Michelin preview their 2004 season 02 Mar 2004
Last season was Michelin's best since they returned to Formula One racing in 2001. The French tyre supplier came perilously close to winning the drivers' championship with McLaren and the constructors' crown with Williams. In the end they just lost out to rivals Bridgestone, thanks to the efforts of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari.
This year looks likely to be just as close, if not closer, with Michelin now supplying six of the ten teams after BAR's decision to switch to French rubber. Ahead of the season opener in Australia, Pierre Dupasquier, Michelin's motorsport director, and Pascal Vasselon, their Formula One programme manager, told the company's press office about their expectations for 2004.
Q: How well prepared are you for the new season?
Pierre Dupasquier: "It is always difficult to know where one stands before the racing begins in earnest - not least because we haven't yet had an opportunity to see all the teams running together in identical conditions. Every car has completed a healthy number of laps at a variety of circuits. I accept that it's hard to know exactly what fuel loads teams are running during preseason tests, but it's fair to say that all our partners have fulfilled our expectations in terms of performance. What's more, some of our new-specification tyres have produced particularly interesting results. I don't think it's any secret that we are approaching the season in a positive frame of mind.
"In summary, we are confident that our tyres will be competitive. As for winning championship titles, well, that's another thing altogether. There will be seven or eight Michelin drivers who are capable of challenging for podium finishes at every race and it is inevitable that they will take points off each other. Over the course of a season that could benefit our rivals. But let's wait and see. Ask me the same question again on Sunday March 7, after the chequered flag has fallen in Australia."
Q: How do your latest developments compare to those made during previous winter breaks?
Pascal Vasselon: "This is our fourth season back in F1 and our development rate has been fast and consistent ever since we returned to the sport. We made the same gains between the 2001 and 2002 seasons as we did between 2002 and 2003. That has continued during the winter just past. I believe our ability to make such consistent progress highlights the effectiveness of our development methods. We are able to generate a constant flow of innovative ideas that are evaluated rigorously during each test session."
Q: What have been your primary goals during the off-season?
PV: "It has been a two-stage process. The first began as soon as the 2003campaign ended. We weren't looking for the perfect Melbourne tyre as soon as we hit the track. Instead we focused on a few of the basics - construction techniques and compounds - that helped us to make wholesale improvements across our range. There comes a time of year when we need to evaluate different things - and when teams are running hybrid chassis it can be difficult to come up with definitive tyre specifications. We don't make our final adjustments until we can gauge how our tyres perform on contemporary chassis. Phase two kicked in when the 2004 cars were launched. That's when we began to ascertain which tyres we might use during the first three grands prix in Melbourne, Sepang and Bahrain. The latter two circuits have a number of features in common."
Q: What are this season's major tyre compound and construction changes?
PV: "We have concentrated particularly on fine-tuning tyres for circuits at which we felt we were unable to produce our customary dominance last year. To name a couple from the early part of the season, we don't believe we gave our partners the same advantage at Melbourne and Imola as we did at other venues. These two tracks are what we call 'front limiting' in that they reduce the potential effectiveness of the front tyres in some respects. I appreciate that Melbourne was a great result for us, with a 1-2-3 finish, but our analysis shows that our tyre advantage in Australia was the smallest of the season - about 0.1s per lap. At some other tracks the margin was closer to 1.3s."
Q: Michelin has signed up a sixth partner team this season, in the form of BAR Honda. Is that a pro or a con?
PV: "There are very few disadvantages. Taking on a sixth team obviously means more logistical complexity and added resources, but the extra technical feedback a sixth team provides is more than adequate compensation. BAR Honda has given us a remarkable amount of data that has accelerated the flow of information to our development engineers - and that has helped us to ensure that we are working in the right direction. We have always believed that it is beneficial to work with as many partners as possible and this confirms as much."
What are your feelings about the latest tyre regulations?
PV: "The only real difference is that teams must henceforth nominate their race compounds before Saturday morning's free practice session. We will only be able to run for two hours before finalising such decisions rather than having the luxury of two days. We will have to go through Friday's data with a fine-toothed comb, which obviously presents us with an additional challenge. As a result, our goal will be to work out the correlation between track conditions on a Friday and those we will encounter during the race, so that we can minimise the risk of any mistakes. The change doesn't penalise us particularly, however, because the same rule applies to everybody."
Q: How many tyres will Michelin take to Melbourne and which compounds are you likely to choose?
PV: "Just like last year, drivers will have 10 sets of dry tyres and seven sets of wets to last them a race weekend. Two dry weather compounds will be available to each team at every grand prix. For Melbourne we have chosen to provide tyres from the 'medium' sector of our range and teams will be able to choose two compounds from the five we have available. We take 2100 tyres to every race on behalf of our six partners."
Q: What are your objectives for 2004?
PV: "They are the same as they were in 2003 and 2002 - although we can't really make the same claim about 2001, which was our comeback season. Our mission is to provide our partner teams with tyres that are capable of winning the world championship. I have deliberately avoided saying 'tyres that will win the title' because there are so many different factors involved in a championship-winning campaign and we have absolutely no control over some of them. It would be unrealistic to claim that we will win the world title but it is perfectly feasible to say that we will provide tyres that are capable of doing so. That's what we intend to do."