British GP: Michelin preview

Michelin men aim to maintain MotoGP grip at Donington. The first-ever four-stroke MotoGP World Championship reaches its halfway point at Donington Park this weekend, where British fans will hear the awesome sound of the new breed of 200...

Michelin men aim to maintain MotoGP grip at Donington.

The first-ever four-stroke MotoGP World Championship reaches its halfway point at Donington Park this weekend, where British fans will hear the awesome sound of the new breed of 200 horsepower GP bikes for the very first time.

Although Donington is one of the slower circuits on the GP calendar, it is a complex and contrasting circuit with unpredictable grip levels, and should be a major challenge for four-stroke riders and teams. While Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-M ichelin) and Tohru Ukawa (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin) have dominated so far this year, with fellow four-strokers Carlos Checa (Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR-M1-Michelin) and Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR-M1-Michelin) catching up fast, the 500 two- strokes aren't ready to admit defeat just yet. When a track suits the lighter 500s, as did Assen two weeks ago, 500 riders like Alex Barros (West Honda Pons NSR500-Michelin) can push the four-strokes all the way. And Donington is also expected to give the 500s a fighting chance.

While the four-strokes and two-strokes battle for supremacy, Michelin are ruling the tyre war, taking race victory, pole position and the lap record at all seven MotoGP races so far. Much of Michelin's current domination can be attributed to the S4 rear sl ick, developed to handle the four-strokes' massive power outputs, but proving to be just as helpful to 500 riders. Even Assen's ever-changing weather failed to dent the French tyres' superiority. During Dutch TT practice, qualifying and racing, Michelin ri ders were fastest whatever the conditions -- soaking wet, damp or dry. And Michelin has new front and rear slicks on offer for Donington.

THE RIDERS AND DONINGTON

Kenny Roberts (Telefonica Movistar Suzuki GSV-R-Michelin) made the big time at Donington in '96. The American led a 500 GP for the first time at that year's British GP, and though he ended up tumbling out of the race, he had shown that he had what it takes to be the best. Four years later he conquered biking's highest peak, winning the 500 World Championship, just like his dad had done two decades earlier. This weekend he returns for his first four-stroke ride at the track, aboard Suzuki's rapidly improving GSV-R four-stroke V4.

Roberts has won all eight of his GP victories with Michelin and despite a switch to a rival brand for 2002, it was only a matter of a few races before he was back on his favourite tyres. Last month he got to try the company's S4 rear slick for the first ti me and was amazed by the tyre's performance. Michelin developed the S4 from its 16.5in slick which won every round of last year's World Championship. The S4 offers an even larger contact patch at high angles of lean for extra grip, cooler running and longe r life. "The S4 is the biggest step I've ever had from a tyre," says the Californian. "It's the consistency, the turning, the feel, the grip, the tyre just feels so good and natural. The latest front is good too, though I've never had a problem with the front; gri p and endurance have always been as much as we've ever needed."

While enjoying the S4's abundant traction, Roberts' main focus is improving his GSV-R, which started its development programme much later than Honda's RCV and Yamaha's M1. Recent improvements to chassis and engine performance, particularly throttle-to-tyre 'connection', have helped Roberts get closer to the front. He qualified his GSV-R on the front row for the first time at Assen and briefly led the race. Now he approaches the very different challenge of Donington Park.

"At Donington you've got to have the bike so you can get it stopped for the slow turns, park it and nail it out of there," he adds, referring to the all-important final section. "The side grip of the tyres is really good, so you just need the tyre to hang in there on acceleration grip out of the slow corners. That's why we're looking forward to trying the latest version of the S4.

"The first three corners are the most fun for me. But I don't think there's one part of the track that's so much more important than any other. Usually, you'd say that the fast sections are where you make the time, but at Donington you can also make bike l engths on guys through the hairpins. It's one of those tracks where the most important thing is to not make mistakes, a little mistake at Donington can cost you a lot of time.

"It's also one of those places where the race is always different from qualifying. There's some tracks where you can race pretty much at your qualifying time and there's other tracks where you get nowhere near that. For Donington, you've got to set up the bike for the race, slow it down a bit, because if it's hard and rigid like you need for a one-off, quick qualifying lap, it won't handle right at race pace.

"The thing is that all bikes with Michelin tyres are so good at the end of races that if you want to beat the other guys over those last few laps, you've got to set the bike to work well on used tyres, and that's what we've been working towards over the pa st few races."

MICHELIN TYRES AND DONINGTON PARK

All racetracks are about compromise -- getting bike and rider to work through the various different corner types -- and Donington more so than most. There are two different parts of the circuit with dramatically contrasting characteristics. The layout from R edgate to Starkeys straight is fast and flowing, but from the Fogarty esses to the final Goddard hairpin, it's all stop and go.

This contrast occupies the mind of riders, team engineers and tyre technicians throughout British GP weekend. Ideally, riders need stiff construction tyres for stability through the high-speed sections, and softer construction tyres for good feel and grip through the slower turns. It is therefore Michelin's job to offer a compromise that will result in the quickest lap times.

Although Michelin technicians consider Donington to be one of the more difficult circuits, Michelin has a great record at the venue, with 11 wins from the 15 premier-class GPs held at the track. And it was at Donington in 1994 that Kevin Schwantz (Lucky St rike Suzuki RGV500-Michelin) won his last GP victory, the first success for Michelin's 16.5in rear slick, the tyre that developed into the current S4.

"Donington can be difficult, partly because we never really test there," explains Michelin motorcycle competitions chief Nicolas Goubert. "Our GP crew usually only visit the track once a year, because teams aren't interested in testing there as the weather is unpredictable. But I'm confident that the S4 will give us very good performance. The tyre gives very good traction, and riders need that for accelerating out of the slower turns.

"We have a new rear for Donington, the latest step forward in our development of the S4. The tyre has a different construction, designed to increase sidegrip and acceleration traction, so the rider can open the throttle earlier in the corner. Our riders li ked the tyre when we tested recently at Brno and Catalunya, but, of course, we won't really know how it performs in a race situation until we race it. We've produced a special compound for Donington, and I think the tyre will also help riders through the f ast downhill Craner section."

Michelin will also have a new front slick available at Donington. "Although none of our riders have made specific requests for more front-tyre performance, we thought we should keep raising the level to match the rear," adds Goubert. "We tested two new fro nts at Catalunya, but we'll only have one of those in Britain, to maximise overall grip. Valentino liked both, he said they were better than his existing favourite front, but like most riders, he likes to stick with a front tyre he knows really well when i t comes to a race. Last year Valentino used the same front at nearly every GP, and he's the same this year. We always remember that Mick Doohan used the same Michelin front for four seasons! The front tyre is something very personal for riders."

DONINGTON DATA

Lap record
Simon Crafar (Red Bull WCM Yamaha)
1m 32.661s (1998)
156.298kmh/97.120mph

Pole position 2001
Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR500-Michelin)
1m 31.964s

9th round of the MotoGP world championship: July 19/20/21 at Sachsenring (GR).

-michelin-

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About this article
Series MotoGP
Drivers Kevin Schwantz , Max Biaggi , Carlos Checa , Valentino Rossi , Alex Barros , Kenny Roberts Jr. , Mick Doohan
Teams Repsol Honda Team