FlatSixes.com was recently invited to Michelin Tire’s inaugural “Influencer “ Tire School where I spent two days observing how Michelin tires are made, learning about their technology and testing their newest ultra-high performance tire, the Pilot Super Sport (Michelin is a sponsor of PorschePurist and they covered our cost of travel, lodging and meals for this event). As Motorsport Editor, I have reviewed some of their most popular tires for Porsche owners, including the Pilot Sport 2, Pilot Sport Cup and Pilot Super Sport.
In case you're wondering, "Influencers" are people in the performance car-building and tuning industry, car-forum moderators, car club leaders like PCA’s Vu Nguyen and racers from all disciplines such as drag, drift, off-road and road. There are 60 Michelin influencers nation-wide and 14 of us were invited to the first Tire School for Influencers in order to learn more than we already knew about their product.
As the motorsport editor for FlatSixes.com, track chairman and chief instructor for the Rally Sport Region of the PCA, and amateur championship winning Porsche racer I have spent my fair share of time around tires. I like Michelins enough to have them on all our vehicles (Porsche and otherwise), and apparently I am not alone; Michelin reportedly has the highest loyalty in the Original Equipment first time replace market.
What is the Michelin Tire School?
This was the first Michelin Tire School for Influencers (a shortened version of the 11 week school that many Michelin execs attend prior to their time in the office and in the field). The curriculum covered the building and construction of their tires, techniques unique to Michelin and their commitment to standing behind their product. In my opinion, the fact that Michelin let a group of vocal and passionate enthusiasts into the heart of their operations (the Training Center, Factory and on their test track) shows the level of confidence they have in their products.
Our visit started with a tour of US-1 in Greenville, SC (one of 29 worldwide production facilities). Our tour guide, “Tater,” was very knowledgeable about the belts, cords and tire compounds as well as every little detail about the factory and what it takes to run it. At the US-1 factory, Michelin produces between 24,000 to 26,000 tires a day. Despite the production volume, the racks, lifts and machines do not look cluttered or overburdened. Everything and everyone moves at a steady and focused pace. The machinery is almost all unique to Michelin.
While I would love to have posted pictures of what we saw on our tour, photographs were strictly forbidden in the plant as were cell phones and other personal items like jewelery and watches (quality control restrictions). As part of the Michelin quality process all visitors are required to suit up in special Michelin made work booth with Michelin rubber soles.
Michelin C3M Technology
One reason for all this security is perhaps Michelin's biggest technical advantage, "C3M". This secret manufacturing process gives tires “an innovative edge.” Today more than 20% of the Michelin Pilot line is made using the C3M process including all of the high performance tires a Porsche owners would consider. Rather than trying to explain what little is known about this super secretive technology we'll give you a link to The Tire Rack who does a great job of explaining what they can. C3M allows Michelin to have a tremendous amount of structural consistency throughout the tire making it lighter and more stable; it also allows Michelin to weave different tread compounds onto one tire.
The Michelin Pilot Super Sport Uses C3M
The Michelin Pilot Super Sport is another C3M tire with carbon black (an additive that increases tear resistance and abrasion strength on rubber derived from the Le Mans winning slick racing tires) on the outer tread. The tire has incredible wet traction and high speed stability. In the picture above, you can see how Michelin can control the rubber that, as part of the tire, affects turning and straight-line stability. The 2D and 3D sipes (found on some Michelin tire models) lock in under load to provide better handling in wet weather and snowy conditions.
Track Time at Michelin's Tire School
Now it was time to put Michelin’s impressive technology to the test. I was looking forward to learning even more about the Pilot Super Sport and testing its strengths on the track. However, when we were told that there would be a portion of the test with timed laps, I perked up even more (I've been known to be a bit competitive…)
Porsche Club of America's Executive Director, and fellow PCA member, Vu Nguyen and I jumped into our test rig, a 3 Series BMW (the local facilities were the same used by the BMW school) and prepared to turn a few quick and smooth laps. Once in the test car our conversation quickly turned to the subject of traction control and how it just seems to take some of the fun out of track driving.
Regardless of the platform (Porsche or BMW, traction control or not) the key to a fast lap is a drama-less smooth approach where you maintain the highest minimum speed into the corner. I was very pleased with the solid corner grip and high speed stability provided by the Michelin Pilot Super Sports through the very fast “esses” on this track.
Now, what’s a little testing without competition? Team FlatSixes.com had the fastest lap of the day, beating a fellow Porsche guy (and 2-time national autocross champion) and an engineer from the esteemed Skip Barber Race School.
Side to Side Comparisons
The only side to side comparison that we participated in was a blind test on identical BMW 330i's. Some were equipped with Michelin Pilot All Season (PAS) while the rest were shod in the Pilot Super Sport (PSS). This opportunity marked the second time I was able to put the Pilot Super Sport to the test since attending the launch in Dubai nearly two years ago, but the first time I've done so in a blind test. Driving the PSS against the extremely highly rated All Season Pilot, without know what car you were in, was a very telling experience.
The first car was great in the wet, very predictable and fairly confident. On the extremely wet oval skid pad, I experienced initial under-steer (as was to be expected), especially if I was carrying too much speed. The uphill hairpin section of the track was not as bad as the downhill, as the grade helped make the contact patch of the front tires larger (whereas the downhill required me to slow down a good deal to keep the line tight). This seemed about right, the way I expected the tire to perform (I'm assuming I'm on PSS's at this point).
The second car made me throw all assumptions out the window. From the very first corner the car turned in dramatically better that the previous test vehicle. While the first car had mild over-steer under throttle, in car two I had to get silly in order to get sideways. Even when I did get it sideways, it was very controllable. Once I got back for a driver debrief and found out that car two wore Pilot Super Sports, I decided I wanted these tires on my daily driver (and for those of you who are wondering: yes, I pay full price too).
Tires are paramount in importance when comes to braking, handling and performance, not to mention overall safety. While I've had personal experiences with Michelin that have convinced me of their commitment to quality, attending their Tire School give me even more confidence in their products.
Confidently Recommending Michelin
Shortly after this event, I was sharing a cup of coffee with my Dad and he mentioned he needed new tires for his BMW X5. I had no reservations in recommending the Michelin Latitude Tour, which I had tested on X5s in the off-road course of the school. He mentioned the Michelins seemed to get noisy after only a few months. I asked if he had a 4-wheel alignment and had rotated and maintained proper tire pressures consistently (which was funny to ask, since Dad taught me about cars). I further suggested he call the Michelin Consumer Care number. He did and the next day reported that Michelin had given him $300 off a replacement set of tires. Not only are Michelins superior tires, but their post-purchase customer support is impressive.
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[Picture of Michelin 997 GT3 via Wikipedia]