As one of the world’s largest tyre manufacturers, we have been working on the development of robust and reliable tyres for over 120 years. Motorsport in all its facets was and still is an important driving force. When solid rubber tyres were state-of-the-art, our R&D departments set about inventing pneumatic tyres. As fans cheered on daring men, we equipped women with material and focused on their racing achievements. The Extreme-E racing series takes our flair for materials and technologies of the future to the next level.
Innovations are the basis for progress. In the second half of the 19th century, rubber was a material whose potential was recognised by the “Continental-Caoutchouc und Gutta-Percha Compagnie.” After many years of experimentation pneumatic tyres were finally produced at the turn of the 20th century, as an alternative to solid rubber tyres.
“We can see a real start-up mentality here,” says our head of the corporate archives, Dr. Nils Fehlhaber. “Rubber came to Conti as the material of the future, and the possibilities were explored more and more.” In 1898, revolutionary, cutting-edge technology left the factory in the form of the first “pneumatic automobile tyre.” This marks a milestone that is linked to a vision – the conviction that mobility will change fundamentally. In 1900, this was not foreseeable as the horse-drawn carriage was still the dominant mode of transport. At the time, only 800 automobiles were being hand-built in the German Empire.
Automobiles are something for those who are enthusiastic about groundbreaking developments at the turn of the century, people for whom technology is synonymous with the future and new possibilities. At the beginning of the 20th century, this was understood to mean the “roaring feeling of being unfettered and free,” as the writer Otto Julius Bierbaum described it in 1903. Whereas the train helped humans conquer distance and the bicycle helped us explore proximity, the automobile was a symbol of freedom and independence.
Aside from the drive, a continuity can be discerned. Even today, our commitment to mobility is forward-looking. “Then, as now, a future-oriented approach was encouraged,” notes historian Fehlhaber. “In the 1890s, it was not clear that the car was the mobility provider of the future.” The parallel to today: “Until recently, sustainably oriented mobility was also more of a topic for technology enthusiasts,” Fehlhaber continues. For this very reason, it is only logical that we are a founding partner of the Extreme E racing series.
In 1894, in France, the first car race in history begins. Enthusiasm for city-to-city racing quickly spreads. Drivers and equipment brave poor road conditions and foul weather. The races prove that the “horseless carriage” is a reliable mobility alternative. People are amazed. Today, fans continue to marvel at the Extreme E racing series for all-electric SUVs. “This is off-road racing, with all its vagaries and pitfalls,” says Catarina Silva, who is part of the tour as head of our product management team.
Extreme E heralds a new era of motorsports. Aside from finishing times and rankings, it’s essentially about electrification, the environment and equality – each team has a male driver and a female driver. Winning a stage is nice, but what’s more important are the lessons that can be learned for series production – especially with a focus on sustainability. “We work closely with R&D and materials development, defining new approaches and possibilities and permanently trying to improve our recycling solutions.”
The beginnings of automotive sports are slightly offset in time from the cycling boom. From 1896 onward, cycling races were Olympic events, and systematic sponsorship developed, with this message: cycling is cool, the bikes are fast, and if you want to keep up, you also have to pay attention to the accessories – i.e. tyres, gears and brakes. “Continental was a pioneer in cycling."
In 1892, we were the first German company to launch pneumatic tyres for bicycles, and it specifically entered the races with banner advertising and sponsorship to popularise the product. The good experience gained here was transferred to automobile racing,” explains Fehlhaber. So, early on, banner ads with the words “Continental Tyres” can be seen at car races, and magazines featured full-page ads for car and bicycle tyres of the “Continental Pneumatic” brand, featuring a racing car in front of a stylised alpine backdrop. Postcards celebrate race victories that were run “without a single tyre defect.” One highlight of our involvement in conventional motorsport, visible from afar, is the Continental towers on the pit lane of the German racetracks in Nürburgring and Hockenheim in the middle of the 20th century.
Today, fans are part of the Extreme E racing series via current formats such as livestreams or social media. They learn more about the spirit of the sport in a 360-degree view that was never possible before.
They also experience how important cohesion is. “For sustainability reasons, we are on site with a very small service team and serve as the first point of contact for all nine teams in all matters relating to tyres,” says Catarina Silva. “This pulling together was also there at the beginning of the commitment to racing,” says Fehlhaber, putting it into context. “Even in the early days, there was a focus on cooperation. There were collaborative tests and close cooperation between developers, designers and drivers.” It was all about collectively advancing the issue of mobility.
Mixed teams are an integral part of the Extreme E racing series. This, too, has a history for us, even though racing is markedly oriented toward men. In the 1920s, female racing drivers were actively promoted. Hanni Köhler, the motorcycle queen of the 1920s, Susanne Koerner, who set off on a long-distance trip from Berlin to Birmingham by motorcycle in 1927, or the first car world traveler, Clärenore Stinnes – they all stand for the modern woman who navigates her own vehicle to wherever she wants to go. “That was absolutely daring at the time and had a strong emancipatory character,” says historian Fehlhaber. You could also say that they transformed the automobile into a mobility service provider. Catarina Silva also sees it that way: "We believe that diversity will always help us move forward."