distinctions are needed: in the automotive world alone we find, for example, racing car test drivers, production cars test drivers as well as tire test drivers. All very different from each other as the first two work on a product package, while the latter focus on a very specific component: tires. And to do so they travel thousands of kilometres (often boring and repetitive) which are regularly used by all the manufacturers in the industry to boast about the efforts , money and Energy freely spent in developing this or that tire.
In an effort to shed light on this far too often misunderstood line of work, we spoke with Mauro Fattori, 46 year-old leader of the test drivers currently working at the Bridgestone European Test Centre in Aprilia, just outside Latina, one of the world's largest facilities operating today. "Contrary to what one may be commonly inclined to think, testers are not only ex-racing drivers," says Fattori, partly denying his past in Formula 3 - quite the contrary. The competitive experience, although certainly an important element, is not as valuable as proper training, education, a professional approach and the ability to work in a team, which are our strong points. In my working group, for example, I have a test driver who speaks four languages: a fundamental element when having to communicate with representatives of foreign car manufacturers. Much more important than drifting cars through every corner! Which, by the way, is totally useless for the purposes of the product offered to the final customer ".
Two fronts of action
Deepening the subject we discover that the work of a test driver working for a large tire manufacturer features two main actions: the development of original equipment tires and trade tires (replacement market), through constant monitoring of both types of tires, for example, in endurance tests, to verify the wear and tear of the product over time and the real potential of run-flat tires.
Tire testing can be both objective and personal. In the first case the test driver can count on a series of on-board detection equipment that allow him to collect data (I removed the word aseptic, because all data is actually analyzed by competent personnel) on the behaviour of the tire in any given situation. In the second case, the test driver reports his impressions after personally putting the vehicle through its paces with, for example, a sudden change in direction or by evaluating the response to steering with specific manoeuvres. Obviously - and this is perhaps the most difficult part - it is essential that all the test drivers’ reports are, if not exactly identical, at least fairly univocal, in order to better address the following development work.
Hence the need for specific training courses that can last between one and one and a half years, in the case of Bridgestone, and test drivers dedicated to different car brands as is the case at the Aprilia European testing centre. At this point, all the information collected on the track are transferred to development engineers who will gradually take action and create new prototypes which are in turn subjected to further testing. And so on until the final product is finally unveiled. Team work.
A changing world
The increasingly sophisticated technology found on modern cars and the demand for specific products for the various cars now on the market are having a major impact on the work of test drivers. Modern steering systems, as well as more or less active suspensions, have contributed in making driving a little artificial," explains Fattori, "therefore the driver cannot rely solely on his perception at the wheel which was a fundamental part of our work. Everything seems filtered through all these systems, which, of course, are very useful for the safety of the user, but it has made our work more difficult".
Nevertheless, tire testing work is destined to expand in new directions. So far, everyone mainly focused on tires designed for our everyday cars, which often rely on tires to compensate for some design flows related to the need to contain production and sales costs, and GT tires where the nuances and details are essential in achieving superior performance.
Today, we are looking more and more at tires for hybrid and electric vehicles, two types of cars that require a lot from their tires, in search of the best compromise between apparently contrasting characteristics such as smoothness and grip, driving comfort and durability.
NEW BRIDGESTONE TIRES ARE TESTED HERE
As any expansion plan for the existing proving ground in Castel Romano seemed impossible, in the early 2000s Bridgestone decided to make a new investment in the Pontina area and created the European proving ground (Eupg) in Aprilia in 2004. A new and larger testing facility where, taking advantage of a particularly favourable climate, it is possible to analyse and evaluate new technologies and solutions in real conditions in almost every period of the year.
The new facilities, which cost 40 million euro, has the most modern tools available to carry out tests on all sorts of tires. New generation tires for cars, commercial vehicles, trucks, buses, agricultural vehicles and motorcycles are tested on a complex of state-of-the-art test tracks. On an area of 144 hectares there are 17 different tracks over a length of more than 8 kilometres able to virtually replicate all the conditions one might meet on European roads.
In May 2005, the European Education Centre (Euec) was opened within the same premises. It is a modern training centre, designed to pass on Bridgestone's know-how and DNA to internal and external staff through technical and commercial training courses, as well as visits and events. The centre provides a comprehensive and efficient learning system, with dedicated classes, practical workshops on how to properly assemble and disassemble as well as monitor the condition of the tires. All carried out in workshops equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and, thanks to test-drives on a dedicated track, in total safety. Safety first.