As Ford Performance and Chip Ganassi Racing celebrate the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar GT Le Mans class manufacturer’s championship with the Ford GTs, here is a rare look behind the scenes at Michelin’s role.
Before there was a Ford GT IMSA championship and victories at Le Mans and Daytona, Monterey, Watkins Glen, Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, Lime Rock Park and Road America, Michelin was there.
Ford had approached a key Michelin executive in 2013 about working with them on a Mustang-based car for Le Mans.
The project was subsequently declined by Ford’s board, but a core group of Ford leaders came back with a highly secretive plan to return to Le Mans with a new Ford GT and Michelin was invited into the top-secret tent at a very early stage.
By spring 2014, Michelin North America motorsport director Chis Baker was meeting regularly with Ford and had assigned John Church to lead Michelin’s tire development for the embryonic Ford GT.
A native of Terre Haute, Ind., Church had joined Michelin shortly after graduating from Purdue University in 1989. A Michelin senior tire development engineer with 14 years of motorsport experience, Church was the ideal choice for an historic assignment and he relished the challenge.
“These opportunities (like Ford GT) don’t come very often and you want to make the most of them,” said Church.
“I didn’t feel any pressure. I was excited and took it very seriously but felt well prepared and that I had the right experience. With my role in developing tires for production vehicles, it was a good fit for our commitment to take what we learn from the track to the street.”
With Michelin and Church on-board, there was just one catch, the car existed only in drawings, data and early models.
“In earlier days, manufacturers and teams would contact Michelin a month or two before they were ready to begin testing and you gave them something to test and then worked to develop tires to match the car,” said Baker.
“Those days are gone. Tires are now recognized as the enabling or constraining factor on the car’s performance. It sounds counter-intuitive to outsiders, but the best way to optimize the car is to develop the car around the tire and that is what Ford wanted to do.
“Based upon our experience, we gave Ford some ideas in terms of tire shapes, sizing, and aerodynamic and braking loads and they gave us some data and performance characteristics so that we could begin modeling and running simulations and analytics.”
That fall, a talented young Michelin engineer was expatriated to the Michelin motorsport global technical center in France to develop plans for data exchange and analysis.
In January 2015, Ford stunned the automotive world with the unveiling of the Ford GT as a concept vehicle at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Five months later, Chairman Bill Ford unveiled the race car at Le Mans and announced Ford’s plan to return to Le Mans in 2016.
“We had the fully liveried race car at our proving grounds in Ladoux, France for filming and photography a few days before the official announcement at Le Mans, but Ford and Michelin didn’t want a single photo or social media post to get out ahead of the announcement,” said Church.
“We even practiced the ACO measures for top speed and downforce which gave Ford the first real world data to reconcile with its simulations.
“There was an amazing level of confidentiality.”
“Early tests are primarily about racking up miles and establishing durability and consistency. To avoid chasing our tails with a new car and different tires, we agreed to start testing using our commercial race slicks, like the tires that we will use in most of the IMSA classes in 2019,” recalled Ken Payne, technical director, Michelin North America.
“Once the consistency was established we moved on to working on handling and performance by trying tires from our existing GTLM portfolio to see how the Ford GT responded.”
As testing progressed, Gary Swingle, a Michelin tire simulations leader was added to the mix to provide additional technical support at all of the tests and races.
Michelin initially expected the Ford GT to perform best on the Michelin options designed for the mid-engine Ferrari, so they were surprised when the Ford CGR team and drivers decided to use a tire designed for Corvette in their debut at Daytona 2016.
“In hindsight, that made sense as the drivers had previously driven front-engine cars like Corvette (Briscoe/Westbrook) or BMW (Hand/Mueller) and felt a bit more confident in that option,” said Payne.
In the meantime, European-based Michelin engineers working with the CGR–WEC team had settled on the design of a new tire for WEC and Le Mans.
“We knew from the tests in Europe that spring that the new tires being developed specifically for the Ford GT were going be a good step forward and Ryan Briscoe immediately commented that they really brought the car to life,” said Church.
In its first race with the new-generation tires, Ford won at Monterey, then followed its win at Le Mans with victories at Watkins Glen, and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
Le Mans 2016
“The first year (2016) was pressure filled. Expectations were just so high and the CGR team was new in that they had never raced at Le Mans,” said Church.
“The Ford family was all there, and we only had one chance to win in that anniversary year. There was massive hype all weekend, and when it was done we all celebrated because we had done it together.”
Ford Sees Every Step
“Winning races and championships take a lot of collaboration, commitment and close relationships with key partners,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports.
“Our partnership has spanned both the racing program and our production lineup at Ford Performance since the beginning in 2015, so we knew that the relationships we formed across the board could only help us achieve great things with their team and Ford Chip Ganassi Racing.
“John and Gary have been there for us every step of the way, and we are grateful for their continued support.”