Disclosure: Michelin did not pay me to write this article, however they did provide race passes and travel accommodations for me to attend the Petit LeMans race at Road Atlanta a few weeks ago. In the spirit of full transparency, I paid full price for the last 3 sets of Michelin Pilot Sport tires on my car.
Most automotive industry manufacturers go racing for three reasons: the fame, the glory, and to sell things. Michelin on the other hand is different, they go racing to test their products in extreme conditions. This approach has allowed Michelin stayed on the forefront of tire technology for over 100 years. There greatest achievement was in 1946, when they introduced the radial tire: “a special radial ply design now almost universally used in tires that makes them both durable and flexible.” Then they struck gold again 1992, when they started using silica in their compounds. This formula, which was designed for racing, improves fuel efficiency (important for endurance racing) and enhances both wet and dry grip (important for all cars).
“Motorsports leads to better tires and increased safety.” So to learn about Michelin’s track to street approach, they sent me to Road Atlanta for Le Petit LeMans; the final race of the IMSA Sports Car Championship series. There I learned how every member of their all-volunteer motorsports team has one mission: to test, to learn, and to create a better product.
Le Petit LeMans consists of four classes, but the most relevant to the street is GTLM. It is a factory team only class that represents the fastest and most advanced GT cars on the track. You could easily see these vehicles on the road during your daily commute to the office. Furthermore, all of the participating cars have the same exact wheel size (18 inches) in order to create an even playing field.
Teams are able to choose their tire manufacturer at will, but the vast majority choose Michelin for every race. The decision doesn’t come lightly as the teams still have to pay for the tires no matter which manufacturer they choose. Pricing information was not released to me, but I am guessing that you are looking at somewhere around $60,000 per race in tires alone. Michelin leases tires to teams for a fee in order to reduce the cost of racing. This strategy ensures that competing tire manufactures don’t get access to Michelin’s technology, and it guarantees Michelin engineers access to analyze tire performance after each race.
The best R&D lab in the world can’t simulate the stress a tire endures during a 10+ hour endurance race. Which is why Michelin engineers bring the R&D lab to race track. Realtime data analysis is employed using RFID chips embedded into each tire. This allows engineers to know when each tire goes on to the track and when it gets off. After the race, data is cross referenced with teams to analysis relative weather conditions, the vehicle’s average speed for each set of tires, and how many laps were completed. No other major tire manufacturer is leveraging technology this way.
The data becomes increasingly relevant, because Michelin will often times test new compounds and tread patterns for each race. Michelin’s latest formulas are top secret, however I was told that they include both synthetic and organic materials. They have even gone as far as testing orange peels in the mix.
Before going to Le Petit LeMans at Road Atlanta with Michelin, I thought the main reason to get new tires on my car was because my tread was getting low – replacing a wearable item. Or in the case of collectibles, the tires would start to dry rot.
Now I realize that new tires are actually a performance and safety upgrade. This means that with each new evolution of rubber, my 20 year Porsche will get better and better. In fact a Michelin representative argued that modern Michelin street tires would out perform race tires from 50 years ago. It may look like the same black rubber, but Michelin tires will keep you planted on the race track and your family safer on the road.