Why size matters to Michelin

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The French company is pitching to return to Grands Prix… so long as wheels and tyres relevant to the modern age are adopted. Motor Sport looks at F1’s potential future
writer Johnny Mowlem

Would I be interested in doing a tyre test for Michelin and then writing about it? In a Formula Renault 3.5 car? At the AGS Formula 1 team’s former test track – the Circuit du Var, located in the hills of Provence barely half an hour from St Tropez? Not too difficult a decision, that one.

I flew to Nice a few days before the Monaco Grand Prix, so the plane was packed with Formula 1 PR and marketing people, including some I’d worked with during my days as a Lotus factory driver. They seemed less interested in the weekend ahead than they were in the presence of Liam from One Direction, sitting just in front of us…

The purpose of the exercise? Michelin wanted to demonstrate the capabilities of a high-performance, F1-style tyre on 18-inch rims. The firm has already proposed a radical change in the way Grand Prix tyres should look and has thrown its hat into the ring as a potential successor to current supplier Pirelli, when the Italian firm’s F1 contract expires at the end of 2016. The current rules stipulate 13-inch wheels, but Michelin feels it is important in the current economic and political climate to introduce more road-relevant dimensions. To support its case, it has worked closely with Renault to develop a 17-inch rim for the Formula Renault 2.0-litre car and an 18 for the quicker FR3.5.

After the obligatory croissants and pains au chocolat, Michelin and Renault engineers briefed us about the potential switch to bigger wheels. They were hoping to be able to demonstrate the benefits in terms of lap times, tyre life and also handling.

I would start by completing several five-lap runs on larger rims in a Formula Renault 2.0, followed by a similar stint in the FR3.5. Initially I was a little sceptical, not least because I understand the absolute importance of a baseline and we didn’t have two FR2.0 or FR3.5 chassis available to make direct 13- and 17/18-inch comparisons. I’d never driven at the Circuit du Var, either, and began to wonder if this was simply a PR stunt with no real substance. But the weather was wonderful, the people were friendly and I went out for my first exploratory laps with as open a mind as I could muster.

The Formula Renault 2.0 is a fantastic little racing car, designed as the perfect first rung on the ladder for aspiring young Grand Prix drivers. Several past champions have gone on to become front-line F1 racers, including Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas, while many have become professionals in other disciplines. The engine develops 210bhp and revs to 7500rpm and from past experience I knew these were very nimble cars that handled well. It didn’t surprise me that I found it initially very easy to drive, but as I pushed harder I began to notice that it had incredibly good turn-in. It had virtually no understeer, even in the slower corners, and that’s quite unusual in a racing car. This suited my style as I tend to turn in quite early and gently, so I ended up thoroughly enjoying myself and going quicker and quicker with no discernible drop-off in tyre performance. My last lap turned out to be my quickest, a trait I remember from driving on Michelins in various endurance races such as Sebring and Le Mans. It was clear that Michelin hadn’t lost its ability to make a tyre that is consistent and durable, even when going up to a bigger rim size.

Next up was the Formula Renault 3.5, about which I was very excited as I had never driven one before – although I have worked in the series as a commentator for BT Sport. The 610kg chassis has a Zytek V8 that puts out 530bhp at 9250rpm, so power to weight is pretty decent.

I raced the 4-litre version of the same engine in endurance racing, so I know them well and appreciate their driveability and reliability.

The only downside for me was that I come from a generation of drivers for whom the left foot’s main function is to operate the clutch (I pre-date paddle shifts by quite a way), so I’m not particularly well programmed for left-foot braking sensitivity.

Nevertheless, I was surprised how natural everything felt and it was no problem to push quite hard straight away. The downforce of this new car amazed me – it’s right up there with the Lotus T125 Formula 1 concept that I tested and developed. I began to explore the car’s limits, in order to try and get a true feeling for the tyre, and again noticed that same directness from the front – even in the slower corners where the downforce isn’t masking any tyre slide. The front tyres’ sidewalls felt very stiff laterally, but it certainly seemed to absorb bumps and kerbs – something else I remember from driving Michelins on the ploughed field that constitutes the Sebring racetrack.

On the last timed lap of my final run, my weakest link – that left foot – was unfortunately exposed. In trying to brake a little later for the final second-gear corner, which you approach flat in sixth, I locked the inside front right and didn’t modulate the brake pressure quickly enough, which caused me to run wide coming out of the corner and plonk this lovely single-seater about two metres into the gravel trap. It happened at slow speed and no damage was done, but I was very apologetic… and also annoyed at myself for ruining what would otherwise have been my best lap. I know – excuses, excuses…

Nevertheless, judging by the consistency of my lap times up to that point, the tyre was demonstrating no drop-off whatsoever. And I have to say that I have rarely experienced such positive turn-in on a race car.

I know this is all slightly immaterial, given that I couldn’t back-to-back the different wheel sizes, but the test made one thing very clear. If Michelin were to return to Formula 1, and if it were to introduce 18-inch wheels, there is no doubt that it would be able to deliver incredible performance and consistency. Would that be a good thing for Grand Prix racing? I’ll leave that debate to you.

To my mind, though, Formula 1 should be about the best drivers in the world driving it like they stole it for an hour and a half on Sunday afternoons. Terms like ‘lift and coast’ should be obsolete at any level of the sport, let alone its pinnacle, ditto instructions to nurse tyres that are perhaps only five laps old.