BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — One of the world’s top automotive and bicycle tire brands is absent from the WorldTour in 2013, but Michelin is content to wait for the world’s top cycling teams to come knocking. That is, after all, how the French manufacturer runs its coveted Le Mans auto-racing program.
At the invitation of Michelin, I was at the Sebring International Raceway in early February for the introduction of its new bicycle tires. It seemed an odd choice of venue until meeting Silvia Mammone, the motorsports marketing manager for Michelin and BF Goodrich (which is owned by Michelin). Mammone grew up in Montreal, working in her father’s bicycle shop, and her dream was to bring her two worlds of motorsports and bicycles together. She realized that dream through a bicycle tire product introduction at this legendary automobile racetrack.
Mammone said that 85 percent of the cars in the top-level P1, P2, and GT classes in the American Le Mans Series race on Michelin tires. This is not because Michelin pays them to race on its tires or even gives them tires. Quite the contrary: the teams pay for the tires. Not only do they pay for them, but they don’t get to even own them — they lease the tires and must return them. They do this because they think their chances of winning will be enhanced by doing so.
According to chief engineer Ken Payne, auto-racing teams want Michelin tires not only because they perform well, but also because their cars can go long between tire changes. Motorsports programming manager Bob Williams says that teams can always “double stint” on Michelins — go at least two tanks of gas before needing to change tires, whereas other tire brands often require a change at every fueling pit stop. Sometimes Michelin-equipped cars can even triple-, quad-, or quint-stint, going as long as five tanks of gas before changing tires. This is critical in Le Mans racing because teams are not allowed to change tires while they are refueling, out of concern that a spark from a tool may cause an explosion. So, tire-change time, usually about 12 seconds, is additional time spent in the pit. It is very hard to make up 12 seconds in a car race like Sebring, and a gap of 60 seconds is almost impossible to make up.
The fees teams pay for tires does not begin to cover the costs Michelin accrues in its auto racing program, however. Michelin takes the loss, however, for the knowledge it can glean to make better tires, just as car companies use these events to improve the cars they sell to consumers. (In 2012, Audi swept the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with the top two being 4WD hybrid diesels, technology certainly headed for the street.) Michelin was the first to commercialize radial tires, and their greater fuel economy, consistent diameter, and durability carried them to race victories and the position of standard-bearer for all passenger-car tires. While that’s the most profound example, there are constant improvements put to the test in endurance events like Sebring and Le Mans.