It’s been called the world’s most famous endurance race. And for good reason.
Held this year on June 17, the 24 Hours of Le Mans race attracted nearly 250,000 spectators and 1,800 journalists from 36 countries to Circuit de la Sarthe, near the town of Le Mans, France. More than 380 million people in 111 countries watched the race on television.
With brand exposure like that, there’s no denying the marketing value of this legendary race. But, for many tiremakers, motorsports involvement has a second benefit: research and development.
That’s how Kumho Tire Co. sees it. A team of Kumho tire engineers and technicians from the U.S., South Korea, France and England, along with the Miracle Motorsports driving team, traveled to the quintessentially European town of Le Mans. Their goal: to compete right alongside majors like Michelin, Pirelli, Goodyear (Dunlop) and Yokohama. This was Kumho’s second time competing in the race.
The Miracle team drove a French-built Courage C65 chassis powered by an AER engine. Kumho supplied the team with Ecsta S700 HP tires in four compounds: a full wet tire, an intermediate wet tire, a qualifying tire and a race tire. Front tires were size 280/650R18, and rear tires were 310/710R18s.
Inspiring the creation of the American Le Mans Series which includes the 12 Hours of Sebring and Road Atlanta’s Petit Le Mans the 24 Hours of Le Mans (Heures du Mans, as the French call it) was the first race of its kind. It began in 1923, and since then, has taken place 74 times, including this year.
Competing in Le Mans is far from child’s play. For starters, a team that wants to compete in this prestigious race first has to get an invitation from the creator and organizer l’Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO). And, that’s no easy task. U.S. racing teams only get invited after being points leaders in the American Le Mans series.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans has been described as grueling and even punishing because drivers and tires must endure hours of continuous racing. “This is a brutal race. It really is,” said Miracle team owner John Macaluso.
For tiremakers, though, it’s a test of technological capability and a learning experience.
“Our technical center in South Korea developed a race tire specifically for Le Mans based on what we learned here last year,” said Rudy Consolacion, motorsports manager at Kumho. “Because the track is so smooth, we developed a tire with a stiff construction and a soft compound.”
Kumho also takes pride in its qualifying tire. “For a 24-hour race, qualifying isn’t quite as important,” said Consolacion, “but it demonstrates your technical ability if you can develop a tire that performs well in qualifying.”
The tire’s soft compound worked best at nighttime when outside temperatures were cool. “We had our softest tire, our qualifying tire, and we double-stinted it and it was great,” said Andy Lally, one of the Miracle team drivers.
For Kumho, the technical education is priceless. “Last year, in our first time at Le Mans, we learned a lot about what it takes to be competitive here,” said Consolacion. “We made a big step this year, and I think all of the other tire manufacturers are taking notice. We have even more data now.”
Of course, much of that data is secret. But, as the old saying goes, the proof is in the performance. Kumho and Miracle finished third in the LMP2 class. Co-drivers Ian James, Lally and Macaluso drove 324 laps and achieved an overall 14th place out of all 48 cars in the race. The Miracle car covered 2,742 miles during the race, reportedly without any tire problems.
“It’s unbelievable and indescribable to achieve a podium finish at Le Mans in just our second effort,” said Macaluso. “The tires were flawless, and Kumho’s results are remarkable. It took me 35 years of racing to get to Le Mans and achieve a podium. Kumho did it in just two years.”
“We’re a small team,” Macaluso remarked. “This is a world-class event, and we’re on the world’s stage, and the crew showed they’ve got nothing to hang their heads about.”