Most drivers donâ€™t put a lot of thought into their tyres – theyâ€™re just another consumable that needs replaced every year or two. But behind the seemingly simple bits of rubber that keep our cars in contact with the road are millions of pounds of research and years of expertise.
Given the recent appalling weather and in the name of research and adventure, I ventured north â€“ a long way north â€“ to Finland to find out exactly what goes into developing the latest winter tyres.
On the outskirts of SaariselkÃ¤, nearly 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle lies Goodyearâ€™s Arctic Centre. Itâ€™s a purpose-built facility covering nearly 62 acres that features everything the tyre maker needs to assess its newest cold-weather products.
Nestled in a hollow surrounded on all sides by snow-covered pine trees, the facility can be used for six months of the year thanks to its sheltered position and average daily temperatures that barely top freezing from October to April and fall to -16C in the depths of winter.
The site houses offices, garages and seven different tracks, each designed to test and assess different elements of a tyreâ€™s performance. They range from two snow handling tracks and ice and snow straights for testing acceleration and braking to a 20 per cent incline to evaluate hill start capabilities and a snow and ice circle where lateral grip is tested to the limit and beyond.
At the heart of the operation is a team of drivers who can spend weeks at a time based at the Arctic Centre. At any one time there can be as many as 10 drivers on site with twice as many support crew. Between them they will test up to 240 tyres a day on everything from passenger cars to HGVs.
The driversâ€™ job is to assess every aspect of the tyreâ€™s performance from acceleration on snow and ice to lateral grip in cornering, stability and grip under braking, balance, comfort and wear. Theyâ€™re expected to judge how changes to materials, design and construction affect the tyres that weâ€™ll eventually fit to our cars.
Can you feel it?
While some of these can be measured objectively using standardised tests and data loggers a surprising amount of the feedback is more subjective. It relies on the driversâ€™ feel for how a tyre is performing and what itâ€™s getting right or wrong â€“ a feeling garnered through hours of driving on the various tracks.
Itâ€™s not a simple task and not all testers are able to give the kind of detailed, accurate feedback required by the engineers based just on what they feel from the driverâ€™s seat.
To prove how difficult a job this is, Goodyear let us journalists loose on some of the test tracks, where most of us spent our time trying to keep things pointing in the right direction rather than worrying about the minutiae of how precisely the tyre was responding to our inputs.
A timed slalom and braking test on snow saw plenty of wheelspin, some unintentionally sideways BMWs and, in a few driversâ€™ cases, a very dead reindeer as they ploughed into the foam mock-up representing the animal hazard.
The snow circle, likewise, where the aim was to balance the car in a controlled drift saw some spectacular pirouettes and some crushed cones as well as some beautifully controlled slides. Reasoned discussion of what could be done to improve the tyreâ€™s lateral grip, however, was notably absent.
We were shown how the professionals do it on the snow handling circuit. The course does what youâ€™d expect, itâ€™s a tight, twisting path cut through trees and deep snow banks where drivers can get a feel for every element of a tyreâ€™s performance at any speed. Itâ€™s also where our instructor proved what 30 years of experience means, hurling a BMW X3 around the narrow winding track at seemingly impossible speeds, drifting it through corners and braking later than youâ€™d imagine possible. It made my faltering attempts on the slalom feel spectacularly pedestrian.
While hooning around in the snow might sound like fun the drivers are there on serious business and they face constant challenges from the climate and the siteâ€™s remote location. With as little as two hours of daylight during December, the pressure is on to get the testing complete but the weather can make that almost impossible. A change in temperature can dramatically affect the track surface, as can fresh snowfall and even changes in the wind, making accurate comparisons difficult.
Complicating matters further are the car manufacturers, who increasingly want tyres tailored to specific models. Itâ€™s no longer as simple as developing a balanced tyre that can be fitted to any car (although thatâ€™s still a major part of Goodyearâ€™s business) itâ€™s about adapting a tyreâ€™s behaviour to match the vehicle and its expected use, whether thatâ€™s a Suzuki 4×4 or a rear-wheel-drive BMW performance saloon.
So next time youâ€™re grumbling about the cost of some new rubber for your car spare a thought for the drivers up there at the edge of the world with just their Nomex suits and racing booties for protection. Itâ€™s their work at the extremes of driving that help us stay safe on the roads, whatever the weather.