This weekend’s Michelin IMSA SportsCar Encore is serving as a dual purpose for Michelin, with both teams getting up to speed with new-for-2019 tire offerings and the manufacturer’s new crop of volunteer engineers being ‘let loose’ for the first time.
The French tire giant, which becomes the Official Tire of the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and exclusive tire provider for both the newly named Michelin Pilot Challenge and IMSA Prototype Challenge next year, has come out in force to Sebring International Raceway in the first event in its increased capacity.
While featuring a modest 20-car grid, more than a dozen Michelin tire engineers are on hand, working with many teams for the first time, with the collective goal of getting a jump start on 2019.
“We’ve got a bunch of tire nerds here,” Michelin Motorsports North America director Chris Baker told Sportscar365. “The major mission this weekend is to bloody those guys for the first time in an actual race.
“We’ve been through, with our growing pool of volunteer engineers in anticipation of 2019. We’ve done the training at the Laurens Proving Grounds. We’ve had a bunch of guys at races throughout the season, hanging out with our engineers in the GTLM pits.
“This is our first opportunity to turn them loose with teams and have them interact directly and take over cars.”
Led by Michelin Motorsports North America technical director Ken Payne and Robbie Holley (pictured right), the operations manager for Michelin’s IMSA program, a total of 13 volunteer engineers are on-site this weekend.
Baker expects the tire engineer-team relationship to grow, with plans to have certain Michelin staff concentrated on a particular category and others floating around throughout the season.
Michelin will be the exclusive tire supplier for the DPi, LMP2, GT Daytona, LMP3, GT4 and TCR classes next year, with an estimated car count exceeding 100 entries on a typical IMSA weekend.
Additionally, it will continue with at least one embedded tire engineer per GT Le Mans class manufacturer it supports.
“It’s obviously a much denser ratio [of engineers to cars this weekend],” Baker said. “We’ll play a looser zone when we get into 2019.
“But it’s worked out well. The guys are building confidence in their freedom and latitude to tell folks, ‘This is what you need to do if you want to go faster.'”
While Extreme Speed Motorsports and Performance Tech Motorsports are the only teams taking part this weekend to have previous race experience on Michelins, Baker said they share many past connections with drivers and crew spread throughout the paddock.
It’s included the likes of Risi Competizione technical director Rick Mayer, who is engineering Simraceway Motorsports’ Ligier JS P3 Nissan this weekend.
“Surprisingly we’ve run into a number of familiar faces who have different shirts on,” Baker said.
“In addition, we’ve run into a number of folks who have had some exposure with us before but maybe not in their current vehicle platform context.
“They haven’t run with us using their Cayman GT4 Clubsport, for instance.”
Drivers Give Early Praise for ‘Global’ Michelin Tires
JDC-Miller Motorsports’ Stephen Simpson, as well as other drivers, have praised Michelin’s commercial tire offerings although admits it’s taken some adjustment compared to the outgoing Continental rubber.
Simpson, who is racing JDC’s No. 54 Audi RS 3 LMS TCR alongside Michael Johnson, was one of two TCR cars to already eclipse the previous track record for TCR cars with the series’ new-for-2019 tires.
“It’s definitely quicker, there’s no doubt about it; What’s interesting is that it reacts a lot differently,” Simpson told Sportscar365.
“A lot of the changes we’d make on the other tire that worked don’t necessarily work on this tire.
“It’s starting from scratch again. There’s a lot to understand and figure out.”
Matt Bell, however, is on the other end of the spectrum, having run on the identical tire in both the European Le Mans Series and Michelin Le Mans Cup this year in LMP3
The Englishman, who topped the time sheets on Saturday, teams with Jim McGuire and Kay van Berlo in the No. 26 K2R Motorsports Ligier this weekend.
“We’re probably the most familiar people with the tire in this paddock,” Bell told Sportscar365. “It makes it good for us and easy for us to transition.
“The thing for us is to get used to is the nature of Sebring with the bumps. While we have good tire knowledge and a good feeling of the Michelin tire, we’ve never run it anywhere quite like this.
“There’s still some fine-tuning and education to sort us out but I think it’s handy having a universal tire across LMP3.”