Tyres, it must be said, are not at the glamorous end of motorsport. That tends to be the preserve of the cars, engines and drivers. Yet the public affection for Michelin is such that people were queuing up at the Revival to have their picture taken with the heritage Bibendum, fondly known as the Michelin Man, and various tools, gauges and oil cans. How on earth has the brand maintained its strength in the industry?
The answer is chiefly through an awful lot of research and development, conducted in the heady arenas of various world-class motorsport series that act both as marketing boards and also a massive, priceless laboratory for testing products that will then filter down to the tyres you and I buy for our road cars.
Pascal Couasnon, Michelin’s affable Director of Motorsport, is very clear about the role his company must play in the likes of World Rally Cars, Formula E, MotoGP and maybe, perhaps, Formula One, going forward. ‘Since day one, our interest was to find the terrain where we could test ideas and demonstrate the superiority of the idea’, he says. For Michelin, the idea of simply entering a series for marketing reasons is a nonsense. ‘We’re in WRC because we learn a lot about about the robustness of tyres on gravel. We then use it in developing countries with bad road networks. We also have to develop road patterns for the dry and wet. We don’t change tyres [in WRC] and you don’t change them on road cars when it’s wet or dry, so it’s good for road use.’
And what about Le Mans, where Michelin has had incredible success with 16 consecutive wins? Again, it’s all about the research. ‘These are tyres with very high grip but they have to be stable with time and change of temperature. They changed the rules to say you can’t refuel and change tyres at the same time, so we had to develop very stable tyres, not for 100km, but for 600 or 700km.’ Incredibly, the compound you now see the likes of Porsches wearing on the road, is what Michelin was using at Le Mans four years ago. People often talk about engine technology, such as regenerative braking, coming down from a Formula One car to the brand’s production cars, but no-one ever mentions that the same is true for tyres. Imagine kicking the rubber on your car while uttering the words, ‘Of course, you’ll have seen this compound in action if you were at Le Mans four years ago.’
Michelin re-enter the MotoGP fray next year as sole tyre supplier. Does that make it easier, with no competition? Michelin actually asked for a change of rule to take the bikes up to 17in wheels, which makes it more difficult for the teams but ‘closer to reality’, which benefits you and me.
And what of Formula E, which has celebrated its first season with Michelin presence. ‘There’s big pressure from the market for fuel-efficient and energy-efficient tyres, and fast tyres’, says Pascal. ‘Formula E becomes a laboratory for this. We’ve already learned a lot from the first season’ (although when I ask Pascal to tell me some of the learnings, he laughs and says, genially, that he’d have to shoot me.) But he will say that one of the key learnings comes from the fact that Formula E races have been in cities, which is crucially where most electric cars are driven, so you end up with race cars simulating driving conditions of their production versions slightly more closely. There are corners, plenty of braking and accelerating, all of which has helped Michelin.
Is Formula One on the agenda any time soon, I wonder. ‘Today, there is no interest in the current environment’, Pascal tells me. ‘The tyre degraded too quickly. Thirteen inch sidewalls with different physics… there is nothing to learn or transfer to road cars. Eighteen-inch wheels with smaller side walls is closer to reality.’ Never say never, then, given Bernie Ecclestone’s penchant for changing his mind about rules mid-season.
So how does all this tie in with the Michelin’s presence at the greatest motorsport event in the world: the Goodwood Revival? ‘Our philosophy is the right one and it has not changed: you keep your value by respecting the past’, Pascal tells me. ‘I bring young salesmen here each year because technology is much more efficient and quicker when there is passion. Never forget the past, to be better for the future.’