It’s a stunningly beautiful day in the south of France, mountains in the background and a clear blue sky. Standing before me is a tall, smartly stylish man, smiling and confident with a tan of someone who works outdoors. The only clues to his extraordinary life are his shoes; subtle grey low cut racing boots. Oh, and the sound of tyres squealing all around us.
The man is Jérôme Haslin, chief test driver for Michelin and it is his verdict that shapes the performance of some of the most exciting cars on the planet, a role he takes very seriously and clearly enjoys with a great passion. Not surprising when a typical day will involve up to 8 hours screaming sports cars round the best tracks in the world from Magny-Cours to the legendary Nurbergring; “Its very variable, today I have only driven about 3 hours but when I am with a client, such as Ferrari or Porsche, I will be all day in the cars”. And the list of cars he has tested reads like a dream garage, Maserati MC12, Honda NSX, F3000, Ferraris, Bugattis and all the current Porsches, he calmly describes going flat out in the Veyron as “a nice experience”.
Not that he has all the fun to himself, he is in charge of 25 other test drivers including 2 for motorbikes, including MotoGP, 10 for trucks, and even one for tractors. The 450 hectare test centre at Ladoux in south eastern France incorporates 19 different test tracks, including a precisely irrigated wet handling circuit, a dry 2.8km handling circuit and a 7.8km high speed circuit with banked corners.
But he didn’t get here by chance; “my passion has always been driving, so after I graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering I looked for jobs that had an element of driving”. He joined Michelin in 1992 as a tyre design engineer, spending two years getting to grips with tyre technology and performance. Then he spent 6 months solid training to understand test methods and hone his car control skills, spending hours sliding round the practice circuit; “I started with a BMW 3 series which is a very nice car to learn on”.
Driving on the absolute limit has to be second nature to Jérôme so that he can make subjective assessments and perform precise tests without being distracted by the business of controlling the car. “It’s a bit like wine tasting, its sensorial analysis, but you need a good memory because of the time for tyre changes; imagine tasting one wine then having to wait 50 minuets before tasting the next!”.
During his training he spent hours cornering with a G meter on the dash, getting familiar with the feeling of different side G forces, the result is that his gut is now a sensitive instrument, allowing him to perform exact manoeuvres instinctively.
To get a little insight into his fabulous job, Michelin have organised a morning’s fun on their test track, armed with a Porsche Carrera 2 and three different sets of tyres. Jérôme will show me what he does and then I will have a go! What can possibly go wrong?
I have to confess that I have never really liked rear engined Porches, the lift off oversteer is reminiscent of early Austin Metros and for the money I would rather have a car with the engine in the right place. OK, that’s just me then… However, in this case it makes the ideal choice to show how tyres can transform a car’s handling, and as it turns out the transformation is amazing (see panel), and more importantly gives an insight in to Jérôme’s average day in the office.
First stop is the 4.1km wet track, with standing water controlled to 3mm, it makes for a fun day out for any petrol head. As soon as Jérôme drives onto the track we are going sideways at motorway speeds whilst he calmly tells me about some characteristics of these tyres. But my attention is grabbed by the sturdy looking Armco directly in our path, “ah yes, that’s the one place on the track it is not safe to come off, you must be careful here” he says whilst power sliding past it.
In all my years developing cars I have never known a driver so talented as Jérôme, he is controlling the slides so precisely that photographer Stuart is totally confident standing on the rumble strips on the apex of the hairpin. Not only that but as Jérôme performs balletic manoeuvres he is able to describe in detail the sensations that are a key part of his tests, “on the wet circuit we are looking for consistent fast lap times with little slip, but I think your photographer wants more action shots, yes?”. Weeeeeeeee!
Next we head for the ‘Circuit grande vitesse’ and take the slip road onto the 1.5km straight, then power onto the banked corners where Jérôme suddenly yanks the steering and we head rapidly towards the Armco. “As we put in a rapid steering input at high speed, we observe how long the car takes to respond” he calmly says before yanking the steering the other way just in time to avoid making the local news. Next, he holds the steering wheel at a smaller angle and observes how long the side force takes to build up, I find this difficult to concentrate on as there is a concrete bridge coming rapidly into view and we are very slightly sideways towards it.
Luckily he straightens the car up in time, and then proceeds to demonstrate what happens when you let go of the steering on a banked corner; “for each banked corner there is a neutral speed where the force of the car pushing outwards is balanced by gravity” and we go round staying perfectly in lane.
He accelerates hard onto the straight and we do the whole ‘experiment’ again, but much faster, swerving at 250kmh! After a blistering lap we leave the slip road with the brakes squeaking and smelling of ‘hot’.
Next stop on the fun fair is the handling track, 2.8km of twists and turns which is officially sanctioned by the FIA for F1 testing. On the way there, we pass the wet circuit just in time to see two 17 tonne trucks perform synchronised drifting in a cloud of spray!
As we wait for a bike test to finish on the handling circuit, Jérôme explains what is coming up; “first we run at a fairly constant speed staying on the middle of the road, just getting a feel for how the tyres perform, seeing where it under/oversteers etc.”. Just then the prototype bike screams round the corner, the rider seems to have his elbow down, never mind his knee! As he vacates the circuit his enormous grin confirms that is a great place to work.
As we ease on to the circuit Jérôme pegs it at about 4000rpm in fourth gear and we follow a faint white line in the middle of the road, noting how the car responds to turns without the complication of accelerating or braking, it’s a very strange way to go round a track but very informative. Next Jérôme steps up the pace dramatically for three timed laps, by crikey he is good; hitting about 217kph before on the limit breaking for the 2nd gear hairpin. After three laps flat out, Jerome suggests that I have a go, top banana!
Avoiding the temptation to just drive very fast, I tried to perform some of the tests Jérôme had shown me, after all I have had two decades in the car industry, test driving everything from Fiestas to Bentleys, surely this should be easy? No chance, its worse than the old rubbing your tummy whilst patting your head challenge, whilst concentrating on G force in one corner I missed the line in to the next, and as I discovered my talent deficit we drifted towards the grass, Jérôme casually commented “of course every tyre has its limits”!
After a few laps I have a profound respect for Jérôme’s talent, as we slow down and exit the circuit I ponder what it would be like to live this life. In the calm of the car park under the clear blue sky, with smiles all round, Stuart asks whether I would want Jérôme’s job, ‘without doubt mate, without doubt’.
The Tyre storey
As always, tyres make all the difference and if you have a Porsche then you may find the results interesting;
The standard Michelin Pilot Sport tyres work really well in the wet and equally well in the dry, but backing off when turning into a corner brings the back end round in the traditional Metro manner.
Changing to Michelin Pilot Sport Cup, the choice tyre for the Porsche Cup races, and immediately the grip is noticeably higher, we are entering corners in a higher gear. But at the back the grip is increased even more than on the front with the astonishing result that the lift off oversteer is virtually eliminated, it as if we are in a different car. Obviously you can’t have everything and wet grip is more ‘exciting’.
Finally we tried the full race slicks, here the front end grip is amazing and turning into corners at full tilt inspires confidence, grip at the rear is increased again but not as much as the front resulting in a small amount of lift off oversteer, but only at race speeds. It goes without saying that this tyre should not be even tried in the wet!
Lap times tell all, 1min12.33sec for the Pilot Sport, a quicker but close 1min11.35sec for the Pilot Sport Cup and a blistering 1min08.78sec for the slicks. To my mind the Pilot Sport Cup tyres, developed for the Porsche race series, deliver the nicest package for the sportier driver, OK so they are a little worse in the wet, but if it was raining why on earth would you decide to drive a Porsche 911?