To better understand how tyres work in different conditions, and the importance of motorsports in the development of road tyres, Michelin invited us to drive various race cars in a variety of conditions. Now we couldn’t refuse, could we? Throughout automotive history, all the leading tyre manufacturers around the world have used motorsports as a test lab for the latest technologies in tyres – advancements that have ultimately made it to the road tyres that we use on our everyday cars. And this is certainly true in the case of Michelin. After it invented the radial tyre in 1949, Michelin used motorsport to showcase the ability of radial tyres in extreme environments. And that led to arguably the biggest technological breakthrough in tyres, not to mention an almost universal adoption of radial tyres across the world. If you think about it, the motorsports focused approach makes sense. Putting a tyre through the extreme conditions of a racetrack environment, where it faces extreme pressure, heat, performance requirements and accelerated wear and tear rates, means that the tyre goes through far worse punishment than it would normally do. Since the stress on a normal road car tyre is a fraction of what a race car tyre faces, technologies that do well in a motorsports environment would typically succeed in road conditions too. So, when Michelin invited us to visit the Sepang circuit in Malaysia and experience the racing environments that different types of competition tyres go through, we couldn’t help but gladly agree. After all, driving multiple types of competition cars at a great racetrack all day long does qualify as research and hard work, right? Jokes apart, though, the first-hand experience and the opportunity to speak with various Michelin experts about their products went a long way towards better understanding the deep, dark world of tyre research and development. Now, Sepang is a circuit that I hadn’t visited before – so I was quite looking forward to driving there. So, after the customary safety briefing and medical check ups, our first stint was in a Citroen DS rally car – fitted with Michelin’s gravel rally tyres of course – on a purpose built dirt track. The specially hardened sidewall on the tyre made sure that whatever rocks and other objects we hit on the track had no effect on the tyre whatsoever, and the specially created tread design gave us tremendous grip even on the loose surface. Now both these qualities are very useful for extreme road environments, such as what mud terrain tyres for SUVs could face when going off-road. There’s a clear example of how racing technology works for road cars! The second experience led us back to the main asphalt racetrack, where we drove Renault Clio touring cars that were fully race prepped and fitted with racing slicks. Here, again, we got a chance to witness what kind of an environment a touring car driver gets to experience – with the slicks offering stunning grip, as well as cornering and braking ability. Like in the rallying experience, the instructors kept pushing us to go faster and explore how vast the performance envelope was, and how much of that potential we could exploit with our limited driving skills. The third experience was perhaps the most extreme, as we were handed Formula 4 cars – which we were allowed to drive on track following a lead car. And it’s in this experience that I clearly understood the vast differences between driving a road car modified to suit the track and a dedicated race car designed from scratch to be as fast as possible. The Formula 4 machine had absolutely unbelievable levels of grip, courtesy of its slick tyres and aerodynamic bodywork – while its light weight and low height meant that it could be driven at an absolutely insane pace around the track. In fact, in places we were so fast that the Porsche 911 pace car that we were following was simply too slow and I had to back off lest I slam the car into the back of the Porsche. However, the icing on the cake of the whole day was getting to meet and chat with 2015 Le Mans winner Earl Bamber – who later gave us a demo ride in an Oreca LMP3 car. With the raw pace of the car, the grip supplied by its tyres, and the driving talent of Earl, it was truly a humbling (not to mention exciting) experience. Moreover, it made us appreciate the hard work that goes into creating such machines, and the effort and development that goes into making the tyres for them – as it’s this research and development that leads to better tyres for our everyday cars, making them safer and more efficient.
Michelin Pilot Experience at Sepang
Ishan Raghava Assistant Editor with autoX, Ishan has great technical and practical knowledge, and his life-long love for cars has seen him devote some of the best years of his youth to a perhaps wasteful, yet satisfying, pursuit of his obsession with automobiles. He has worked with lifestyle publishing brands as a freelance / consultant for over 10 years and as a part of the autoX team for 8 years.