If you're like most people, the only time you think of tires is when your set is on its last legs and you need to buy some new ones. In this case, you probably either go to the dealership and get another set of whatever came on the car, or go to a tire store and get whatever the salesperson recommends. Your time is spent mostly in the lobby reading about 2008 VW Jettas in ancient copies of Motor Trend and listening to someone babble loudly and insanely about cats on their cell phone.
What you're not thinking about is a roaring DTM car tearing around the Hockenheimring. You're thinking that the salesman with the nasal voice told you that this tire has good performance in wet weather, not that it's a cousin to a tire that keeps a dangerous race car on the road at high speed, even on a soaking road.
The thing is, you should be thinking about racing. Throughout the age of the automobile, many of the most important developments came from racing. Traction control's heritage lies in F1. AWD's was perfected in the World Rally Championship. Most successful American engines use tons of tech developed for NASCAR and IndyCar. Today, Le Mans is host to hybrid and diesel prototypes that are pushing the envelope of high-performance fuel economy. Hankook flew me out to Barcelona to show me that the new Ventus tire comes from DTM, and that they're damn proud of it.
Hankook is a younger tire company that has, like the rest of the Korean auto industry, been really coming into its own in recent years. Most people aren't aware of the brand, but it's now being selected as OEM tires by brands like Mercedes-Benz for important cars like the S-Class. That's a big deal. Just because BMW and Mercedes have taken notice doesn't mean that most consumers have. A marketing blitz that you may have noticed is going on right now, but company executives do admit that marketing Hankook is difficult. Goodyear, Michelin, and Bridgestone all have tons of heritage to draw on in order to create a compelling advertisement; Hankook doesn't.
What Hankook does have, however, is DTM. Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters is starting to grow as a racing series again, the cars are incredible, the racing is competitive, and Hankook is the official tire provider. This is the beginning of the company's heritage, and it's the perfect test bed for new rubber compounding technologies.
To illustrate this, we were shown just how brutal a DTM Mercedes is when being driven by Bruno Spengler. These tires can withstand forces that most people's alloy wheels couldn't. That's right, Spengler's rubber is stronger than your metal. The G-forces were intense enough that Hankook made us talk to a doctor before getting in the car, and I had to explain about 28 times that I did rotate two vertebrae in my back a few months ago, but that my physical therapist says I'm once again good to race, lift people over my head, and generally kick ass.
What does this have to do with Hankook's new performance tires? Everything. I was then let loose in a BMW 335i on the same track to try out the consumer tires. The tires performed admirably, even if the new 3-Series is a bit numb when compared to the old one. Honestly, that sticky rubber deserved a better car than this.
The next challenge was a timed lap of a very wet autocross course, The Mini Cooper S retained good steering feel and traction throughout, and I'd like to think I set a decent time, especially given that the tires were seriously chewed up by the time I got in the car.
From a consumer point of view, I now know that these tires are trustworthy. They can do things that you absolutely shouldn't do on the open road, but might have to in an emergency. You might need to swerve in the rain or brake as hard as you can or make a sudden turn to avoid an accident, and these tires have the performance necessary to accomplish those sorts of maneuvers.
I think the reason Hankook has risen so much in recent years is DTM. The company has learned what works in the most demanding situations possible, and that means that it has the knowledge and ability to make road tires that exceed what the (sane) customers are going to do with them. The best tire companies all have significant motorsport programs.
The next time you're buying tires, be sure to research, and look for motorsport involvement. It makes all the difference.