A funny thing happened on the way to the checkered flag at the 2003 24 Hours of LeMans: A Corvette C5R didn't win. Given the fact that the all-American heart throb already had two GTS class victories in a row under its belt (2001, 2002), and it was celebrating its 50th birthday, that loss was a tragedy.
The inevitable post-mortem revealed exactly why the two team Corvettes were beaten by the Veloqx Prodrive Ferrari 550 Maranello which finished tenth overall: tires. While the Ferrari was able to safely depend on their Michelins for two full driving stints, the Corvette team had to swap rubber every time it came in for fuel. Since service at LeMans is a sequential affair--with no work on the car allowed until refueling has been completed--the 15 extra seconds per stop needed to replace the Corvettes' Goodyear tires multiplied times 24 Hours consisted of ten full laps. That gap is what doomed the Corvettes to second- and third-in-class finishes behind the winning Ferrari.
This is where the classic Join Them To Beat Them strategy kicks in. As soon as Michelin replaced Goodyear as the Corvette Team's rubber of choice, winning at the Sarthe resumed. Let the record show that Corvette and Michelin conquered all foes in their class for four out of the past six years, including three victories in a row from 2004-2006. Add to that five American LeMans Series Driver, Manufacturer, and Team championships earned since 2004. This pair has won 51 out of the 59 races campaigned together. Need we say that rubber matters?
It's also obvious that winning is an excellent way to strengthen the bonds between car and tire manufacturers. But trophies pale in comparison to knowledge accumulated which is why Michelin's mantra is "We race to learn before we win."
Michelin began cooperating with Corvette production engineers in 2001 when a Pilot Sport A/S (all-season) fitment with ZP (run-flat) capability was introduced for C5 (fifth-generation) Corvettes. Shortly after the 2003 LeMans debacle, when Michelin and Corvette joined forces for racing, that relationship intensified. Last year, Michelin Pilot Sport ZP radials were selected as the original equipment fitment for the spectacular ZR-1. Also, three new replacement applications were introduced: Pilot Sport PS2 ZP tires for C5 and C6 Corvettes plus new A/S Plus ZP rubber for use on C5s driven in inclement weather.