RIDERS FACE UP TO BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF THE MotoGP YEAR The first-ever four-stroke-based MotoGP World Championship approaches half distance this weekend at Assen, the most unique event on the Grand Prix calendar. The oldest and fastest GP track,...
RIDERS FACE UP TO BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF THE MotoGP YEAR
The first-ever four-stroke-based MotoGP World Championship approaches half distance this weekend at Assen, the most unique event on the Grand Prix calendar. The oldest and fastest GP track, the Dutch venue is also the only surviving circuit from the first year of World Championship racing in 1949 and the only remaining track based on public roads.
MotoGP dominator Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin), who's won five of this year's six races, rates Assen as the biggest challenge of the 16-round World Championship. And arch-rival Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR-M1-Michelin), who won last year's Dutch TT and is now back up to speed after a steady start to 2002, also considers this a unique weekend on the GP calendar.
Rossi, who won at Catalunya two weeks ago, and Biaggi, who scored the M1's first pole position at the same event, remained in Spain with fellow Michelin riders to test the latest batch of Michelin development tyres. These new front and rear slicks will be used in the near future to keep Michelin ahead of the MotoGP pack. The French tyre brand is currently monopolising bike racing's biggest and newest category, taking race victory, fastest lap and pole position at all six races, though this incredible rate of success only continues Michelin's amazing record in racing's premier classes. Michelin has won the last ten 500 World Championships, the last eight World Superbike crowns and also has an enviable record at Assen, having won 16 of the last 18 500 GPs at the track.
THE RIDERS AND ASSEN
If reigning World Champion and current MotoGP series leader Valentino Rossi believes that Assen is the most difficult circuit on the Grand Prix calendar, then you'd better believe it. The youngster, who came within an ace of winning last year's 500 GP at t he track and won the Assen 125 GP in 1997 and the 250 race in '98, agrees with most of his rivals when he says there's not another racetrack like it.
"Assen is the most difficult track because it's impossible to make two laps exactly the same because you're never even going straight," says Rossi, who goes for his 45th GP win on Saturday. "Even the straights aren't straight! You're always changing direction. Hoge Heide is very, very difficult, one of the most difficult corners in racing. You exit the double right (Duikersloot), accelerate through the fast right (Meeuwenmeer), which isn't easy either, then you change direction through Hoge Heide with no throttle, so the bike is very heavy, and then you fly a little over the top of the camber, then you're braking for the fast left. It's very, very difficult."
"I think it will be hard work on the four-stroke too, because I don't know if it'll be possible to use all the RCV's power. Already with the 500 you couldn't use 100 per cent of the power. Assen is very strange and very difficult because you never go straight, you never have one second to say 'Ah, a straight, so now I can rest'. For sure we should be faster than the 500s, but only if we can use all of the four-stroke's power!"
Max Biaggi, who beat Rossi at Assen last year, is another major fan of the venue's unique public-roads-based layout which has been modified this year to allow improvements to the paddock infrastructure. The circuit is now 22 metres shorter than before.
"Assen is a very nice track, a very unusual track," says Biaggi. "The surface is also very grippy, I guess it's one of the grippiest circuits we go to, but tyres are still a big deal there because tyres really matter wherever you go."
Like most of his MotoGP rivals, Biaggi is delighted by Michelin's new-generation rear slick, the 16.5in S4, designed to put more rubber on the road at high lean angles to cope with the 200bhp-plus output of the new four-strokes. The tyres has won all six GPs so far this year, as well as taking pole position and track records at each race. "Michelin have done a great job with their latest tyres," he adds. "But then the way they work on development is always fantastic. I've always been very confident in their tyres.
"I think we usually go for fairly medium compound and construction tyres at Assen. The biggest concern at the Dutch race is always the weather. It can be very changeable, which can rob you of dry-track time in practice, and you need all the set-up time you can get at Assen, because it's such an unusual and complex circuit."
Unlike some riders, Biaggi doesn't mind Assen's unique crowned profile. Most racetracks have a flat surface, but Assen is crowned in the middle, like a public highway, to encourage water drainage. Just as well, knowing the unpredictable Dutch weather, though the camber is different this year, following resurfacing work and revisions to track layout.
"I don't mind the camber," Biaggi adds. "You have to adapt your riding style because it's a different kind of a racetrack, but then you have to slightly change your style for every circuit and I never have a problem doing that. My favourite part of Assen is the final section, from the double right, through the next high-speed right and the very complex Hoge Heide. This section is fun because it's fast, it's a big challenge, and because you can make a lot of time there."
MICHELIN TYRES AND ASSEN
Michelin has won all but two of Assen's premier-class GPs since 1984, including the last ten 500 races, and will be aiming to continue its dominance when the four-stroke MotoGP circus comes to town for the first time this weekend.
Because the track is unique, it requires something different from riders, their machines and their tyres. Michelin's amazing run of success at the Dutch venue suggests it is well up to providing exactly what the riders need for at Assen, though this year the company's engineers have to deal with the challenge of a new track surface.
"Assen is an unknown quantity for us this year, because the whole track has been resurfaced," said Michelin Grand Prix manager Emmanuel Fournier. "We've not tested there, so we're taking a wider-than-usual range of tyres with us. This is how we work when we're facing a new track or surface. By making available a wider choice of tyres, from quite soft to quite hard, we'll be ready whatever the character of the newly laid surface.
"In the past we've always run quite soft compounds at Assen, because although the old surface was very grippy, it wasn't too aggressive. The usual Assen construction is a medium tyre, but this year we'll see how things go as practice unfolds on Thursday and Friday."
Although Michelin has very much dominated the opening stages of the first MotoGP World Championship, the company's engineers and chemists are still hard at work looking at new ways of harnessing the new four-strokes' massive power outputs with the S4, which has also helped the 500s to significantly raise their race pace. After the recent Catalan GP, Michelin's Grand Prix crew stayed on to test with all their riders, excepting Tohru Ukawa (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin), Daijiro Kato (Fortuna Honda Gresini NSR500-Michelin) and Alex Barros (West Honda Pons NSR500-Michelin), who were flying to Japan to test the Michelin-equipped Honda SP-2 Superbikes they will race in July's Suzuka Eight Hour race.
"We were testing some new S4 rears, which seem to have good potential," reveals Fournier. "We hope they'll give us another big step forward in performance. These tyres have a different construction and a different compound, so they're the latest development of the S4 concept, another step in the same direction. We also had some new-construction fronts to test which also got positive feedback. These tyres will be available very soon."
"As the MotoGP class gets more and more competitive, we are still using the same policy of developing tyres according to individuals' needs, and then making those tyres available to all our riders. Generally, if one team asks us for a new tyre, that tyre will also help the other teams. We have especially been working to improve edge grip and traction, because these are the two aspects of performance of which riders always want more."
Lap record Lap record: new circuit, lap record to be established
Pole position 2001 Loris Capirossi (West Honda Pons NSR500-Michelin), 2m 00.743s
Recent winners of the Dutch GP 2001 Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR-M1-Michelin), 30m 56.346s (rain stopped race after 15 laps) 2000 Alex Barros (Emerson Honda Pons-Michelin), 42m 46.142s (two-part wet/dry race) 1999 Tadayuki Okada (Repsol Honda-Michelin), 41m 12.732s 1998 Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda-Michelin), 41m 17.788s 1997 Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda-Michelin), 43m 37.954s 1996 Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda-Michelin), 41m 29.912s
Michelin's 2002 MotoGP Partners
Repsol Honda Team-Michelin (4S) Valentino Rossi Tohru Ukawa
Marlboro Yamaha Team-Michelin (4S) Max Biaggi Carlos Checa
Telefonica Movistar Suzuki Team-Michelin (4S) Kenny Roberts Sete Gibernau
West Honda Pons-Michelin (2S) Loris Capirossi Alex Barros
Fortuna Honda Gresini-Michelin (2S) Daijiro Kato
Gauloises Yamaha Tech 3-Michelin (2S) Shinya Nakano Olivier Jacque
Antena 3 Yamaha-d'Antin-Michelin (2S) Norick Abe Pere Riba