Brazilian GP: Michelin preview

ROSSI & MICHELIN CAN CLAIM MotoGP CROWN AT RIO Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin) could wrap up the first-ever MotoGP World Championship at Rio this weekend. And if the hugely popular Italian does secure the title here he will...


Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin) could wrap up the first-ever MotoGP World Championship at Rio this weekend. And if the hugely popular Italian does secure the title here he will give Michelin its 11th successive premier-class championshi p success and its 22nd in the past 27 years. All Rossi has to do on Saturday is win his tenth victory of 2002, with Tohru Ukawa (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin) lower than third, though the Japanese has recently developed a liking for third-place, filli ng the final podium place at the last three GPs! The HRC team-mates are the only title contenders, though Michelin's MotoGP presence has massive strength in depth with Michelin riders holding the top nine places in the series.

Michelin has totally dominated the first season of MotoGP racing, taking race victory, pole position and fastest lap at all 11 rounds so far, as well as filling 32 of the 33 podium positions at those 11 races. The French company's Grand Prix engineers have been working harder than ever during 2002, developing the S4 rear slick, designed to harness the 200-plus horsepower outputs of the new four-strokes, and lately focusing on a new front slick, an important step forward in the never-ending search for extra grip and feel. Michelin's unceasing effort has paid the company handsome dividends -- the French tyres have won all but one of the last 104 premier-class GPs, including an ongoing run of 65 successive wins.

Now the masters of motorcycle tyre performance must add logistical brilliance to their technical genius, working closely with their air-freight carriers to ensure their riders have exactly the tyres they want at the year's final five GPs. Over the next six weeks riders and teams travel from Brazil to Japan, Malaysia and Australia, before returning to Europe for the season-ending Valencia Grand Prix on November 3. This quick-fire run of races will test everyone to the limit -- riders, teams, factories and the sport's major technical partners like Michelin who face the massively complex task of delivering 2000 of their latest tyres to each and every one of these five events dotted around the globe.


Local hero Alex Barros (West Honda Pons NSR500-Michelin) will be throwing everything into winning Saturday's Rio GP. The man from Sao Paulo has yet to win his home race, and he knows this won't be an easy weekend for him because the Jacarepagua track is li kely to favour the more powerful four-strokes machines over his 500 two-stroke. The fast, open circuit which features one of GP racing's longest straights should allow the four-strokes to exploit their horsepower advantage. But Barros will be giving it his all in what will be one of his final races on a two-stroke.

"It will be another difficult race for us, because Rio is a fast track," says Barros, winner of four 500 GPs, all with Michelin. "The four-strokes are much faster than the 500s in a straight line, there's no way we can even hold their slipstream, so they'l l have a big advantage down the main straight. I think we can be faster through the curves, I know I'm really quick through the final section of the circuit, and I know I'm very strong on the brakes, which is useful at the end of the big straight. But it's a case of weighing up the time we gain and the time we lose, and overall the four-strokes will be faster. The only time we really have an advantage is on Friday, when the four-strokes are starting from zero on set-up, because this is their first time at t he track."

Despite his nationality, Barros has no home-track advantage at Jacarepagua, because he races here no more often than his MotoGP rivals. Nonetheless he's got the track well worked out, as he proved two years ago when he was a close second-place finisher to Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda NSR500-Michelin). Barros reckons that the front tyre is particularly crucial at Rio, because the track is bumpy and not too grippy, so the front end is constantly loading up and unloading. Feel, therefore, is everythin g.

"You use a lot of front tyre at Rio, just because of the bumps and the style of the track," he adds. "So you really need to work on the front end of the bike, you need the machine set-up to work really well with the tyre, otherwise you won't have enough gr ip or endurance. I've been using a new-construction Michelin front since Germany. The tyre gives better turn in, so you can get into the corners a little faster, and it also offers more feel, which is good for your confidence."

Of course, rear grip is always a major concern, but Barros has as much rear-end traction as he can handle right now, thanks to advances from Michelin's S4 rear slick, which was originally developed for the four-strokes.

"We have a lot more rear grip from the S4 this year, which has allowed us to go much faster than before," he explains. "But the problem is that this extra grip also helps the four-strokes use more of their power advantage earlier in the corner, which isn't good for us 500 riders! During the races there doesn't seem to be a huge difference in the way the two types of machine use their tyres. The four-strokes have softer power delivery, which is good for their tyres, but they have more power and weight, so I think it evens out. Usually we can use slightly softer tyres but I don't think either type of bike has a rubber advantage in the later stages of races.

"I'm really looking forward to Rio this year. The race didn't use to be so big but over the last two years the crowd has really grown, which is great for me. They make a lot of noise -- they're Brazilians -- which makes a real difference, I can really feel t heir support!"


Michelin has won nine of the ten GPs staged in Brazil (hosted at three different tracks -- Goiania, Interlagos and Jacarepagua) and is looking to continue its total domination of bike racing's premier class this weekend. The Jacarepagua track is another rea l challenge for riders and engineers, and another chance for Michelin to learn more about its latest front and rear slicks.

The 16.5in S4 rear slick was the big news at the start of the 2002 season, contributing to another leap forward in performance, just over a year since the company's 16.5in rear revolutionised the 500 class. In more recent weeks Michelin has upped the ante still further with a new front slick, which has rapidly gained favour with most of Michelin's 13 MotoGP riders.

"We believe that our new front will be particularly good for Rio, because it offers a lot of feedback," says Michelin Grand Prix manager Emmanuel Fournier. "It's something in the construction of this new tyre that gives more feeling but we can't say what! The front construction we use at Rio is stronger, but that doesn't mean harder, it's more complicated than that. A less strong construction can absorb too much, so it behaves like a filter between the track and the bike, so the rider doesn't receive such a ccurate feedback. And feedback and feeling are vital if a rider is to be able to fully exploit all the available traction.

"We've been testing several different compounds with this new front and we have one in particular that has worked well at all the last few circuits. This is important for us, and for our riders, because we always like to have one front compound that works for everyone at pretty much every track. Riders like to be very familiar with the front tyre, so it's very useful for them if they have one tyre they can count on, whatever kind of problem they're having.

"Rio can be slippery but only when the surface is dirty. When the circuit is clean the grip level is fairly normal, certainly enough for us to work correctly. We'll have to see how grippy it is on Thursday. The surface will get cleaner with use, the only w orry is that it can sometimes take more than the weekend to be fully clean!"

This year is a particularly unusual year for the premier Grand Prix class, with 990cc four-strokes racing against 500cc two-strokes. And although the S4 rear has been successfully used by both types of machine, Michelin is now producing different types of S4.

"It seems that we're now taking slightly different directions in developing the S4 rear for the two-strokes and four-strokes," adds Fournier. "At the beginning of the season riders of both types of machine were using pretty much the same S4 but we knew tha t we'd take different directions as the season developed. Now we have some choices that work well with both types of bike, one that is designed to work more for the four-strokes and another for the two-strokes. The four-stroke S4 uses a stronger compound f rom what we learned at Brno in August.

"We are still happy to develop an S4 tyre for the two-strokes because we want them to have the best-possible chance of winning. They can run a softer tyre, which can give them an advantage in the early stages of a race, so long as they work to look after i t for the final laps."

The pace of MotoGP tyre development has forced Michelin to undertake more radical logistics than ever before during the traditional run of late-season out-of-Europe GPs. "We are sending more tyres by plane than ever before, because the pace of development is so fast," reveals Fournier, who organises 2000 tyres for each GP. "In the past we sent some tyres by sea, but we would need to despatch these tyres six weeks before each race, which is just too early now, considering the pace of development. This year m ore tyres are going by plane, some flown from one race to the next, and other directly from France. It means a very tight schedule for us."


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About this article
Series MotoGP
Drivers Valentino Rossi , Alex Barros , Tohru Ukawa
Teams Repsol Honda Team