If you were a motorcycle tire manufacturer how would you engineer your street tires? Would you utilize the latest and greatest manufacturing techniques including advanced computer programs and simulation models? Perhaps support the world’s biggest and most popular Superbike racing series? Or maybe utilize a troupe of in-house test riders hired to do nothing other than ride street bikes from sun up to sun down on some of the world’s most chaotic road surfaces. If you’re Pirelli, you do it all. In this three-part feature we’ll share how the Italian brand tests its high-performance street, track and sport-touring tires.
Of all the motorcycling tire genres, the hoops you mount on your street bike have the most demanding job. Not only do they have to provide high-levels of adhesion on warm, sun-drenched asphalt they also have to perform when it’s pouring down rain and the mercury is thick as molasses. Fortunately Pirelli has the answer with its recently released Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa Front Tire and Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa Rear Tire as tested in the Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa Product Review. Considering its outrageous level of grip it’s hard to imagine how Pirelli is capable of producing such an exquisite road tire. That is until we were invited to Italy to experience the testing process first-hand.
“Pirelli is an old world company,” says American Chris Wall who heads up Pirelli’s U.S. marketing effort. “We have a lot of technology but some stuff we continue to do old school.”
And when Wall says “old school” he isn’t joking. Pirelli has a fleet of nearly 100 of the latest and greatest motorcycles and scooters that are ridden and maintained by its 20-plus person technical department. These guys log in excess of 700,000 miles annually both on the street and Pirelli’s private proving grounds throughout the world (more on that in Part 2 and 3) all in an effort to produce the finest tires money can buy.
The Italian-based team is led by Salvo Pennisi. It’s hard to describe Pennisi in a few words, or even a paragraph, but it’s safe to say that Dos Equis beer cast the wrong guy in its “Most Interesting Man in the World” advertising campaign. Like many of us, the gregarious Italian has a passion for the finer things in life including fist fulls of throttle and Rossi-style lean angles which he experiences regularly during the course of his “job.”
The island of Sicily is where Pirelli conducts a good portion of its road testing. Why? Because the roads here are some of the world’s most diverse. From rough, pothole-laden streets barely wide enough for two shoebox-sized Fiats, to original cobblestone paths built centuries ago and highly abrasive and bowling ball alley smooth sections of curvy
(Above) Salvo Pennisi heads up Pirelli’s worldwide motorcycle tire testing effort and is one the the most interesting people you’ll probably ever meet. Of course, he hauls ass on a motorcycle. (Below) Waheed wheelies the Ducati Streetfighter.
mountain road, Sicily offers it all. Plus the mild Southern California-style weather equates to a non-stop riding season.
A fleet of modern liter-class bikes from Ducati, Honda and Yamaha greeted us when we arrived in Sicily all shod with the Diablo Rosso Corsa in OE sizes. After gearing up in lightweight, summertime-friendly riding gear we leave Catania on the eastern side of the island and head west on Pirelli’s street testing loop toward the looming Mt. Etna, an active volcano. As soon as we pulled out of the parking lot it became clear that the sedate driving rules of Western civilization no longer apply. Simply put, it’s every man for himself. Bicycles, cars, busses are going in each and every direction with little regard for stoplights or any other type of traffic enforcement device. The roads are coated in soot from the swarms of premix burning two-stroke scooters and diesel-powered trucks and busses. However, when warm, the tires remain stay glued to the asphalt, as if they were somehow designed for these kinds of roads hmm…
We cruise the motorway at speeds right around 200 kilometers per hours (124 mph). There are no cops and the road’s perfectly flat surface and almost unlimited visibility allow us to sprint ahead for a few seconds at full stick just to see how high we can get the speedometer to read. As always stability at higher speeds is as solid as an oil tanker cutting across a lake.
Exiting the motorway we cut through the city and its dilapidated road surface. The pavement here is in total contrast to the well manicured motorway. Huge pot holes and gapping earthquake-style fissures are scattered across the road and there is no shoulder—only a ditch to stop you if you run out of road which we experience one time when a car cuts into our lane and momentarily forces off the road. Had we not been paying attention we would have been dangling from the hood as an ornament. The road gets narrower and bumpier as we enter the oldest part of the city and soon we’re rolling over slippery cobblestone, laid down by hand centuries ago. Yet even with the road conditions the tires seem to offer a reasonable degree of flexibility and bump absorption that simultaneously reduces rider discomfort while also maintaining a reassuring contact patch on the road.
After dodging busses and weaving in and out of traffic we leave the city behind and are now climbing toward the mountain. This is where the real fun starts. The quality of the pavement improves to the same premium level as the motorway which allows us to bomb around corners and explore the lean angle of these bikes.
The Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tires complement the handling attributes of all street and sport motorycles including Ducati’s Streetfighter.
Pennisi leads us maintaining a spirited yet sensible (for a sportbike) pace as we zoom past the thick forest on either side of the road. The road is still tight and we’re only using first and second gear but are still having a blast. The slow speed corners eventually giveaway to faster third gear turns but even with the higher cornering load the Rosso Corsas are stable and 100% surefooted. In fact, I’m flabbergasted by the levels of edge grip and elevated level of road feel from the tires. This is the kind of performance you’d experience from a one-time use race tire a decade ago. This allows the rider to better flirt with each and every 150-horsepower being served up from bikes like the R1 and Streetfighter.
Speeds increase even further as head down the backside of the volcano. Rock walls and metal guard rails line some of the turns and are designed to catch motorists who veer of course, though on a motorcycle, impact with those obstacles would pretty much ensure death. So it’s important to have trust in your motorcycle and tires.
Before long we’re back rolling around the soot covered streets near our home base trading paint with scooters and busses. At the end of our ride it became clear as day why Pirelli chooses to test its tires on these roads. Because riding a motorcycle in Sicily instills the same intrinsic fight or flight survival instinct that forces tire design to the next level. Stay tuned for Part 2 and 3 of our adventure in which we experience how Pirelli tests its tires at its top secret Siracusa and Vizzola proving grounds.