The exclusion of Audi from the results of the weekend's FIA World Endurance Championship opener at Silverstone for a technical infringement promoted Rebellion Racing to 3rd spot. It is a result that gave Dunlop an unexpected podium upon their return to LMP1 competition.

There is little doubt that the technical regulations that govern the LMP1 class will ensure privateer teams such Rebellion Racing and Bykolles may never be on par with the hybrid runners.

The beginnings of the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship have shown - if it ever needed to be - that this is not set to change. Losing eleven laps over the course of Sunday's six-hour race merely reminded all that Porsche, Audi and Toyota are on an entirely different level.

But for Dunlop, the return to top-level of prototype sports car racing is challenge highly anticipated by Sebastien Montet (Technical Director of Dunlop Motorsport) and Jean-Felix Baselin (Director of Operations). It is something that Montet alludes to, 'LMP2 is very nice, but we always seek something a little bit more challenging.

The loss of their Birmingham production site at start of the decade forced the tyre manufacturer to recalibrate a number of their programmes and Montet laments the time lost on the sidelines, not that is not to say that Dunlop have been silent.

Not only is Dunlop competing alongside Michelin in LMP1, the American company have delivered brand new tyre constructions to the LMP2 and LMGTE classes.

"We do learn a lot with [LM]P2, because there is a wide range of chassis as well which is very interesting, so plenty of lessons to learn there,' Montet continues. "GT is a very competitive arena where the lap times are very competitive as well, so everything is very interesting."

The new compounds for LMP2 received compliments from teams throughout the weekend prior to the race, with many pointing to a vastly improved intermediate and wet tyre; however a wry Montet was unwilling to reveal the secrets of their construction.

"The idea for [the intermediate] is to be almost as good as a slick, so that we don't lose time in the pits and don't have to shorten the [stint].

"Race after race, the one who has the right product is the one who is winning and the one who is right to take a decision is also winning."

For a moment Montet stops himself, before raising a smile: 'What goes in it, I'm afraid what I have to stay goes in my pocket.' Only Baselin opens the door slightly. 'It would be right to say that these tyres are very much a hybrid type...'

While a majority of eyes at WEC events maybe for LMP1, it would be a mistake to ignore the LMP2 competition. Across the eleven entrants for the opening round, four different types of chassis - provided by Oreca, Gibson, BR Engineering, and Ligier - were in action. It is a feature that creates another intriguing challenge for the Dunlop team.

"We have come to the current situation with all the chassis in a progressive manner - starting with one chassis and then developing a second and a third one - we have gathered a lot of knowledge and experience."

Baselin agrees. 'We are successful [...] because we come from a lot of experience in the Blancpain championship, BTCC with eight or nine different chassis. They all have four wheels at each corner, but the chassis can be very different.'

Both Montet and Baselin are keen to press the importance of the relationship between their tyre engineers and the race engineers in each team.

"What we have done for years is [put] a lot of importance on our tyre engineers, so that they should understand what is the car and chassis behaviour. We have spent a lot of time training our people to understand chassis. If you have a very good understanding between the car engineers and the tyre engineers you will get a good result."

However Baselin admits this can often cause moments of friction from race teams wary of outsiders; however Montet maintains that Dunlop approach these relationships with the highest regard.

"We [are] able to share some of our experience - we never shared any data, the data stays with us, but the experience and the direct we put that in is something that we can share."

Dunlop's profile in both the 'Pro' and 'Am' the LMGTE categories could not be more different. Rather than supply a multitude of teams, Dunlop has chosen to align exclusively with Aston Martin Racing - a relationship that excites Montet no end. 'It's only the beginning, but [the relationship with Aston Martin] is very close.'

At this stage, the collaboration is not just about competition, but also about communication and the exchange of data and although there is no pressure to deliver top results just yet, there is of course a desire to see success in time. Montet plays it cool.

"There will be days when the tyres are a little bit inferior to our competitors, or maybe the car, but we know that when we work together, it is very close."

The World Endurance Championship consists of nine rounds across an eight-month season, but it would be foolish to underplay the value of the Le Mans 24 Hour Race - the centrepiece of the series. It may be one race, but it does require a particular approach. Baselin seems particularly excited by the prospect.

"We have the benefit of a lot of experience and Le Mans has been the race where we worked on high speed. It's embedded in our design procedure and thought process, but it's specific. There is very high speed three times in the lap with significant downforce, so you have to have that in mind."

Nodding, Montet agrees with his colleague, adding: 'What is also the beauty of endurance in that respect, you have to have tyres and an overall package that is good enough in all conditions.'

Whether Dunlop can take the charge to their Michelin-shod rivals remains to be seen, but there is charged anticipation amongst the engineers, teams and drivers.

By Leigh O'Gorman

 

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