Europe’s Evanescent Motorsport Culture
Motorsport isn’t just about speedy overtaking manoeuvres and exciting finishes. Instead a major part of its attraction is owed to the people that live for motorsports and who – if missing – would make the event that bit less interesting. Without doubt one of these people is Pierre Dupasquier. For 30 years the Michelin motorsport director has been generally regarded as the driving force behind the French tyre manufacturer’s involvement. In addition, he is one of the few who, although not a driver himself, is allowed to comment on races on TV. Tyres & Accessories had the opportunity to meet the passionate 67 year old Frenchman and talk about the coming season.
For a long time Pierre Dupasquier has been part of the Formula 1 circus, having worked for his employer Michelin in a number different fields. Be it Formula 1, the World Rally Championship (WRC) or MotoGP, he lives for everything that’s fast and runs on two or more wheels. Although interested in and involved in all sorts of motorsports, Mr Dupasquier’s committed to the premier league of motorsports, namely Formula 1. This season wasn’t as glorious as it might have been for Michelin. Out of the 18 races Bridgestone, its only competitor in the Formula 1, won 15. Michelin’s problem? The domination of Michael Schumacher and his Ferrari its Bridgestone tyres.
Nevertheless it has to be stated that Michelin supported drivers took all the remaining places between three and 10 on the table at the end of the year, directly behind the Ferrari drivers. Without this competition Formula 1 would be a different sport, acknowledges Mr Dupasquier. “Michelin is not interested in participating in Formula 1 if there’s only one tyre supplier,” the motorsport director comments referring to recently proposed plans for a single producer series.
A similar situation in the WRC allows for enough competition in order to keep an eye on the actual reason for a tyre manufacturer to be involved in motorsports – in order to improve its products. In this year’s WRC season, which ended in November, all teams were provided with Michelin tyres. There was only one exception, the Subaru team used Pirelli tyres. The 2004 championship went to Sébastien Loeb who won the title with Michelin tyres. Just a year before, however, Michelin’s numerical dominance couldn’t prevent Petter Solberg’s Pirelli-equipped Subaru from winning the championship.
In order to steadily improve its own tyres Michelin needs the competition of at least one tyre manufacturer, Pierre Dupasquier told T&A. Mr Dupasquier does not think, this year’s Formula 1 season was a bad season from Michelin’s perspective. It is rather the opposite. Michelin, unlike its only competitor, supports several premium teams at the same time (see table).
This is a definite advantage, says Mr Dupasquier, because under these circumstances Michelin, as a tyre manufacturer, has many more opportunities to learn how to optimise its products. There is simply much more feedback from the customers. Bridgestone on the other hand doesn’t work with the same breadth of representation. Ferrari aside, the other teams that ran on Japanese tyres didn’t have a lot of influence on this season’s outcomes.
In fact, Pierre Dupasquier is rather satisfied with the current situation. Originally Michelin entered Formula 1 in order “to see what was going on.” Michelin originally supplied tyres from 1977 to 1984 and then again from 2001. In the early days the French company was in Formula 1 in order to obtain the advanced know-how necessary for the development of its consumer tyres. In the middle of the 1970s radial tyres were just about to break through onto the European markets. So, motorsports is anything but an expensive hobby. On the other side of things Michelin is aiming for development and innovation: “To do that we need competition,” say Mr Dupasquier.
In Pierre Dupasquier’s eyes a commitment to Formula 1 wouldn’t make sense if there were only one tyre manufacturer allowed. Therefore Mr Dupasquier, not to mention Michelin’s marketing department, does not support the idea of having a single supplier. Having two manufacturers and two suppliers means tyres are always under the spotlight and therefore included in media coverage. For an exclusive tyre supplier it is much more difficult to be covered in an article or just reported on as news-in-brief. That is, of course, unless a tyre explodes during the race and prematurely ends the title aspirations of a driver. If somebody wins a race under a monopolistic tyre supplier scheme nobody would attribute this to the tyres, in fact commentators would be more likely to put it down to the driver’s capabilities or the car itself.
On the other hand Pierre Dupasquier wouldn’t mind seeing a third tyre supplier entering Formula 1. According to reports the Korean tyre manufacturer Kumho is currently developing its own Formula 1 tyre that will be available in 2007 when the new contracts are signed. For Mr Dupasquier, Kumho’s financial and technical capabilities are not in question. So will the manufacturer be able to produce a Formula 1 product? “The answer is yes!” he responds straightforwardly. Kumho has been the exclusive tyre supplier for the popular Formula 3 Euroseries since 2000. In this series Kumho has gathered experience in the development and the construction of motorsport tyres, says Mr Dupasquier. Thereupon a planned investment of $25 million is not seen as insignificant. Instead, according to Michelin’s motorsport director, “it is stupid to waste a lot of money” as he is looking forward to the increasing competition. For him it is easy to understand Kumho’s step because there is one important difference between Formula 1 and Formula 3 from a marketing point of view: Formula 1 reaches an audience of millions, while Formula 3 is only seen a prelude to the main event.
There are other possible changes that are not to Mr Dupasquier’s liking. For example, the new regulations on the durability of tyres or the maximum speed. Next season teams will only be able to use one set of Formula 1 tyres for both qualifying and the race itself, making thrilling tyre changes in the pit-lane a thing of the past. Technically it is not a problem to produce motorsport tyres that last longer, Pierre Dupasquier explains. But tyre manufacturers will then be on their way to producing “truck tyres”, if the trend towards harder Formula 1 tyres continues. The motorsport director says that it wouldn’t even be a problem to produce F1 tyres that last three races including qualifying. In addition it is exactly the development of a special tyre for very special conditions and a special car that makes the challenge of Formula 1 what it is. Furthermore the changes to the car’s aerodynamics next year will interfere with the tyres – the compound will be harder and the tyre slower again. However, Michelin wants to produce faster tyres not slower ones, says Mr Dupasquier. If the new regulations warrant further changes Michelin would comply with them.
European Formula 1 supporters also have to comply with some changes. One of these changes is that the whole event is becoming more Asian. During this season races took place in Shanghai as well as in Bahrain for the first time. From an economic point of view it makes sense by all means to focus on Asian markets with the commercialisation of Formula 1, but this was just a “personal view” of Mr Dupasquier. In the last few years European markets have become too “static.” The rank and file are just not into it any more, whereas in China Michael Schumacher is admired like a pop star. In the UK, for example, every second person – including children – owns a car. This is one of the reasons why developing countries in Asia have an enormous backlog in demand, in terms of motorisation and motorsport events. Mr Dupasquier even speaks of a certain “trend” in motorsports towards Asia supported by the European prohibition of advertising tobacco products. “Losing all this culture wouldn’t be good,” warns Mr Dupasquier highlighting the recebt decline of spectator interest at the racetrack.
These changes will hardly interfere with the coming season. Michelin’s motorsport director does not believe that Michael Schumacher and Ferrari will be much worse than the recent almost perfect season. “They are massively investing” and will even stick to their previous testing habits. When nine teams out of 10 deliberately confine themselves to just 24 days of tyre testing in the future, Ferrari will use as much time as necessary whatever that means. The same applies to the forthcoming season: “They have the elements and the structure to be the best at that game.” But Mr Dupasquier also observes that Michael Schumacher doesn’t stand the pressure as well as he used to, something which he says is particularly noticeable in the face of stiff opposition. “He doesn’t like that very much, he was always in the lead.” On the question of whether Michael Schumacher would have won this year’s season on Michelin tyres as well, the sympathetic Pierre Dupasquier just answers with a broad smile.
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