INSIGHT: Inside the WEC tire war

Image by Ehrhardt/LAT

INSIGHT: Inside the WEC tire war

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Inside the WEC tire war

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Open tire competition in sportscar racing is becoming scarce, with few opportunities for tire constructors to go head-to-head. IMSA has GTLM, and in the FIA WEC there’s LMP2, but in the former only Michelin is represented and in the FIA WEC the tire war may well have an expiry date.

For season eight of the WEC, the LMP2 tire war is now Goodyear vs Michelin. Dunlop, which enjoyed a huge amount of success over the years, has handed the baton to its parent company Goodyear, which has big aspirations for the future – and a critical first season ahead.

Over the past seven seasons, Dunlop has dominated the LMP2 class, winning the class title and Le Mans six times, and supplied tires to LMP1 privateer efforts and high-profile and highly successful GTE teams on occasion, too. So Goodyear has a lot to live up to as it moves to further its high-performance tire range.

Goodyear has been away from sportscar racing for a long time. The most recent of its 14 Le Mans wins came way back in 1997, but it has continued to have a presence in motorsport away from sportscars since the turn of the century.

“Goodyear never really went away. Motorsport is part of its DNA,” Ben Crawley, the director of Goodyear’s WEC program, said to RACER. “And, it’s still heavily active in NASCAR racing in the United States.

“What we’re intending to do is bring the brand back into sportscar racing is part of an overall brand-building focus to increase engagement.

“The timing is perfect, because we were re-establishing our credentials and our presence within the high-performance tire market with the launch of a road-legal car range, the Eagle F1 SuperSports tires which the company has launched in the last few months in Europe.”

From a marketing standpoint, this move makes sense, as Dunlop doesn’t have the global reach that Goodyear has. Dunlop’s key market is Europe, but it remains to be seen if it has a future in the European Le Mans Series, where it supplies GTE and LMP2 tires. If it does continue to take on Michelin in the ELMS, will we see Dunlop, Goodyear and Michelin all represented at Le Mans? That decision, Crawley told RACER, hasn’t been made yet.

Last month Goodyear tires were on show in public for the first time at the FIA WEC Prologue test at Barcelona. There, four teams sampled its tires in LMP2, but only three outfits (run by two entities) decided to commit to the Goodyear rubber: Jota Sport and Jackie Chan DC Racing (who are both run by Jota) and WEC newcomer High Class Racing.

Racing Team Nederland performed a back-to-back tests with Michelin and Goodyear tires with before making a decision on the second day of running to stick with Michelin, its previous WEC tire partner.

How big of a blow is this? That remains to be seen. In LMP2, the quality of a tire brand’s customers base is as important, if not more, as the quantity. In a Pro-Am formula like LMP2, achieving strong results often comes down to having as many of the teams that field driver line-ups stacked with professional and borderline-professional drivers as possible.

Jackie Chan DC Racing has made an early commitment to Goodyear. Image by LAT

Thus, ensuring that teams with a history of winning and racing with top talent, like Jota Sport and Jackie Chan DC Racing were signed up was key.

On the other side of the fight, Michelin has five teams on its books, including reigning LMP2 champion Signatech Alpine and United Autosports, which has switched to ORECA ahead of its maiden WEC campaign.

It should be a competitive fight. Read into the testing times at Barcelona, where Michelin teams finished 1-2-3-4, at your peril though, as Dunlop’s team behind-the-scenes – which will switch to running the Goodyear operation – continues to win races regularly in the hugely competitive ELMS LMP2 field.

There was much talk in the paddock surrounding the conditions during the Prologue, where which saw the ambient temperature regularly exceeded 85 degrees and the track temperature surpassed 120. This is abnormal for the WEC and made performance testing difficult to interpret.

Ask around the WEC paddock and there’s a split in opinion on which tire constructor offers the best option for the season, as Michelin has upped its game considerably in recent years.

Jota Sport team principal Sam Hignett told RACER that “it wasn’t a tough decision to choose Goodyear” after a decade of success with Dunlop, which has included winning LMP2 in the ELMS and at Le Mans. As a sidenote, Jota’s ORECA took part in a post-Prologue Goodyear tire test at Barcelona, which ran for three days.

The feedback from that test has been positive. Anthony Davidson, Pastor Maldonado, Will Stevens, Ho-Pin Tung and Jon Lancaster all turned laps, covering over 1100 miles of running. All three Goodyear specs are understood to have been out testing, though it is not clear at this stage whether or not the American brand will declare its hand and travel to Silverstone with its full range for the season.

Racing Team Nederland, on the other hand, clearly feels that Michelin remains the best option for 2019/20, as does United Autosports, which made a mid-season switch away from Dunlop during the 2018 ELMS season and scored a pair of wins for its inconsistent Ligier JS P217 program at the end of that year. However, its move into the WEC and the change from Ligier to ORECA just before the Prologue meant that it had little to time to evaluate which tires to use.

“We considered Goodyear, but we ran out of time a little bit,” United co-owner Richard Dean told RACER. “When the late change came to ORECA we had no chance to test both. The position we’d have liked to have been in over the winter was to have had a car and tried both, because I don’t think there will be a lot in it.”

While all the teams have now declared which brand they will use, there is still a chance to switch. Teams in the WEC are able to make a single change during the season, and that will prompt both constructors to push hard to poach teams ahead of the 2020/21 campaign, which coincidentally is the first for the Hypercar Prototype top class.

Will Michelin’s current commitment to the WEC’s top class be enough to help it win the Hypercar tire deal? Image by Portlock/LAT Images)

And the 2020/21 season could prove to be a turning point for Michelin and Goodyear, and which classes they supply tires for. Both are due to pitch for the Hypercar class – which will be a single-tire formula – when the tender process begins, and equally feel they have the resources and have shown enough loyalty since the formation of the WEC to be deserving of winning the contract.

It will be a tough decision for the ACO and FIA. The obvious choice would be Michelin. It has supplied almost every LMP1 effort in recent years, most notably, the factory LMP1 Hybrid teams, while Dunlop (now Goodyear) has only supplied privateers on and off. Dunlop did find success in its privateer tire program in LMP1 though, with teams moving away from Michelin to make gains on the factory cars at various points.

But, Michelin currently is the sole supplier in LMP1 and has a stranglehold on the IMSA paddock, with an exclusivity deal in three of the four classes (GTLM is open, but Michelin is the only manufacturer represented). Will its footing in North America play a part?

Should there be an appetite in the future for crossover in the DPi 2020 and the Hypercar regulations and races featuring both, then it would be a simpler solution to balance the two formulas if they are using the tires from the same brand. (Michelin has a long-term deal with IMSA and will supply DPi rubber until at least 2022.)

Supplying tires for Hypercar will not be easy. Creating a range that caters for grandfathered LMP1s, hybrid and non-hybrid-powered prototype-based cars, and hypercar-based cars, presents a real challenge, especially once parity is taken into account – the class is set to be governed by Balance of Performance.

Nevertheless, Goodyear will make a strong case for taking the contract. Crawley said that Goodyear would “relish the technical challenge” if it is chosen, but stressed that it needs “further clarity and alignment on the technical side of things.” It is also “continuing to have a dialogue with the ACO and FIA” and is “well advanced in terms of evaluating” Hypercar.

The brand that wins the Hypercar contract could well be granted an exclusivity deal in LMP2 for a similar reason. The ACO and FIA will look to level off the performance curve that open-tire competition creates to prevent LMP2s from making future strides. Any further gains in the coming seasons will only complicate the matter of separating the current crop of Gibson-powered prototypes and the Hypercar Prototypes, which are due to be significantly slower than the current LMP1 cars.

Some paddock sources think that in the future there will be a single supplier for each class. If that happens, then the tire contract for the GTE classes may well be up for grabs for the supplier that misses out on the top class.

Currently, Dunlop has the deal in the ELMS’ GTE ranks, but Michelin supplies all the teams in the WEC. Should Goodyear be forced to look elsewhere in the WEC’s structure in what it hopes is a “long-term commitment” to the championship, it may be easier to get a footing in GTE than one might think.

Road car partnerships with OEMs and tire suppliers has played a big part in Michelin’s monopoly in GTE. The most notable recent example of this was the deal struck with the French brand to supply Aston Martin’s road car range, which was a major factor in Aston Martin Racing switching from Dunlop back to Michelin in 2018.

But Goodyear is partnered with GTE OEMs in a way that Dunlop never was. Goodyear supplies Porsche with tires for its Cayennes, Macans and notably for its 911 GT2 RS (with F1 SuperSports, which are manufactured in the same factory as the LMP2 tires). It also has a loose link to Ferrari via deals with Fiat Chrysler.

Interestingly, of the two brands signed up for Hypercar, Aston Martin and Toyota, the former has a deal with Michelin for the Valkyrie road cars (the base for its race car) while the latter is partnered with Goodyear for a good proportion of its road car tires globally. So who gets which slices of which pies going forward, is very much up in the air.

All this makes for a fascinating storyline to track this season in the WEC. Goodyear vs Michelin extends far further than just an LMP2 tire-battle on track…

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