28 Mar 18

The right tyres for the job: 5 years of Michelin in Formula E

"From the moment the Formula E championship was announced, we said we need to be part of it," says Serge Grisin Formula E programme manager for Michelin. From day one, Michelin - the longstanding experts on keeping cars stuck to the road - joined forces with the championship to develop a bespoke tyre for the world's first fully-electric single-seater racing series.

Fast forward through, 39 races, 17 different countries, five continents and we arrive here, in the present, celebrating Michelin's fifth anniversary with the ABB FIA Formula E Championship. And what a ride it's been.

Looking back over all that action is Grisin, who's witnessed the evolution of the tyres as the championship has grown and the technology has developed over Formula E's four seasons. Catching up with him in the Michelin garage ahead of the first European race in Rome, we found out how it all began, what it is exactly that keeps our drivers (well, most of them) on track, how Formula E can make your own car drive better and why the tyres of tomorrow will be 3D printed and connected.

Let's start at the beginning - how did the relationship with Formula E first come about?
From the moment the Formula E championship was announced, we said we need to be part of it. For us it was logical to be involved because Michelin is involved with sustainable racing, and we were thinking about how the competition can help us develop better solutions for the road. Since then, we've been using the competition as a laboratory for normal life. That's why the Formula E cars use road tyres that are used on the city streets.

Apart from Formula E - when was Michelin's first encounter with electric cars?
Oh a long time, I think more than 100 years ago. The car called La Jamais Contente - "the never happy car" - was the first car that ran more than 100kmh in 1899 and this was an electric car with Michelin tyres. This car was also showcased in Paris last year for the Formula E race.
So Michelin has been involved for a long time, in fact, we proposed the first green tyre, which was the first tyre with a similar level of grip but with slower running resistance in 1992.

At that time it was a surprise for everybody because it wasn't important at that point for car makers but we were clearly thinking ahead. Now it's common knowledge that you have to have the tyres with the lowest possible running resistance but at that point, we were a pioneer. We have been involved in sustainable racing for a long time, creating, for example, the Michelin challenge to award the driver or team the best possible efficiency running fastest with the smallest usage of energy. We also have the Michelin Challenge Bibendum, dedicated not to racing or competition, but to sustainable mobility. With all that, sustainability and sustainable racing is part of the DNA of Michelin so that's why Formula E championship was logical and natural for us to be a part of it.

How do you go about making a tyre for the world's first electric single seater?
We started off with an 18inch tyre - that made the most sense because its a good size for road tyres. Formula 1 uses 14-inch tyres, which makes no sense because it's too far from what we have in normal life. We want to have this link with reality because we want to use competition to understand and to test new technologies.

Then we proposed to have a tread pattern tyre for all weather, as well as a limitation of tyres for the drivers, so only one set per car, per race. This is better for efficiency, so we don't need to produce or transport as many tyres.

...any challenges along the way?
A lot of different things! One of the biggest was in 2013, we had been announced to be the official tyre partner for Formula E in March and we had to show the first prototype at the reveal of the car in September 2013 in Frankfurt. So five months from scratch. No car existed, no tracks existed, just the idea, so that was one of the big challenges! The other was to develop an all-weather racing tyre, a tyre for all different grounds and asphalt. At that time there wasn't a lot of information we just knew, it could be asphalt, it could be concrete, it could be railways, It could be sand, it could be a lot of things! Street racing means slightly lower speeds and lower aerodynamics so due to the fact that we want to limit the drag of the car, so we needed to have the maximum grip with the tyre that will work in every condition for everybody on every track in the wet and dry. Not easy!

How different are the tyres on track today to the one that was used in season one?
Its lighter, there's less running resistance, more grip in the rain (even though we haven't experienced it yet!) and better warm up - these are the main improvements and the differences. When the season one tyre was revealed, it was using the tread pattern that would become the Pilot Sport 4 road tyre, which didn't exist at that time. Now it exists thanks to the testing in Formula E, so that's a big difference. The next generation of tyre [for the Gen2 car] is using a tread pattern that you could have on your car in next month.

When do you think we'll get our first wet race?
I just don't know! Each time it's dry, we are surprised. 39 races without rain is incredible.

How does Formula E differ from other motorsports Michelin is involved in?
It's different because we make it different, the fact that we have such a unique tyre working in every condition is very specific to the Formula E championship. Also, the season five tyre that we revealed in Geneva is using a very new technology in the tyre sidewall. We clearly use Formula E as a laboratory and the fact that it is a one-day event, in city centres and on new tracks makes it challenging and something very unique. We are using our experience in very different types of championships, such as rally, endurance racing as well as others.

What about designing the tyres for the new Gen2 car?
So the season five tyre is new because it's lighter, more efficient and with a bonded sidewall. Again, there was no car when we first started working on it, so we had to extrapolate. We have much more experience compared to season one but there are still some question marks. Part of the challenge is that we need to anticipate and to be ready for very different things.

With more electric cars and a move to driverless cars, what does this mean for tomorrow's tyres?
We continue to work on energy efficiency and new technology and perhaps we will also work on biotechnology - there's a lot of things to think about. We have a lot of ideas! Its alway challenging but we are here to be challenged and it is important for us, if there is no challenge there is no reason to stay. In an autonomous car, there's a lot of information coming to the driver through the tyre. If it's a virtual driver instead, then we need to find a way to get this information to it. There will be a new generation of tyre that will be available on the market - it will be sustainable, 3D printed, efficient, connected and perhaps, in the future, it will be linked with biotechnology.

What has been your highlight in the last five years of Formula E?
Definitely, the first race. It was really incredible because it was at that point that we knew the championship really exists! New York was also amazing. There are a lot of places where the races were amazing. Paris, New York, Hong Kong - these were all incredible. I told Alejandro that the next step is a race on the moon! Three different champions over three different seasons - each race you just don't know who will win, it's always exciting.

What are you most looking forward to in season five?
How it will be with one car with no car change. For sure, before the start of the championship, having two cars was difficult to grasp at first but now its part of the race. Going to one car is part of the roadmap of the championship, so we need to make sure we maintain the level of show but I know [Formula E] will find a way to do that!