Last week I found myself in Bangkok with Bridgestone South Africa. And it was pretty damn insane. Particularly the size of the place. Seriously, I thought Moscow was large. But it comes nowhere close to the concrete expanse of Thailand’s capital city.
From the top floor of the Amari Watergate hotel in which I was staying, I could see no end to the urban sprawl bleeding out below me. It just kind of melted into a muggy, polluted grey skyline that started somewhere above the rim of my beer glass. There was no beginning, no discernible end. Yeah, it all made this jet-lagged foreigner feel small and insignificant. Not to mention confused.
Because as international cities go Bangkok is extremely hard to quantify or even define. One minute you are watching a desperate family huddle outside their dilapidated house on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. The next you are staring up at a skyscraper owned by some multinational corporate.
In between you will be dealing with a billion-strong army of street hawkers selling everything from knockoff Samsung smartphones to deep-fried crickets. I guess if the third world were ever asked to build their definition of the first world, Bangkok would be it.
If anything this makes it a fascinating place to explore. Which I did, at length, for four days and three nights. In between an obscene amount of eating and similarly goatish beer consumption, I roamed the grounds of the Grand Palace; cheated motion sickness on a riverboat cruise; went for a cooking course at the famous Blue Elephant culinary school and, of course, indulged in a thoroughly surreal evening at a place called Suzie Wong’s in the infamous red-light district of Soi Cowboy. Never before had I been on a business trip filled with so much pleasure.
In fact the work, the actual reason for us flying halfway across the world, only took up about three hours of our Thursday. After a two-hour bus drive we arrived at the high-tech Bridgestone Proving Ground in the nearby Ayutthaya province. Occupying no less than 130 acres of ground this tyre-testing mecca has everything a company like Bridgestone needs to put their latest rubber to the test.
There’s a dry handling circuit; a wet handling circuit; numerous skid-pans as well as a 3.3-kilometre oval for performing all sorts of high-speed tests. It is an impressive facility. And behind its walls we were introduced to the Bridgestone Ecopia EP200.
Replacing the EP100A of old, the new EP200 steps up the energy-saving game with a newly developed Nano ProTech compound. What does this mean? Well with more silica molecules thrown into the mix, it effectively reduces heat generation and energy losses during everyday driving.
In other words fuel efficiency is improved by 4.3% due to reduced rolling resistance. During our briefing session we were told that the new Ecopia, what with its square-shaped shoulders and asymmetrical tread pattern, could roll some 78-metres further than its main competitor. Now this sounded to good to be true. But after actually performing a rolling resistance test out on the oval track, it was clear that the EP200 definitely does have a tangible advantage over both its French and American rivals.
A similar story played out on the wet braking test strip where we were required to hit brakes in non-ABS equipped cars at a speed of 80km/h. And thanks to the combination of three wide, water-channeling grooves plus a leaf-shaped centre block, the Ecopia emerged at the front of the eco-tyre pack. For once all the marketing spiel was proving to be true.
Now you wouldn’t expect an economy-orientated tyre to perform very well on the edge of the performance envelope. But again, during a three-lap finale around the demanding curvature of the dry handling circuit, the new Bridgestone Ecopia proved that it was more than game for a little high-speed hooliganism. Indeed, our velour-upholstered Toyota Corolla hire cars, with their awesome CVT gearboxes, had never been flung about with quite as much enthusiasm.
And through it all their EP200 tyres delivered a surefooted driving experience, resisting understeer far better than either of its two rivals. I also found that there was a bit more feel too, something I am putting down to two things. Firstly the Ecopia’s square shoulder design that puts more rubber in contact with the asphalt and, secondly, the ultra stiff characteristics of the asymmetrical sidewalls.
So what happened next? Well we all retreated into the air-conditioned comfort of the nearby mess hall where we fortified ourselves on some choice Thai cuisine. After that I passed out in the bus and awoke, an hour or so later, outside a Bangkok market. Armed with some baht I disappeared into its midst where I tried my hand at haggling and other great touristy pastimes. But this, dear readers, is a story for another day.