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Wednesday 26th October 2011


DAY IN THE LIFE: THE TYRE TESTER

Tyre-smokin' fun at the 'ring with Avon's chief development driver


Designing tyres is not a glamorous business. It involves a whole lot of number crunching, science and various other things you probably nodded off during at school. All to create something most of us buy begrudgingly and, as even the guys in the business admit, as a 'distress purchase'.

Chris Davison - Avon's man on a charge
Chris Davison - Avon's man on a charge
There is one exception in all this, and that's the job of testing. Many tyre companies have whole teams of test drivers, all specialising in one particular aspect of the tyre's performance envelope. Avon has Chris Davison. And as part of the team developing Avon's new ZZ5 performance-biased tyre he's logged over 30,000 miles, most of them at the wheel of a BMW M3 and a good proportion of those at the Nürburgring. What a rubbish sounding job that is.

Broad shouldered and possessed of that thousand yard stare you'll often encounter in those for whom life on the edge is the nine-to-five, Davison's day job typically involves rinsing the living daylights out of Avon's hard-working M3 test car at MIRA, the 'ring and various other test tracks across Europe. Much of it is deeply unglamorous, wet braking apparently especially mind numbing. The reward for all this graft though? Tooling around the Nordschleife and mixing it with the prototypes and test mules in the industry pool. And, on occasion, making mischief.


"We were waiting for the fog to clear one morning, like you do there," he chuckles. "And we had a Skoda Octavia vRS and the guys stuck bits of card over the badges to make it look like a mule. We were absolutely flying round too, people thought it was some sort of new performance prototype," he deadpans, breaking into another chuckle.

Testing at the 'ring is typically the culmination of the tyre's development programme and a chance to hone wear, durability and resistance to heat and other extremes once the more worthy stuff like noise and brake testing have been completed. For Chris this means 20-odd laps a day of the Nordschleife in five-lap blocks with breaks for analysis of how the tyre is coping.


Now hitting the market, the initial batch of ZZ5 sizing doesn't actually include M3-friendly widths and ratios so for the launch Avon has put Chris in an Audi S5 and a couple of laps of Monteblanco circuit in Spain reveal just how hard he pushes. Hard enough to have the S5 spluttering into limp mode after a couple of laps in 30-degree heat and whimpering back into the pitlane, brakes smouldering. The tyres look OK though!

Makes you wonder what kind of state the M3 test hack is in after 30,000+ miles in Chris's hands! "It's brilliant that thing, hasn't missed a beat," he says. "Just keeps going and going, it's a perfect test car."

Although clearly just a little bit unhinged, Chris's ability to make cool assessments of tyre performance while pumping in consistent eight-minute laps of the 'ring is what separates the men from the boys. "It's funny because it's quite boring in a way because you're just doing exactly the same thing again and again and again," he reflects, as if describing some mind numbingly robotic production line job. And for some in the business it's almost that, Michelin apparently even painting a line on the test track, GT5 tuition mode style, to ensure consistency whoever is driving. But then he lets slip another anecdote about tussling with AMG test drivers shaking down C63 coupes and you realise why he loves his job so much.


So how do you actually go about shaking down a tyre? "We found out the benchmark time for the M3 on its stock tyres from the BMW guys," he explains, "and I have to try and hit that every lap, as much as you can with the traffic and other cars out on track."

Traffic that, of course, is made up of equally hard-charging test drivers, spicing things up. "I was up against another guy in an M3 and he couldn't figure out why ours was faster down the big straight," laughs Chris. "I didn't tell him I was just leaving it in fifth - he was going mental trying to figure it out but you just learn how to get every bit of speed when you're doing lap after lap."


There have been other test cars too, a mildly tweaked Evo VII held in obvious affection by the Avon boys. "That thing was mad," says Chris. "Big flames when you lifted. Subaru were out testing at the same time and I really had to nail it to get past them and all the Japanese engineers were crowding round the Evo when we got back in wanting to know what we'd done to it."

Crashes at the 'ring are, on public days at least, big news recently. So what about in the industry pool? "People do go off, yeah," says Chris. "Tends to be in the last hour on a Friday afternoon for some reason. I don't know, maybe people are thinking about home time or something." Another chuckle.


Back at the presentation for the ZZ5 we're back to dozing off at the back of class as the talk turns to two-ply rayon casings, intelligent asymmetric tread design and tri-arc mould profiles. At least one daydreamer made good though, Chris Davison's special brand of scientifically measured hoonage bringing just a glimmer of charisma and personality to those unglamorous but undeniably vital bits of rubber hanging off each corner of your car. All of which takes a little of the sting out of that painfully expensive business of having to replace them from time to time.

Author: Dan Trent