Michelin has had a tough old time of it lately. It’s already on its way out as the sole World Rally Championship tire supplier, being replaced by Pirelli.
That fact is hard to miss; the tires in use may be Michelins, but since Rally Monte Carlo in January there’s been Pirelli logos plastered on partner hoardings everywhere on-event.
Fast-forward to Rally Turkey and driver after driver had puncture issues, so attentions naturally turned to the tire supplier.
But it wasn’t the tire at all, as Michelin highlighted. The rims were cracking under the immense forces going through the suspension, creating gaps between the wheel and tire from which air escaped and caused deflations.
But fingers had been pointed before the truth came out regardless.
Rally2 has been a fairly mixed back for Michelin this year too. There’s been positives like Mads Østberg taking three WRC2 wins from three, but for the most part winning Rally2 cars have been sporting yellow and red stickers.
And in the European Rally Championship it’s been fairly slim pickings too; Yoann Bonato emerged on top of an epic fight against Iván Ares for second place on last weekend’s Rally Fafe Montelongo, added to Østberg’s podium on Rally Liepaja.
Neither counted as ERC podiums as said crews weren’t registered, but they’d done the job on the road at least. Officially though, Michelin has zero podiums in ERC this year.
Alexey Lukyanuk, the 2018 champion, was on Michelins as he just missed out on a second title last year (the eventual champion, Chris Ingram, was too). But he’s back on Pirellis this year, leaving them with no top drivers on their roster. Bibendum hasn’t had much waving to do lately.
“I wanted to drive on Pirellis [last year] but at that moment it was not possible because you know how French teams normally work with French tires,” Lukyanuk told DirtFish.
“It was a kind of battle between me and the team and finally they insisted to use Michelin. But for this year I was strongly motivated to restore our co-operation with Pirelli and it worked.
“Every tire brand is quite strong. You see that performance is quite good from both of top manufacturers but I know Pirelli tires better.”
Certain people I talked to around the time of Rally di Roma, where the best-placed Michelin runner finished eighth, wondered whether a performance deficit had emerged. A test in the heart of Sanremo territory, where Kris Meeke piloted a works Škoda with Michelin boots on, was looked at as a sign there was a gap to bridge.
Michelin doesn’t see it like that.
An update to their range of Rally2 tires introduced at Fate Montelongo – something Pirelli had also done at the same event – still has question marks over its effectiveness due to the hugely variable weather conditions, though Bonato’s podium at least inspires some confidence.
Rather, Michelin believes it’s a simple numbers game rather than a tire deficit to blame for their lack of silverware in ERC this year.
“Regarding the results, of course this year there are a lot of drivers [on Pirelli]. If you saw last year, we probably had more drivers on Rally2 cars than Pirelli had” Arnaud Rémy, Michelin’s rally manager, told DirtFish.
“Depending on the year, depending on the commitment of some drivers, you have a balance.”
“But for sure, since we are going to leave WRC at the end of the year, we are going to push more on the ERC.”
While ERC looked to have the makings of a close title race again this year, Lukyanuk is already 42 points up on Oliver Solberg but also doesn’t currently have the money to do any more rounds.
But Rémy has suggested there could be more works involvement in the championship come 2021, along with more privateers using Michelin rubber, after a year where they’d not given the series much attention.
“A lot of car manufacturers and drivers are phoning us, to try to find a good way to enter the ERC next year. This year, because of the COVID-19 situation and the schedule changes and uncertainty, we maybe don’t push enough on ERC to have drivers.
“We don’t have drivers doing a full season, so it’s very difficult for us. Next year, it will probably be our main championship on the rally side, so we will probably have more big teams and big drivers involved in ERC.