This weekend, Pirelli’s North American arm shod the entire field for the inaugural Indianapolis Eight Hour, the first time its flagship series – GT World Challenge America – has ever raced at the world-famous Speedway’s road course.
Importantly, it’s also a round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli – which began at the Bathurst 12 Hour in February, when the world was an altogether different place.
“People that are passionate about racing are willing to go above and beyond the hurdles of COVID in order to come back to the track and get back to racing,” says Stefano Sbettega, VP of motorsports at Pirelli North America. “One thing is for sure, the passion for motorsport hasn’t really stopped at all.”
The 22-car grid this weekend features a mixture of GT3 and GT4 machinery – with the former headlined by stunning entries from Mercedes-AMG, Ferrari, Bentley, Audi, Honda, Porsche and BMW – crewed by some gold-standard, star-name GT drivers.
But let’s rewind to the start of year, when COVID-19 wasn’t even a ‘thing’, and Pirelli planned for its season supplying racing tires around the USA as normal. Pirelli’s North American motorsports manager Orazio Mastracchio was about to get a big shock, as Sbettega relates…
“We started the year with the usual planning with our world of motorsport in the US, and we carry all the product from Europe, because all our tires are made overseas,” he explains. ‘So there's a lot of logistic planning, up until March 15. Then suddenly Orazio finds himself with a few containers of tires on the water but with no races to service, and he's stuck in Montreal!
“And as time goes by, we understand that we'll try to do a couple of races, either in July or August. And then we end up having an entire season – normally spread across six months – condensed in a timeframe of four months, in a time of the year where normally we never raced much before.
“We have supported 14 races during the month of September. The month has 30 days; 14 races, that's the problem? No, they are all on weekends, actually at different places around the US – that's the problem! If my memory is correct, we have 17 races remaining in the time period October to December.
“So, as you can imagine, the stress on the logistics and supply chain machinery has been pretty interesting! The benefit [of lockdown] was that at least we got a few months to figure it all out, to try to get organized and prepared. I'm glad I'm not managing our motorsport factory in Turkey, because in Europe and Asia – they've been in the exact same situation as we are but from a production capacity planning point of view – I’d say the challenge has not been minor!
“Definitely the situation has put a stress on the organizers and the teams, and very few promoters can say that they have a similar entry to before, mainly because of the travel restrictions. But we're at a very interesting time, because this weekend's Eight Hours of Indianapolis is a new milestone for the US calendar with our friends at SRO, and we are definitely excited for this weekend. It's a considerable effort to put on an endurance race in the US and the fact it is open to the public, with very, very limited numbers is great news. We are taking this event as a good sign of relief and positivity, and that things are moving in a certain direction.”
Mastracchio takes up the story of how he tried to satisfy all the various series that Pirelli supplies…
“It's very, very, very complicated from trying to find a place to eat, especially in California, where all the restaurants are closed, and it's only takeout – when you have Italians on the crew, that's a very important thing!” he quips. “But, you know, we manage. We all have the motorsport bug in us, we just manage to any type of environment, any type of conditions. I live in Montreal and traveling is very, very complex.
“Every week I get tested at least twice to make sure that I can travel the following week to another event. The same goes for some of my crews. I have guys living around Georgia, I have some engineers living in Vegas, some in New Jersey. And some championships, like the Ferrari Challenge, they require a test eight days prior to the event. It has a level of stress that we didn't have before.
“On the operational side, our factories were closed for four months, we had containers on the boat in March, that would have enough tires to cover us for three months. But by the time we go through those 3000-4000 tires, the factories need to catch up with the worldwide demand. So it adds a complexity not only for me, but also for the people that manage the warehouse and people that manage logistics.”
It's meant he’s had to be very adaptable in order to keep the rubber on the wheels of all the teams around the country that rely on the service.
“It's very common for us lately to airfreight some tires and that adds also an extra cost over and above what the servicing and supplying these championships costs,” he says. “But everybody works extra hard, long hours in the office, trying to manage all this. I'm lucky I have a wife that understands [laughs], although, yes, I do sleep in the basement, to ensure there's no infection!”
Mastracchio headed to Indy with not only the big GT cars to look after, but also Pirelli GT4 America Sprint and SprintX, and the TC America touring car class.
“We use a servicing dealer that sells all our motorsport product in the US,” he explains. “So he manages the tires to bring to the track. But it all starts from us. We have containers that arrived last week, then needed to be in Indianapolis on the Monday before the race. The turnaround of all this stuff is very complex. We had six trucks going to Indy with at least 3500 pieces, plus another 1000 rain tires.
“Our Pirelli staff are six engineers, including myself. And our servicing dealer is most probably going to have been around 25 to 30 people. That's more than normal, probably about half, because it's an endurance event – with some sprint race support events. So that's similar to the number of people we have at a Formula 1 event.”
Pirelli has many interests in American motorsport, also supporting Trans-Am, GT Celebration, Ferrari Challenge, Lamborghini Super Trofeo, Porsche Club of America, as well as SRO’s categories.
“From our side, we see a very good sign-up, that the GT4 and TC America platform has proven to be very resilient, and we see entry numbers that were even higher than last year,” says Sbettega. “Plus the Ferrari Challenge, which we had to revise our numbers for in a positive way this year, and Lamborghini Super Trofeo are very strong.
“And I always say that we should never forget our efforts and support to the Porsche Club of America club racing platform, with whom we are one of the historic partners, and of course we'll be back on the global stage with the World Rally Championship next year, which is very exciting. Maybe one day World Rally will become a headline sport also in the United States. Let’s hope so.”
Mastracchio says he already has one eye on 2021.
“We have to give our forecast for our internal number [of tire orders] to the factories,” he says. “Because the process of us getting tires takes about three months, by the time we submit an order for manufacture, by the time it gets on a boat, by the travel time it takes to North America – which is more or less four to six weeks, depending if the tires come from Romania or Turkey, where we have two motorsports factories.”
But for now, all eyes are on Indianapolis Motor Speedway for this inaugural landmark event.