LEXINGTON, Ohio (Sept. 14, 2009—Dunlop Tires is no stranger to the American Le Mans Series (ALMS), having been a tire supplier to the racing circuit for years.
In fact, prior to the 2009 season, the Goodyear-owned unit was the second largest supplier in the series.
But this year Dunlop gained a new perspective in the ALMS, as it was named the official race supplier to the BMW Rahal Letterman Racing Team, outfitting two new BMW M3s in the GT2 vehicle class. BMW made its return to the ALMS this year after exiting following the 2006 season.
“It's really a much more focused and dedicated effort for us,” said Matt Neidert, brand manager for Dunlop brand marketing. “Being chosen as a technical partner of BMW Motorsport, we're able to learn a lot more about the way they set up their vehicle and it becomes a cooperative project with them.”
Building a relationship
Bobby Rahal, co-owner of Rahal Letterman Racing and an Indianapolis 500 champion both as a driver and an owner, said discussions of a partnership between his company and BMW began in June 2006, the announcement was made in the beginning of 2008 and the car was introduced in December. The selection of Dunlop as the tire supplier was announced in February.
“Tires have the single biggest effect on lap time, as much as any single component in a car,” Mr. Rahal said. “If you're able to get a relationship with a company like Dunlop and are able to develop a tire specific to that car, that really can be a powerful advantage to have.”
Messrs. Rahal and Neidert talked about Dunlop, BMW and Rahal Letterman at a private test session for the team held July 7 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course near Lexington. ALMS race teams are allotted eight on-track testing sessions during the season.
From a marketing standpoint, the relationship with such big racing names aids Dunlop in selling tires along its many lines, Mr. Neidert said. Earlier this year, the company added the Dunlop SP Sport Maxx TT to its ultra-high performance line; the BMW M3 runs on Dunlop SP Sport Maxx race tires.
“Those are really household names, more than just that very core audience that enjoys racing that's going to come out and watch a race or make a point to watch a race on television,” he said.
“We want to reach the people that hear that association of Dunlop and BMW Motorsport, for example, and think, ‘OK, they're technical partners, they have a close working relationship.' That's what we're trying to leverage from these relationships.”
Dunlop has felt confident in the tires it has supplied to the BMW Rahal Letterman team thus far in the 2009 season, Mr. Neidert said. Pre- and in-season testing has been valuable and helped the team to dial in on what it wants to do in terms of tires and rubber compounds so it's ready when race day comes, he said.
The ALMS series presents a number of challenges, such as vastly differing tracks, configurations and lengths; car types; and vehicle classes. There's a 12-hour race like Sebring (Fla.), a four-hour event at Petit Le Mans (in Braselton, Ga.) and two-and-a-half to three-hour events at other sites, Mr. Neidert said.
“This means there's a wide range of tire needs, and it helps to have that testing and the ability to work so closely with the Rahal and BMW teams to prepare,” he said. “As a tire supplier, it's certainly an opportunity to learn a lot but also an opportunity to showcase yourself that you can be competitive and win races on all of these different types of vehicles. It says a lot about a tire manufacturer's capability to look at information, interpret it into a design and provide a product that can win.”
The results thus far in 2009 have been positive, Mr. Rahal said, highlighted by a 1-2 finish in the GT2 class Aug. 16 at the Elkhart Lake, Wis., race. The driver team of Bill Auberlen and Joey Hand, behind the wheel of BMW M3 No. 90 car, took first for the class and Tommy Milner and Dirk Muller in the No. 92 car took second.
Through eight races, the BMW Rahal team has made five podium finishes in the GT2 class.
In addition to the team's performance in Wisconsin, it also had a second-place finish at St. Petersburg by Messrs. Milner and Muller; a third place in Long Beach, Calif., again by Milner/Muller; a third place by Messrs. Auberlen and Hand in Lakeville, Conn.; and another third place for Milner/Muller at Mid-Ohio.
“There's been a lot of progress this year,” Mr. Rahal said. “It's a brand new, sophisticated car, and we've had some podiums, but being new we've had some problems as well. That's pretty normal. We expect to be more competitive as the year goes on.”
Mr. Rahal added that there is a lot of enthusiasm among team members, and projections are high given the experience of the sponsors involved.
But those expectations have to be managed, he said.
“Our overall goal is to win the championship, but that's not going to happen this year,” he said. “If you look at the history of BMW Motorsport, it's been successful. But if the expectation is to just produce this car and be dominant, it doesn't work that way.”
Mr. Rahal said he hopes the team is working toward a championship for next year, but for 2009, if it can continue to compete and finish in the top three in each race, that would be a good achievement.
“We're dealing with teams and manufacturers that have years of experience and development into what they're already racing, so if they're looking for little gains, at the same time we're looking for big gains. I think big gains are more difficult. We're trying to catch up and we're going to get there, but it's going to take time.”
For Dunlop, winning as a team is important, but a big objective simply is to ensure that each driver is comfortable and confident.
“That's the best we can do for them,” Mr. Neidert said. “Each driver is going to have a different style. The car is going to want something, the driver is maybe going to want something different. So our goal is to provide a tire that is built to do what the driver wants, meet their style and help them do what they need to do.
“If we can do that, then we feel we've given them the best tool, the best chance at that podium finish or getting the checkered flag.”