Three hundred sixty five days is a long time, but Chris Baker, the director of motorsport, Michelin North America can tell you that the past 365 days have flown by.
It was at Road America last August that Baker and Michelin original equipment executive Bob Carroll were advised that IMSA had chosen Michelin to proceed into final discussion to become the official tire of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype and GT Daytona classes and what will become the IMSA MICHELIN Pilot Challenge in 2019.
“IMSA had made clear that this was going to be an all or nothing deal. We spent well over a year demonstrating to IMSA that we wanted to be a long-term partner, and we were very pleased that they chose Michelin,” Baker said.
Keeping a Big Secret
“Bob was hosting a dinner that Saturday evening for our engineers,” Baker reflected. “Our team at Road America saw us head into a meeting with IMSA as they left the track, so naturally our people were curious about ‘being called to the IMSA hauler,’ but we couldn’t say a word or offer the slightest hint at dinner.
“We just said that nothing was decided and we wouldn’t know IMSA’s decision for at least a couple more weeks.
“A few weeks later an agreement was finalized while Michelin and IMSA quietly developed releases and agreed on plans for an announcement at Petit Le Mans in October. That timetable was immediately pulled ahead when the incumbent tire partner unexpectedly issued a release prior to the Laguna Seca WeatherTech race in late September.
“That release before Laguna Seca was actually a blessing for us. IMSA had been sitting on the official joint release for nearly a month. Now we could share the news with everyone instead of waiting yet another two weeks for Petit Le Mans.”
Baker said its involvement in IMSA will be the biggest motorsports program Michelin has ever executed in North America.
“Our IMSA program is a Michelin Group ‘corporate’ project, meaning it is treated like the World Rally Championship, WEC, Formula E and MotoGP,” he said.
In 2016 when the Ford GTs debuted at Daytona, a Ford exec expected that sometime during the 24 hours one of their engineers would say, “well, we’ve never seen that before!”
Sure enough, just a few laps into the race, one of their cars pitted with a gear selector issue that had not appeared in the thousands of mile of testing.
“Some folks seem to expect that we will show up, bolt on a set of tires that are instantly faster, last longer and then our engineers will make lunch,” Baker said with a laugh.
“Look, we come at this with a humble, hardworking, fact-based approach.
“There are a lot of teams here that we have never raced with. We need to get to know each other and start working together to build our relationship. We want to understand their setups and teams and they want to understand how our tires work on their cars.
“We know that we are going to run into some challenges and surprises, like IMSA splitting the Prototype and LMP2 into two classes for 2019—perhaps making the DPi cars faster in the process.
“That is business as usual in motorsport and we need to anticipate what we can and be prepared to respond to whatever develops.”
Michelin again was on track Monday following the Road America race for a private session, its third on-track opportunity of the year.
This allowed teams to continue to familiarize themselves with the tires, engineers and race operations team. Another opportunity is scheduled for later in August at Daytona.
On the Monday after Petit Le Mans, Michelin will have an on-track opportunity for one car from each team, rather than the one car per manufacturer approach at the earlier on-track days.
A Loudly Ticking Clock
“We are less than 60 days away from the checkered flag at Road Atlanta,” Baker said. “While we all refer to this as 2019, it really means starting early in the fourth quarter of 2018.”
“Then after Road Atlanta we will be at Sebring for the IMSA Michelin SportsCar Encore event (Nov. 9-11), which is open to LMP3, GT3, GT4 and TCR entries. That will be our first ‘live fire’ exercise.”
The Roar Before the 24 At Daytona is Jan. 4-6. Three weeks later, the first race of 2019 WeatherTech Championship season, the Rolex 24 at Daytona, kicks off both IMSA’s 50th season celebration and the new TV relationship with NBC Sports Group.
“Bob Carroll said that if Daytona goes well, he will buy dinner,” Baker said. “That sounds good, but I will actually be looking forward to a nap.”