These days it's all about special polymers and petrochemicals, according to one of the top men at Pirelli.
"Rubber is like wine. There are different regions, different vintages," says Paul Hembery, who also heads Pirelli's grand prix program.
"There is good wine and not-so-good wine. It's the same with rubber. So it's too unstable and variable."
Apart from F1 and GT racing, Pirelli provides tyres for most of the world's supercars, including the LaFerrari and McLaren P1, where Hembery says racing experience helps to speed development and cope with the extraordinary demands of modern motoring.
"Developing a new tyre takes two to three years"
"Those cars are out of this world. They have 1000 horsepower, which is more than a Formula One car. But even relatively modest cars now require a lot more development on things like wet-weather grip and noise control," he says.
"Developing a new tyre takes two to three years. So that's a type of race in itself."
Volkswagen Group is the biggest road-tyre customer for Pirelli, which did about 500 different new-tyre certifications last year for new models. Audi is the biggest individual buyer.
Looking ahead, Hembery says Pirelli is working hard to develop a computer simulation that will allow shoppers to do a "virtual test" of potential tyre choices for their car.
"It's simple to test drive different cars you're thinking about buying. Tyres are much tougher. But we're working hard on a system that will give realistic feedback," he says.
"Right now, it's like buying a washing machine. You don't get the chance for a back-to-back test and so you have to rely on someone else's advice. You never know if you're getting what you want.
"We want to remove that uncertainty and help people make the right choice."
This article originally appeared on CarsGuide.