Pirelli Winter Driving School, St. Moritz, SwitzerlandEnlarge Photo
Pirelli hasn't forgotten about the tires that average Americans put on average cars, but the Italian company known for its racy calendars as much as its tires has mostly passed up Toyotas and Fords in favor of shooting for the stars.
In the last few years, Pirelli has pushed its share of the tire market—not including tires fitted to cars from the factory—from just 1 percent to 3 percent in the United States, a commendable increase that nonetheless still makes it practically a boutique tire maker compared to giants like Michelin and Goodyear.
"But we reach more than 12 percent of the upper part of the segment," Pirelli marketing chief Matteo Battaini told us recently, stressing the company's upscale push both here and in big spending markets like Russia.
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It helps that high-end vehicles are increasingly fitted with Pirelli rubber from day one, something that falls under the purview of Giuliano Menassi, the tire manufacturer's head of manufacturing. Menassi works directly with the world's top automakers to develop tires alongside new cars, a process called homologation.
The soft-spoken Menassi has the dream job of working with engineers from Porsche and Lamborghini, among others, to create special rubber compounds long before those sports cars make their way to the public.
"Any time they are thinking of [future products], they are involving us," Menassi said. "We can together fit the right tire for each specific vehicle. They give us all the modeling of the characteristics of the car so we can work between their needs and our performance goals."
Porsche Pirelli P-Zero Corsa N0 tireEnlarge Photo
Pirelli has a specific engineering team embedded within each automaker. Tire selection by automakers at the upper end of the market isn't as much about price as it is about performance.
This integration allows tire manufacturers to be in at the ground level in order to plan for the future. "For Pirelli, you have the future in front of you. You know everything for every car maker and you know what they are doing. You know where the business is going."
Menassi mentioned that, barely a decade ago, 17-inch wheels and tires were for sports cars. Today, they're practically the minimum size fitted to even the most humble vehicles.
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But the challenge for Pirelli and its competitors is to get vehicle owners to buy their tires once they've worn out the rubber fitted at the factory. Battaini said that Indiana-based Tire Rack is by far its largest buyer, so now Pirelli is focusing its efforts on new car dealers. It's a double-pronged effort: Pirelli both works with automakers in the U.S. to encourage dealers to stock its tires and, perhaps more effectively, it courts those retail outlets directly.
With around 17,000 new car dealers in the U.S., it's no easy task.
"In the lower end market, [the tire] is more of a commodity. It is price-sensitive," Menassi said. "For this segment, it is a different concept of tire. You need all-season tires and you need something that will last a long time and be resistant to punctures."
Convincing those who own and lease higher-end vehicles to turn to Pirelli when it comes time to replace worn-out tires is Battaini's chief task in the U.S.
"Our tires are homologated specifically by car," he said. "It is better to get the right tire on the right car."
Armed with Menassi's engineering prowess, Battaini faces the uphill task of convincing consumers who own and lease higher-end vehicles that original equipment tires are the best choice.
"We do a lot of campaigning with our dealers to suggest our tires to consumers," he said. "But ultimately it is [about] building the best tires from the start."
That campaign to get dealers to stock its tires could be the key to Pirelli's future in the U.S.