FIRST QUALIFYING SESSION FOR MICHELIN
The first qualifying sessions for the 75th edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours starts tonight at 19H00 on the mythical Sarthe circuit, 13,629 km long.
The variable weather has brought on a flurry of activity in the Michelin paddock especially as rain has been predicted for the two qualifying sessions scheduled between 19H00 -21H00, and then 22H - midnight.
In order to satisfy the demand, whether it is for dry condition tyres, drying, or wet, and in conjunction with the fluctuations in temperature, Michelin has prepared various tyre configurations on rims ready for any condition on the circuit.
MICHELIN MARKS ITS' QUALIFYING TYRES
This year for the first time ever, Teams LMP1 will run qualifying tyres marked with a silver band on one half of the circumference.
"Prior to this it was impossible to tell the difference between qualifying tyres and normal ones. In order to bring more information to race fans and the media, we have marked our tyres with a recognisable band. It will now be easier to tell which cars on the circuit are on a qualifying lap" explained Matthieu Bonardel, Michelin 4 Wheels Competition Director.
8000 tyres ...80 types of tyres
Remember that Michelin has brought 8000 tyres to Le Mans offering a choice between 4 types of dry tyres, 2 intermediate, and one for the wet. In all there are 80 tyre types available to help satisfy the four categories represented here. The choice is dependent on the weather conditions, and in function with the variations in temperatures between the day and night.
Michelin takes two diametrically opposed categories of tyres to the Le Mans 24 Hours: race tyres (developed to cover hundreds of kilometres at an average speed of 215kph) and qualifying tyres (designed to give their best over one or at most two laps of the 13.6km circuit).
"Qualifying is a major challenge for Michelin since qualifying tyres are no longer employed in the other endurance championships where drivers have to start the race with the tyres used in qualifying. Otherwise they would be forced to pit after just one lap. Le Mans is therefore an exception since the drivers are authorised to change tyres between qualifying and the start of the race.
Qualifying laps proper are generally restricted to the Wednesday evening practice session of race-week, between 8.30 and 9pm, or during the first fifteen minutes after the mid-session break, between 10 and 10.15pm. Any later, and visibility gets too poor as darkness sets in.
The driver completes one out lap, then accelerates prior to the main straight for his flying lap," says Competitions Manager of 4-wheel activities Manager, Matthieu Bonardel.
Michelin takes two types of qualifying tyre: a soft and an ultra-soft option. The former enables drivers to put in a second flying lap should they be slowed during the first by traffic. The latter is designed for a single qualifying lap, although few drivers are able to exploit this product to its full potential. This explains why it is so often experienced campaigners who claim pole- position at Le Mans.
Art for art's sake?
"Getting the most out of a set of qualifying tyres is an art," explains Matthieu Bonardel. "The drivers are amazed by their performance for they allow them to brake 30 metres later and to corner 20kph quicker. They can feel the tyres climb progressively to their full potential. Then, for a short period, grip is phenomenal before performance suddenly falls off, almost as though they had suffered a puncture, or driven over a patch of oil. The development of these qualifying tyres is carried out during the test sessions we organise with our partners during the year, but it's a tough challenge because there is no other circuit like Le Mans. The races in the USA are very valuable for the development of these tyres."
But why do teams spend so much energy on trying to qualify on pole-position in a race that lasts a whole 24 hours? Predominantly for promotional reasons, since the start and the first two hours of the race are broadcast live across the planet.