Corporate and fanatic combine for festival of motorsport – Falken
The ADAC Nürburgring 24 hour race is wrapped up in both the corporate spending in making fast, reliable machines to conquer this most challenging of circuits and what Falken representatives describe as the “punk rock” aesthetic of the camping motorsport enthusiasts – and indeed some of the competitors, as evidenced by the famous Opel Ascona with the fox tail attachment. Speaking with event main sponsor and tyre-supplying participant Falken Tyres Europe, T&A understands the brand’s argument that the race’s blend of research and development opportunities, and the connection with fanatics (a quarter of a million trackside, without taking into account those keeping track on the internet and television) makes it one of the brand’s “most important” events. Falken Tyre Europe’s marketing director, Satoru Ushida explained that the company is keen to show its presence in Europe at such events as it establishes itself further, having taken over distribution of the brand from Goodyear Dunlop in 2009.
Showing the race’s more corporate side, though clearly enjoying the opportunity to visit the event, wholesaler Micheldever, which distributes the brand in the UK, and some of its dealer customers were guests in Falken’s hospitality suite looking over the Nürburgring’s first two corners. Connecting with the public at large, Falken tied in huge internet-based activities with the race. Nürburgring-shaped stickers, featuring smartphone barcodes to direct visitors to the brand’s website were distributed, while online social networking updates mixed with user-generated content to provide a truly interactive forum. Falken clearly has more than an eye on the massive potential of e-Commerce opportunities, and this event’s particular attractiveness to these features.
Falken’s high performance segmentisation makes motorsport’s speed and prestige an excellent platform for marketing, enhancing its image not only for regular passenger car tyres, but also for winter tyres – which Ushida anticipates as continuing to grow in the UK and Europe – and SUV tyres. He told T&A that Falken plans to launch a new “high performance SUV tyre” in the UK soon. In original equipment, Satoru said Falken currently has supply deals with Nissan, Suzuki, Subaru and Daihatsu. In terms of technologies on the UK market, Ushida remarked that Falken’s rounded shoulder construction has been of particular interest, because it proves particularly resistant to “tramlining” – defined as the bumpy conditions caused by indentations in the road from commercial vehicle wheels, but extending to the current state of Britain’s roads in general.
Developing tyres to take on the Green Hell
T&A asked Schnabl Engineering/Falken Tyres Team head, Sven Schnabel and driver Peter Dumbreck about how a tyre suitable for the varying conditions of the Nürburgring was developed and how strategy comes into play, Schnabel told T&A that “99 per cent of the tyres’ development was completed by Falken in Japan… We started in October 2010 with the car as standard, but then fitted Nordschleife suspension. Then we started with a tyre Falken supplied to Nissan [Falken is supplying tyres only to its own team and to two Nissans] and ALMS [American Le Mans Series]. Then there were two development races – we weren’t really racing in them, just trying the different compounds at every tyre change – so this tyre specifically is having its first race here.
“The Nordschleife provides the most difficult car set-up worldwide. In terms of tyre choices, the variety of different surfaces presented during the track’s 25km distance and the different levels of grip they offer [a problem which is compounded by the visitors’ tradition of painting on the Nordschleife’s tarmac] and the characteristic jumps you can see on the Nordshleife, coupled with the changing weather conditions [changes that can occur even during the same lap], and the different driving styles of the team’s four drivers,
“In terms of tyre strategy, the decisions are much less complicated here than at Le Mans, for example – unlike that race, you are allowed to change tyres when refuelling, meaning that at the end of each driver’s stint of eight-nine laps (which should equate to around 80 minutes) we will put a new set of tyres on. Unlike at Le Mans, where you often see drivers complete a double-stint on the same set of tyres – in fact the Audi team did five this year on the same set – keeping the same set of tyres fitted is not necessary. It takes around two and a half minutes to refuel, so you could just have one mechanic changing the tyres.” Having said this, Schnabl Engineering’s Falken team has “10-12 mechanics” at this year’s race, so this would not necessarily exemplify its approach to changing tyres…
Dumbreck, speaking hours before the race, explained that a conservative strategy would be favourable to the team: “We made some changes to the car set up on Friday to try to make it more durable; the Porsche tends to wear out the rear tyres more quickly than the Nissan… I certainly think we should think about being comfortable. We all want to record better times, and I’m as competitive as anyone, but sometimes it is better to make sure the car is still running in the morning.”
Having said that, Dumbreck conceded that the race “is moving towards more of a sprint race – like at Le Mans – as a result of cars becoming more reliable here.” His team’s difficulties, including contact during the first lap and wholesale engine and transmission changes after a quarter of the race time, necessitated a more sprint-based approach in order to show the Porsche’s top ten potential.
In terms of compounds, Dumbreck explained, “We have many sets of tyres here, including three different slicks.” While driving at night has its disadvantages, including the reliance on headlights alone for illumination, Dumbreck says: “the night portion of the race is better for tyres in the cooler ambient temperatures. Once they are warmed up, you get better performance out of the softer compounds because they don’t degrade as quickly as in the cooler air.”