MICHELIN READY FOR ISLAND CHALLENGE Sunday's Australian GP is one of the most looked-forward-to events on the MotoGP World Championship calendar. The Phillip Island circuit is notorious for encouraging ultra-close racing, and there's nothing ...
MICHELIN READY FOR ISLAND CHALLENGE
Sunday's Australian GP is one of the most looked-forward-to events on the MotoGP World Championship calendar. The Phillip Island circuit is notorious for encouraging ultra-close racing, and there's nothing that MotoGP riders like more than 45 minutes of th rilling wheel-to-wheel combat, when they can use their skill and daring to maximum effect. Last year's Island 500 GP was the closest-ever premier-class race, a remarkable 2.832 seconds covering the first nine finishers.
This weekend the action is expected to be every bit as hectic as Michelin riders fight to continue their stranglehold on MotoGP honours. Last year's Australian GP winner Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin) recently wrapped up the 2002 MotoG P title and is sure to be at the forefront of the contest for victory on Sunday.
Rossi is Michelin's 22nd premier-class title winner in the past 27 years, his success underlining the fact that Michelin technology has ruled bike racing's biggest championship for a quarter of a century, and never so much as in the last decade or so, with 11 consecutive successes in the premier-class GP series and an unbeaten run of nine World Superbike crowns. But it has been 2002 that has highlighted Michelin's superiority more than any other year, with a big step forward in front and rear tyre technolog y helping the brand to totally dominate the new MotoGP World Championship, the most demanding bike-race class in history.
Michelin riders have scored victory, pole position and fastest lap at all 14 races so far. And Michelin's strength isn't only up front, the French company also has strength in depth, Michelin riders filling all but one of the 42 podium-finishing positions so far and all but four of the 56 front-row slots. In World Superbike the company's domination has been every bit as impressive, with 25 wins from the season's 26 races.
THE RIDERS AND PHILLIP ISLAND
When Valentino Rossi lines up on the grid for Sunday's Australian GP he will still be in with a chanced of equalling Mick Doohan's record of 12 premier-class wins in a season, established in 1997 when the Aussie legend secured the fourth of his five 500 Wo rld Championships. Already ten times a winner this year, the Italian phenomenon will also be going for his fourth Island victory, following his 250 successes in '98 and '99 and last-year's unforgettable 500 win. But he will come in for serious competition from his MotoGP rivals, especially Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR-M1-Michelin) and Alex Barros (West Honda Pons NSR500-Michelin), winners of the last two races.
Phillip Island is renowned for producing ultra-close racing, because its fast, open layout allows riders to get up close and personal. And Rossi relishes the prospect of another Island thriller. "To win by a short distance is for sure more exciting, for me and for the fans!" he smiles. "But my main goal is always to give 100 per cent. If I win by half a lap, all that means to me is that me, the team, the bike and the tyres work better than the others."
Tyres will be a major issue this weekend, indeed they're always a major issue in motorcycle racing, because they are the final interface between bike and track, and therefore a vital governor of how quickly a rider can enter corners, ride through corners a nd accelerate away from corners. "With the new four-strokes we have to think a lot about tyres," adds Rossi. "The bikes have so much power that you can spin the rear tyre all the time if you're not careful, so you can't use 100 per cent of the bike all rac e. You must sometimes wait until ten laps from the finish, then push 100 per cent. You have to be a little clever to get the best from your tyres, especially somewhere like Phillip Island."
Doohan, winner of the '98 Australian GP, knows exactly how crucial tyres are around this challenging anti-clockwise circuit and reckons that the combination of the new four-strokes and Michelin's latest S4 rear slick should give us the fastest-ever Austral ian GP. "I think that these new generation Michelins will suit the track well," says Doohan, now General Manager of the Honda Racing Corporation. "Michelin have lifted their game a great deal with their new generation of tyres and the bikes are better too. Last time anyone tested here with the four-strokes, the teams were still in the early stages of development, whereas now everyone's totally up to speed, so I see no reason why lap times shouldn't dip inside the 1m 30s barrier. Michelin will be getting the ir guys to do a lot of laps through the course of the weekend, so there's no question marks come race day.
"Phillip Island is a fairly critical place on tyres, it's just the high-speed nature of the place. The biggest problem with the track is that it's all fast left turns, which builds heat into one side of the tyre. You have to ride conservative in the race t o maintain tyre life - try to be not too aggressive with the throttle, so the tyre wouldn't spin up too much and generate heat. You don't really need wheelspin to get you turned at the Island because they're mostly long corners, so you just roll on a bit o f throttle and maintain your pace and momentum. You need the rear tyre spinning at half the speed it'd be spinning if you were wide open on the throttle. You don't want to smoke the tyre, because you can seriously smoke a tyre at this track, especially out of the last lefts."
Doohan believes that the secret to a super-quick Island lap can be found around the back of the circuit. "From Siberia to MG corner is pretty crucial," he explains. "I always seemed to be able to find half a second on other guys through there, I'd say the rest of the track is pretty straightforward. But Siberia to MG is so fast, if you just to roll off the throttle a bit, you lose a couple of tenths."
Although Doohan has ridden Honda's RCV V5 on several occasions over the past year or so, he hasn't actually raced a motorcycle since April 1999, shortly before his crunching tumble during practice for that year's Spanish GP. So while he was of significant use to Rossi when the youngster first came to the premier class in 2000, offering him advice on riding technique, the 37-year old takes more of a back seat these days. "I don't get involved in stuff like tyre choice, it's up to Valentino and JB (Jerry Burg ess, Rossi's Adelaide-born crew chief who used to work with Doohan) to make those decisions," he adds. "I can't feel what Valentino's feeling on the bike and it all comes down to feel. At the end of the day Valentino's tyre preference comes down to what he feels most comfortable with and what Michelin are happy to go with. When I raced I used to go with Michelin's tyre suggestion nine times out of ten, because sometimes you may feel happy with one tyre, but Michelin don't think it's the right one for the jo b."
MICHELIN TYRES AND PHILLIP ISLAND
Michelin has an enviable record of success at the Australian Grand Prix, just like every other event on the MotoGP calendar. Michelin riders have never been defeated in the premier-class at Phillip Island and have taken victory in all but one of the countr y's 13 500 GPs. Those successes have been achieved at both the Island and Eastern Creek, the Sydney circuit which hosted the event from 1991 to 1996. Last time at the Island there was only one non-Michelin rider in the frantic nine-man contest for victory, Michelin men filling the top seven finishing positions. Despite the ferocious battle up front the lap record didn't go last year. In fact the record hasn't been bettered since 1999, because the super-close racing of the last two years isn't conducive to ultra-quick lap times - riders are too busy attacking rivals and defending their line from other rivals to cut the fastest-possible laps.
"We always look forward to this race because it's always a great event, so long as the weather is okay," says Michelin Grand Prix manager Emmanuel Fournier. "It seems like the track is made for motorcycles. Pretty much all the riders love the place - it's a real rider's track which rewards talent and aggression, and produces fantastic racing. But it is also a big challenge for us, maybe the biggest of the season. The track is very hard on rear tyres, mainly because there's a lot of high-speed left turns, es pecially the very quick final sweeper."
Last December Michelin did extensive tests at the track with Honda and Yamaha, working on its new S4 profile rear tyre, a development of the 16.5in rear that revolutionised the last few seasons of 500 GP racing. The S4 is designed to handle the 200-plus ho rsepower output of the new four-stroke MotoGP bikes. It's like the original 16.5 but more so - using a specific profile to put more rubber on the road at maximum lean for extra grip and cooler running, for extended life. Some MotoGP riders reckon it's the biggest step forward in tyre technology they've ever encountered.
"Last December we were already well developed with the S4 and the tyre has been further improved since then, mainly through different constructions to improve edge grip and 'driving' traction," adds Fournier. "We will have different ears for riders to try at this race, all fairly strong compounds. And we will have some different compounds fronts to choose from. It's necessary to have a good selection of fronts, because the weather can be quite cold, and if the track temperature is cool, riders need a fairl y soft front to give them confidence to really attack the fast corners."