FROM 1973 UNTIL 2007 - 34 YEARS OF WORLD CLASS RALLYING
In the course of its uninterrupted presence of 34 years in the FIA World Rally Championship, the Michelin Group has scored 256 victories, won 23 Manufacturers' titles and claimed 20 Drivers' crowns in association with the partners of its brands Michelin and BFGoodrich.
Michelin tyres began winning rallies well before the creation of the World Rally Championship for Makes in 1973. In 1954, the final podium of the Monte Carlo Rally was an all-Michelin affair thanks to competitors who had been using its X tyre, most probably purchased from a local dealer. In the 1960s, Citroen approached Michelin with a view to supplying tyres for the DS on several rallies. However, Michelin's long adventure in the WRC started officially with the Alpine-Renault team on the 1973 Monte Carlo Rally and its involvement would go on to last more than three decades.
Anyone visiting the southeast of France in the heart of the winter of 1973 might have spotted one of the blue and yellow Saviem SG vans packed with rally tyres. Under the helm of Pierre Dupasquier, Michelin Competition's first steps in the newly created World Rally Championship took the form of an association with the Jacques Cheinisseled Alpine-Renault squad. The combination of the lightweight Berlinette's nimbleness, the performance of Michelin's slick radial and the talent of the so-called Four Musketeers ? Darniche, Nicolas, Therier and Andruet ? allowed it to dominate the 1973 season. A score of six wins handed Alpine-Renault and Michelin their first world title.
Despite this idyllic start, Michelin failed to dominate the following championships, however, although its products were involved in many of the major upsets that marked the period between 1973 and 1980. The privately-entered Lancia Stratos of Bernard Darniche won the 1975 Tour de Corse on Michelin tyres, while the Michelin-backed Porsche of Jean-Pierre Nicolas took the laurels on the 1978 Monte Carlo Rally. The 1979 championship saw Darniche win both the Monte Carlo Rally and the Tour de Corse with Michelin, before Jean-Luc Therier claimed the following year's Tour de Corse in a privately-run Michelin-shod Porsche ahead of Rohrl's works Fiat. Meanwhile, Michelin tyres were practically invincible on the World Rally Championship's most punishing rounds (Safari, Morocco, Bandama) on the factory Peugeot 504s.
In 1981, Michelin worked with the Talbot-Lotus team against the factory Ford Escorts, Audi Quattros and Fiat 131s in what turned out to be fiercely contested championship. The combined exploits of Guy Frequelin and Henri Toivonen enabled Talbot and Michelin to secure the Manufacturers' title. The following season saw Michelin rise to a fresh challenge when it supplied both the traditional rear-wheel drive machinery of the day and the powerful, emerging four-wheel drive cars. In the course of the year, Michelin claimed five wins with three different types of car: the Opel Ascona, the Renault 5 Turbo and the Audi Quattro.
Michelin truly moved into the Group B era in 1984 when Audi and Peugeot both chose the tyres developed especially by Michelin Competition to cope with the phenomenal power (more than 500hp) of these spectacular prototypes. Between 1984 and 1986, Michelin scored a full-house of three Manufacturers' titles and three Drivers' crowns.
And just as they had dominated the Group B era, Michelin tyres continued to win when Group A cars became the norm, notably with its partner Lancia (five titles). In 1993, Toyota joined the Michelin camp and profited from the French firm's latest innovation ? the ATS mousse run-flat system ? to take its first world title. At the end of the 1990s, as the first World Rally Cars were starting to appear, Michelin kept a footing in the Group A category with the Mitsubishi Lancer which took Tommi Makinen to four straight Drivers' crowns on Michelin tyres.
With the new century came the reign of the World Rally Car, initially led by the Peugeot 206 WRC before the baton was taken up by the Citroen Xsara WRC. Despite the very stiff competition it faced, Michelin's range dominated on all the types of surface visited by the sport's premier series (dirt, snow, asphalt) as its products continued to evolve. Michelin and Citroen continued their longstanding association with a run of three world titles, before Ford and BFGoodrich took over with consecutive Manufacturers' crowns in 2006 and 2007*.
BFGoodrich takes up the gauntlet
The BFGoodrich brand was founded in the USA by Benjamin Franklin Goodrich in 1870 and acquired by the Michelin Group in 1990. At the beginning of the 2000s, it was decided that BFGoodrich would represent the Group in the world of cross-country rallies and, in 2006, it also made its first official steps in the World Rally Championship.
"BFGoodrich's arrival in the WRC was a logical move for the Group," points out the Michelin Group's Competition Director Frederic Henry-Biabaud. "It was a means of regrouping all our rally activities (rallying and rally-raids) under a single banner. BFGoodrich had built up a strong reputation on the 4x4 market thanks to motor sport and, in order to promote its range of road tyres in Europe, it needed to be present in a major championship."
BFGoodrich was actually poised to make its debut in the WRC as early as 2004: "The transition from Michelin to BFGoodrich in the WRC was to have been a more gradual process. We had initially planned to launch BFGoodrich in the Junior World Championship before progressively equipping other cars and, ultimately, the WRCs. Its tender to supply the Junior World Rally Championship in 2004 was not accepted by the FIA, though, and its arrival on the world scene had to be postponed."
The Michelin Group's marketing team saw BFGoodrich's move into the WRC as perfectly justified. All the surveys showed that the brand would benefit from its involvement in a discipline that was followed by a young, dynamic audience, while Michelin would focus more on cultivating its image as a corporate brand, with a communication policy based on a strategy of promoting brand loyalty. "Michelin no longer communicated on its titles in rallying," continues Frederic Henry-Biabaud, "while the BFGoodrich communication team was ready to invest in the WRC. For in addition to the sporting value of its presence in the WRC, there have also been the different marketing and sales operations the brand has organised. At every round of the WRC, BFGoodrich has hosted dozens of guests and retailers with a view to promoting its participation across the sales network."
Michelin passed the baton to BFGoodrich on the 2006 Monte Carlo Rally and, three days after the official launch which took the form of a press conference in the Principality's famous casino, BFGoodrich claimed its first world rally win with Marcus Gronholm. "We have never concealed the fact that BFGoodrich called on the expertise and experience of Michelin in the WRC. However, from the communications and marketing viewpoints, it was necessary to dissociate the two brands, with Michelin concentrating on circuit racing and BFGoodrich taking part in rallying. It didn't take long for BFGoodrich to find its footing in the WRC and the developments introduced during the year were BFGoodrich, and no longer Michelin evolutions."
BFGoodrich's commitment to the WRC was to have been for between three and five years, which was the time required to 'position' the brand on the market. "BFGoodrich had a relatively low spontaneous brand recall in Europe," says Cedric Valmalle, BFGoodrich's Europe Marketing Manager. "By the end of the first year, however, BFGoodrich's success was having a strong impact both on sales and on its notoriety on the European market."
Despite no longer being active in the WRC, BFGoodrich will continue its involvement in the sport through the Intercontinental Rally Challenge and various national championships. "We have the material means today to launch BFGoodrich on different national rally championships which will provide a valuable communication platform. On the international front, we will be present in the International Rally Challenge while at the same time pursuing our efforts in the world of rally-raids, of course."
Tommi Makinen (4 world titles and 23 WRC wins with Michelin)
"If you've got a good car but you haven't got a good tyre, you can't win. Michelin tyres have always been reliable and very strong whatever the conditions. The people at Michelin always worked hard to produce increasingly competitive new solutions. My final season with the Mitsubishi Lancer in 2001 was unforgettable. The Rally of Portugal was very muddy. I didn't have any narrow tyres and the guys at Michelin were very worried about using the wide tyre in these conditions. In the end, they 're-cut' them in a way that allowed me to go on and win! On the Safari Rally, everyone wondered whether the ATS mousse would work. We did lots of testing but nothing could replace actual competition. In the end, everything went very well."
Didier Auriol (1 world title and 20 WRC wins with Michelin)
"What I'd say about Michelin is that they always had a strong competitive spirit, plus an ability to react very quickly. Whenever a tyre wasn't as good as expected, they redoubled their efforts and came back with an even more competitive product!"
Marcus Gronholm (2 world titles and 16 WRC wins with Michelin, plus 12 with BFGoodrich)
"Before 2006, I had only ever competed on Michelin tyres in the World Championship. It was great to work with Michelin because they always had new compounds or evolutions to try. In 2006, I had the pleasure of continuing with the Michelin Group via a new brand, BFGoodrich. I am proud to have given BFGoodrich its first WRC win."
Sebastien Loeb (2 world titles and 20 WRC wins with Michelin, plus 2 world titles and 16 WRC wins with BFGoodrich)
"Ever since my debut in rallying ten years ago, I have only ever competed on Michelin Group tyres. My driving evolved with Michelin, firstly with its customer competition tyres in the French Championship, then with the advanced competition tyres used in the World Championship and equipped with ATS mousse. They were even more responsive and precise, and even more like racing tyres. On asphalt, I have always competed on 'FP" generation tyres but on gravel I did experience the switch from the 'Z' to the 'BTO' generation tyres which gave incredible lateral grip. I make no difference between Michelin and BFGoodrich; the tyres of both brands were reliable, consistent and their staff really wanted to win. Indeed, I have won nearly as many rallies on BFGoodrich tyres as I did with Michelin."
Guy Frequelin (Director, Citroen Sport)
"As a former driver, I know how important tyres are in rallying. I had an extraordinary season with the Talbot-Lotus team in 1981. We were on Michelin tyres which, on asphalt, were TRXs at the time. The season ended with second place for me in the Drivers' World Championship, while Talbot won the Manufacturers' title. As a team principal, I enjoyed a long and close relationship with Michelin, and then again with BFGoodrich. We have always worked in the same direction, with mutual confidence, and that scored some excellent results together."
Pierre Dupasquier (Michelin Competition Director until 2005)
"When the World Rally Championship was created, we were already up and running and winning. At the time, there was no marketing department telling us how to approach motor sport. It was just natural for us to be attentive to the demands of our manufacturer partners when they approached us with a problem to solve. Michelin's objective was always to provide its partners with the best possible tyres and quality of service, and to show that we were both reactive and reliable."
Matthieu Bonardel (BFGoodrich Rally programme Manager)
"The Michelin Group has been in the WRC for more than 30 years. That time has always been fired by passion, self-questioning and pushing out the technological and performance envelopes in tyre terms thanks to a long list of radical innovations. The latter include the launch of the 'N' asphalt pattern in Spain, the BTO generation gravel tyre which first competed in New Zealand and successful use of the run-flat mousse system over the rocks of the Safari Rally in Kenya. The period has seen us win a long list of individual rallies and more than 20 Drivers' and Manufacturers' titles in association with our ultra-motivated teams and partners following a healthy battle on the stages. For more than 30 years, the brands of the Michelin Group ? first Michelin and then, these past two season, BFGoodrich ? have sought to show how having the right tyre for the terrain and the conditions is as important for a world class rally driver as it is for the ordinary motorist."