The VLN’s absence of restrictions on the tyre development has made it the perfect testing ground for manufacturer with its eyes on the ultimate prize
One huge attraction of the VLN series is that it still offers an open arena for parts development, unlike so many other international series these days. The top VLN cars are all close to standard European GT3 machinery. However not only are the brake pad materials, springs and dampers all open, but so too are tyres. This is where VLN is set apart from many GT championships, which use a single tyre supplier.
Not only are tyre manufacturers free to keep improving their rubber throughout the season, they also have one of the best test circuits in the world at their disposal. That’s why Falken Tyres which also had a presence in the American Le Mans Series in 2012 has competed at the NOrburgring 24 Hours since 1999.
Sven Schnabl, the team principal of Falken Motorsports, makes it clear that this is where they will find the most time and the best way to win the 24 Hours. “We use all the VLN races as tyre tests,” he told me. “We’ll use one race before the 24 Hours as a proper test in order to do pitstops, refuelling and so on, but the rest of them are all about gaffing mileage on the car and the tyres.
“Sometimes you have a tyre that’s brilliant on the Grand Prix circuit (which forms part of the lap in the VLN), but as soon as you get onto the Nordschleife it’s a disaster. Sometimes it’s the other way round. What you really need is a tyre that’s best out on the Nordschleife and a little less good on the GP circuit.
“You’ll find a few tenths fine-tuning the suspension, dampers and brakes, but if you get the tyres right you will find a second or two. Maybe even three. The performance gains are gaffing smaller because it’s impossible to have a perfect tyre for the Nordschleife as the conditions are too difficult. You’ll find a perfect tyre for Hockenheim, but not for here.
“The other thing is that we know we have a good base set up from Porsche and we know what the other teams are doing. That means our focus can be solely on the tyres.”
Every time the Porsche 997 GT3 R comes in from a session all the data is handed over to Shigetaka I keki, the Falken tyre development engineer who then goes about improving the compound and structure of future tyres. The process is so fast that the best tyre from one race will always be the second-best at the next. This is helped by lkeki heading out onto the Nordschleife and taking plaster casts of the track surface, which are then sent to Falken’s HQ in Japan.
“At the Nordschleife it’s so different because you don’t even always have four contact patches thanks to the bumps,” lkeki told me. “You need to have a very different construction compared to other circuits since at other places you can just design a tyre for peak performance. The tyres here have to work in any conditions.” Not only do Falken need to supply slicks and wets, but it also brings four different compounds to each race so that it can run in both warm and cooler temperatures.
While race tyre construction is not directly transferable to the company’s road tyres, the bead on its FK453 road rubber is identical to that used on the race tyre. The compound technology, on the other hand, is very transferable, so there is also the marketing side to consider and if you look at a company like Hankook then it’s safe to say that the Nurburgring 24 Hours is a good platform to tell the world about a tyre maker. In 2011 the Hankook shod Ferrari 458 did a lap 6.6 seconds faster than the rest of the field in the first part of qualifying (an achievement which was rewarded with 25kg ballast for the race). In the race it ran into rear axle problems, which meant a 47-minute delay, but it set fastest lap on its way to eighth. Since then Hankook, the seventh-largest tyre company in the world, has become the tyre supplier to the entire DTM field.
As for Falken Motorsports, it is adamant that it will win the 24 Hours, even if it might take another three years. You will no doubt be hearing a lot more from this company if it does.