Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S Experience

Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S Launch Event

Palm Springs, CA – Pouring rain may have damped the track and photo prospects surrounding our time with the all-new Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S, but it also highlighted their impressive performance in the wet on a variety of closed courses, before the sun came out just in time for a memorable drive in not one but two Ferrari convertibles.

Passion for performance, for thrills, for Michelin-rated culinary art/food and for automotive lust in general was a common theme throughout Michelin’s all-out launch event. Surrounding us with occasionally million-dollar hypercars (such as a McLaren P1 and Porsche 918 Spyder) and famous race cars (including the 2016 LeMans-winning Porsche 919 Hybrid), Michelin also contracted a large crew of photo, sound and video folks on and off-track to help us document the full day.

That day started with us taking the wheel of a variety of vehicles on the Thermal Club, a private high-speed race track often used for BMW driver training and events, then doing some back-to-back tests in some Pilot Sport 4 S (PS4S)-equipped 3 Series BMWs versus the same cars on competitor tires on a cone and puddle-lined autocross course.

Then there was a significantly drier half-day drive on public highways and back roads, which included a tour through the Mojave desert and scenic Joshua Tree National Park, so named after it reminded early Mormon settlers of the biblical Joshua raising his hands to the heavens. We did the same, in appreciation of some rare (on this day) sunshine, in two different turbocharged Ferrari California T droptops.

Passion, indeed.

Michelin PS4S a worthy successor to the Pilot Super Sport

Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S Launch Event

For some perspective, the launch of a new generation of Pilot Sport tires is a huge deal in the tire world. The current Pilot Super Sport series is a wide-ranging ultra-high performance summer tire launched six years ago, and come as standard or optional equipment on everything from back road-friendly Audi A5 coupes to fire-breathing Ferrari 488 GTB models, with specialty variants (Michelin Pilot Sport Cups in particular) reaching up to street-legal race tire grip levels – and instant track cred.

Coming this March, the Pilot Sport 4 S promises cutting edge grip, lap times and – especially pertinent to us on the day – wet braking.

The S designation signifies it’s the replacement for the Pilot Super Sport series, explained Sarah Robinson, head of Michelin North America’s motorsports marketing division.

“We use racing as a platform for technology,” she said. “With the Audi (24 Hour prototype) team, they did a triple stint at LeMans twice – so that’s almost three hours at full speed, pushing as hard as we could.”

The new tires feature technology that introduces a variable contact patch that Michelin calls Dynamic Response Technology, which uses two different elastomers, one of which is all-new and patented, said Laurent Huc, Michelin’s tire compound designer. The inside of the tire focuses on wet traction, typically not a strong point of ultra high-performance (UHP) summer tires.

Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S Launch Event

“But we consider it a safety issue, so it’s a key aspect of our performance, as it has historically been.”

The new line of PS4S (Michelin has obviously worked hard to avoid any gamer/Sony PS4 confusion) pushes the PS3s down the Michelin price and performance ladder, but the PS3s will remain available for a while yet. The PS4S hits the market in March in 35 sizes on 18- to 20-inch rims, then next year in expanded sizes. It has already been confirmed as coming for the 2017 Ferrari GTC4Lusso Turbo and 2018 Ford Mustang, with Michelin saying about 50 OE fitments are close to being announced, with more to come.

Canadian prices haven’t yet been announced, but in the US, they start at $233 USD, with a treadwear rating of 300, meaning they trend to grip over long tread life, as do almost all UHP tires. Michelin provides a 30,000 km treadwear warranty on its current Pilot Super Sport tires, and if your car is on a staggered fitment that doesn’t allow four-tire rotating, that falls to 15,000 km, all of which will likely continue on the PS4S.

And now with all the marketing and technical background delivered, it was time to put theory to pavement – hard.

Latest PS4S out-hustles and out-brakes rivals around various tracks

Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S Launch Event

First up was a wet but still (relatively) high-speed excursion around the Thermal Springs road course in fresh BMW M2 coupes, dodging pools that collected on and off the racing line. But there was still a lot of marvelling at how much stick these tires offered on soggy yet flat 180-degree double-apex corners.

Without turning off the stability control, there was not one instance of ABS pulsing, and only once in our 15-minute track session did the ESP light flash its warning that I had exceeded the limits of tire grip. This suggests the PS4Ss still had some grip in reserve, even though we were going fast enough for the wipers to struggle to keep up with the spray from cars in front.

Judging by our speeds in pouring rain, we pushed much harder than any reasonably sane driver would on the street in such conditions – a testament to its considerable grip and safety margin in the wet.

Interestingly, my first encounter with the BMW M2 on a closed course at high speeds featured some wet conditions as well, though not the monsoon ones of this session. The grip and confidence certainly seemed higher with the PS4Ss in this session, though not the visibility, but that prior session was in less wet but near-freezing fall conditions in Canada that made its stock summer tires brake, corner and accelerate more like a wobbly calf fresh out of its mother’s womb.

Somewhat more scientific comparisons came at the autocross course here, with identically sized and inflated competitor tires run back to back on identical 3 Series Coupes, with a Vbox timer to measure braking distances precisely.

Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S Launch Event

With the rain having slowed or stopped, but still on a very wet course, we had two runs around a tight autocross course on each set of tires, then an emergency braking test right at the end. The Michelin averaged the shortest stopping distance from about 60 mph (97km/h) on the waterlogged pavement, at an average of 48.46 metres.

The Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 3 was just behind at 48.54 metres, but well ahead of the Continental ExtremeContact DW, which averaged 53.64 metres in the same two handling then emergency braking runs.

For even more granular test results, Michelin commissioned a third-party German TÜV SÜD study which found the PS4S finished first in a field of 10 close UHP competitors in three key performance tire tests (all in an Audi S5): handling (lap times), dry braking and wet braking. The same Goodyear tire again came in a close second to the Michelin in wet braking, lending a healthy credence to both test results, and to the veracity of the other reported ones as well.

Enough science, bring on the emotion, and extra Ferrari

Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S Launch Event

All track driving done, it was time to try the PS4S out into the real world of highways and backroads of southern California. The original plan was to take an on-road driving stint in three fabulous performance machines: the Audi R8 coupe, California T hardtop convertible, and the Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupe. The cars all lined up in groups of three, and we started with the Ferrari, thinking it was most likely to be snapped up for photos, as the rarest and priciest machine of the group, at roughly $250,000 CAD to start.

So how did we get lucky enough to score two different Cali Ts for the entire drive (or perhaps not-so-lucky if you’re an R8 or C63 superfan)? We have to thank the malfunctioning door of the Audi R8 directly behind us, which wouldn’t close properly. That could be an issue on the highway. So they wheeled in a replacement.

You know it’s an epic automotive event when your “spare” car is a brand new Ferrari convertible.

Further to that big-budget theme, this particular event stood out for its long list of “freebies” provided to all media attendees, often by outside companies sponsoring the event along with Michelin, largely in hopes of extra online exposure by the many non-traditional, social media-savvy folks invited and hosted at Palm Springs.

Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S Launch Event

So Michelin organized and then thanked a long list of sponsors for providing a variety of event kit, such as nearly head-to-toe gear from Under Armour (including underwear), a DXO One – a tiny but powerful digital camera that attaches to your case-less iPhone (sorry Android fans), a battery back-up charger, and even an evening’s wine, provided by a group of local winemakers.

It’s a new “brought to you by…” spin on an old practice that automakers have long since retired, once they noticed that the tone or amount of coverage they received changed very little with or without such “thank you” gifts.

As it should be.

Back to the driving, a police escort had been arranged for the multi-hour jaunt through SoCal backroads and Joshua Tree National Park was to be our scenic but quick stop as we switched cars. That replacement Ferrari was still behind us, so when the order came over the radio to switch in order to the car behind, it became Ferrari number two for us – an unexpected but happy surprise, especially as we were amongst the few to catch some actual rays of sunshine during rapid-fire weather changes that afternoon.

But the short switch became a long stretch. Talk of permits and delays came over the walkie-talkies. Eventually the switch into the third car had been scrapped for time, leaving us as the all-Ferrari, all-the-time drivers, revelling in its potent 553 hp turbo V8 thrust, on the rare occasions we had the space to stretch its legs.

Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S Launch Event

It was now a race back to the track, where rides in a variety of other performance street-legal and racing machines at the hands/mercy of a variety of race drivers awaited us to end our day in a line of Michelin-shod performance metal, as the sun set teasingly on the modded Nissan GT-R, 2017 Acura NSX, Ford GT350R and Mercedes-AMG GT S blitzing around the track.

It all added up to plenty of proof of the new Michelin Pilot S4’s performance chops, as well as an unforgettable experience for any passionate Ferrari/sports car fan. Though for the bored water truck driver that Michelin had hired to help wet the usually bone-dry California pavement, perhaps not quite so memorable.

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Michael Bettencourt

Michael Bettencourt

Michael Bettencourt is on the World Car of the Year jury, has been a long-time AJAC member, and is on its Technology of the Year judging panel.