INSIGHT: IMSA's rubber soul

Image by LePage/LAT

INSIGHT: IMSA's rubber soul

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: IMSA's rubber soul

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If 2019 has held any significant surprises in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and IMSA’s various training series, it’s been the lack of drama associated with the major change from one sole supplier to another.

After taking the reins from Continental Tire, Michelin’s first year as IMSA’s exclusive tire partner has left the French firm with armfuls of track records and accolades during a busy season that began in January. Michelin’s wide-scale introduction to IMSA has not been perfect, but the seamless transition onto its tires has given the series and its participants a sense of confidence that was not always present prior to the handover.

The immense task of preparing to outfit myriad new models, all without repeated failures and high-profile mistakes on public display have, at least through the races leading into Saturday’s 10-hour championship finale, been one of the most impressive stories of the season.

“Even though we have the Motul Petit Le Mans to go, we are fully in our post-mortem for Michelin’s debut season,” Chris Baker, Michelin’s North American motorsport director, told RACER. “We’ve been conducting both product performance reviews and operational reviews during the period since we got back from Laguna Seca, and that’ll continue right up through November.

“Because what we’ve learned is to always be sensitive to the fact that what you hear or what you believe might be different than what folks actually meant. But I’ve got to be honest in saying that I’ve generally received positive input from people.

“Occasionally I’ll get, ‘You may want to consider X next year, or have you thought about Y?’ That’s all fair stuff. I would say that our general assessment is we make our way through our internal post-mortem, is that it’s been a successful year.”

Spanning all the IMSA series carrying Michelin’s products, 78 track records have been set in 2019. Baker is more impressed by the performance levels found by IMSA’s teams and the brand’s tire engineers that generated the newfound speed.

“For me, that sort of result is a demonstration of not only product performance, but how we work with folks in the paddock,” he said. “Because what we learned over time, over many years in the game is you can have the best tire in the world, but if you’re not properly exploiting it, you’re not going to go any quicker than you did before.

“So I considered the fact that this happy circumstance that here, near the end of the season, we’ve got a bunch of lap records, is a combination of inherently decent product performance and our engineers and motorsports tire specialists’ ability to communicate with crew chiefs to understand input from drivers, and to translate that into guidance. That leads to a quicker tire-vehicle combination.”

Michelin previously supplied tires in GTLM, but this year every car in the WeatherTech paddock wears French shoes. Image by LePage/LAT

Michelin’s profile in IMSA prior to 2019 was limited to the GT Le Mans class, where every title-winning car used its product since the WeatherTech Championship began in 2014. Adding the other classes and series under IMSA’s control made ramping up Michelin’s tire production and support team a monumental task to execute.

“We were all in, because we didn’t know any better; here we’d gone from at most nine or 10 cars and now we had a hundred-plus cars,” Baker admits. “You couldn’t walk in the Daytona paddock without bumping into someone from Michelin, so late in the season, I would say the last third or so, we’ve tried to refine our footprint both operationally in the paddock and in terms of balancing our teams’ needs.

“Sometimes there’s too much help, right? So we’re trying to make sure that our approach is the appropriate one concerning guidance, because we want folks to seek us out and to ask for our help concerning how to make these tires work to their maximum, but we don’t want to be in their way.”

Amid the many positives, the struggles faced by Michelin have been embraced by Baker and his team as items of exceptional value.

“Now let’s be honest, we knew going into the 2019 season that we were going to get a knot on the head here or there, and that reared its ugly head at Watkins Glen when [the Michelin Pilot Challenge TCR] class cars, which in our simulations and our experience around the world today, had represented dang near zero challenge for us, turned out to be one of our problem children,” he says.

“We learned we were putting extraordinary loads on the outside left-front tires, and we had to get up on the wheel and find a solution for that race working with the teams. And when confronted with an even worse situation of the same type at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, we had to fix that. Had to completely fix it. I’ve got to tell you, that period right there in July was…

“I mean, I’m gratified by the lap records. I’m gratified by the fact that folks seem to be generally appreciative of us being around and not in their hair. But I’m probably prouder of the problem-solving that went on during the Watkins Glen and CTMP period with TCR than I am anything else. Really just a great bit of collaborative problem solving within our own team, and with the teams on pit lane. It turned out the way it ought to turn out, with yet more lap records and that sort of thing, and folks having safe races.”

Where Michelin’s predecessors were extremely sensitive when it came to acknowledging any shortcomings with its tires, IMSA’s new partner welcomes the discussions. Pre-Petit Le Mans testing saw a number of tire failures with DPi entries, and with an unexpected problem to solve, Baker’s team dove into the issues and found answers.

Supplying DPi tires created a new set of challenges, which Michelin was quick to tackle in collaboration with the teams. Image by Levitt/LAT

“So let’s talk about this continuing learning process,” Baker says. “Which of course we dealt with again at the test at Road Atlanta recently. Road Atlanta did some repaving patches in some of the areas that had been problematic in times past in terms of the surface breaking up during the race. Well, come to find out that our required operating conditions for tires tested earlier in the year at Road Atlanta, the same kinds of DPi tires that we’ve been supplying all season, was being subjected to 12- to 14-percent greater loading.

“Once again, we had to make an adjustment, and in this case, it had to do with camber settings. We had to make a very tiny adjustment in the hot inflation pressure, because as most turners know, it really is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Amazingly enough, tires operated at 95- to 98-percent of their ultimate capacity will go almost forever in terms of structural endurance. But you get them at 99- or 100-percent, and you’re on very shaky ground. And that’s exactly what happened at the test at Road Atlanta.”

Closing the season with a timely need for revised DPi tires wasn’t in Michelin’s original plan, but the quick turnaround, where teams have had new tires for the opening day of practice and reported no problems, has been emblematic of the brand’s dedication to IMSA.

“So we made the adjustment after day one and during the afternoon of day two, flawless runs with Acura Team Penske, Mazda Team Joest, and JDC-Miller Motorsports,” Baker continues. “So once again, you always look for the kick in the pants, and when you get it, you try to solve the problem, respect the facts, and that’s exactly what happened.

“And secondly, perhaps as importantly, we’ve brought a new solution for the prototypes in both LMP2 and DPi. It’ll be a solution that’s where both the medium and the hard will be very familiar to the teams in terms of overall compounding, but the internal structure is a little bit different. It aligns well with what we are doing for the 2019, 2020 WEC season and we had good results with that.”

By Monday, Michelin North America’s motorsports department will be back on the task of distilling the knowledge gained in Year 1 to improve upon their tires and processes in Year 2.

“I’m encouraged for the classes that are using our tires that were deployed for the first time on a large scale this year in IMSA,” Baker says. “We’ve learned a lot in every class. That’s part of what happens when you make a lap of a championship season. Use the example of IndyCar, where the tire provider makes a few tweaks every year based on their learnings. Well, we’re in a similar situation. It could be which type of tire to use at a given track, or it could be adaptations to the tires themselves, such as we’re doing with prototype.”

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