“ You got anything planned the last few days of February ?” quipped my editor of
my regular gig. “ Lots I need to do but don’t want to particularly do, why ?” was my
well thought out reply. Without hesitation I was informed that I was going to
Barcelona for a few days.
I’m sailin’ away in the morning
My travels weren’t exactly by boat but the flight from Los Angeles to Barcelona is a
long way regardless of what class you are seated. The reason for this Atlantic hop
was to attend a session courtesy of Michelin to evaluate and hype their new Pilot
Sport road tire, the PS 2. As an incentive, the powers that be at Bib arranged for the
assembled group of hacks and scribes to go through the “Michelin Driving
Experience” which meant track time in Porsche GT-3 Cup cars and Formula 3
single seaters. There was also free time just to hang out unescorted in the
historic city in Espana.
The country to where you’re goin’
First the usual tales of going through airport security. I got a pair of black Ugg
boots for Christmas courtesy of Ms. Burkhart. The perfect thing to wear on the flight
and then put on those silly socks they give you in the pack on the plane.
Comfortable, yes very. Favorites at security, no. “Please take your shoes off sir”…
why ?… for your safety… I’m barefoot and this floor looks dirty and unsafe… would
you rather speak with the supervisor… sure… ( I was early for this flight-very rare
for me ) “ what’s the problem here ?…. none really, last time I didn’t have to take
them off because they have no metal in them… where was that ?…. New York….
OK, but every airport is different… yes, it seems that way…. I set the detector off
The coast of Barcelona
Catalunya is perhaps the most beautiful part of Spain and Barcelona is truly one of
the great cities of the world. The angels of Gothic architecture are so prevalent in
the old city that it is easy to miss them. For those familiar with
the history or those with a desire to understand why Barcelona has been of major
importance I recommend you get a copy of Robert Hughes’s masterful account of
the city and the area of Catalunya. I couldn’t think of a better place to sit in a café
with an espresso and watch people ( women ) go about their lives.
Of course the reason I was there, as were a group of about twenty others, was to
spend a couple of days at the Circuit De Catalunya. A relatively new circuit
compared to the rest of Europe, it has been the home of the Spanish Grand Prix
since 1991. The eight right and five left turns combined with two outstanding
straight sections make it one of the fastest circuits in the world. Oh boy happy
happy joy joy.
It’s only that I’m askin’
A surprise guest drove down from Clermont-Ferrand in the form of Michelin’s main
man in competition, Pierre Dupasquier, for a chat with us. This was of importance
for many of us in attendance as he had his hands full prior to the first GP of the
year in OZ-land. Dupasquier is of the old school, while he may be a skilful
negotiator, he will look at you straight on and answer with what he can. The lesson
the man shares are that to succeed, you must be prepared. Michelin’s successes
with Dupasquier at the helm are the result of a bagful of lessons well learned. And
he states with no regret that school is always in session.
Make your time more easy passin’
Our day began early enough at the circuit. The groups were divided up between
the wet and dry sections of the track. The wet portion was held between the Elf turn
and tight Seat bend. Audi TT’s were the car of choice and two were fitted with
Bridgestone S03 tires and the other two with the new Pilot Sport PS2 rubber. We
alternated between the cars pushing the examples to their limit. I finally had a big
moment on the Repsol bend with the PS2’s because I was pushing to get them to
break loose. The Bridgestones were predictable in the way they were loose
allowing the Audi to get in a slide that could be controlled by the driver. From a fun
factor, the Bridgestone mounted TT’s were a lot more enjoyable as the Michelin
PS2’s simply are so superior in grip that you have to be an idiot in order for the car
to do something stupid. We all tried though, repeatedly. With the groups reversed,
it was time to tackle the dry section. We used Chrysler Crossfires ( no, not Lizett’s
Bond’s ride from Coronado ) as a warm up before switching over to BMW M3’s.
The same principal applied here. Bridgestone SO3 vs. Michelin PS2.
The same result also applied here. This brings up an interesting point and I put
the question to Pascal Couasnon, the VP of Marketing of Michelin North America.
We are comparing a very good Bridgestone to a new tire that will be released
shortly on a perfectly smooth surface. One would expect the Michelin to be
superior and naturally, it was. But is the proper venue to really gauge how the PS2
will perform in everyday situations ? Road surfaces vary greatly on a typical day to
day commute. Couasnon was thoughtful in his reply and extended a visit to the
U.S. proving grounds if I wanted to go through what the engineer’s use as a
course for tire evaluation. Obviously Pascal has a lot of confidence in his new Bib
baby. There is a new Pirelli on the way also… I wonder if I can arrange to…. but
that means going to Italy.
In what must have been a bad case of timing, the other half of SCP was in Estoril
that weekend. John Brooks had a gig covering an official practice for the upcoming
FIA GT season so we kept in touch via the mobile. A few familiar faces from the
ALMS were hanging about in Catalunya for the session. Paul Ryan ( ex-Panoz PR )
landed a gig with Michelin doing his usual best and Sheriff Rick Dole was about
with his bag of assorted lenses snapping for the U.S. side of all things Bib. It was
good to catch up and reflect back on last season and also to look ahead to
Sebring and Le Mans.
I would want again tomorrow
Sunday was a big day with the promise of thrashing about on throttle using the full
F1 course with the promised GT-3 Porsches and the Martini Formula 3 rides.
Many had an advantage of having spent a considerable amount of track time on
various circuits over the years as part of the job. There were only a few ego cases
of vanity in our group, which is always the case. Some forget that there is neither
podium nor a signed contract waiting. It is a chance to drive and should be treated
accordingly. Adrian Hutchinson is the manager for the Michelin Driving Experience
and I quickly put this good-natured Brit to the test of patience. For revenge, Adrian
found it amusing to let us have a crack at changing tires against the stopwatch on
one of the F1 cars. Our team of three took eight seconds for R & R on the right rear
and we were slow. Sigh…The nonsense ended however once strapped in to the
racecars. I am no single seat warrior and never want to be, I am far more
comfortable in a GT sportscar. Let me tell you that 7000 RPM on the front straight
at Catalunya makes for great visuals from the drivers point of view in the Porsche
and a piercing wail reverberating off the wall. Just remember to lift at the 400
marker to Elf corner… after lunch we were treated to something a bit different. How
about a ride in a tandem two-seater F1 car chauffeured around at speed with FIA
GT champion, J.P. Belloc. The two seater was one of the Arrows that had been
acquired with several of the last TWR Arrows cars by Michelin to begin their F1 tire-
testing program. The cars are immaculately prepared and maintained by a hand
picked staff of mechanics and technicians who understand what an F1 car goes
through. Interestingly, the passenger in the two seater holds a button trigger that is
held down for the entire ride. The reason for this is if the passenger was to pass
out or have a problem, the release of the button would signal the driver that there
was a problem. I must have had the thing depressed before we ever started the
car and made our way down the pit lane.
It depends on how I’m feelin’
The Michelin Driving Experience is not for everyone. This is not a driving school in
the manner of a Skip Barber or Derek Daly. It is what it says, a driving experience !
It does however, offer a chance for those who want an idea or have had the good
fortune to go to a driving school, an opportunity to experience what it is like to drive
a current racecar on a unique circuit. A Porsche GT 3 Cup car can be expensive.
This is a chance to drive one before committing the funds to actually go out and
purchase one. There are few places that you can rent a Porsche racecar or an F3
for a day at any price. And for that reason alone, Michelin’s gig is a bargain. And
they feed you well.
Take heed of the stormy weather
As if a reminder of Mr. Dylan’s song wasn’t on my mind, the western wind came
upon Barcelona and especially the circuit and gave us a snow thunder storm as
we were on the grid to complete the F1 ride session. A snowy Sunday afternoon in
Spain. Upon returning to the hotel, I went up on the roof near the outdoor pool and
watched the snow flurries fall over the city.