Michelin will be taking on an increased role in the IMSA paddock beginning in 2019, having been confirmed last week as the “Official Tire” of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, and new entitlement sponsors of the Michelin Tire SportsCar Challenge and Michelin Endurance Cup, in a landmark deal for the French tire manufacturer.
Sportscar365 caught up with Chris Baker, the Director of Motorsport for Michelin North America, to get his thoughts on the deal and what lies ahead in the multi-faceted partnership.
What are your thoughts on the new partnership and how has the reaction been within the company?
“We think that this is a terrific platform for us, upon which we can focus our consumer marketing efforts against a special community of consumers that we refer to, our internal vernacular is PDP or ‘Premium Driving Pleasure’ consumers.
“We have this opportunity with IMSA to focus our promotional efforts and our communications efforts on those folks to bring them into this world.
“It’s very much a partnership, it’s not just a transactional arrangement as we see it.
“Our entire company, we’re a $25 billion company, 120,000 employees, 24,000 roughly of which are in North America.
“We have communicated massively internally about [the partnership] and there’s a really high degree of excitement.
“For those of us who have been obliged to sit on the news for a long time, it’s a great feeling to feel, see, and experience that outpouring of enthusiasm internal to our company.”
When did discussions with IMSA date back to?
“The internal vision goes back as far as 2013-ish. The actual live-fire discussions with IMSA and NASCAR holdings, that was about a 38-month work.
“My first substantial discussions with the IMSA executive team was in July of 2014, if memory serves, at Indy, where ironically enough we were also talking with the folks at IndyCar.
“That was more, ‘hey we’re in town, we’re going to talk about it.’ But that same weekend we really had the no BS discussion [with IMSA], ‘OK, what would it look like? What would it take?’
“Obviously there was a lot of work between then and now.”
What kind of activation is planned with the new partnership?
“With just being able to participate in GTLM, our ability to activate is constrained.
“We have some partner tracks on the IMSA schedule where we have some greater latitude, but both out of professional respect for the other tire participant and, in some cases, contractual restraints, there’s not as much as we would like to do today.
“In the 2019-and-beyond environment, we will massively expand our marketing activation.
“We’ll do that differently than the current partner. One of the reasons we were able to announce the arrangement [last] week is one of the convincing factors for IMSA and the NASCAR family is [that] we are going to approach it differently.
“We proposed an approach that acknowledges a new world of communicating between consumers, a new world of influencers that have a strong interest in cars and credibility with their own audiences.”
What sets Michelin apart from other tire brands?
“Quite frankly, anybody can write checks. We’re a big company, we have resources, but what is the differentiating factor?
“There is the Michelin brand obviously. It’s rank in brands worldwide, not just automotive brands or the tire space, is enormous.
“It is something that extends beyond just the tire. You talk about Michelin, you could be talking about restaurants, you could be talking about maps and guides, you could be talking about a whole host of things that are inherent to a complete mobility company.
“That is also what we’re bringing to the table. We intend to activate and leverage all of our assets with this IMSA partnership because we can do something that other tire companies simply can’t do.”
How are you expecting to ramp up tire supply?
“The need to have a massively muscled-up supply chain is obvious.
“We made a bit of a risky bet in the middle of the summer to go ahead and begin making some capital investment programs in our main race tire manufacturing facility in central France.
“All of these tires will continue to come from France, just like the GTLM tires do today.
“Our physical footprint at the track is going to increase.
“In a simple world, you’d say it’s going to be a combination of today’s Michelin footprint and the Conti footprint. Well, not exactly. It will probably be more efficient than that, but our approach will continue.
“We’re going to have people in the pits, we’re going to have engineers on site. We can’t go to the race track any differently.”
Do you anticipate that that confidential tires would be used in Prototype and GT Daytona?
“You can count on confidential tires being the case for GTLM pretty much in perpetuity.
“The jury is still out on the other [classes]. We’re well along in our discussions with IMSA on what our approach will be for the initial part of our agreement.
“We have a going-in game plan but it’s not cast in stone. We’ve got time to talk about that.”
Are you in favor of keeping GTLM open to tire competition?
“Absolutely. We’ve had competition that have brought the heat before. Sumitomo came with its Falken brand, and when the conditions were right they brought it to us.
“It was great for us. We’d love for Dunlop to come. We’d love for Pirelli to come. We’d love for Conti to come back. If the opportunity was right for them, why not? It keeps us honest.”
Do you think the new partnership helps the alliance between IMSA and the ACO?
“Part of the motivation for IMSA in aligning itself with Group Michelin is that clearly that enables such a result.
“We fully anticipate the crossover, not just the cross pollination but also the alignment in class structure and that sort of thing.
“We expect to see progress as we get down the road.
“There’s every opportunity to see teams who race in Europe on Michelin tires showing up to race in IMSA races and now vice versa. We think that’s a likely result.”