Africa: Michelin preview

Michelin Works To Keep On Winning Demanding African circuit produces high tyre temperatures Michelin's 16.5in front to be raced by many riders for the first time The long-awaited 2004 MotoGP World Championship kicks off this weekend at...

Michelin Works To Keep On Winning

Demanding African circuit produces high tyre temperatures

Michelin's 16.5in front to be raced by many riders for the first time

The long-awaited 2004 MotoGP World Championship kicks off this weekend at Welkom, one of the most challenging venues for Michelin and its rivals in the MotoGP tyre war.

Michelin comes into the 2004 season following another winter of intensive testing with its MotoGP partners. The renowned French tyre brand has focused on squeezing yet more performance from its front and rear tyres that have dominated the premier class for more than a decade. Michelin has won the past 12 premier-class world titles and is unbeaten in 86 races!

Grand Prix racing came to Welkom for the first time in 1999, since when Michelin has achieved race victory, pole position and lap record on every visit. The track is bumpy and abrasive, its demanding characteristics producing very high tyre temperatures.

RIDERS AND THE CHALLENGE OF WELKOM

Nicky Hayden (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin) was a raw MotoGP rookie at Welkom last April, riding in only his second World Championship event. This weekend the young American returns to commence his second world-class season, with pundits already ratin g him a potential race winner. The 22-year-old has been a revelation in preseason testing - fast, consistent and raring to go.

And Hayden has now had enough of testing - he's itching to get racing. "Testing has been cool," he said during final preseason testing in Spain last month. "But all I want to do now is line up on that grid. I'm already finding it hard to sleep, I've just g ot to try not to get too excited!"

Hayden came home a respectable seventh at Welkom last year, showing the first signs that he has what it takes to ride a 220-plus horsepower motorcycle in the world's toughest bike-race series.

An American-style track-- "I like Welkom, I felt comfortable there last year," he says. "It should be a good track for us this time too. It's got an American feel to it - tight, narrow and you've got to push hard. Tyres are real important at Welkom because the track is pretty abrasive, though the amount of horsepower and weight we've got means that a lot of it comes down to tyres wherever we're at."

"It's one of those tracks where you have to think a little bit about conserving your tyres. Last time I never had the luxury to think about conserving tyres because it was my first season in MotoGP - it was just open the throttle and go for it! I hope I ge t more time this year to think about saving tyres - you need something left to fight with for the last few laps, especially if you're up front."

Hayden likes 16.5 front-- Like all Michelin's MotoGP riders, Hayden has devoted a fair amount of winter testing time to evaluating Michelin's 16.5in MotoGP front tyre which the company started developing last year. The 16.5 has a slightly smaller diameter t han the traditionally popular 17in tyre, so it has less inertia for quicker steering, and it's lighter, which assists suspension. It also has a slightly larger contact patch for excellent feedback.

"The 16.5 front is the big difference this year," adds Hayden. "We got the 16.5 working good, it's definitely the way to go for us. It gives me more confidence on the way into corners. As you're trail braking it in, you can be more aggressive with the fron t. It gives you more confidence. The rear tyre has come on too - it's got improved edge grip and feel, plus more acceleration grip."

Crucial Welkom corners-- Hayden has no doubt about which section of the Welkom circuit is the most crucial. "It's the three right-handers near the end of the lap," he reveals. "If you get comfortable through them and carry a lot of speed, especially onto th e back straightaway, that's gonna do a lot of good for your lap time. You really get some heat into the rear tyre through there."

MICHELIN AND THE CHALLENGE OF WELKOM

As one of the most demanding circuits in racing, Welkom is a challenging start to the season for Michelin's dedicated crew of engineers who work with most of the top riders and teams in MotoGP.

"Welkom and Phillip Island are the toughest tracks on tyres," says Michelin's chief of motorcycle competitions Nicolas Goubert. "Riders need very 'strong' tyres at Welkom to cope with the high running temperatures. A lot of the heat comes from the three ri ght-handers towards the end of the lap, where riders spend a lot of time on the edge of their tyres. Welkom is demanding both for fronts and rears. It's the kind of place where riders need to think about conserving tyres.

Grip is difficult to predict-- "The track used to be very bumpy and slippery until they resurfaced it for last year's GP. We hope the circuit won't have lost too much grip since then, though it is normal for a new surface to lose some grip quite quickly. La st time the grip was above average, but it's difficult to predict how it will be this time."

Michelin's MotoGP squad has been busier than ever during the off-season months, attending test sessions in Europe, Asia and Australia. One of the main focuses of the company's testing program has been introducing riders to its 16.5in front tyre, which it b rought to MotoGP last season. Four years ago, Michelin's 16.5in rear took over premier-class racing, and the company hopes that its new front tyre will be similarly popular.

16.5in front for lighter handling-- "The main difference between this tyre and the 17 is weight - our aim was to build a lighter tyre to create a lighter-handling bike, so that riders can flick from one side to the other quicker," adds Goubert. "So far the results have been pretty good - nearly all our guys are using the 16.5. Some guys are sticking with our 17 because it can take a while to get comfortable with a new front tyre. The first few races will be crucial, because it is only in races that riders ca n really understand the performance of a tyre.

"We've made no big changes to our rear tyre - just normal developments to improve compound and so on. But we are working hard to keep pace with the engine makers. The fastest bikes are now doing over 340kmh, and we don't think they're going to stop there."

WELKOM DATA
Lap record
Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda RC211V-Michelin) 1m 33.851s 162.717s (2003)

MICHELIN'S MotoGP PARTNERS 2004

APRILIA
Jeremy McWilliams (Aprilia Racing Cube-Michelin)
Shane Byrne (Aprilia Racing Cube-Michelin)

DUCATI
Troy Bayliss (Ducati Marlboro Team Desmosedici GP4-Michelin)
Loris Capirossi (Ducati Marlboro Team Desmosedici GP4-Michelin)
Neil Hodgson (D'Antin MotoGP Ducati Desmosedici-Michelin)
Ruben Xaus (D'Antin MotoGP Ducati Desmosedici-Michelin)

HONDA
Alex Barros (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin)
Max Biaggi (Honda Camel Pons RC211V-Michelin)
Colin Edwards (Telefonica Movistar Honda RC211V-Michelin)
Nicky Hayden (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin)
Sete Gibernau (Telefonica Movistar Honda RC211V-Michelin)

YAMAHA
Norick Abe (Fortuna Gauloises Yamaha Team YZR-M1-Michelin)
Carlos Checa (Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha Team YZR-M1-Michelin)
Marco Melandri (Fortuna Gauloises Yamaha Team YZR-M1-Michelin)
Valentino Rossi (Gauloises Fortuna Yamaha Team YZR-M1-Michelin)

-michelin-

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About this article
Series MotoGP
Drivers Nicky Hayden , Max Biaggi , Carlos Checa , Loris Capirossi , Valentino Rossi , Norifumi Abe , Jeremy McWilliams , Troy Bayliss , Colin Edwards , Alex Barros , Sete Gibernau , Neil Hodgson , Ruben Xaus , Shane Byrne , Marco Melandri , Phillip Island
Teams Williams , Repsol Honda Team