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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.
The technology and know-how built into its tires is expensive to acquire, and Michelin guards its trade secrets carefully.
“If they X-ray or cut apart one of our tires, they can know exactly what is in there,” said Mammone. At the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, which celebrates its 61st edition on March 16, Michelin will bring 3,000 tires in a fleet of semi-trucks. Each team using Michelin tires must account for every single tire, and they even employ staff to guard their tire stockpiles. The tires have individual bar codes affixed as well as imprinted into them, and a file on each tire says, for instance, that it is for the right/front of a specific car.
“We have not lost a single tire in the 12 years I’ve been in this job,” Mammone said with a smile. “If a tire is missing, we go into DEFCON 3 and shut the whole place down — all exits — until we find the tire, and then that team can no longer be on Michelin.”
And in the case of a crash or other incident that destroys a tire: every piece of that tire is collected and put in a “tire body bag” and returned to Michelin. All of the corner monitors know the Michelin drill and see to it that all of the pieces are collected.
After the race, all of the tires that were used are sent to Michelin’s engineering facility in Greenville, South Carolina, where they are cut apart and examined. If questions remain, some tires may even be sent to Michelin’s main engineering campus in Ladoux, France.
Each team on Michelin tires has a dedicated Michelin technician — identifiable by yellow-trimmed uniform — at the racetrack. Among many other duties, he or she checks the temperature of the tires at every pit stop. Williams says that 200-220F is the ideal running temperature for a car tire. Temperatures above 240F cause loss of grip due to the tire pressure becoming too high and the tire components liquefying. To keep temperatures lower than that, technicians use Nitrogen, a gas that resists humidity and its related temperature increases, for inflation.
This devotion to research and development has helped make Michelin a giant in the auto tire market and the biggest manufacturing employer in South Carolina.
On the drive from Orlando to Sebring last month, I asked Michelin PR representative Ralph Cronin of Active Sports Group why there are no WorldTour teams currently on Michelin tires.
“Michelin feels that the teams should come to us, since we have the best product, which we do,” he said.
It was hard to understand that perspective until we arrived at Sebring and I saw the way Michelin approaches car racing. Indeed, the auto-racing teams do demand Michelin tires in order to improve their results and pay for the tires and personnel required to get them back to the company. That’s hard to imagine in bike racing, where teams often make equipment choices based on the size of the attached sponsorship check.
And what about Ag2r La Mondiale, Michelin’s lone top-shelf cycling team in 2012? The French team switched to Schwalbe tires for 2013 due to a change in bike sponsors, from Kuota to Focus for the next three years.
“The team is getting from us a complete bike with all components,” Focus brand manager Jorg Arenz explained to VeloNews, and one of the key partners at Derby Cycle, which owns Focus, is Schwalbe tires. Arenz also underlined the importance to any racing team of having tubular tires, although Michelin is introducing its Pro4 tubular to the market this spring.
It appears as though the Michelin Le Mans model doesn’t translate from four wheels to two just yet.