Le Mans. Just saying the name brings to mind grainy images of brave racers running to their cars and battling for glory on the world's biggest racing stage. Modern in-car videos of daring passes at dizzying speeds, shots of haggard crews working seamlessly as one to keep their cars fueled and running until the flagger waves the checkers one last time.
But, what you may not think about are all those who work behind the scenes, invisible to most, for this one weekend. The unsung heroes who toil non-stop, away from the cheers of the fans and the champagne sprays of the podium. Of all these anonymous, dedicated people, the tire manufacturers arguably play the biggest role. The good folks at Michelin were kind enough to offer us a glimpse behind the scenes during their biggest race of the year, which just happens to take place on their home turf. They even fed us, too. Since this was my first time at Le Mans, I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy store. In fact, if you squint, tires look a lot like large pieces of licorice…
Michelin and Le Mans began the journey together as the French tire manufacturer won the inaugural race back in 1923 with René Leonard driving a Chenard & Walker at an average speed of more than 90 kph. As leaders in tire innovation, the company introduced the first radial slick tire in 1967 on an Renault-Alpine A442B.
In 2015, Porsche and Michelin returned to the top step of the podium again as the #19 Porsche 919 Hybrid took overall victory after a hard fought battle with Audi. This year's win was number 24 for Michelin, as well as their 18th consecutive overall victory, at Le Mans. Porsche, wearing a set of Michelin tires, set a lap record during qualifying on the 13.629km circuit. Even more impressive, the three top teams in LMP1, Porsche, Audi and Toyota, all performed quadruple stints on their tires during the race, with the three Porsches each traveling 736km (457 miles) on a single set. Amazing! Can you imagine running the Indy 500 or the Daytona 500 or even an F1 race on one set of tires? Fat chance.
Michelin Dominant On The Grid
For this year’s race, Michelin was by far the dominant tire on the grid. 40 of 56 entries were shod with Michelin tires - which speaks volumes for the brand in terms of the expected levels of performance. But this dominance also creates considerable logistical and fulfillment challenges. Let's look at the numbers:
- At Le Mans, Michelin erected an 8,000 square foot tire tent to store and mount all the tires.
- A total of 50 tire technicians worked practically non-stop before, during and after the race to meet the needs of the teams.
- Michelin's tire tent housed 7,000 individual tires, encompassing a variety of sizes and three distinct compounds: dry, wet and intermediate.
- Each team was allowed eight sets of tires for practice and 16 sets for the race. But, all of the tire mounting, dismounting and balancing is done by Michelin in their tent.
Did you know that the teams don’t even own the tires? Essentially, they lease them. After the race, the tires all go back to Michelin. After analysis, all the used tires are compressed and recycled.
While even a novice can tell the difference between a slick and a full wet tire, the coolest development in recent years is the intermediate tire. It looks like a slick, but the compound is designed to handle damp, cool conditions. It’s hard to believe a slick tire could work when there is water on the track surface, but it does.
Michelin’s staffing is not limited to the tent. 25 tire engineers are assigned to the teams to help with tire decisions during the race and to continuously monitor performance. When you add in all of Michelin’s hospitality, transportation and logistics folks, it amounts to a massive effort.
This hard work and success on the track has benefits for the rest of us. What Michelin learns from racing and winning at the highest level really does make our street tires better. Compounds and tread patterns continue to be improved and we are experiencing levels of performance on the road that not long ago was reserved for race cars. So, the next time you confidently take a corner at a good clip, think of all the folks who literally worked around the clock, helping to make your tires perform.