Monday, June 11, 2012

Team Falken Tire and Porsche Part I: Porsche Philosophy: Why Do We Race?

In May 2009, Team Falken Tire unveiled the factory American Le Mans Series team at Long Beach, racing the Porsche 911 GT3 RSR. With drivers Dominic Cicero and Bryan Sellers behind the wheel, the team dubbed as “The Little Tire that Could” competed against other tire manufacturer giants in the series. 

Team Falken Tire earned two wins for Porsche Motorsport North America in 2011, one win in wet conditions at Mid-Ohio, and another in the dry in the streets of Baltimore. Three years into the series, the team continues the relationship with Porsche, racing the 2012 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR with veteran Bryan Sellers and Porsche Factory driver Wolf Henzler. 

At Round 3 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Falken Tire PR sat down with Jens Walther, President of Porsche Motorsport North America,  and Kevin Jones  Falken Tire Supervisor ALMS Motorsports, to dive into the Porsche Motorsport North America (PMNA) operation and discuss the intricate investment in the ALMS Porsche teams.

Porsche Motorsports North America President Jens Walther with Falken driver Bryan Sellers
Falken PR: How did the relationship between Team Falken Tire and Porsche Motorsports North America begin?

Kevin, Falken: We evaluated our different options at the time and it all kept pointing back to Porsche. Porsche has a proven track record in the ALMS, they at the time had won something like four out of the last five championships. Second, they had unparalleled support at the track, with the parts trailer, US based headquarters, where other manufactures don’t necessarily offer the same type of support in the United States. The third thing was at the time we looked at it as Porsche Motorsport North America. PMNA is based in Santa Ana California, Falken Tire is based in Fontana California; from a relationship standpoint geographically it made sense as well.

Falken PR: Did the relationship in Europe with the Falken Tyre team start about the same time?

Kevin, Falken:  The relationship in Europe with Porsche grew from our existing relationship in the United States. Due to our standing affiliation with Porsche, we were able to share tire development and work together to continue Falken Tire's efforts in the European circuit.
(PR Note: The ALMS and VLN efforts are run independently as racing programs, but the tire development for both programs operates out of the same technical center and manufacturing plants in Japan)
Falken PR: What is it that makes the 2012 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR competitive in the American Le Mans Series GT class?

Jens, PMNA:  All of the cars in the American Le Mans Series are based on a set of technical regulations and all the manufacturers try to get the maximum out of those regulations. So within the given framework, we try to be as good in performance as we can. We are one of the cars without a mid-engine, which has always been a challenge. So far, our engineers have always been able to compensate for this slight disadvantage of not having the engine at the point where we would if we had a generic car. 

This year, we came out with an update based on the 997 Carrera model. We did a lot of work on the aero side and changed a lot of parts on the suspension. Now, for the third race of the season here at Laguna Seca we came up with an additional aero package that the ACO and IMSA observed the last two races and found that we had a disadvantage. They gave us a waiver: a new set of regulations where we could work a little bit on the aero in the front and balance the car out in the rear. If you add down force to the car, that means the car gets more drag, so you lose power. So to compensate that, the ACO gave us a bigger restrictor, meaning we have more air coming into the engine. 

The last two weeks have been very dramatic in that instance. If you have to rebuild parts overnight, you go in the wind tunnel overnight and test them on the street and if they don’t work, you have to rebuild them again. We’re very confident with what we have at the moment and we think we are now with the car where it belongs. We re competitive in relation to the other manufacturers' products. 

I think that really comes back as a philosophy question for Porsche: why do we race? We’ve always been racing, we’ve always used racing as a part to develop street cars. Since 1989 we have been concentrating completely on customer support programs. That means we design and build race cars, we sell race cars, and we support our customer programs at the race track. We have no factory program where we run as a factory, but we utilize the resources to back the programs our customers, and help them to develop their successful programs and help them, in Falken Tire’s example, to develop the tires. Whenever there is feedback from the car when we develop the car, we make sure that we allow the car to be as flexible so it can run in different tires and it can run in different series. That’s an important part that we really focus on programs for the customers. 

Falken, PR: In general, what kind of support does Porsche provide to customer teams at American Le Mans Series events?

Jens, PMNA: What we try to do is have an “aspirin” motorsports program which is allowing our customers to go racing without headaches. We take care of the framework. We negotiate with the rule makers about the rules at the beginning of the year. If we feel that there is a disadvantage of any manufacturer, for us and our customer teams, we are involved in discussions about waivers. 
This is why we have this emergency home here [Porsche parts trailer], we have our engineering capacity sitting, we have parts supply here, so if a car has a breakdown or needs a special part that is not on the trailer of the team, we try to have all of the parts here.

Another part we concentrate on is marketing support and the press support. We have our press department and our marketing department going to the races, making sure we interlink the teams, media and Porsche customers. Here (at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca) we have a Porsche Corral, with hundreds of Porsches and Porsche customers coming over. They are very interested in what our customer race teams do. The marketing department makes sure there is communication between the paddock and the customers. They also make sure the team programs are supported in a way that they support the programs our customers want to do and bring across the message of our brand.

Falken PR: With so many Porsche’s running different support series on an ALMS race weekend, does the Porsche 911 GT3 RSR require more attention than the cup cars?

Jens, PMNA: Yes. The 911 GT3 RSR is the pinnacle of our race cars. It’s the most sophisticated GT racecar we have.  I have to say GT because we have a prototype coming out in two years that will be even more sophisticated. This is a small series of cars. We only produce 7 or 8 a year worldwide, so what comes on top of what the regulations allow, changes within a small band, talking about the most sophisticated and professional race teams in GT racing. The challenge here is to support the customer teams with the information they need in order to develop the car for their specific needs: tire, driver, and all the other things they might be able to change.
There’s a lot of work for us to put in at Porsche Motorsport North America. It doesn’t need so much attention in the American Le Mans Series because the teams are so high level, they have all the capacities themselves.  We are basically just the back office or the emergency. The higher you go in racing programs, the more support changes from pure consultancy and technical to development support.  

Falken PR: With three different tire manufacturers supplying the 2012 Porsche 911 GT3 RSR, how does this affect your evaluation of the Porsche’s performance compared to the competition?

Jens, PMNA: When we look at the performance of the car, we always have to have a reference. The reference is the tire we test the car with in Weissach. This is our bench mark where we work from. We try to work together with the tire engineers and the development team of the manufacturer to make sure that they understand the dynamics of the car from our baseline, and develop their tire from there. There’s a lot of communication going between our engineer part in Weissach and tire engineers at the different tire manufacturers. That’s always a tricky one because obviously, since all the information comes together at our place, it’s highly confidential situation, and we cannot release any competitive data to anybody else. We’ve been doing this for many decades and we honor the development work and intellectual property of our partners highly. We try to help everyone to develop their product in the direction they want to go.

Falken PR: What is most challenging about working with three different teams running three different tires? What has surprised you?

Jens, PMNA: It’s a pleasure to work with different teams because we all share the same passion about this one brand. On the other side, it still gives each team a completely different tone. What’s most challenging for us is to understand the different directions the tire manufacturers want to go in both technically and also from the commercial side; To make sure we can support this from our side. Obviously we have a corporate partner when it comes to tires, and that is sometimes a challenge because the tire manufacturers want to utilize the partnership and through that corporate partnership we have a common communication strategy.

But on the other side, from a working environment, what has surprised us most is how tire manufacturers, like Falken Tire last year was able to come up with a tire program with a new car, a new team, with Walker Racing, and develop that in such a short time and come out with two wins: One at a dry race and one at a wet race, which is surprising for us because usually a tire manufacturer stresses the development in an early stage on either a wet or dry tire. The team two wins at completely different races. That was a positive surprise to us, to see the success of hard work.

Falken Tire drivers Bryan Sellers and Wolf Henzler on their first Falken winning podium at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course

Falken PR: People unfamiliar with the sport usually think that little training is needed to be a successful race car driver. Porsche Works drivers are among the most skilled in the world, Falken Tire’s Wolf Henzler being one of only nine. How are these drivers selected and what kind of training do they have to go through?

Jens, PMNA: Most of the factory drivers come from our own junior program. Porsche for many years had junior program where we selected young drivers from the age of 17 to 19. They were competing in the one-make cups, a great platform for future professionals. Other drivers are also out of the cup series. Generally the factory drivers come out of the Porsche Cups, which is the Porsche Carrera cup in Germany, Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup. All the cars are technically identical, so it comes down to the driver. There are spring races with standing starts, high stress factor, and you have to deliver. Our factory drivers come out of this environment, so they’ve shown as a young driver that they can compete in this environment. 

Driving is an important talent but they also have important talents when it comes to media, and technical feedback. The more you go out of the Cup Car, the more you go to what is a GT car or eventually to a prototype car, the more important it is you understand the car technically and get the engineers the feedback to develop the car for you. You’re the only person in the car. They can read as much as they want from better telemetry and from the data, but eventually it’s down to what you can feel in the car and what you can turn into a faster lap time. This is a very important element. 

The set of skills the factory drivers have is very wide. We look for out-performance in each of the individual talents. They do a lot of work on themselves, and it’s a full time job. We try to get them in the car as much as we can. They do testing for us, they have a sincere fitness program, and they do fitness camps with us. Another important thing is also to make sure these nine drivers are sharing the same philosophy with our brand. They are ambassadors for Porsche, they are ambassadors for our partners. That is sometimes a challenge for them because one week they sit in a car in Japan for a customer that is racing there, and the next week they’re racing at the Nurburgring, in a completely different environment with a completely different tire and customer team, and the next week they’re testing in Weissach, again in another environment. They need to be flexible. We believe a lot in this team. 

If you meet the drivers here in the paddock, they’re usually like a family. One of our former drivers and one of our considered family members Tim Bergmeister had his accident and everybody was shocked. All the drivers were calling each other and helping Jorg [his brother] with emails and the family as much as they could. They consider this a family. The Porsche drivers are very competitive on the track, but they consider themselves a team and we do a lot of team building. 

Henzler and Sellers show support for Tim Bergmeister 

Falken PR: The relationships of Porsche Works drivers on opposing teams is that of friendly competition, which can be a rare find amongst athletes this sport. In training and developing these drivers, how do you ensure they maintain the delicate balance between friends and competitors? 

Jens, PMNA: We do a lot of team building. They are trained not only on the cars but on the brand, the philosophy behind our race programs, they share the same ideas here. That’s together with the team workshops and that’s important about how we get them together. 

Falken PR: How does development in Porsche Motorsport add direct benefit to the consumer?

Jens, PMNA: Motorsport has always been an integral part of Porsche. Unlike other manufacturers, the Porsche motorsport department is a part of our Research & Development group. There’s direct relation between the guys developing the street cars and the guys developing the race cars. Whatever set up we test, whatever new components we test in motorsports, it might end up in the street car. We’ve seen a number of things go directly into the GT cars, such as GT2, the GT3, GT3RS, GT2RS, those cars are developed by the same engineers who develop the race cars. They take whatever they learn in terms of lightweight materials, performance parts, aerodynamic parts and translate them into the GT street cars, and the customer benefits directly from it. 

This is why so many of our street car customers take their cars to the track and enjoy racing them on different levels - they are made for this. We’ve seen a number of things in racing, especially if you look at the aero parts which are now part of the street cars.

Coming soon: Team Falken Tire and Porsche Part II: Fans Ask the Questions

Team Falken Tire News
- Saturday, June 16th, Team Falken Tire will be teaming up with Discount Tire to attend CruZionsville, a Central Indiana Porsche Club of America Porsche show in Zionsville, IN. The two-race winning #17 Porsche from the 2011 American Le Mans Series season will be on display and Falken Tire items, including a set of tires, will be raffled off to raise money for the Alzheimer's Organization. For more information, visit
- In addition to other Falken Tire Merchandise, the 2012 ALMS Falken shirts are for sale on The series is offering 15% off your entire purchase through Father's Day. Falken merchandise can be found here.

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