Pirelli in World Superbike

World SBK Tires

Pirelli, the global manufacturer based in Italy, is the world’s sixth largest tire company and has a historical presence in all areas of the tire market, with particularly strong leadership in the high-performance automotive sector.

In regard to motorcycles, Pirelli’s market position had been less significant—until things started to change a few years back.

Difficult market conditions plagued Pirelli’s Telecom Cables and Systems business, and overall operating results were being negatively impacted by the Internet recession. With nine years of industry growth, the motorcycle sector offered a more promising prospect for making meaningful investments.

To increase market share, Pirelli needed to improve many aspects of the business, including market presence, product development and global operating efficiencies. Dunlop and Michelin dominance were not going to make this easy.

Chris Vermeulen on the Ten Kate Honda 1000RR tests the grip of his Pirelli tires. (Click image to enlarge)

With an interest in production-based racing to accelerate consumer tire development, Pirelli began supporting a few World Supersport and World Superbike teams. Frenchman Fabien Foret’s 2002 World Supersport Championship on Pirellis fueled the wheels already in motion, and the industry started to take notice.

That year, Maurizio Flammini, president of FGSport, asked Dunlop, Michelin and Pirelli to share equally in supporting the premier World Superbike series.

The deal mirrored the spec tire rules in Formula One to level the playing field across tire suppliers, providing each rider with equal tires and trackside support.

Riders and teams, unsure of the impact on the competitive landscape, seemed tentative. Issues of global quality, logistics, and the ability to provide trackside support seemed insurmountable for the tire companies. The deal did not happen.

In 2003, the Pirelli motorcycle sector continued its overall success. Young sensation Chris Vermeulen won the highly contested 2003 World Supersport title, making it two in a row for Pirelli. Resident “race-lunatic” Adrian Archibald dominated the dreaded road course at the legendary Isle of Man TT, winning numerous classes on Pirellis. Professional and weekend club racers around the world began to consider Pirelli tires more seriously.

Pirelli’s market share growth has continued for the second straight year across Italy, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan. Manufacturing performance improved due to the new Modular Integrated Robotized System (MIRS) implemented at the primary motorcycle tire factory in Breuberg, Germany. As a result, the new Diablo and Diablo Corsa tires (manufactured via MIRS) obtained homologation for Ducati, Honda, Aprilia, and MV Agusta.

By the 2003 World Superbike round at Laguna Seca, promoter FGSport and the Federation International Motorcycle (FIM) were looking to make good on the promise of a true spec tire series. The news again shook an industry already dealing with major rule changes. 

The idea to promote a more level racing grid by eliminating the special one-off tires handed out to the top teams was not on everyone’s agenda. Some speculated this would allow the promoter to capture needed funding, while questions remained: Would this be better for World Superbike racing? Which tire company could fill this global promise?

Up to 6,000 race tires are supplied by Pirelli for each round of the championship. (Click image to enlarge)

Delivering and installing up to 6,000 tires (including the varying compounds and profiles) for all 2004 World Superbike riders, at each event around the world, would not be easy. FGSport and the FIM again broached the idea with Bridgestone, Michelin, Dunlop and Pirelli.

Due to business, technical, and political issues, no one jumped on the deal. Pirelli, with the least amount at stake, did show some interest. In turn, FIM requested a formal proposal with new terms and a short one-week turnaround from Pirelli.

Although still in need of more race experience with tracks around the world, expanded logistics capabilities, improved manufacturing capacity, and trackside resource capabilities, Pirelli was awarded the contract  others believed would never happen. With just three months left before the first 2004 test, Pirelli knew it needed to build capabilities one step at a time. It completed the first scheduled tire test with Ducati and Petronas on time.

Behind the scenes, Pirelli geared up to support the approximate 30 riders with up to 11 different fronts and 15 different rears. Handmade prototypes used for the test needed to be integrated into a standard production line to meet expected volumes.

Costs needed to be reduced tenfold to make the contract economically feasible. Compounds and tire profiles needed continual improvement to meet the expectations of the world’s top racers. A new way to manage trackside tire fitting was needed to meet the weekend race agenda.

Setting aside the expected scrutiny, by the end of the 2004 season, Pirelli fulfilled the goal. Compared with the 2003 season, in which 218 points separated the first three riders, 2004 left fewer than 99 points separating the top five riders. The championship came down to four riders and the final race weekend. (Click image to enlarge)

Pleased with the program results, FGSport expanded the 2005 Pirelli contract to include Supersport and Sportstock titles for a total of 45 races in 10 countries.

With contract terms mandating continued tire improvements and the economic means to bring this all to market, Pirelli is helping fuel an exciting motorcycle market. In the end, this means better racing and better tires for you and me.

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