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Continental is a founding partner of the Extreme E race series and, from 2021, will be a premium sponsor. The technology company will equip all the electric racers with tyres for what will be very different and ultra-tough events.
In the following interview, Continental tyre development engineer Anuj Jain talks about the special challenges posed by the cars and the venues, the demanding development process under exceptional time pressure, and the technical details of what is an extraordinary tyre.
Continental is a founding partner of the new Extreme E series and will be its exclusive tyre supplier. You were responsible for developing the race tyres. Before we go into the details, tell us how and why you became a tyre developer at Continental?
Anuj: Tyre development is a fascinating field – one that has a major impact on the performance of modern-day cars. Working in this environment gives you a different view of tyres. For most people, tyres are round, black rubber things that rotate. But we see them as one of the greatest inventions in history and give them the respect they deserve. I joined Continental in 2017. One of the things that motivated me was the unparalleled freedom that engineers have at Continental to dream up innovative ideas and put them into practice. This very special atmosphere motivates us to ‘go the extra mile’ – which leads to exceptional solutions. And that makes us the ideal partner for the Extreme E series.
When did you learn that you would be assuming responsibility for developing the Extreme E tyres? And what were your first thoughts?
Anuj: This project means a lot to me and I am very grateful for the level of trust placed in me, which is reflected not least in the timing. Normally it takes between two and three years to develop the perfect tyre for a particular application with its own set of requirements. But for the exceptional requirements of Extreme E, I knew I’d have to develop the more-perfect-than-perfect tyre in half the time. And it’s much more fun working against the odds, so I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
To date, Continental has not exactly been known for its intensive involvement in motor racing. At the same time, Extreme E is a series that is built around the custom-developed ODYSSEY 21 car. It sounds as if you had very little experience to draw on and literally had to start from scratch?
Anuj: Although it’s not widely known in Europe, Continental has been into the off-road business for some considerable time now, not least through its involvement in the North American Speed Energy Formula Off-Road series created by off-road racer and former IndyCar and NASCAR racer Robby Gordon in 2013. For the development of the Extreme E tyre, we first analysed the maximum performance and resilience of a number of proven high-performance products before deciding to use the Continental CrossContact LX as a point of reference as we took the process forward. The challenge from a technical angle was then to adapt the tread pattern, sidewall and construction to the challenging demands of the very different terrains at the Extreme E venues.
The ODYSSEY 21 is an SUV with an electric motor. To what extent did the type of motorisation affect tyre development, and how do these tyres differ from those that would have been developed for the same vehicle if it were powered by an internal combustion engine?
Anuj: Continental is the leading supplier of original equipment tyres in Europe and a development partner to almost all the major automakers, so we have been working on tailor-made solutions for the special requirements of electric-powered vehicles for quite a long time. We currently have OE approvals for both Tesla and the Audi e-tron. So the magnitude of the challenge was reduced just a little.
But the ODYSSEY 21 is one of a kind: transferring 550 hp (over 400 kW) onto every kind of terrain this planet has to offer in a vehicle that tips the scales at 1.8 tons, is sure to push the tyres to the limit. For us, the main distinction between electric drive and a conventional internal combustion engine is energy efficiency. Combustion engines typically display much lower energy efficiency than electric motors when converting the incoming energy (the chemical energy in the fuel or battery) into mechanical traction energy. The efficiency of combustion engines is limited to a theoretical maximum of around 60 percent − much lower than the typical efficiency of electric motors, where there is no theoretical limit. In short, the torque generated by the ODYSSEY 21 is going to expose the tyres to exceptional forces.
Extreme E races are not held on conventional racetracks. The exceptional venues for this off-road series feature highly diverse climatic conditions and widely varying terrain: beach/coastline, rainforests, deserts, and Arctic tundra. How did you manage to create a tyre that works just as safely, effectively and reliably under all these conditions – some of which are really extreme?
Anuj: It was by no means a piece of cake developing an all-rounder tyre that can handle not only all the different terrains but the car as well in every conceivable situation. Because we’re not talking about normal driving but racing, which means it’s also about speed. We arrived at a good compromise between all the various surfaces and local requirements and the key topic of sustainability. On the one hand, we needed a tyre that would impress under all conditions and over all terrains, and on the other we were out to create a sustainable all-rounder – a one-size-fits-all solution. Don’t forget that at the wheel of each ODYSSEY 21 there’s a dedicated professional driver with only one thing in mind: taking the car and its tyres to the physical limits to be faster over the course than the competition. With this in mind, it was clear from the outset that as well as making the tyre robust, we needed to produce the ultimate ultra-high-performance product. I was fortunate enough to be able to assemble a top team with our best engineers, designers and test drivers. Otherwise it would never have been possible to develop one of the strongest tyres of all time for this unconventional purpose.
And you did so in what must have been record time…
Anuj: That’s right. Time was never a friend of ours in this project. So we had to plan every step in advance. A lot of work happened in parallel. Each member of the project team had to work even harder than usual and under constant pressure. We went layer by layer, component by component to get the tyre we wanted and which we believe will deliver optimum performance under the given conditions.
Let’s talk about the outcome of your efforts: How big is the Extreme E tyre? How wide is it? Why is the tread pattern the way it is? And tell us about the various subassemblies: What special technical details should we know about?
Anuj: On the sidewall it says 37X12.5 R17, which means it’s 37 inches in diameter, 12.5 inches wide, and for a 17-inch wheel. The tread pattern has been optimised for top performance on every kind of terrain our planet has to offer. The tread compound was specially developed for this tyre. The pattern features the ideal combination of traction ribs and pockets to get maximum traction out of any terrain. The tread blocks are reinforced with extra sub-depth elements and stone bumpers to bump out any stones that get stuck in the tread. The outcome is a tyre that is robust and durable enough to cope with even such unforgiving conditions as it will encounter in the Amazon rainforest and Sahara Desert. Additionally, this tyre has an all-new off-shoulder design that forms a robust interface between tread and sidewall. And as well as enhancing the tread pattern design, we also reinforced the carcass of the tyre.
Did you gain any special, unexpected insights during the development process and would you say that your work will benefit from this going forward?
Anuj: Of course, challenging projects like this help us improve our tyre development skills. And there is more to this than new findings and solutions that will boost future tyre performance. At every stage of the development journey we also refined our processes, our organisational structures and our teamwork, all of which are key success factors for Continental. We can definitely put this experience to good use in our future endeavours.
How excited are you about the start of the first stage of Extreme E in Senegal and the moment when you get to see your product in action in an actual race?
Anuj: I can’t wait to see the first season kick off in 2021. It will be a really proud moment for all the team members who have invested so much expertise and hard work in the development of the tyre. I’d like to thank all the project team members for their constant support each step of the way. Extreme E will show the world that Continental is capable of handling even the most exceptional challenges when it comes to tyres.
For more information on Extreme E, visit the website: www.extreme-e.com.