Driving events usually involve a convoy, a specific speed or even some kind of small gymkhana or off road course. But none of them have strapped us to a racing seat to personally experience the product technology and development process like Michelin.
Michelin is currently the only tire company that organizes an in-depth product experience program where participants also walk away with better driving skills. The multi-discipline Michelin Pilot Experience (MPE) program introduces participants to some of the motorsport activities that Michelin supports as part of their product innovation and improvement. The disciplines covered include open-wheel racing, dirt rallying, a touring car circuit experience as well as a ‘Pitstop Challenge’ to what it's like to work on a pit crew. On top of that, they've got a special treat in store at the very end.
The MPE derives its name from the Pilot ultra high-performance (UHP) tires of Michelin; rubber developed from extensive participation in major motorsport events such as Formula 1, Le Mans, World Rally, World Endurance, Super GT and various touring car championships.
The Asian edition of the MPE has been running at the Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia since 2006, picking up where the successful five-year European Michelin Driving Experience (MDE) program left off. Michelin Asia-Pacific Motorsport Manager Regis Jeandenand -who was also part of the original MDE- heads the program.
Jeandenand has been with Michelin for 40 years and is also a Michelin test driver involved in product testing in countries such as France, Sweden, Finland and Japan. Joining Jeandenand are professional race drivers and instructors Philippe Decombes, Alexandre Imperatori, Benjamin Rouget, and Rodolfo Avila.
A Superb Experience
The MPE is offered in two versions. First is the 'Regular' course offered for dealers and partners. Second is 'Super' which is offered to media and more experienced special guests who require a more extensive program. The Super experience -luckily for us- involved more seat time in the cars, fully immersing us in what Michelin has to offer.
We were joined by ASEAN media coming from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand and divided into four color-coded groups. We started with the open-wheel experience, which involved driving the Formula Michelin and the pitstop challenge, and switched over to the Citroen C2 Rally experience followed by the Renault Clio Sport circuit car.
Unlike most driving programs I've attended, the MPE is virtually a one-on-one program where only one car follows the instructor per session as opposed to a group following an instructor. It allows more experienced drivers to further improve their skills, while less experienced drivers are given a more instructive experience and would not hinder the pace of the others.
"Due to our extensive experience in running the program, we have derived this as the best formula for participants to fully benefit and enjoy it," said Jeandenand.
Formula for Fun
The Formula Michelin is based on a Formula Renault 2.0 car with a 2000-spec Tatuus Chassis, 2007-spec bodywork weighing a mere 490-kilograms and powered with a 192-horsepower F4R FRS 2.0-liter Renault race engine mated to a six-speed sequential gearbox. We were introduced to the basics of the car from starting it up, shifting, braking and steering. While it may be called a 'car', a formula car behaves very differently from a normal car; so a little introduction before getting on the real racing seat couldn’t hurt.
Being my first real experience on a formula car, it gave me a new perspective to driving open-wheeled racecars. We ran in two sessions, the first one was to familiarize ourselves with the car and the track, while the second was to apply what we learned and go faster as we tried to chase down the Porsche 911 on the North track of Sepang. While we consider it very fortunate to be running on good weather, however, we were not able to experience driving on grooved rain tires in the wet.
Fun in the dirt
On the dirt, we drove Citroen C2 Cup rally cars based on the one-make series cars used in Europe. Powering the lightweight front-wheel drive subcompacts is a modified 150bhp 1.6-liter engine mated to a 5-speed manual gearbox. The chassis is also modified with seam welding (for better rigidity), a full-on roll-cage and a rally spec suspension system as well. Luckily for us, this was the first year rally was introduced as one of the components of the program with a specially designed track built on one of the dirt parking lots of the Sepang Circuit complex.
The smiles on our faces showed that we had as much fun as we had as little boys and girls on the playground when we had our chance at driving in the dirt. The Citroen C2 Cup cars were shod with Michelin rally tires, and the short but technical track gave us the chance to throw the car around, slipping and sliding at speed while staying in control at any given time.
A Renault on rails
The Renault Clio Cup cars are based on the Renault Sport-prepared, one-make Renault Clio series. The car powered by a 220-horsepower version of the F4R RS 2.0-liter engine mated to a 6-speed sequential dog-box. The chassis has been specially modified, and the suspension has been specifically tuned for circuit racing. With a significant amount of dieting, weight of the car has been brought down to 930 kilograms.
Driving the Clio Cup car on the South Track gave me a new perspective on 'mechanical grip' once I got the feel for it. The perfectly-tuned suspension and the grippy Michelin race slicks maximized the performance of the engine on the more technical sectors of Sepang. This was my favorite drive among the three cars, and I really wish I could drive it around the whole circuit for the ultimate experience. But of course, you can only do so much in a day.
During lunch break, we were asked to draw a piece of paper from a fishbowl. It had either an ‘F’ or a ‘P’, before our last driving stint ended, I figured this would mean that we would either get a Formula Michelin shotgun ride or the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car shotgun ride. Right I was, as I was about to get my unforgettable ride aboard a two-seater Formula Renault with Philippe Decombes behind the wheel. It was an adrenalin rush to shake your insides with g-forces reaching at least 1.5G on braking.
The experience is something a true enthusiast should experience at least once in his/her life. The structured program that offers extreme driving in a safe environment is truly a pioneering effort by Michelin to give us normal drivers a true feel of what it’s like to be a race driver for a day. We asked Michelin Philippines Marketing/Communications Manager Caroline Del Rosario-Ablanida hypothetically if it were possible for a customer to participate in the program. She said they were open to the possibility and interested parties can contact their office at (02) 7712368 for more details.
Great innovative history
The Michelin brand has a rich history dating back to 1889 when brothers Andre and Edouard decided to embark on a great human and industrial odyssey. The company's involvement in cars started with the invention of radial tires, run-flat tires, and the air-free Tweel tire among many automotive innovations. Today the brand is also popular because of its iconic 'Bibendum' mascot who people normally refer to as the 'Michelin Tire Man'. Introduced in 1898, ‘Bibendum’ is one of the world’s oldest trademarks.
Michelin's Asia-Pacific presence meanwhile, started in the 1920's when it managed rubber plantations, which proceeded to major investments started in the 1980's. The investment has resulted to 8 manufacturing plant locations in different Asia-Pacific countries with research & development centers based in major Asian automobile producing countries Japan, Thailand and China, which also provide various conditions for the diversified region.