Sepang Michelin preview

There may still be two 500 Grands Prix to run but the thrilling duel for the last-ever 500 crown ended at last Sunday's Australian GP. Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda-Michelin) won the title in style, winning a sensational race just 0.013 ...

There may still be two 500 Grands Prix to run but the thrilling duel for the last-ever 500 crown ended at last Sunday's Australian GP. Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda-Michelin) won the title in style, winning a sensational race just 0.013 seconds ahead of arch-rival Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team-Michelin) to give Michelin its tenth consecutive 500 crown and 21st 500 World Championship in 26 years. Michelin first entered the 500 arena in 1975 and won its first title success just a year later with Briton Barry Sheene (Texaco Heron Suzuki-Michelin).

This year's 500 series - dominated by Rossi and compatriot Max Biaggi - has provided some of the closest and fastest 500 racing in GP racing's 53-year history. Advances by Michelin, with its fast-developing 16.5in rear slick, have helped lap and race times tumble. So far this season, many races have been drastically faster than last year; Suzuka was 25 seconds quicker, Welkom 35 seconds, Le Mans 16, Brno 32 and Estoril 42.

The Grand Prix circus returns to Asia this weekend for the last time in 2001, still trucking at the end of a gruelling run of three back-to-back races. The sport's season-ending global tour started in Japan two weeks ago and comes to Sepang via Australia. Following this weekend's Malaysian GP, the curtain falls on the 2001 World Championship season at Rio de Janeiro on Saturday November 3.

These so-called 'flyway' events place huge pressures on everyone involved in GP racing because riders and teams are forced to operate thousands of miles away from their European bases. As well as coping with the effects of long-haul flights, different time zones and different climates, teams must also cope with the massive logistical task of transporting thousands of tonnes of freight. Michelin sends 2000 tyres to each of these races, 1500 by Jumbo jet and 500 in advance by sea, with special compounds and constructions for each track. The company's total payload for each event is about 12 tonnes.

THE RIDERS AND SEPANG

Reigning World Champion Kenny Roberts (Telefonica Movistar Suzuki-Michelin) owns Sepang - the American won both the 1999 and 2000 GPs at the track, last year taking the triple crown of pole position, victory and lap record.

This weekend Roberts goes for a hat-trick at the popular Malaysian venue but he knows he won't have it easy. The champ has had a difficult title defence season, scoring no wins and only one podium position so far.

"We've had our troubles but we're still doing everything we can to be fully competitive," said Roberts, who has won eight GPs in his career, all on Michelins. "I like Sepang but then you always have fun where you win, so we'll be looking to get back to having some fun this weekend.

"We went testing there before the season but we had some pretty changeable weather, with a lot of water on the track. During those tests we ran both Michelin's 17 rear and the 16.5, and we've asked Michelin to give us the same option for this weekend. Pretty much everyone races the 16.5 all the time these days, but I've always reckoned the 17 is a good tyre and we'd like to try it again at Sepang. Plus, that'll keep the other guys guessing!

"The Sepang layout is good but the weather conditions are usually pretty hot and humid, so I try to ride it smooth and look after the tyres. With the 17 you had to make sure you weren't too aggressive on the throttle, you had to help the tyre to go the distance, but the 16.5 is a lot stronger, it should last much better. We'll still be getting wheelspin accelerating out of the turns, but that doesn't seem such a worry for the 16.5. It's just a shame that all the rain we got there during our test session prevented us from doing any serious back-to-back evaluations.

"From the front tyre point of view, Sepang can be pretty tough. The track is just the widest in GP racing, so you take long, sweeping arcs into every corner which means that you're on the side of the tyre for a long while, and pushing hard. It'll be important to do a lot of work on compounds during practice to make sure we've got the right rubber for the race."

Roberts also thinks that Sepang's long sweeping corners will help his RGV500 this weekend. "The main trouble we've had this year is with throttle connection," he adds. "The pace is so fast these days so you have to get on the throttle when you're still leaning and turning, and we have a throttle connection problem at maximum lean. I would like the tyre to spin at some corners to light it up and get me pointed in the right direction, but the way my engine makes power I don't have that option."

MICHELIN TYRES AND SEPANG

Sepang's fast and open layout and Malaysia's subtropical climate makes a great challenge for riders, bikes and tyres. However, Sepang is less of a challenge for Michelin's tyre engineers than the country's former World Championship venue Shah Alam.

"Shah Alam was very, very tough on tyres," says Michelin Grand Prix manager Jacques Morelli. "That track was very abrasive and it had one long sixth gear corner, through which riders would be working on the throttle, controlling wheelspin. Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda- Michelin) was always very special to watch through there.

"Although Sepang has some fast corners, it has nothing like that turn at Shah Alam, and the surface is less aggressive. But, of course, the conditions are still very hot and that puts plenty of heat in the tyres, though we can control that simply by coming up with the right compounds. In these circumstances, however, the riders do have to be a bit clever. Since the surface is less aggressive, there's less tyre wear, but a slippery surface also means more wheelspin and sliding, and consequentially higher tyre temperatures, which can increase wear. If they use too much wheelspin they may use their tyres quicker than they'd like. The relative lack of grip also seems to mean less chatter problems, because we only seem to suffer chatter at very grippy racetracks.

"Sepang is also quite tough on front tyres. The circuit is very wide - to the extent that riders are almost spoilt for choice on lines ñ and that makes life tough for the front because riders use a lot of angle and speed into corners, so they push the front very hard."

Fastest man there during pre-season tests was Max Biaggi, who clocked a sensational 2m 05.4s lap, about 1.4 seconds inside the lap record. This stunning time was achieved with Michelin's 16.5 rear.

"Sepang is a good track for testing, we get good results there, because it's a good track and the temperature and track conditions are quite constant," adds Jacques Morelli. "It's not like Phillip Island, which can be five degrees at one time of year and forty degrees at another." <pre> SEPANG DATA Lap record Kenny Roberts (Telefonica Movistar Suzuki-Michelin) 2m 06.839s / 97.844mph (157.466kmh) 2000 pole position Kenny Roberts (Telefonica Movistar Suzuki-Michelin) 2m 06.053s Recent winners of the Malaysian GP 2000 Kenny Roberts (Telefonica Movistar Suzuki-Michelin) 31m 58.102s (15 laps race stopped early due to rain) 1999 Kenny Roberts (Suzuki Grand Prix Team-Michelin) 21 laps 44m 56.033s (155.573kmh) 1998 Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda-Michelin), race held at Johor 1997 Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda-Michelin), race held at Shah Alam 1996 Luca Cadalora (Kanemoto Honda-Michelin), race held at Shah Alam Michelin's Partners - 500cc class (provisional list)

 No.  Rider                      Nation     BikeTeam
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 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        Jürgen 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
26        Vladimir 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

-www.michelinsport.com-

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