2001 Moto GP 500 World Championship, round 4
French Grand Prix, Le Mans - May 18/19/20 2001
HOME GROUND FOR MICHELIN MEN
Michelin made history at Le Mans last year, winning its 250th success in the premier 500 GP class, and the French tyre brand went on to reach another landmark a few months later, conquering its 20th 500 World Championship.
This weekend at Le Mans there will be no new milestones, just another three days of grueling work as Michelin's engineers and fitters equip a grid-ful of the world's fastest race bikes. In recent years Michelin has assumed total dominance of 500 racing, the most demanding category of motorcycling on this planet.
This year's 500 World Championship is already proving to be the fastest ever with a dramatic improvement in lap times and race times. All three GPs so far have been way faster than previous events: 25 seconds in Japan, 35 seconds in South Africa and 23 seconds in Spain two weeks ago. There are three main reasons for the improvement: better tyres, better motorcycles and the sublime talents of Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda- Michelin), winner of all three races. The effectiveness of Michelin's racing slicks in handling the 190 horsepower output of Rossi's Honda NSR500 can be judged by his ability to smash lap records at the very end of races, his tyres still offering massive and predictable grip.
Many people believe Rossi will make it four in a row in Sunday's French GP but his rivals will be digging deeper than ever to haul in the Italian youngster. After Le Mans the GP circus rolls south to Mugello for the Italian GP, where the Rossi juggernaut will be harder than ever to rein in.
This weekend Le Mans hosts the French GP for the second consecutive year and Sunday's race is a crucial moment in the 2001 500 campaign following three season-opening victories by Valentino Rossi. The dazzling Italian will be out to crush his rivals spirit at Le Mans by inflicting a fourth consecutive defeat, while the opposition is desperate to prove that the Italian isn't unbeatable.
Rossi won the opening three GPs - at Suzuka, Welkom and Jerez - in convincing style and on the eve of his runaway Spanish GP victory he joked: "I hope to become unbeatable but that hasn't happened yet!" The likeable former 125 and 250 champ is not the kind of man to take himself too seriously but those words will have a worrying ring for his rivals.
"I'm a little surprised to have won all three races so far," he adds. "Our pre-season plan was to do a damage-limitation exercise in the early part of the season, gaining as many points as possible, and then move on to start winning races in the middle sector of the championship, if possible. Iim making no predictions for Le Mans. As usual, my target will be a podium, and Iim certain the race won't be easy."
Despite his form, there are a number of riders who seem ready to take the fight to the series leader. Norick Abe (Antena 3 Yamaha-DiAntin-Michelin) is riding faster and more consistently than ever, and both Loris Capirossi (West Honda Pons-Michelin) and Alex Crivill (Repsol YPF Honda-Michelin) may have challenged Rossi at Jerez if they'd had better starts.
Crivill has been the big improver of the last two races. The 1999 World Champion is rediscovering his title-winning form after a troubled 2000 season, during which he won just one GP, at Le Mans. "Getting third at Jerez was like winning," says the Spaniard who came through from a poor start at his home GP. "I've had some tough times recently but Iim feeling more and more confident on the bike, it's like 1999 again!"
If Abe, Capirossi and Crivill are the men most likely to trouble Rossi this weekend, there's little chance that French favourite Olivier Jacques (Gauloises Yamaha Tech 3-Michelin) will be able to run up front. Jacque graduated to 500s this year after winning the 250 World Championship but is still suffering from the wrist he broke during pre-season tests. So he has yet to demand the maximum from his Michelins.
"I don't ask much of the Michelin technicians at the moment because Iim not strong enough to ask much of the tyres," he says. "In reality Iim still practicing, not racing. The tyre to throttle relationship is perfect at the moment, it's the throttle to brain relationship that's the problem - it's all pain! It's very frustrating because I see how Nakano and Ukawa are going when I know I raced with them and beat them last year.
"Before the crash I was having a lot of fun on the 500. To be honest, I don't think there's such a huge difference between the 250 and 500. Okay, you have 100 more horsepower and the bike is a bit heavier, but the handling is good and it's still a motorcycle! But even the smallest differences can make a big difference. I crashed because I made a mistake on a downshift, and the reason I did that is because the 500 gearbox requires slightly more pressure to shift than the 250. It was a small mistake with a big consequence.
"Of course, tyres are more important on a 500 than on a 250 because you're putting so much power through the rubber. The tyres work so hard and you need a rear tyre with excellent consistency. The Michelins seem great, with excellent grip and good predictability. Le Mans won't be good for me because it's all about hard braking which means taking a lot of weight through your arms. I'd say the arm is 80 per cent but once I've done a few laps it gets much worse."
Michelin has won the last eight French GPs, three of them at Le Mans. The Bugatti circuit, which uses only a small section of the legendary 24 hour car track, is not a tough one for tyres.
"It's not a hard track for us," says Michelin Grand Prix Manager Jacques Morelli. "There's a lot of hard braking and heavy acceleration, and if there is a problem, it's that Le Mans isn't very grippy, so we need to run soft rubber to get traction out of the corners. Also, most of the turns are tight and slow, so riders are accelerating hard and early in low gear, controlling quite a bit of wheelspin, which means we can't run very soft tyres because they wouldn't have enough endurance. We have to make a real compromise for the race - deciding on tyres that will offer the right mix of grip and longevity.
"The weekend will be interesting for us because last time everyone was still running 17in rears, except for Garry McCoy (Red Bull Yamaha WCM-Michelin). Last year's French GP came just before everyone started changing to 16.5s. We've not tested there since that race, so we'll have to wait until we get to the track to see if the 16.5 offers an advantage over the 17. I think the 16.5 will be good, because the tyre is characteristics allow us to run softer rubber, and that will help us make the right compromise for race distance.
"Front tyres are not such a huge concern at Le Mans. You need sticky rubber for the high- speed turn one, which is about the only place the front gets a real workout, but you also need a strong construction for all the heavy braking." <pre> LE MANS DATA
Lap record 2000 Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda-Michelin) 1m 40.089s Pole position 2000 Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team-Michelin) 1m 39.342s
Recent winners of the French GP 2000 Alex Crivill (Repsol YPF Honda-Michelin), 47m 15.363s 1999 Alex Crivill (Repsol Honda-Michelin), Circuit Paul Ricard 1998 Alex Crivill (Repsol Honda-Michelin), Circuit Paul Ricard 1997 Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda-Michelin), Circuit Paul Ricard 1996 Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda-Michelin), Circuit Paul Ricard
Michelin's Partners 500cc class
No. Rider/Coureur Nation Machine Team 1 Kenny Roberts USA Suzuki Telefonica Movistar Suzuki 3 Max Biaggi ITA Yamaha Marlboro Yamaha Team 4 Alex Barros BRA Honda West Honda Pons 5 Garry Mccoy AUS Yamaha Red Bull Yamaha WCM 6 Norick Abe JPN Yamaha Antena Tre Yamaha diAntin 7 Carlos Checa SPA Yamaha Marlboro Yamaha Team 8 Chris Walker GBR Honda Shell Advance Honda 9 Leon Haslam GBR Honda Shell Advance Honda 10 Jose Luis Cardoso SPA Yamaha Antena Tre Yamaha diAntin 11 Tohru Ukawa JPN Honda Repsol-YPF Honda Team 12 Haruchika Aoki JPN Honda Arie Molenaar Racing 14 Anthony West AUS Honda Dee Cee Jeans Racing Team 15 Sete Gibernau SPA Suzuki Telefonica Movistar Suzuki 16 Johan Stigefelt SWE Sabre V4 Sabre Sport 17 Jurgen Vd Goorbergh NED Proton KR3 Proton Team KR 19 Olivier Jacque FRA Yamaha Gauloises Yamaha Tech 3 21 Barry Veneman NED Honda Dee Cee Jeans Racing Team 24 Jay Vincent GBR Pulse Pulse GP 26 Vladirmir Catska SVK Paton Paton 28 Alex Criville SPA Honda Repsol-YPF Honda Team 41 Noriyuki Haga JPN Yamaha Red Bull Yamaha WCM 46 Valentino Rossi ITA Honda Nastro Azzurro Honda 56 Shinya Nakano JPN Yamaha Gauloises Yamaha Tech 3 65 Loris Capirossi ITA Honda West Honda Pons 68 Mark Willis AUS Pulse Pulse GP
Standings 2001 Pos. Rider Nat Points JPN SFA JER 1 ROSSI VALENTINO ITA 75 25 25 25 2 ABE NORICK JPN 44 13 11 20 3 NAKANO SHINYA JPN 37 11 13 13 4 CAPIROSSI LORIS ITA 36 8 20 8 5 CRIVILLE ALEX SPA 33 7 10 16 6 BIAGGI MAX ITA 29 16 8 5 7 McCOY GARRY AUS 27 20 7 8 ROBERTS KENNY USA 27 9 9 9 9 BARROS ALEX BRA 27 10 7 10 10 UKAWA TOHRU JPN 27 16 11 11 GOORBERGH J VD NED 13 5 5 3 12 GIBERNAU SETE SPA 12 6 6 13 AOKI HARUCHIKA JPN 8 4 4 14 CHECA CARLOS SPA 8 6 2 15 HAGA NORIYUKI JPN 4 4 16 HASLAM LEON GBR 3 3 17 CARDOSO JOSE LUIS SPA 3 3 18 WEST ANTHONY AUS 3 2 1 19 WALKER CHRIS GBR 1 1 20 JACQUE OLIVIER FRA 0 21 RYO AKIRA JPN 0 22 STIGEFELT JOHAN SWE 0 23 VENEMAN BARRY NED 0 24 VINCENT JASON GBR 0 25 WILLIS MARK AUS 0