Frédéric Henry-Biabaud, Michelin Motorsport Director, explains how Michelin will be approaching the motorsport.
Q: How would you summarise the Formula One season to date?
Frédéric Henry-Biabaud: "Michelin and its partners have won eight of the first 13 grands prix and, of course, that gives me a great deal of satisfaction. In one way, our successes this season are more praiseworthy than all those we scored last year, because there has been serious competition between tyre manufacturers and that wasn't the case in 2005. What's more, we had to react really quickly to embrace the revised tyre regulations imposed at the end of last year - and that was a development we hadn't anticipated."
"It's also worth pointing out that we voluntarily took a responsible decision to ensure that F1 tyre supply was split more evenly between Michelin and its rival this season. We're aware that our products have enabled our partners to be very competitive and I am naturally very pleased with the job done by everybody within our various departments at Clermont-Ferrand."
Q: How important would a second straight F1 title success be for Michelin?
FH-B: "Michelin's impending departure from Formula One will markthe end of true competition between tyre manufacturers at this level of the sport. This season, every team has had to balance four key elements: chassis, engine, driver and tyres. In such circumstances, it would be immensely gratifying to bow out knowing that we'd helped a team to clinch the world championship. It would underline the quality of Michelin's product range."
Q: Why do you think tyres have been such an important factor this season?
FH-B: "Most of the cars are now very close in performance terms a nd tyres can make a significant difference. Sometimes, this lends weight to the theory that F1 is little more than a battle between tyre companies - and perhaps that's one of the main reasons the 2008 rules dictate there will only be a single tyre supplier. That's a real pity! Tyres are the only direct link between a single-seater and the track and it's true that they can make a difference, one way or the other, of a few tenths of a second per lap."
"Michelin is the world's leading tyre manufacturer and we appreciate the fact people realise our products can give our partners a competitive advantage. Whether we are talking about motorsport or everyday road use, tyres are not some insignificant trifle. They are cutting-edge, high-tech products that blend performance and safety."
Q: Michelin's withdrawal means F1 will have a single tyre supplier from 2007. Do you think that will dilute the intensity of competition?
FH-B: "Well there certainly won't be a tyre war any more, so people will have to find other things to talk about... On a more serious note, there will be less competition in the purest sense of the term because a key part of the 'package' will no longer be there to provide a potential performance advantage. You might well question the point of a tyre manufacturer taking part in a series on those terms. Apart from a bit of brand recognition, where's the appeal?"
"As Edouard Michelin used to say, 'In an arena where its motorsport products finish simultaneously first and last, there is no marketing value for Michelin.' For the public it's a matter of credibility and, indeed, transparency. It's possible that people will still talk about tyres in future, but only when there's a hitch - if the available compounds are unsuitable or such and such a team is affected by quality control problems."
Q: Pat Symonds (Renault F1 Team) and Ross Brawn (Ferrari), two of F1's foremost technical gurus, say their cars and engines are quite closely matched this season and that tyres will make the difference. Do you regard that as flattery or criticism?
FH-B: "Remarks of that kind are flattering for Michelin and, indeed, tyre companies in general. It is our job to provide the best possible range of products. The development of new compounds and constructions, or an amalgam of the two, can be equivalent to a few dozen extra, usable horsepower. Such performance gains cost considerably less than a new engine upgrade."
"This facet of the sport irritates some people and frustrates those who choose the wrong tyre compound... or partner. Today , teams have the possibility of enhancing their performance by choosing aggressive, or less aggressive, compounds. When F1 returns to a single tyre supplier that option will disappear and I believe, unfortunately, that teams with smaller budgets will suffer accordingly."
Q: At the moment each team is able to specify tyres that are tailored to its own needs. With a single supplier, isn't there a risk that some teams might lose out by running on the same brand as everybody else?
FH-B: "It all depends on the level of control the FIA puts in place. Since 2001 an awful lot of teams have asked us to supply them with tyres, and for several reasons. It wasn't just by chance that we provided tyres for 70 per cent of the field last year. Teams came to us because they appreciated the performance of Michelin's products and also, they told us, because they were guaranteed equal treatment - something for which we have cultivated a reputation. That is a core value of the Michelin Group and it applies to every form of motorsport in which we are involved."
Q: What will happen to Michelin's F1 division? Will the company set up a technological surveillance unit, so as not to fritter away the lessons of the past six seasons? That way, indeed, you could continue to develop ideas...
FH-B: "The investment we had set aside for F1 will be redeployed in other areas- motorcycle racing, rallying, GT events and, particularly, endurance racing, which is becoming a real showcase for new technology. The goal, as always, will be to enable our partners - both manufacturers and privateers - to improve their performance."
"When Michelin returned to F1, in 2001, we called on all the expertise and data we had acquired in other championships around the world, where we had been both deeply committed and very successful. We made full use of our most talented engineers and our finest research facilities as we developed compounds, constructions, tread patterns and materials. It is only natural that we will do the same thing in reverse at the end of this year. It will help us to make even greater strides forwards in every discipline with which we decide to become involved in the future. Six successful seasons in F1 will be a catalyst for progress."
"Motorsport has been part of Michelin Group culture for more than 110 years. For us it has never been about scoring marketing points. We understand that the development work we carry out in motorsport, particularly on the world stage, enables us to improve our products and services in every domain. We have a motto: 'True competition, in the sense that Michelin understands it, is the best research laboratory of all.' We can't repeat that often enough."
Q: What are your longer-term motorsport objectives?
FH-B: "Motorsport is a core part of the Michelin Group's strategy when it comes to fresh technological developments. It is a powerful platform for the future. In addition, it is a strong motivational tool for our personnel and can be very useful in terms of brand awareness and, sometimes, for strengthening our reputation. The purpose of competition is to make progress on all fronts so that our partner manufacturers, distribution networks and customers can reap the benefits. Michelin's philosophy is to design and produce tyres for tomorrow that are even better than what we have today in terms of safety and overall performance. That applies as much to road tyres as it does to those we make for competition."
Q: There is talk that the World Rally Championship will switch to a single tyre manufacturer. What will Michelin's stance be?
FH-B: "Michelin's view is absolutely clear. We are not naturally or philosophically in favour of the principle of a single tyre supplier in mainstream global championships. As far as the WRC is concerned, and it is very unlike F1 in this regard, we have always worked with the main protagonists - the FIA, teams and competitors - in a bid to cut tyre costs drastically."
"In light of the results of this research and the credibility of the proposals that followed, we have been given the possibility to contribute once again to discussions about the direction the rules should take. A specific working group has been set up and will be supervised by the FIA's technical delegate. Just as we have in the past, we intend to make a measured, professional contribution to the debate and the findings will be submitted to motorsport's World Council before the end of 2006. We won't take a stance one way or the other until this work has been completed."
"Lastly, it is worth pointing out that BFGoodrich, which competes inthe WRC and rally-raids as the Michelin Group's official representative, does not have the same concerns as a globally recognised name such as Michelin. We have noticed in the past that committing to motorsport, even as a single supplier, can generate broader brand recognition for a tyre manufacturer - that has certainly been the case for one of our F1 rivals. This is a factor we must also bear in mind."