Inside the Program of “The Little Tire that Could”
By Kelly Brouillet
Still a young American Le Mans Series team, Team Falken Tire has made its mark in the GT class, both in wet and dry conditions.
With the main focus of developing tires, the team has taken on other tire manufactures with more ALMS experience to earn two wins and several top five finishes. We took the most asked questions regarding the tire program in ALMS and sat down with Falken to give fans a more technical look inside the team that continues to make its mark in sports car racing.
How did Falken Tire make the decision to join the American Le Mans Series?
Falken was looking to expose our brand to a different demographic than we had been associated with in years prior. We had a great reputation with the Gen X and Gen Y through Formula Drift and our other tuner scene involvement but we wanted to further expand the brand awareness. The American Le Mans Series gave us the perfect opportunity to get involved in a top tier sports car racing environment, something we had never done before in the United States. With that in mind, the ALMS is the only premiere motorsport that promotes tire competition so it was just a natural fit. Combine that with the rising popularity of the GT class and the fact that the average consumer can relate to the Porsches, Ferraris, Corvettes and BMWs they see going around the track and we felt it was a great match for us.
Tell us about the life of an ALMS tire, starting from the beginning with the data and ending with what happens once it’s done on track.
Once we go through a tire test, the data and driver feedback is used to give our Lead Design Engineer, Yoshi Yasuda, a direction on how to improve our tire performance. The design is finalized and the tires are ordered from the factory in Japan. Depending on the time allowable until the next race, the tires are either shipped by boat or plane to the destination to prepare for competition. This turnaround takes an average of 30 days from start to finish. Once in the US, the Falken Tire ALMS staff receives the tires, inventories them and does a final quality inspection. The team and tire engineers agree upon what to begin testing or using at an event, the tires are then fitted to the wheels and put on track for competition. After the race is completed, select tires are dissected and shipped back to Japan for analysis. Again, the data and driver feedback from the race is used to go into the next generation of tire available to be used at the next competition. Every single tire sent to the US is accounted for, used or unused, and sent back to Japan when they are no longer of use in the US.
Roughly how many tires does Falken use each season in the ALMS program?
Including testing, one car uses approximately 380 tires per year. This does not count excess inventory that may have been produced but never used.
What tracks in the ALMS schedule are the most and least demanding on tires?
Least demanding would have to be street circuits like the Long Beach Grand Prix and Baltimore Grand Prix. Most demanding would be Mid-Ohio, its abrasive track surface is used in a seemingly constant loaded state caused by long turns and multiple transitions, and Road Atlanta; extreme loads are put on the left side tires due to various significant elevation changes.
With Falken Tire’s reach into other areas of motorsport including tires in drifting and off-roading, how much tire data/development can be carried across the board, if any?
Because of the rules, the tires used in Formula Drift are off the shelf, unmolested RT-615K street tires. Much the same, our off road tires we use in competition are off the shelf Wild Peak A/T tires but are often hand grooved in order to change the tire characteristics depending on the type of environment they will be used in. The techniques to prep the tires are all similar however the designs are drastically different.
In what ways is an ALMS tire different from a drifting tire?
As mentioned above, the RT-615K tire used in drifting is an off the shelf tire that anyone can buy at your local Falken Tire retailer. The ALMS RT-Slick tire is custom made, using cutting edge motorsports technology, in many different variations in Japan and is unavailable to the public.
What kind of education is needed to be a tire engineer?
Obviously, an engineering degree is required. Outside of that, tire engineers have come from different educational backgrounds. There are actually different types of tire engineers as well, just like most engineering fields. To name a few, there are design engineers, compound engineers and track engineers. Like most fields, experience is a key component to being effective.
What sets Falken Tires apart from the competition?
Right now, Falken only supplies one car in the ALMS. Our way of thinking is set apart from other manufacturers that supply multiple cars and several platforms. We are able to focus our efforts on tailoring a tire design for one specific vehicle in the Porsche 911 GT3 RSR. Compared to the competition, we are still very new in the field of international motorsports competition at the highest level so having on chassis to focus on has helped in some ways.
From Lime Rock Park (@LimeRockPark): Do you use different tire compounds for each track?
There is what we call a “compound family” that will contain different compound specs. We may use the spec at the softer end of the compound family spectrum for track “X” while moving to the harder end of the spectrum for tracks “Y” and “Z”.
From Bob (@BobsterS987): So as we move into heat of summer, how different are the tire compounds for each track? (LRP is thunderstorms & sunny + 90s)
Based on the track characteristics alone, the goal of the compound family mentioned earlier should be able to provide us with an option to use at each track. One of the most difficult aspects of designing a tire is to develop a compound family that is not extremely temperature sensitive so it can perform in different weather conditions. After all, no one can ever predict the weather with 100% accuracy, especially when you are building a tire 30 days in advance of an event.
From Spyderman (Ten Tenths Motorsport Forum): Last year the Falken tires were fantastic in the wet. Was this due to the tire construction or rubber compound or both?
We are very happy with our wet tire performance and feel this can be attributed to every aspect of the tire design.
From Spyderman (Ten Tenths Motorsport Forum): How are developments going on the dry tire and how do you compare your current dry tires with those of the competition?
The comparison of our performance to the competition is always a moving target. Everyone is always trying to get faster and more often than not, they usually do. With the release of the 2012 version of the Porsche 911 GT3 RSR this year, it proved challenging because there were some different characteristics to that chassis compared to the one we ran last year. Combine that with the fact that our first chance to test with the new car was at the Sebring Winter Test in February; we were playing catch up from the start. With a few races and tests under our belt, we feel we are beginning to head in the right direction
From I Rosputnick (Ten Tenths Motorsport Forum): What data/knowledge is taken from the racing tyres put into road car tyres that an average person can buy on the market?
Tires, like most components on a race car, are put through extreme conditions in motorsports. The biggest translation of track to street comes from the relative qualities these tires have and how they react to these extreme conditions. Similar to automotive manufacturers, when a street tire is introduced it may have similar qualities to a breakthrough in motorsports technology but the level at which it is required to perform and operate for street application is on a much different scale.