Michelin on Tyres: Formula E and Le Mans


Michelin are one of two go-to brands of tyre for open wheel and prototype racing world-wide. In competition with Pirelli in the world of single seaters and with Dunlop in the world of prototype racing, Michelin stand out as the company with their fingers in many motor racing pies.

TCF stopped by the Michelin stand at Mondial de l’Automobile Paris for a chat about the distinct technical challenges, and rewards, in being tyre supplier to the FIA World Endurance Championship and the FIA Formula E Championship.

We first spoke with R&D to find out more about the reasons behind the decision to offer a one tyre solution to the new electric racing championship.

One of the challenges we have with the Formula E series is to say how can we link closely the tyres that are used in the motorsport and the tyres that are used on the road? So how can we have an evolution of the regulations which can be used to make it easy to transfer quickly the technology we use in the racing to everyday tyres?

For this championship we have three key elements which have been worked into the regulations to do that. Firstly the size of the tyre is 18 inch, very close to the size you have on your road car now. The usual size for a single seater is 13 inches so the geometry of the tyre is close to the geometry of tyre you use on the road.

The second element is to have a tyre which will last for the full weekend, not changing the tyres every two laps as is done elsewhere. We really make sure that each car will have only one set of tyres for each weekend, to use in practice, qualifying and race.

Third we use the same tyre whether it is raining or you are in the dry.

The championship is about energy efficiency and today, 20% of the gas you buy is for the tyres, it’s 30% for trucks. Make sure you buy the right tyre because it’s important. So the focus on energy efficiency, using the same tyre in wet or dry and having tyre which lasts the whole weekend and having a tyre which is closer in size to what is on the market. All that will develop technology to do that but it will transfer more easily into the road tyres.

With all road going tyres being a mixed condition solution, i.e. we use the same tyre for wet or dry or snow or mud, the instant assumption is that the Formula E solution would have been easier to develop. It isn’t because of the extreme forces applied to the tyre during racing.

It was probably more difficult. It is usually easier when you just have the slick to develop. Of course in Le Mans you have to worry about the speed, the load the tyre will carry because they are difficult to handle. This, (Formula E) is a tremendous technical challenge for Michelin to develop a tyre. Because you have to take into account the longevity, the efficiency and the same tyre for wet and dry.

Racing for us is an extension of our R&D centre. For us racing is to innovate things.

Joined by Pascal from the Motorsport side if Michelin’s business, we returned to Formula E to find out how the deal was struck. A failed bid for Formula 1 tyre supply, due to Formula One Management’s inability to ‘respect the tyre’, led Michelin to approach Alejandro Agag with an offer.

What I think is very interesting in Formula E is that we had the freedom to propose some very new things. Something which is not visible in Formula 1. They (Formula E) insist in the total open-mindedness of the new technology.

We were discussing with Formula 1 a year and a half ago, saying OK we are ready to come back but you need to respect the tyre. You need to give a technical challenge not a show challenge. Unfortunately we were not able to find a proper compromise on that.

So we went to Formula E and said we have some really good ideas about using your series as a laboratory to demonstrate some technology. We also look to find new technology so for example you see on Formula E for the first time an 18 inch tyre with a short sidewall. That is very important because if you look around here you won’t find any tyres with 13 inch wheels and big sidewalls. That is very important when we look to transfer technology from track to street.

What we are learning now is totally applicable for high performance cars on the road.

Now we are in the city where the different grip levels will be there. Again it is the real world. So the challenge and the excitement for us is that we are racing in an environment which is very close to our customer’s environment. So what we learn can be transferred very quickly.

Of course Michelin are the defacto sole tyre supplier to LMP1-H and LMP1-L in the FIA World Endurance Championship and Le Mans. We turned our attention to the role Michelin plays in the development of the tyres and the way they guarantee a fair result for Porsche AG, Toyota Hybrid Racing and Audi Sport Team Joest.

The great thing about prototypes is that we try to find the way to extract the most from each tyre, car and driver combination. We try to make sure that we are fair with everybody. So our philosophy and process is very unique to Michelin. What we do is talk to the teams before and say that is the way we are going to do it and if you don’t agree with us it won’t work.

We work with each team, we develop a specific solution for each team but at a certain time in the process we say each team can try the solutions for each other team. Now when they test it, if they have done a good job they should stick with the tyres we have developed for them. That is the way we prove to the others we are not giving one team a silver bullet.

We then looked back briefly to the time when Michelin was supplying their tyres to a French brand for the big French race. Peugeot Sport have now withdrawn from Le Mans racing but Michelin paid tribute to Audi’s acceptance of the rules governing the battle between the French marque and Inglostat’s finest in terms of tyres.

The people who are the biggest supporters of the Michelin philosophy were Audi. So today, do we give an advantage to Porsche or to Audi or Toyota, I am confident that we really have a process to give trust to the teams who come to us.

Having every team with us is good news and bad news. We love competition but having every team with us says we are doing a good job.