Michelin is one of the premier tire manufacturers in the world, making some of the best tires on the road today, like the high performance Michelin Pilot Super Sport and long lasting Defender tire lines. Michelin performance tires have become the gold standard in the industry, and are often seen shoeing the most exotic cars on the road such as the Ferrari LaFerrari, Bugatti Chiron, and Porsche 918, while also proving top choices for the more average vehicles you see every day. One of the reasons they’re able to make such extraordinary tires is their commitment to using endurance racing events like the 24 Hours of Le Mans as a laboratory. Michelin has been a part of Le Mans since the very first race in 1923 where the winner used Michelin tires, the beginning of a domination that’s continued to this day.
Le Mans is held on the legendary Circuit de la Sarthe, which is a particularly great place to test tires. The top level prototypes will hit about 205 mph on the legendary straight before they’re forced to slam on the brakes to drop their speed to a mere 45 mph to successfully negotiate the tight hairpin known as Mulsanne Corner. In addition to extreme speed changes, these tires have to negotiate higher speed corners like the Porsche Curves that test the limits of lateral grip with sweeping corners and quick direction changes. Most importantly though, 85% of the Circuit de la Sarthe consists of public roads, creating inconsistent and varying levels of grip the tire has to deal with during a single lap.
Beyond the qualities of the track, the race itself will stress the limits of a tire. As the name suggests, the 24 Hours of Le Mans takes place continuously over the course of an entire day. This means the tire has to last a long time to minimize the time spent in the pits, otherwise the cars won’t be as fast as they can be, and there’s a limit to the number of tires each car can use throughout the event. Tires are also a huge factor in fuel efficiency, and low rolling resistance has typically been a quality that’s diametrically opposed to high performance.
Additionally, the tires have to cope with the weather in Le Mans. The race is held in mid-June, where the average high temperature of 74° F and average low of 54 °F creates a challenge for tires to maintain proper performance through the course of the race. It’s been said it always seems to rain at Le Mans, and therefore a wet tire must be used that can effectively maintain grip at high speeds on slick roads.
Each of these track qualities represent a different challenge Michelin must overcome to create a tire that can handle the most punishing conditions. Many other popular racing series will just call a rain delay and use jet dryers, or only race for a couple hours to prevent the need for tires to last a long time.
Michelin works individually with their partner teams during the race to supply tires and create strategies based on the way the car drives throughout the race weekend. Each partner using Michelin tires receive advisers and engineers from the company to help inform the overall race strategy of each team, including timing fuel stops, choosing tires, and scheduling stints. During the race, they stay on hand to help monitor data and determine when changes are needed.
Over 5,000 tires are specially made for the event for the teams, and tires are more or less leased to them by Michelin. Michelin keeps a 600-square meter compound at the track for tire management at the races, which includes a facility for storing tires for every team. In this facility, 45 fitters work to mount tires on wheels, inflate them, and make sure they’re balanced on three “production lines,” working on shifts to ensure constant coverage during the race on Saturday and Sunday. At the end of the 24 Hours, Michelin requires teams to return all tires, regardless of condition, so they can undergo rigorous testing at their headquarters in Central France.
All of this allows Michelin to push the limit of tire technology, encouraging them to develop new compounds and ideas that trickle down to the average consumer. Michelin’s high performance tires like the Pilot Sport series obviously benefit from race data, but lessons learned in efficiency help the company develop tires like the Energy Saver A/S and the durability required have contributed directly to the long-lasting Defender T+H. All in all, the relationship between Michelin and Le Mans is a perfect match, and the biggest winners are the consumers.