LAST HURRAH FOR SCREAMIN' 500s

The curtain falls on the 2001 World Championship at Rio de Janeiro this weekend, marking the end of one of the greatest title contests in more than five decades of 500 GP racing. World Champion Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda-Michelin) has towered over the season, scoring ten wins so far to defeat compatriots Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team-Michelin) and Loris Capirossi (West Honda Pons-Michelin) to make sure of his own place in bike racing history.

But Rossi's success doesn't mark him down as one of the all-time greats, it also makes him the last-ever 500 World Champion. Next year MotoGP goes four-stroke, or at least partly four-stroke, as 990cc four-strokes go head to head with the 500 two-strokes that have won each of the last 26 500 world titles. Michelin's involvement in 500 GPs exactly coincides with the two-stroke era. The French tyre brand has won a remarkable 21 500 crowns and 276 GP victories during that period and is already working to make a similar success of the new four- stroke challenge.

Throughout this season Michelin's engineers and technicians have been working on a dual development programme, continuing the evolution of their 500 tyres while simultaneously evolving a new range of slicks for the 990cc four-strokes. Top-secret tests with both Honda and Yamaha suggest that this new breed of 200 horsepower machine will be the fastest race bikes ever seen. And Michelin's unrivalled experience of big-bike racing means they will have the tyres for the job.

THE RIDERS AND JACAREPAGUA

Brazilian hero Alex Barros (West Honda Pons-Michelin) may have missed the chance to become the last-ever 500 World Champion but he can still make some history this weekend by becoming the last-ever winner of a 500 GP. And what better place to do that than in front of his home crowd?

Last year Barros scored his first home-tarmac podium finish at Rio, coming in second, just 0.970 seconds behind race winner Valentino Rossi. This year he is determined to go one better, and having already won a GP this season, he knows he's fully capable of accomplishing his Rio dream.

"This year the race pace has been incredibly fast, much faster than the last few seasons," says the man from Sao Paulo who won June's Italian GP and has scored a total of four podium finishes in 2001. "Much of this is down to Michelin's 16.5in rear tyre. It gives us more grip all the way to the end of races, so everyone is pushing hard all the way to the chequered flag. We quite often see lap records broken on the last lap now, and that never used to happen because everyone's tyres were past their best."

Although this is his home race, Barros has no advantage over his rivals at Rio, apart perhaps from the enthusiastic support of his home crowd. "The last time I rode at Rio was at last October's GP, same as everyone else," he adds. "It's always a difficult race because the track is hard work and tyres play a very crucial role.

"I don't think we race at any circuit that is harder on the front tyre. At most tracks we spend most of our time working on rear-tyre choice because the front isn't such a concern, but at Rio the front is just as important. It's very important to choose the correct front because the track is bumpy and slippy, so the tyre is always pushing and trying to slide.

"You get a lot of wheelspin at Rio, which makes life tough for the rear tyre, so choosing the right compound and construction is important. The corners where you get the most wheelspin are turns three and six, and I'd say the most important corners are the turns at each end of the back straight. It's crucial to get a good exit speed on to the straight because the straight is so long, and the corner at the other end is fast, it's the kind of place where you can make up a lot of time if your bike and tyres are working well.

"Grip-wise, the track is slippy but okay. It can be slippery if you run off line, though that's the same at most circuits. And there can be problems because the beach is quite close; if the wind blows from the sea, it can throw sand on to the track which takes away a lot of grip."

MICHELIN TYRES AND JACAREPAGUA

The Rio GP has been held at various different times over the past few years ñ August, September, October, and now November. This year's later date should mean a warmer race in the Brazilian spring.

The track has been resurfaced several times since Jacarepagua hosted its first Grand Prix in September 1995, offering more grip than it did in its early years as a GP venue. But traction is still at a premium, and not only that, grip is also fairly inconsistent, so riders need to learn every inch of the circuit if they are to cut fast and safe laps.

"The track wasn't so bad last year, it's not so slippery since they last resurfaced it," says Michelin Grand Prix manager Jacques Morelli. "This year the track may be in better shape because the race is at a different time of year. Last season we went to Rio a month earlier, so this year's race should be warmer, which is good for grip. The only real problem is if it rains, because there's a lot of changes of surface, so the grip characteristics change depending on what line you take.

"Giving riders maximum feel and grip from the front tyre is a priority here. The relative lack of grip and the bumps mean that the front is constantly loading and unloading as it slides and rides across the bumps. Riders therefore need to be able to feel what the tyre is doing, so we go for a softer construction front tyre. And we go as soft as we can go on compound, because we're looking for grip, while making sure that the tyre goes the distance.

"The rear is not a real problem. The 16.5 tyre worked well last year when all the top guys used it at Rio for the first time, it gave the usual advantages of more grip for longer. You need a medium compound rear with a strong-ish construction because the left side of the tyre has quite a tough time because there are quite a few long left handers, through which riders use the same part of the tyre for a long while, controlling slides with the throttle. This year we'll take our new softer construction 16.5, which has been very useful in reducing chatter, with a compound adapted to suit the track."

Michelin has its usual excellent record at Jacarepagua. Of the five GPs run so far at the track, Michelin tyres have won four. And this weekend's Rio GP should give Michelin its 54th consecutive 500 GP win. <pre> JACAREPAGUA DATA

Lap record 1997 Tadayuki Okada (Repsol Honda-Michelin) 1m 51.928s 157.622kmh/97.942mph

Pole position 2000 Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team-Michelin) 1m 51.058s

Recent winners of the Rio Grand Prix 2000 Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda-Michelin) 45m 22.624s 1999 Norick Abe (Antena 3 Yamaha-d'Antin-Michelin), 45m 24.308s 1997 Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda-Michelin), 45m 05.793s 1996 Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda-Michelin), 45m 56.850s 1995 Luca Cadalora (Marlboro Yamaha Team Roberts) 46m 18.208s

Michelin's Partners - 500cc class (provisional list)

     No.  Rider                               Nation     Bike           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 d'Antin
      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 d'Antin
     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     J¸rgen vd Goorbergh               NED        Proton KR3     Proton Team KR
     18     Brendan Clarke                    AUS        Honda          Shell Advance Honda
     19     Olivier Jacque                    FRA        Yamaha         Gauloises Yamaha Tech 3
     21     Barry Veneman                     NED        Honda          Dee Cee Jeans Racing Team
     24     Jason Vincent                     GBR        Pulse          Pulse GP
     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

-Michelin-