After seven years out of the premier class, Michelin have faced a baptism of fire in their return to MotoGP. Despite breaking several lap and race records, the French manufacturer has come under fire after several high profile tyre failures, most notably the incident in Argentina that saw the race eventually run over two parts. Bike Social spoke to Michelin Motorsport’s Technical Director Nicolas Goubert (pictured) in Le Mans to get the low down on the company’s return to top flight bike racing and discover how MotoGP has changed in recent years.
When Jorge Lorenzo smashed the Qatar race record in this year’s opening round, it looked like a triumphant return to MotoGP for Michelin. The French brand had bowed out of the premier class at the end of 2008, the last year of open tyre competition, but its return had been clouded by a number of very public front end crashes in winter testing, as well as a terrifying crash in Sepang, when Loris Baz’ rear tyre exploded at 180mph.
Despite that, Michelin’s engineers worked hard to improve their performance and durability, as witnessed in Qatar, but as the championship moved on to Argentina’s Termas de Rio Hondo for round two, they were brought straight back down to earth with a bang.
“In Qatar, the results were beyond our expectations,” the company’s Technical Director Nicolas Goubert told Bike Social. “Jorge broke the lap record in qualifying and had the fastest ever race, but we had been (testing) there 15 days before the race.
“Basically we knew the tyres worked, but then the next two races Argentina and Austin would be a lot more difficult, because these were tracks that were not in the series when we raced previously. We went there with the test riders one year ago. At Austin we had very bad conditions and with just a couple of bikes it is difficult (to gather much data). We had big trouble in Argentina.”
That ‘big trouble’ happened when Scott Redding’s rear tyre broke up in the closing minutes of FP4. With no chance to analyse why it happened, Michelin had no choice but to withdraw their preferred tyre choices. With wet weather giving no opportunity to test the harder ‘safety’ tyre in Sunday’s warm-up session, it was decided that the race would go ahead with the original tyres, but with a mandatory pit stop included for riders to change bikes and tyres.
“Scott Redding had an issue with the rear tyre. The tyre stayed inflated so he didn’t crash, but nevertheless, we couldn’t let the race go ahead with these tyres until we knew the results of the analysis.
“In the regulations you have to have two rear tyres that you make available at the beginning of the weekend and then you have one option, depending on how you want to use it. It is recommended, especially when you are beginners to have a safer solution, and that’s what we had.
“So basically although we had an issue on Saturday we knew that we had something a lot more robust for the Sunday. Unfortunately it rained on Sunday morning, so we couldn’t test the tyres and we couldn’t impose on the teams to use a tyre they had never tested. That’s why we decided with them and the organisers to split the race in two, which was a bit of a shame, but the race did happen.
“Then we had to go to Austin one week later and we knew that we could not use the tyres we had prepared. So we had to build new tyres with the harder construction but with new compound for Austin. We had one week to do that. That was tough. Tough on the factory and tough in the logistics side, but everyone understood and we brought in the tyres on the Thursday night, Friday night and Saturday night, for the race to happen as normal. It was difficult but the race went on without any surprises and the riders were more or less happy with the new rear tyres.”
Like Baz, Redding is one of the bigger riders on the grid and it became clear that his build was a factor in the Argentina failure. “Before Jerez we had the analysis of the tyre from Scott and it was very clear to us that basically the combination of very high track temperature, very demanding asphalt and a well built rider was too much strain for the tyre,” Goubert explained.
“Our job is to (provide tyres) wherever there is a race, whoever the rider is, whatever the bike brand is, so basically the tyres were not robust enough, so we had taken the right decision in Argentina. We took the right decision for the Austin race and we have continued in the right direction. Actually, we were quite confident for Jerez, because in Austin the riders were happy with the rear tyres, but when you compare the two tracks, Austin and Jerez, the grip levels are completely different. Austin is recent, with a lot of grip, while Jerez is older and the surface is very used with low grip, and with high track temperature, like we had on Sunday, we had complaints from a lot of riders about spinning.
“Valentino was happy because he won but he did say that the spinning was high. Jorge was disappointed because he didn’t win and suffered more. Fortunately, we had a test at Mugello with Ducati one week later and we worked to try and give more grip on the rear. Based on the results of that test, we were able to build a third option for Le Mans, which everybody chose to use.”
Moving the game on
Goubert gives a fascinating insight into how the world of MotoGP has moved on since they last raced in the series.
“Quite quickly the test riders told us that we were there with the rear tyre but you need to improve the front, because the series had changed quite a bit since we were last here,” he said. “We need to have a front which can allow the riders to brake a lot harder. That’s really the biggest evolution I have seen in the series since we left. The bikes now have lowered the centre of gravity and they can brake a lot harder. They don’t go faster in the corners, the corner speed is the same. A lot of people are talking about lean angle, but this is actually the same as it was 10 years ago. The big difference is the braking. Marc Marquez (pictured above) is the best example. He makes his lap time in the braking area. He is willing to lose in the apex and the exit because he makes more under braking (than he loses). Of course you have to have tyres suited to these riding styles, so we had to work a lot on the front. This was difficult and I have to say that the first session we had in Valencia at the end of last year was not really good, but then we improved and from the beginning of the season I would say that we have improved constantly and I would say that the guys are quite happy with the front tyres. Saying that, depending on where we go we have to adapt the tyres.”
Improving the breed
If the company’s return to MotoGP proves one thing, then it is that racing definitely improves the breed. While the perceived problems faced by Michelin have been debated and exacerbated by the armchair experts, the reality is that the French company is developing in unknown territory, producing tyres for the ultimate two-wheeled weapons and demonstrating great agility to quickly develop new tyres and solutions to any problems that have raised their heads.
Not that it should be a surprise. Michelin is one of the most famous names in Grand Prix history, winning 360 races under open rules from the 1970s through to the introduction of a single supplier for the 2009 season.
The company has long advocated free competition between tyre brands but was tempted back to MotoGP as sole supplier after Dorna mandated a switch from 16.5” to 17” wheels.
“We have been out of the series for seven years but when we hear that Dorna was going to send out a tender we were interested,” says Goubert. “One key element was that Dorna wanted to make the 17” wheel compulsory. That is a clever idea, because the size is the same as on the road, which means we can make a technology transfer, so that was a key point to convince us to bid for the tender.
“We do a lot of racing, on four wheels and two, and there are two main reasons. First one is that brand image but we also use racing as a proving ground to develop technology. For example, (in the 1980s) radial tyres were developed in 500cc GPs with Randy Mamola and Freddie Spencer. Two years later we introduced radial tyres on the street.
“At the beginning of the MotoGP era we developed an industrial process to have two different compounds on the same tyre. Two or three years later we introduced the Pilot Power 2CT, which was the first mass production tyre (with dual compound), so it is not just talk when we say that we use racing as a proving ground. We could see the technology we are developing here introduced to our street tyres within two to four years, depending on how we need to adapt our tooling.”
Despite the lack of competition on the track, the high standard set by Bridgestone in its seven seasons as sole supplier means that, for now at least, there is plenty for Michelin to aim at. “Real competition makes you work harder and faster but, saying that, being at the start it is like we are having competition, because everyone is referring to last year. So we have the feeling that Bridgestone is here, just behind us and, of course, there is satisfaction when we are faster. What we are trying to do is to though is to have the riders comfortable, so they can push 100%. When they are happy, that makes us happy.”
From the beginning
Goubert claims that the MotoGP tyres are ‘completely different’ from the racing slicks they run in world endurance and national superbike championships. The Grand Prix fronts, for example, are much heavier in order to cope with the extreme braking exerted by the carbon fibre brakes and superhuman riders, with tracks like the ultra demanding Sachsenring in Germany providing particular challenges with its unique layout that features big elevation changes and just three right hand corners.
As the championship moves to Mugello, with the fastest straight in MotoGP, it is hard to imagine that there will not be a few more low moments in Michelin’s MotoGP comeback season. This weekend they'll take yet more new tyres to the Italian race, based on the less rigid carcass rear used in Le Mans, with an assymetric design that sees a harder coumpound on the right hand side to cope with the many fast right handers that are a feature of the Tuscan circuit.
Piero Taramasso, Michelin's manager for two-wheeled motorsport, adds: “Mugello is one of a kind on the calendar, it is one of the events that has everything, a brilliant track that’s a very testing layout for the riders – with up and downhill sections, a very long straight and blind curves – superb scenery, a passionate crowd – especially at Poggio Secco – and exciting racing. Le Mans was good for us and the new rear tyre worked well, but Mugello is a completely different activity. We have to be prepared to have a tyre that works under very hard-braking, give good grip and has an impressive edge-grip to cope with the fast-flowing sections. All this and we also has to contend with extreme changes in temperature, due to the mountains it can be quite cool in the morning, but when the sun is at its warmest the track can exceed 40°C, so we have to be ready for all eventualities, it has even been known to rain at Mugello! With that in mind we have a range of tyres which we think will work well and give the riders what they need."
History shows that most, if not all, tyre companies suffer glitches as they rapidly develop racing products, witness Shinya Nakano’s blow out on Bridgestones in 2004, and this is doubly difficult when developing spec products to be used by all riders and machines at the very highest level, as a quick look at Formula One will show.
But there’s no doubt that Michelin are taking on board that real world data and developing better tyres for their racers in MotoGP, which will ultimately benefit us and the bikes we ride on the road. After all, Michelin didn’t just win the contract to become sole MotoGP tyre supplier, they just recruited come blokes called Marc, Jorge and Valentino as their ultimate development riders.
And that will surely benefit the company as they develop their next generation of street tyres for ordinary riders like us.