There are some people who make you want to change job. Give everything up and follow in their footsteps. Alain Degironde, subjective test driver for vans at Michelin, is one of them. A direct gaze from behind his glasses, graying at the temples, a blue cap that matches his polo shirt...
Between two test drives on the Ladoux race track on the outskirts of Clermont-Ferrand, Alain told us about his job as a driver and his more than 40-year passion for driving.
Alain Degironde, subjective test driver for van tyres at Michelin
How the dream came true
"I joined Michelin in 1979 as a suggestion technician. I had just spent three years at the Michelin technical college," remembers Alain. At the time, the school was known as "The Mission", a sort of talent incubator before they were invented.
This very young employee left to do his national service, then joined the company again, but in Montceau-les-Mines, a small town situated further north, in Burgundy.
In early 1985, as he did every year, he expressed his career aspirations. "All I wanted was to come back to Clermont Ferrand – because I'm from the region – and, if possible, become a test driver, because I was fascinated by it". Was it luck or fate? Michelin needed test drivers for its car tyres. Bingo! The young technician entered Ladoux – one of the world's top test circuits for tyre testing. The dream came true.
It was the beginning of his career as a test driver. In 1991, the tyre company needed a new test driver for vans tyres. The test driver at the time was nearing retirement. It was a gradual handover. "From 1992 to '95, I test drove both car and light truck tyres. In 1996, when my colleague left, I naturally replaced him. And I've been dealing with vans in tyre tests right up until today," smiles Alain.
"What I like best, obviously, is the driving. The way you drive when you're a test driver is different because you need to be repetitive and extremely rigorous in the way you maneuver."
A passion for driving vans
For someone who, for longer than he can remember, has always wanted to be a test driver, forty years later, he's still just as keen. "What I like most, obviously, is the driving. The way you drive when you're a test driver is different because you need to be repetitive and extremely rigorous in the way you maneuver. For example, when you corner, you have to do it the same way with all of the tyres we analyse. If we create a difference in the way we drive, inevitably there will be a difference in the result."
When we ask him which subjective tests he prefers, Alain unhesitatingly replies test driving on snow. "The majority of subjective snow-handling tests for light trucks take place, each winter, in Barcelonnette, in the Alpes de Haute Provence."
For the last 20 or so years, from the beginning of December to mid-March,
the small town of Jausier has given the Michelin teams unique access to an incredible, outstanding tool.
White paradise and outstanding tool for the Michelin teams
Close your eyes, we'll take you there! Imagine a landscape covered with immaculately white, fresh snow. Listen to the calm, muffled silence... before the tests.
After a 15-minute drive up from the village, open your eyes and take in this unique track on the Napoleon road: 10 kilometers of tight bends. Ten kilometers that wind their way up to the Col de la Bonette pass, 2715 meters at its highest point. The highest road in Europe!
For the last 20 or so years, from the beginning of December to mid-March – depending on the year – the small town of Jausier has given the Michelin teams unique access to an incredible, outstanding tool (there is no lack of superlatives to describe it).
"We even test summer tyres in the snow to see how they perform in extreme conditions..."
"This road is completely closed to traffic in winter. With the permission of the prefecture and the municipality, we were able to get it opened just for our tests," explains Alain. "Each winter, we are helped by a local team. We've provided them with vehicles such as a snowplow, snow tiller, snow-grooming machine, etc. These two people prepare the track every day and install a site hut for the Michelin technicians and test drivers... We go up there for two to three weeks, but not in a row. We can't take a two to three-week supply of tyres... Our colleagues from all-season car tyres go there, too. We work on a roster system. We don't necessarily have new models each winter, but we test changes and improvements..."
It's also an opportunity to have customers come and try out new features in extreme conditions, as we did for the Agilis Crossclimate range three years ago. For 48 hours, fleet managers came and shared the life of test drivers like Alain. A one-of-a-kind customer experience!
"We even test summer tyres in the snow to assess their performances in extreme conditions...", he recalls. "But the first thing I check on snow and ice is whether the van starts and whether it brakes."
If one day you have a heavy cold or you're not feeling yourself, don't bother doing a subjective test. You're going to feel things, but it won't necessarily be the reality.
Even in the middle of summer, whether on snow or ice, the driver tests the performance of the tyres in extreme driving conditions.
Maximum concentration when you test a tyre
One final question before we part: what exactly is Alain looking for when he tests a tyre? "I use my eyes, my ears and all of the body's sensors to analyse each sensation and feel the slightest vibration. It's all about what you feel. If one day you have a heavy cold or you're not feeling yourself, don't bother doing a subjective test. You're going to feel things, but it won't necessarily be the reality."
Alain concludes: "When I do a subjective test, I cut myself off completely. I turn off my phone, for example. I'm in my bubble. I don't want to be interrupted because that breaks up the analysis and I might miss certain things."
*Interview by Alain Degironde conducted on 20 september 2021