Life on the Limit: Testing Times for Michelin

Some guys have all the luck…

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 Jerome 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 typical day will involve up to eight hours screaming sports cars round the best tracks in the world from Magny-Cours to the legendary Nurburgring.

“It’s very variable, today I have only driven about three hours but when I am with a client, such as Ferrari or Porsche, I will be all day in the cars,” explains Haslin.

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. Haslin is in charge of 25 other test drivers, including two for motorbikes, 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 1.75-mile handling circuit and a near 5-mile high speed circuit with banked corners.

Driving on the absolute limit has to be second nature to Jerome 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,” he explains. “It’s sensorial analysis, but you need a good memory because of tyre changes; imagine tasting one wine then having to wait 50 minutes 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 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 has armed me with a Porsche Carrera 2, three different sets of tyres and the keys to the test track. Jerome will show me what he does, and then I’ll do the same.

First stop is the 2.6-mile wet track, with standing water controlled to 3mm. As soon as Jerome drives onto the track, we accelerate to motorway speeds. Sideways. He calmly tells me about some characteristics of these tyres, but my attention is grabbed by the sturdy looking Armco directly in our path. “That’s the one place on the track it’s not safe to come off,” he comments nonchalantly whilst power sliding past it.

Power sliding doesn’t do his work justice though. He’s controlling the slides so precisely that the photographer is totally confident standing on the apex of the hairpin. As Jerome 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 lap times with little slip, but I think your photographer wants more action shots, yes?”

Oh yes.

Switching to the Circuit Grande Vitesse, with its mile-long straights and banked corners, Jerome 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 heading sideways towards it. He straightens up in time, before accelerating to 160mph or so and performing the whole experiment again.

The handling circuit calls, its 1.75-miles of twists and turns officially sanctioned by the FIA for F1 testing. Jerome explains what’s 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 or oversteers.”

Holding the car at about 4,000rpm in fourth gear, 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.

Jerome steps up the pace dramatically for three timed laps, and by crikey he’s good. After three flat-out laps, hitting speeds of 135mph before on-the-limit braking for a second-gear hairpin, he suggests that I have a go.

Reluctantly, I avoid the temptation to just drive very fast, instead concentrating on performing some of the tests Jerome had shown me. With two decades in the car industry, test driving everything from Fiestas to Bentleys, surely this should be easy? No chance. It’s worse than the 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.

After a few laps I have a profound respect for Jerome’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 and with smiles all round, I’m asked whether I would want his job.

“Without doubt, mate. Without doubt.”

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Ralph Hosier

Ralph has been a senior engineer in the car industry for decades, working for the likes of Bentley, Jaguar, Land Rover and Ford. He is a chartered engineer and member of the Institute of the Motor Industry, which means he can put the initials 'Mimi' after his name and get free drinks at bars.

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