Day one in Portugal was a rather gentile affair. A leisurely stroll around the streets of Lisbon, a quick stopover in a café for a taste of some Portuguese tarts and then a short coach trip along the coast to the hotel. All things considered, it was a rather pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
Day two in Portugal was an altogether different experience. Pleasant wouldn’t be an accurate way to describe it. Pick anything from exhilarating, momentous, awesome and mind blowing and you might be closer to the mark. Allow me to explain.
As you may have guessed, Michelin didn’t fly me over to Portugal to get my views on local pastries and for my skills in the field of Shatchbacks. Instead, the French company was looking to demonstrate its latest range of Pilot high performance tyres and chose the former F1 circuit at Estoril on which to do it. What’s more, I would be driving a selection of Porsche 911s and Audi R8s. So not exactly your average day in the office.
But more than just an excuse to burn some rubber, there’s a serious point to hosting such an event on a circuit like Estoril. If you’re going to test tyres to the ultimate limit, you need a series of straights and corners with which to test them. You also need the run off areas should you find the limit a little too easily. It isn’t often that you’re pointed in the vague direction of a waiting supercar and told to push it to the absolute limit, but that’s exactly what happens on a Michelin Pilot Performance Day. In the interests of honesty, I should point out that I probably pushed the cars to my limit rather than theirs, but having been treated to a number of seriously fast laps by the company’s tame racing drivers, I did get to see the tyres pushed to the point of abuse.
The first thing that struck me about Estoril is just how ancient the circuit feels. Today it’s hard to imagine that it hosted a F1 race as recently as 1996. It actually feels like it is stuck in the late ’80s or early ’90s. And yet, for a generation, the name Estoril was as synonymous with F1 racing as the likes of Lauda, Prost, Mansell and Senna. But with its tight corners, elevation changes and lack of facilities, it’s virtually impossible to see F1 ever returning. But none of this mattered to me, for it was a genuine thrill to have the chance to drive around the same track as some of my childhood sporting heroes. A track on which Damon Hill still holds the lap record for. Needless to say though, I didn’t get anywhere near this time…
The day itself was split into two halves. Firstly, we had the science bit which, under normal circumstances, would require a high degree of concentration and focus. But when stood in the middle of a former F1 track with a number of supercars howling away in the background, I’ll admit my attention was sometimes diverted. But no matter, I’d already picked up a memory stick pre-loaded with all the day’s technical information. But I’m not going to lie to you, I felt a little bit like a child on Christmas morning who is forced to stare at the presents underneath the tree while his parents finished their breakfast. It was torture.
Truth is though, learning about the research and development that goes into making a tyre is genuinely engaging stuff. Michelin has an annual budget of €500 million for tyre research and development and produces over 175 million tyres every year. The result is that nearly one and in three European consumers state that Michelin would be there first choice when buying tyres. Good news for Michelin. But it’s actually good news for the consumers too as when Michelin and any other tyre manufacturer invests in R&D, it actually means that we can look forward to safer, longer lasting and more fuel efficient tyres. Furthermore, in the case of the Pilot range, we can also enjoy superior high performance tyres.
Indeed, during the Performance Day, Michelin made a great deal about its ‘from the track to the road’ positioning. In short, by investing in motorsport and high performance car manufacturers, Michelin hopes to create a halo effect that filters down to regular users. Furthermore, Michelin claims to ‘sell performance, not rubber’, which despite sounding like it belongs to a different type of rubber, is attempting to elevate the importance of choosing the right tyre. A worthy cause.
But I wonder if the track/street positioning goes far enough. By aligning the brand with premium car manufacturers and race series, Michelin is ultimately preaching to the converted and merely jockeying for position with the likes of Pirelli and Dunlop, who have strong links with F1 and BTCC respectively. The biggest challenge will be educating the masses, for whom a tyre purchase is normally a distress purchase. A decision that’s based on price, brand familiarity and availability. Worse still, a decision that’s often left until the very last minute when the tyres are at their legal limit. If more people could experience days such as these, I’m sure tyres would be placed further up the list of priorities. Who knows, they make become more appealing than Lexus-style rear lights and Sky television?
Take the wet weather braking demonstration for example. Understanding how the physical solicitations and surface texture of the road affect braking performance is genuinely compelling stuff and goes to prove that the choice of tyre is just one part of the process. Adhesion is inhibited by any water molecule and even on the smoothest of road surfaces, the rough patches are filled with water, therefore compromising the braking efficiency. In short, the more water the tyre can clear from the surface, the better the braking will be. The better your tyres, the quicker you’ll stop.
But stopping was the last thing on my mind when it came to the main event of the day. The chance to take a selection of Porsche 911s and Audi R8s on to the Estoril track. I’ve driven 911s before, but never on a former F1 track. Chances like this simply don’t come along very often, so I was determined to make the most of the opportunity.
First up is a trio of Porsche Carreras, all with varying degrees of horsepower, but most importantly, each with a different set of tyres. So I approach the driver’s door and prepare for my first lap. At which point, I encounter a bit of a problem – these cars are left hand drive. The last time I drove a left hooker was in 2003 and in my Golf Rallye, so this was going to be a challenge. Still, at least there’s nothing coming the other way and I do have one of Michelin’s tame racing drivers sat alongside me.
Fortunately, the first Carrera GTS is shod with Pilot Sport PS2s, Michelin’s road spec performance tyre. With nothing to compare them to and with no prior knowledge of the Estoril track, it is difficult to draw conclusions on these tyres. But with the adrenalin flowing and my heart beating slightly faster, we return to the pits, switch to another Carrera GTS and head out for a couple of laps on Michelin’s Pilot Sport Cup + tyres. This is the reference track tyre for Porsche and BMW M cars, but is in actual fact fully road legal. There is just so much feedback through these tyres and the level of grip is amazing.
But that’s nothing compared to the Michelin slicks. I’ve never had the opportunity to drive on full racing slicks before and they really were a highlight of the day for me. After a brace of Carrera GTSs, I was handed the keys to a Carrera 2S which, despite being 23 bhp down on the 408 bhp GTS, was an absolute revelation to drive. You simply haven’t experienced true grip until you’ve driven on slicks. But it’s not just the grip that impresses, as the level of feedback you get from the tyres is nothing short of incredible. With the entire surface of the tyre in constant contact with the track, you’d expect this to be the case, but the it’s the degree of feedback that really impresses. The sheer stickiness of the tyres is highlighted by the amount of debris that’s accumulated after just two fast laps. I’m convinced it won’t be long until Mr Dyson contacts Michelin for some design input for his next range of vacuum cleaners.
So there’s a noticeable difference between the street and track tyres, but the level of feedback and grip from all of them is genuinely impressive. On the flight to Portugal I was worried that I wouldn’t have the skills and depth of experience to properly do justice to the tyres. I may not be Captain Slow, but then I’m not exactly Lieutenant Fastest Lap either. So I was delighted to have noticed the difference. There’s an obvious marked difference between slicks and street tyres, but in general, I’d summarise the three Michelin Pilot performance tyres I tested as very grippy, exceptionally grippy and insanely grippy. I think you can guess which is which!
Speaking of insane, that’s the word I use to describe the manically fast and hardcore Porsche 911 Cup. I was treated to a passenger ride in one of these monsters and the experience was unforgettable. I knew I was in for something special when I was told to find myself a helmet and was then helped to get strapped tightly into a racing seat. With straps getting in to places I’d rather not mention, this was not a time for modesty. But once strapped in, the overal feeling is probably much like that of a beetle who has found himself upside down on a flat floor. I could move my arms and legs, but the rest of my body was rendered useless. Communication with the driver is limited to a microphone and headphone and soon as the engine roared into life, I understood why.
The noise is absolutely incredible. With no sound deadening and the engine sat a few inches behind my head, my ears were treated to an aural symphony like nothing I’ve experienced before. The Cup clatters and rattles its way out of the pits and I’m convinced something is going to fall off. But of course, it doesn’t and once out on the track I’m given a display of man and machine that attacks the senses from all directions. I wanted to capture the occasion on video, but it was pointless. Everything that happens seems to push the limits to extreme, whether it’s the cornering, or the braking or the almost unbelievable acceleration. My head is catapulted from left to right as we take the corners at impossible speeds and my words are limited to just the occasional and ridiculously understated yelps of delight. After just two short laps, my ears are ringing, my neck aches and my heart is pounding. I’m in love with a Porsche.
My love affair continues after a hearty lunch as I take out a Carrera GTS on Pilot Sport Cups for a three lap blast. This isn’t about comparing tyres, it’s about simply enjoying the drive and I’m given constant tuition from Julian, my French racing driver companion. The tuition seems to work as I get progressively quicker through each corner and learn the quickest route around the track. I conclude that the Carrera GTS on Sport Cups is my car and tyre package of the day.
Of course, there were other cars available, including a host of Audi R8s, each with a different set-up and tyres. After the brilliance of the 911s, I found the R8s to be heavy, cumbersome and strangely devoid of any excitement. The V10 has a major trump card in it’s wonderfully sounding engine, but I found the R8 to be a hard car to love. With the 911, regardless of your views on the astonishing number of special editions that seem to appear, you get the sense that the car has evolved brilliantly. With the R8 there’s no sense of evolution or heritage. I’m sure with a few more laps under my belt and some road use too, I’d grow to like the Audi R8, but on this day and on this track, my heart belonged to Porsche.
After the Germans, a passenger lap in a Giacuzzo RenaultSport Megane felt a little tame. A front wheel drive hatchback is always going to pale into insignificance after a clutch of rear wheel drive supercars, so I can’t say a great deal about this. The Giacuzzo Nissan GT-R was similarly disappointing. It just felt rather sterile and artificial. If a Porsche 911 feels alive, a GT-R just feels a little soulless, but I’m sure it would be different behind the wheel. Finally, I was taken out in a Wiesmann MF5, complete with 555 hp V8 engine. I loved this car. Lots of oversteer, lots of tyre smoke and lots of fun. Would love to drive one!
I missed out on the Mercedes SLS, Ferrari 458 and the Gumpert Apollo, but you know what, tt really didn’t matter. Such was the sense of occasion that it was enough just to be in the pits alongside cars with a total of 20,000 hp. I didn’t want the day to end.
But with a plane to catch, I along with my fellow invitees were escorted back to Lisbon airport for our flights back to a rainy and miserable Heathrow airport. On the coach we reflected on the day and just how fortunate we were to receive the invite from Michelin. We were unanimous in our respect for premium tyres and love of the Estoril circuit, but couldn’t quite agree on the car of the day.
As we made our way along the auto-estrada, my attention was diverted to a Vauxhall Nova Shatchback and a Volkswagen Polo GT. It was time to head home…
Huge thanks to Michelin Tyres for the invite and to the numerous drivers for the tuition and passenger laps.