The World Rally Championship returned to Australian shores last weekend, with Rally Australia run on the New South Wales Coffs Coast for the first time.
This year has been one of wholesale change for the pinnacle of rallying, with new regulations seeing both Citroen and Ford roll-out new cars.
Another significant development for this year has involved tyres. The end of Pirelli’s three-year control tyre deal paved the way for Michelin’s return to the WRC for the first time (with its own brand) since winning the 2005 championship with Sebastien Loeb.
Speedcafe.com’s Stefan Bartholomaeus spoke to Michelin’s rally manager Jacques Morelli to find out what the French company’s new WRC program is all about.
SPEEDCAFE: Michelin has come back to the WRC this year after several years away. What attracted you back into the sport?
Jacques Morelli: I think when the FIA proposed different regulations compared to the three years before, Michelin found new value in it. We have a long history in rallying, and have been heavily involved with the Intercontinental Rally Challenge over the past four years anyway (through the company’s BF Goodrich brand), so in some sense we have never been away.
SPEEDCAFE: Give us an indication of the scale of the task for Michelin to come to an event like Rally Australia, in terms of tyres, people and so on…
Morelli: To come to Rally Australia is a big task. Australia is very far, as you know, and we have to bring a lot of tyres and tools as part of the WRC program. From France we bring two containers with 1,200 of the Michelin Latitude Cross tyres, as well as our marquee workshop. We bring 12 people – seven tyre fitters, a co-ordinator, myself, and three technicians that work with our partner teams (Ford Abu Dhabi, Citroen Racing and Brazil Mini).
Also for Michelin on the weekend we had the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup at Silverstone, IRC, Japanese GT (SuperGT) and some motorcycle racing as well. When you count them up, there are maybe 60 technicians away racing, which is a lot, but we are used to it. We have previously been involved for a long time in not just the WRC, but also Formula One and motorcycles and so on, so we are used to big projects, and they are not a big problem.
SPEEDCAFE: The new tyre regulations for the WRC that you mentioned have seen only one tyre compound available to the teams on each gravel rally this year. Is this an area we might see reviewed in the future?
Morelli: No, I don’t think so. We saw in Rally Australia the limit of the one-tyre only rules, because of the conditions. With two very different conditions there is a big contrast. On Saturday and Sunday the tyres worked very well, but on Friday (when rally leaders Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier crashed) it was not the right tyre – the compound was too hard.
But we have to find the compromise and that’s the compromise that we have to accept, both Michelin and the drivers also. It is difficult to ask a driver to slow down, but maybe sometimes they need to take more care than normal. This is rallying.
SPEEDCAFE: Michelin has often stated a preference for competition, rather than a control tyre. Are you keen to see another brand enter the WRC?
Morelli: Of course. When we go back to the WRC we hope for many competitors, but unfortunately at the moment we have just one (Chinese firm DMACK). The major one (Pirelli) is involved somewhere else (Formula One), so they don’t want to push now so much in rally. But we are always waiting that someone is coming. It would improve the value for us, and show that we can fight and prove the level of our product.
SPEEDCAFE: Michelin has announced a major partnership with the FIA’s Action for Road Safety campaign as part of the ‘Decade of Action for Road Safety’ initiated by the UN. Is road safety something you can enhance through the rally program, be it with development or awareness?
Morelli: It (enhancing road safety) is very much part of the value for Michelin in competition. I think it is something that we can do together with the FIA. The aim from both sides is to ensure that competition contributes positively to improving mobility.
Michelin has a strong relationship with the FIA, and we share the goal to raise awareness of road safety with young people. It is natural also that development and innovation in tyres through competition improves our road products.
SPEEDCAFE: There is talk of increasing the life of the tyres in the WRC over the coming years. What is the current plan?
Morelli: The plan is that, what we do for next year, we will increase the life of the tyres but about 20 percent over this year, and then a further 20 percent the year after.
You can keep the length of the rally the same and decrease the number of tyres, or increase the rally and keep the tyres the same – but that is very difficult. Keeping the rally the same way as we have now and decreasing the number of tyres is the first step.
SPEEDCAFE: It has been suggested by the FIA though that we might see longer rallies in the near future. Does Michelin have a view on that?
Morelli: We agree, as long as it is not changed in a major way, then we agree for the change to maybe increase the rally. We want to also help the rally to become bigger, so if increasing the rally helps to grow the sport then we support it.