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On the slopes of Etna

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In the development stages of a tyre there is always, inevitably, a phase of testing. These are fundamental moments that serve to understand what point and level the product that is about to be launched on the market has reached. In this phase there is clearly little, practically zero, tolerance for errors. Pirelli, at this stage, places its trust in a team of 35 people, guided by Testing Director Salvatore Pennisi, based in Giarre, on the slopes of Etna. The area represents a necessary variable in the evolution and definition of standards for the new Velo tyres: Sicily, the characteristic asphalt around Etna, the atmospheric conditions that need to be met and dealt with.

Pennisi is an enthusiast, you can tell by his tone of voice and by his choice of words when he replies to each question: “I’ve worked for Pirelli for 30 years, and have always been involved in testing, including for the Metzeler brand. My team consists of 35 people, although the results are not just down to them, but also to the testing protocols and the methodical and trusted approaches to continual development in the motorcycle sector that we have also been able to reinterpret for the cycling sector”. Pennisi is a man with a direct manner, who you feel inclined to trust. When he says, “We’re very lucky to have top-level semi-professional test riders”, he sounds like a proud father acknowledging the achievements of his children. “They were asked to immerse themselves in the testing, and not just express a simple ‘like it / don’t like it’, but to interconnect with our research and development technicians, in order to learn to speak the same language as them. Above all, we asked them to focus on the same requirements and the same test goals”.

Next comes a moment of appreciation of the territory, an aspect not to be undervalued. In a process that can, at times, seem as cold as the production of a racing tyre, there is still a kind of sensuality to be perceived in the locations where the tests take place: “We’re here in Giarre, right on the slopes of Etna. This place is fundamental, because it allows us to use outdoor test areas for 12 months of the year and for 365 days in the year. This is a huge advantage that can only be found, outside of Italy, on the Spanish islands, but the real advantage is that we can depend on significantly uneven surfaces right outside our front door. Few can work on Etna, with its 6 different ascents from various sides. The routes that we use for our test rides are the same ones that were used in the Giro d’Italia this year”. This has, of course, allowed Pirelli and the test team to carry out tests that start at sea level and finish at 2,000 metres in a very short space of time. But there’s another significant aspect: “Sicily provides us with a variety of asphalts that we can’t find elsewhere. This is because inert basalts derived from the volcano were used on the northern part of Etna, providing extremely abrasive road surfaces that are black and high grip. This allows us to develop unique tests regarding rolling and grip, roughness and resistance to lacerations. On the south side, towards Syracuse, another area popular for professional cycling, there are asphalts containing inert white calcite, very similar to those found in Spain. In this case, grip and rolling resistance is low, especially when it rains”. Sicily is therefore an excellent terrain for trials, where the roads used by Vincenzo Nibali are also used by Pirelli: a guarantee of quality.

Each test is done under strict conditions, with the possibility of using the nearby Acireale circuit as well as the legendary Vizzola Ticino circuit, which can be artificially flooded in order to carry out specific tests using predefined depths of water or hail to evaluate asphalt surface adherence. These are extremely sophisticated tests, which are followed up by actual road tests in real weather conditions. “With regards to braking tests, we use sophisticated advances made in the acquisition of instrumental data. Thanks to experience with motorcycles, and being able to count on extremely refined advances made in sensorial hardware, inertial and accelerometer platforms of a size so reduced as to not influence in any way the weight. We can obtain reliable data that is easy to interpret, and which are our real points of reference during our development phases”.

Pennisi also gives much importance to the similarity of approach with motorcycle tests. To carry out the road tests of the new Velo tyres, there are certain common factors that must not be ignored. The most important was the analysis carried out, bearing in mind the fundamental elements regarding the revision of correct performance. 

The biggest difficulties? The speed at which things happen. “On a bicycle everything is faster and more reactive than on a motorcycle. On a bicycle there’s no suspension to filter out the tension of the asphalt, or to approach the corner with control. Everything is more immediate. Everything depends on the tyre as interface between wheel and road. It’s extremely important to have a test mode that interprets every single reaction as cause and effect, which can be endogenous, such as braking, or shifting the body, or exogenous, as per the tension or stress from particular conditions of the asphalt”. One needs to know how to filter every piece of data and understand which of the variants has given the effect that was recorded.

There’s a degree of agreement regarding the approach to motorcycle tests, but bicycle testing presents more complexities. “The concentration required in a bicycle test that pushes a rider to the limit is really daunting. Making a choice between 5 specific actions, on a bicycle descending in speed down the slopes of Etna, is not easy. We have also had to create guidelines for this type of work, bearing in mind all the surrounding activities, in order to guarantee a situation in which the rider can make calm choices”. The professionalism of Pirelli comes into play here, demonstrating the level of care and detail expended on surrounding conditions. The riders are provided with physiotherapists and recovery sessions, as well as nutritionists and dedicated athletic coaches. “Pirelli is a leader in this respect, due to guidelines that consider not only the technical results, but also the steps needed in order to allow the ‘man machine’ to function at its best”. Pennisi uses the term ‘man machine’ with a veiled futuristic turn of phrase that comes across as spontaneous. 

There are aspects of the performance of a bicycle tyre that are fairly easy to recognise (reaction to manoeuvres and in particular braking) that a good test rider will rapidly learn. But the work group deliberately went beyond simple procedures: “We wanted to find a good general equilibrium. We particularly liked that we could factor in behavioural characteristics with technical parameters like rolling resistance and weight, to achieve a winning result. The ability to ride easily, consistently, with controlled levels. Predictable reactions that typify a product’s hidden comfort, making for an easy and pleasant ride. Our PZero Velo, beyond its high performance, gives you a subliminal feeling of maximum control, comfort, and directional management. At the end of your cycle ride, you get to your destination as fresh as when you set out.

Final satisfaction is high. All the data has been compared with the best competitors on the market, divided by area. We identified the minimum standards to achieve, and we set out from there. We held the banner high, especially in comparison to the competition. We recognised guide characteristics to achieve and then exceed. It was easy for us to have precise points of reference and to aim to beat them, and to do so was a great incentive”. Man, technology, and artificial and natural intelligence worked together to make Velo an indispensable tyre. Pennisi closes our interview firmly, with a certainty gained over months of work: “We’re entering the market as a point of reference. Our product is indispensable.  From now on, we are the yardstick as regards performance and fluidity”.

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