MotoGP LEADER ROSSI UNDER PRESSURE AT CATALUNYA This weekend the new four-stroke-based MotoGP World Championship returns to Spain, where the front-running action is expected to be tighter than ever. Series leader Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda...
MotoGP LEADER ROSSI UNDER PRESSURE AT CATALUNYA
This weekend the new four-stroke-based MotoGP World Championship returns to Spain, where the front-running action is expected to be tighter than ever. Series leader Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin) may have won four of the first five GPs of the new era, but he's under increasing pressure from the much-improved Yamaha M1s of Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR-M1-Michelin), who finished a close second to Rossi in Italy two weeks ago, and Carlos Checa (Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR-M1-Michelin) , who took fourth in Italy, just behind Rossi's team-mate Tohru Ukawa (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin), the only man to have beaten the Italian thus far.
And Rossi could have another two riders to worry about this weekend: Kenny Roberts (Telefonica Movistar Suzuki GSV-R-Michelin) and Sete Gibernau (Telefonica Movistar Suzuki GSV-R-Michelin), who will have Michelin's latest tyres at their disposal for the fi rst time since switching tyre brands at last month's Spanish GP. Both men tested the new S4 16.5in rear slick at Mugello last week following the Italian GP and came away mightily impressed with the tyre, which is so far unbeaten in MotoGP racing.
Michelin riders have monopolised the early stages of the new MotoGP championship -- winning all five races, taking all but one of the 15 podium places and currently holding the top eight places in the World Championship standings. And Michelin have an envia ble record at Catalunya -- the company's tyres have won every premier-class GP since 1992 at this particularly technically challenging circuit.
THE RIDERS AND CATALUNYA
MotoGP racing is bigger in Spain than any other nation. The World Championship visits the country on no less than three occasions each season -- for May's Spanish GP at Jerez, for this weekend's Catalan GP and for the term-ending Valencia GP in early Novemb er. So home GPs are a regular experience for home-heroes Sete Gibernau and Carlos Checa.
Catalunya is an important race for both locals, particularly Gibernau, who along with team-mate Kenny Roberts will be able to enjoy the superior performance of Michelin's S4 rear slick for the first time in a race situation. The Spaniard and American switc hed to Michelin from a rival tyre brand after the first two races of the season, but due to production-capacity limits, demand for the S4 exceeded supply, so they had to use 2001-spec tyres for their first three races with Michelin.
Gibernau was very impressed with the S4 following his first outing on the tyre during tests in Italy last week and can't want to use it in a fully competitive situation. "We got a feel for the tyre at Mugello," says the winner of last year's damp Valencia GP. "It feels like another level up from last year's 16.5 but I didn't get a lot of track time with it, so I'll still be exploring the limits of the tyre in practice this weekend. The S4 also seems better for chatter, that's one of the best things I notice d about it."
Gibernau also got to try Michelin's 2002 17in front during the Mugello race. "The feel of the new front is good," he adds. "It gives better feedback and it's got better edge grip, so you can ride further into the corner on the brakes."
"Edge grip is really important at Catalunya because there's a lot of long sweepers, so you need good edge grip from the rear, which the S4 should be good for, as well as from the front, especially through the final two fast right handers.
"Catalunya is a really difficult place for set-up, rather like Mugello. It's a complete track, with long, fast corners and slow, tight corners, so you need to work on the overall balance of the bike to give you a compromise for the whole track."
It will be interesting to see what compound/construction Michelins Gibernau and his team-mate choose this weekend. So far this year, Rossi has a tendency to choose a softer S4 rear than his immediate MotoGP rivals: Ukawa on his RCV and Biaggi and Checa on their much-improved M1s. At Mugello his choice helped him break the track's previous race record by 15 seconds. But Michelin Grand Prix manager Emmanuel Fournier isn't sure whether his opponents will be able to follow suit. "Valentino likes softer tyres, w hich can be a bit risky for endurance," reveals Fournier. "But so far his choices have worked well, except at Welkom, where Ukawa beat him."
The new MotoGP four-strokes are expected to dominate once again this weekend, so 500 firebrands Loris Capirossi (West Honda Pons NSR500-Michelin), Alex Barros (West Honda Pons NSR500-Michelin), Daijiro Kato (Fortuna Honda Gresini NSR500-Michelin), Shinya N akano (Gauloises Yamaha Tech 3 YZR500-Michelin), Olivier Jacque (Gauloises Yamaha Tech 3 YZR500-Michelin) and Norick Abe (Antena 3 Yamaha-d'Antin YZR500-Michelin) will be working as hard as ever to get on terms.
MICHELIN TYRES AND CATALUNYA
Catalunya provides some of the biggest challenges of the MotoGP World Championship, for riders and engineers, for bikes and tyres. The circuit isn't very grippy, it's also bumpy and has a wide range of different corner types. To further complicate matters, the track surface is very changeable, according to temperature and other factors. All these considerations keep Michelin's team of tyre engineers particularly busy throughout the Catalan GP weekend.
"We always take a wider-than-usual range of compounds to Catalunya for all these reasons," says Fournier. "And more so than ever this year, because we have to look after two different categories of machine -- the new MotoGP four-strokes and the latest 500 t wo-strokes. We are finding that the two types of bike are beginning to make more different demands on tyres than they did at the start of the season, probably because the four-strokes are developing quite fast."
No one is quite sure why Catalunya's track surface changes its grip characteristics so quickly or so unpredictably. Obviously, this can make life extremely complicated for riders and engineers, who may have to deal with a 'different' circuit several times a weekend.
"No one understands exactly why the surface changes, it's not easy to explain," adds Fournier. "Though when it's windy a fine dust is often blown on to the track, either from the coast or a nearby quarry."
Catalunya will be particularly interesting this year because it's the first circuit to welcome the new four-strokes for the second time. The first preseason group tests took place at the Spanish track in mid-March, and it will be fascinating to see how the four-strokes, and their tyres, have developed since then. "We think everyone will be faster," says Fournier. "But that depends entirely on track conditions. It will almost certainly be hotter for the GP, and that can compromise grip. Cooler conditions are generally better for maximum grip."
Fournier was delighted with the reaction of Telefonica Movistar Suzuki riders Kenny Roberts and Sete Gibernau following the pair's first outing on the new S4 16.5in rear at Mugello last week. "They're crazy about the tyre!" he smiles. "Kenny said that he c an use full throttle much earlier with the S4. Sete didn't get so much time on the tyre, but both he and Sete Kenny say the tyre gives more stability in the corners and more acceleration traction. Overall they reckon it's just easier to ride faster with th e S4, they especially liked its feel and consistency. At a rough guess I'd say that the S4 is worth between two tenths and half a second during a race lap.
"During the Mugello test they were sometimes using part-worn tyres, because we wanted to save tyres for this weekend, and they both said that these tyres didn't feel 'used'. The whole day went very well, especially the afternoon when they tried the latest tyres. We ended the tests very happy, because it's always great when other riders using another kind of bike like your tyres. That's one of our aims, to produce a tyre that is good for everyone.
Lap record Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda-Michelin), 1m 46.619s (2001)
Pole position 2001 Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda-Michelin), 1m 45.507s