Assen: Michelin preview

Bayliss under pressure. Four races to go and the 2002 Superbike World Championship just keeps getting better and better. Troy Bayliss (Ducati Infostrada-Michelin) still leads quite comfortably, but arch-rival Colin Edwards...

Bayliss under pressure.

Four races to go and the 2002 Superbike World Championship just keeps getting better and better. Troy Bayliss (Ducati Infostrada-Michelin) still leads quite comfortably, but arch-rival Colin Edwards (Castrol Honda-Michelin) is doing everything right to put as much pressure on Bayliss as possible. Edwards trails Bayliss by 29 points as both riders come to Assen, the place where last year Bayliss became world champion (with a lot of help from teammate Ruben Xaus).

To prevent Bayliss from holding on to that number one plate, Edwards needs to keep doing what he's been doing for the last five races in a row : winning. Last week-end, in Germany, Edwards once again stood on top of the podium twice. It was his 27th win and the 51st win for Neil Tuxworth's Castrol Honda team. It was also the 21st straight podium finish for Edwards. "I want to keep on winning to keep the pressure on Troy," says Edwards. "Honda, Michelin and Castrol are helping me do that by keeping the development up and making my life on the bike easier. I want to carry on winning at Assen. We started the season with Troy winning all the races and that was no fun for us."

Since the start of the World Superbike championship in 1988, Michelin has won 248 out of 363 races and 9 out of 13 world titles.

This season alone, out of 22 races Michelin has won 21 and taken all three podium positions 8 times. A total of 66 podium positions have so far been claimed this year and 48 of those went to Michelin, even though the French tyre giant only works with four riders.

The outright win record for a single season is still held by Doug Polen who won 17 races in 1991. But Troy Bayliss has already won 14 times this year so Polen's record is well within his grasp.

Michelin and Dutch Riders

Michelin won the 125cc Motocross World Championship in 1987 with Dutchman John van den Berk (Yamaha-Michelin). This year, Jan de Groot also trusts Michelin for his works Kawasaki team.

On the roads, the seventies and the start of the eighties were the heyday of Holland's best with a trio of riders who all used Michelin tyres. Will Hartog was 4th in the 500 world championship in 1978 and 1979. Boet van Dulmen was 6th in the same class in 1979 and 1981 while Jack Middelburg was 7th in 1979 and 1981.

Michelin also works with Dutch riders in car racing. This year, at the Le Mans 24 Hours, Jan Lammers, Val Hillebrand and Tom Coronel drove the Dome-Judd-Michelin for the Racing for Holland team.

Interview: Jean Hérissé, Michelin Superbike manager.

How do you explain Michelin's excellent results in this year's Superbike World Championship?"We've worked very hard on the front with both our top riders, Colin Edwards and Troy Bayliss, at our Ladoux test track. We've been able to develop new front tyres that give our riders better feeling under braking and more control at high lean. We've been able to cut lap times and we've also worked on the rear to increase consistency over race distance. From what our riders tell us, our tyres feel the same on the last lap as they did on the first. So lap times have obviously fallen but more importantly, total race times have been cut quite dramatically compared to last year."

Last year, it seemed some circuits were better for Michelin than others but this year, whatever the circuit and whatever the conditions, Michelin always seems to win. Why?"We worked very hard to address that kind of problem at those circuits where we felt we weren't quite competitive enough. As for the weather conditions, Michelin has long been dominant in the wet and this year, we're working with the two best wet-weather riders, Troy Bayliss and Colin Edwards."

Assen and tyres.

23 million euros have been invested in improvements to the Assen track over a three year period. Work started on the grandstands in 1999 and moved on to the 34 pit boxes, the media centre and the medical centre in 2000. Last winter, 9 million euros were spent on renewing the track. Total paddock area has been increased from 40,000 to 60,000 m2 which meant changing the Veenslang and Ruskenhoek corners. This year, 75% of the track has a new surface and the new circuit length is 6.027 km.

"It's a very interesting track which I would love if I was a rider," argues Nicolas Goubert, Michelin motorcycle competition chief. "It's very fast and has great flowing corners. It often rains there but grip levels are very high even when it does rain. Average lap speeds are very high at Assen but this doesn't create any special problems for us with tyres."

"The area around the paddock now has a different surface but that won't be a problem because the track is almost all straight line there," explains Goubert when asked if the new surface might give his riders some cause for concern. "The double right-hander at the end of the track should give good grip with the new surface. Generally, we have problems when we go to a low-grip track where part of the surface has been redone and has better grip. On the old part of the track, the riders can get in real trouble. But at Assen, grip has always been good and I don't expect major problems."

Troy Bayliss: "We'll see about the new track but last year was great. It was good to have two wins here before they actually changed the circuit. It's very flowing. It's a track where you have to have a little bit of time out. Last year, when I first came on a Ducati, I pushed very hard to try to get results and I had two crashes, and one of them was one of the fastest crashes I have ever had. So you have to be careful here, it can bite you quite big. This is a fast place."

Colin Edwards: "Assen is one of the tracks where I shine in the rain. I'm good in the rain. I never won here but I'm looking to change that for sure. With the stuff we have got, I'm sure we can do it."

Ruben Xaus: "The changes made to the track don't seem to have altered its general character. It's a very fast circuit and just like in Austria, at Hockenheim or in Indonesia, I like this kind of fast track. I always get good results here. In 1999, I was 3rd in Supersports on the Yamaha and in 2000 I won on the Ducati. Last year, in Superbikes, I was second behind Troy in both races. So this year I'm aiming for the podium for sure."

Circuit Van Drenthe is 2 km away from Assen and 110 km northeast of Amsterdam. Because England is but a short drive away, British fans flock to the circuit each year. The first Dutch TT was held in 1925 and racing has never stopped at the Dutch "cathedral", except during the two world wars. The current track was built in 1955 and modified in 1989. It is used primarily for motorcycle racing, with only a handful of car races organised there each year.

"This track had good grip and good drainage," explains Michelin Superbike Manager Jean Hérissé."We'll see if the work done on the track changes this in any way. The old track was great in the rain. It's a fast and flowing circuit which makes tyre choice difficult."

"This is a real rider's track," smiles Hérissé. "The layout requires inch-perfect lines and that's why riders often take longer to adapt to Assen than other tracks."

Races are often won or lost in the last chicane at Assen. Those willing to be brave on the brakes are hard to beat there but it takes great skill and balance to avoid running off the track and crashing or hitting another rider.

One of Assen's trademarks is the camber. The track used to be an actual road and it's still crowned in the middle like a public road. Therefore, the Assen racing line takes riders through several camber changes as they go from one side of the track to the other. Grip can vary greatly and excellent control is required to master Assen.There aren't many other circuits offering the levels of grip that Assen has. Especially in the wet. In the dry, grip can seem limitless at Assen and those riders accustomed to sliding a lot can find Assen difficult because of this.

Assen requires a very smooth riding style. The smallest mistake can wreck a whole lap as the rider struggles to make up the time lost on those ultra-quick turns. On a Superbike, it's hard to keep the front wheel on the ground and that only means more problems for riders each time they exit a corner and get on the gas.

The last right-left flick before the final chicane is one of the most difficult sections of the track. Riders are going so fast there that they find it very difficult to push the bike into making the change of direction from right to left, especially when its windy.

-michelin-

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