It's no secret that the current generation of 200 treadwear "extreme performance" summer tyres are phenomenally grippy. Put a set of BF Goodrich Rival S's, Bridgestone Potenza RE-71Rs, or Hankook Ventus R-S4's on your track car and you can expect to hang with the guys who brought R-compounds on spare wheels.
DOT-legal "R-compound" tyres have evolved too. The class leaders, the venerable Hoosier R7, BFG R1S, and Toyo RRs are capable of lap times that seemed unthinkable just a few short years ago. They've become so common at club racing events that it's easy to forget that they too are technically street legal tyres.
So if the likes of the Hoosier R7, Toyo RR, and BFG R1S are technically street tyres, what does it feel like to drive on a no-holds-barred racing slick? Fortunately for us, it just so happens that the US Touring Car Championship mandates the use of one such tyre: the Hankook Ventus F200 radial slick.
What is a Hankook Ventus F200?
Unless you are a die-hard fan of European racing, you've probably never heard of the Hankook Ventus F200. You won't find it at most Hankook retailers, and even big-warehouse tyre shops like Tire Rack don't list it in their catalog. It's so obscure that it doesn't even appear on the main Hankook Tire North America website (you actually have to the totally separate Hankook Race Tire site to find it).
Despite its relative obscurity in North America, the F200 is the spec tyre of choice in several European pro racing series. It's the spec tyre for the European F3, British F4, and the Deutsch Tourenwagen Masters, otherwise known as the DTM. True to its name the F200 slick is a radial construction race-only tyre that is completely devoid of any tread. Unusually, it only comes in only one compound - the C52 "Medium" compound.
Because they don't need to comply with DOT regulations, the tyre's size is also written in a slightly different format from what you normally expect. Instead of having the numbers listed in the standard "205/50R15" format the Hankook catalog lists sizes like "200/580R15," where the middle number is the diameter of the tyre in milimeters. Because wheel diameter plays such a big part in how a racecar is geared, that number is important to have.
The only catch was that their selection of 15" sizes are somewhat limited. The widest 15" size that they offer is a 200/580R15. Yes, you read that correctly. That's a 200mm section width - narrower than what you would find on a Spec Miata. I called the rep at Hankook Motorsport Americas just to make sure that this was the right size, and he assured me that this was the appropriate size for my 2500 lb, front wheel drive Honda. While I was skeptical that such a narrow tyre could hold up to the cornering forces generated by a relatively heavy racecar, I placed my order and a week later, a stack of not-so-street-legal race rubber arrived in front of my garage.
First Impressions and Installation
As soon as we rolled the Hankooks into the garage, I broke out the measuring tape and checked the dimensions of my newly purchased rubber. Some manufacturers are notorious for under-reporting the dimensions of their track tyres, so I thought that the unusually narrow 200mm section width was the result of a similar sort of under-estimation. It turned out to not be the case. The inside section of the Hankook F200s were exactly 200mm, with the tread being only marginally wider at 205mm. Compare that to my usual 225/45R15 R7s and their comparatively gargantuan 234 mm tread width when mounted on 15x8" Team Dynamics Pro Race 1.2 wheels.
With my skepticism growing, I loaded my wheels onto my trusty Coats RC15 tyre changer to peel off the old R compounds and install the F200s. Straight away we ran into an issue. The sidewalls on the F200s were so thick and so stiff that they refused to fit over the rim of our race wheels. R compound tyres tend to have stiff sidewalls, but these slicks were on a totally different level. It took a combination of two tyre irons, a motorcycle bead depressor, and 158 lbs of body weight to flex the sidewall enough for the fresh rubber to fit on the metal wheel.
It was at that point we ran into the second issue. No matter how much air pressure we used, the beads of the F200s refused to seat on the inside of the wheel rims. I tried all of the tricks in the book to get the bead to seat, from covering the wheel in soapy water to using dangerously high inflation pressures, to compressing the tyre with a ratchet strap. No matter what I did, it didn't seem to make any difference. The recalcitrant sidewalls refused to expand enough to fit into the wheels.
After 30 minutes of struggling, I resigned myself to the fact that this wheel-tyre combination wasn't going to work. So we went to plan B - Go into the storage closet and pull out our 8 year old backup race wheels, a set of 15x7" Motegi Racing SP10s. Fortunately, the F200s much happier with the narrower wheels and the bead seated without issue - Half an hour later, we had a set of Hankook Ventus F200s mounted, balanced, and bolted to the StudioVRM Prelude.
As expected, the narrow slicks looked comically undersized under the wide and long body of the Prelude. But with all four tyres now safely mounted and installed, we loaded up the car and towed it to NJ Motorsports Park for their first on-track outing.
How do they feel on track?
As they say, looks can be deceiving. Despite looking narrower than the skinny all-seasons on my old Toyota Yaris, the Hankooks proved more than a match for the wider R7s on the racetrack. Hoosier R7s are known for their crisp steering response and the high limits of adhesion that come from the bias ply-like construction. But as soon as they were up to temperature, the Hankook F200s demonstrated razor sharp turn-in that I had never experienced on any DOT-compliant tyre. Those stiff, rubbery sidewalls that gave us so much grief on the tyre machine proved their worth at the track.
The F200s generate impressive levels of lateral grip through corners. The car felt so planted through high speed corners that it felt much lighter than its 2500 lb chassis weight would suggest.
In fact they were producing so much grip that it was actually causing problems with the car's handling: Like most front wheel drive racecars, the StudioVRM Prelude is set up so that it oversteers under braking into slow corners. While this worked well with the DOT-legal Hoosiers, the Ventus slicks generated so much grip that the car would understeer into every turn. As a result, I found myself putting in an extra 20-40 degrees of steering lock through slower corners. I believe this caused us to lose a few tenths of a second per lap. With a more aggressive alignment and more rear brake bias, the car would turn in much more easily and would be significantly faster as well.
If the cornering grip was impressive, the ability to handle hard braking was something else entirely. I have an unfortunate habit of flat spotting Hoosiers in the heat of the moment, so I was a bit wary of pushing hard. It took a few laps to realize that there was no need to hold back. The Hankooks generated more than enough longitudinal grip to withstand full braking forces from the relatively heavy Honda.
Once I was comfortable, the Hankooks allowed me to brake 20-25 feet later into turn 1 at Thunderbolt. On one occasion I overstepped the bounds a tiny bit and the left front tyre emitted a puff of smoke. Although this resulted in a small flat spot, the resulting vibration only lasted the rest of the session. By the start of the next session, melted rubber had filled in the flat spot and the vibrations were barely noticeable. Few DOT-legal R compound tyres resist flat spots as well as these F200 slicks did. Simply amazing.
How much faster are they?
Once we ran a few sessions to get used to the super sticky nature of these slicks, we ran the Hankook F200 against the Hoosier R7 on the same day at the same track to get some head-to-head lap time data. Here's what the best lap of the day looked like on each tyre:
| ||Hoosier R7 225/45R15 on 15x8" wheels||Hankook F200 200/580R15 on 15x7" wheels||Difference|
|NJMP Lightning|| 1:18.615||1:17.412||-1.203 secs|
|NJMP Thunderbolt||1:37.980||1:36.701||-1.279 secs |
For reference, in both cases I'm comparing tyres with 2-4 heat cycles on the same car, on the same day, with the same setup. So while neither tyre was brand new, both still had plenty of tread and plenty of life left in the compound.
It's pretty easy to see that the full-on racing slick is consistently 1.2 seconds faster than one of the best DOT R compound tyres available. With a more aggressive alignment, I firmly believe that these tyres will be another 0.5 seconds quicker.
Do they wear out more quickly?
Yes and no. The rubber on the F200s does seem to wear faster than the Hoosier R7s. Three race weekends on took more rubber off of the F200s than four weekends on the R7s.
However, unlike the R7s, the F200s don't seem to "cycle out." Hoosiers are well known for their tendency to get harder and less grippy after 8-10 heat cycles. Based on what we saw however, an 8 heat cycle F200 produced similar times to when it was brand new. According to Hankook, most racers run their slicks right down to the cords.
Because of this, I would expect to get about the same number of race sessions from a set of F200 slicks compared to a similarly sized set of Hoosier R7s.
How much do they cost?
Retail pricing for the Hankook F200 slicks comes in slightly higher than that for a similarly sized Hoosier R7. For example, a brand new F200 in 200/580R15 retails for $275, while TireRack sells the R7 in 225/45R15 for $264.
That said, Hankook offers a discount for racers in certain series, such as the DTM and USTCC. Hankook's confidentiality agreement prevents us from giving you exact pricing, but I can tell you that the discounts are significant - well over 20% off of retail.
Conclusions and Closing Thoughts
Despite the rapidly escalating speeds of DOT-legal extreme performance tyres and R-compounds, there is still a bit of a performance gap compared to the current generation of radial racing slicks. Even with a distinctly narrower tread, the Hankook F200s proved to be faster than the venerable R7s with higher levels of grip while offering a similar lifespan. And thanks to my USTCC series discount, they were actually cheaper as well.
Because they are not DOT legal, they are not allowed in many common club racing classes. To me that seems like a bit of a shame. Aside from missing out on a few contingency dollars there doesn't seem to be any downside to running these radial slicks compared to the current generation of DOT R compounds.
Maybe one day the rulemakers of various club racing series will start adjusting their books to allow non-DOT racing slicks in more of their classes. In the meantime, at least there's the USTCC.
See you at the track.
All of the tyres used in this test were purchased out of Roger's own pocket. The F200 slicks were purchased at the same discounted prices offered to all competitors in the USTCC. StudioVRM is not sponsored or directly supported by Hoosier Racing Tire or Hankook Racing Tire. That said, we probably wouldn't turn down a sponsorship opportunity if it came along. Tyres aren't cheap and we go through a lot of them.