French GP: Michelin preview

Four-strokes & Michelin raise the MotoGP pace. The first-ever MotoGP World Championship reaches one quarter distance at Le Mans this weekend when the French Grand Prix is expected to continue the trend for a drastic increase in race pace. The ...

Four-strokes & Michelin raise the MotoGP pace.

The first-ever MotoGP World Championship reaches one quarter distance at Le Mans this weekend when the French Grand Prix is expected to continue the trend for a drastic increase in race pace. The recent Africa's and Spanish GPs were both dramatically faster than last year's 500 races at the same venues, an improvement that can be attributed to the extra speed of the new four-stroke MotoGP bikes and the extra grip offered by Michelin's new S4 rear slick, specially developed to harness the four-strokes' awesome horsepower.

Two weeks ago World Championship leader Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin) won at Jerez at record speed, a stunning 25 seconds faster than his winning pace in last year's 500 GP at the track. A fortnight earlier team-mate Tohru Ukawa (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin) beat Rossi at Welkom, his race time 24 seconds faster than Rossi's race-winning speed at the track in 2001, which in itself was 21 seconds faster than the previous race record. Interestingly, the 250 pace at both tracks was slower than last year.

Although all three races of the new era, including the soaking Japanese season-opener, have been won by Honda's 990cc RCV four-stroke, the once dominant 500cc two-strokes have shown that they are still up for a fight, helped along by the superior grip and endurance of the same S4 slick. Impressive MotoGP rookie Daijiro Kato (Fortuna Honda Gresini NSR500-Michelin) finished just 1.190 seconds behind Rossi at Jerez, putting him 24 seconds inside the Italian's 2001 race-winning speed, and at Welkom Loris Capirossi (West Honda Pons NSR500-Michelin) also comfortably exceeded his compatriot's 2001 race-winning pace, by 16 seconds.

The Riders And Le Mans

Olivier Jacque (Gauloises Yamaha Tech 3 YZR500-Michelin) comes to Le Mans this weekend certain that he will be much faster at the French track than he was last year. Not only has the former 250 World Champion fully learned the art of controlling his 190 horsepower YZR500 but he's also enjoying the extra grip available from Michelin's new S4 profile 16.5in rear slick. This tyre was initially developed to cope with the 220-horsepower output of the new MotoGP four-strokes but has proved just as useful to 500 riders.

"The big advantages with the new rear are grip and thus confidence," says Jacque. "The original 16.5in rear was a big jump forward from the. old 17 and the S4 is another big jump. You can feel the extra grip in the middle of the corner. The grip is also much more consistent over race distance My lap times are also better because I'm now used to the 500 and because I've got more confident with the front, so I can brake and turn as I want. Michelin took a very good direction with their front slick at the end of last season and the tyre has improved since then. Our team worked very closely with Michelin over the winter and I think we did a great job developing the tyre with them; it's got more grip and gives more positive turning and better feedback. We made a good tyre for my style, and I think nearly all MotoGP riders use this tyre now . Despite Jacque's confidence in his bike and tyres, he knows that he is unlikely to be in the running for victory on Sunday. 'OJ' is one of the majority of riders within the new MotoGP class racing 'old school' 500cc two-strokes against the first of the new breed of 990cc four-stroke prototypes. This year is an interim year, with more four-strokes expected in 2003, when brand-new Kawasaki and Ducati machines will join the four-strokes currently raced by Aprilia, Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha. So far this season the four-strokes have proved unbeatable. Jacque therefore knows that he is playing the underdog role, so his aim is to finish top 500, and maybe get in amongst the best four-strokes. (Japan). Tohru Ukawa (Repsol Honda Team-Michelin) won the next race at Welkom (South Africa). Rossi won again at Jerez (Spain), for the third GP of the year.

"It's frustrating, especially at my home GP," he adds. "I have no real chance of winning, so I have to go racing with a different philosophy, to fight to finish best 500 and to beat some of the four-strokes.

"The fastest four-strokes are very quick. I've been with Rossi and Ukawa in practice but not for long, it seems easy for them to escape. The four-strokes look easier to ride out of the corners, and though the two-strokes are better into corners, the four-strokes keep their corner-exit advantage all the way down the straights. The two-stroke is more aggressive when you open the throttle, so the slides are more violent. You're always on the edge of a cliff with the 500 so you have to work harder to control wheelspin, which makes you slower out of the corners and you carry that disadvantage on the straights. Also, the four-strokes' powerbands are wider, so they can use the same gear for longer, which also makes the bikes easier to set up.

"The engine is the most crucial aspect of performance at Le Mans, which will make things particularly tough for us 500 riders. It's not the most entertaining of tracks but hopefully the new section will make life more interesting. The best place to make up time is the high-speed turn one. It's a very fast corner but it doesn't scare me, Assen is scarier."

Michelin Tyres And Le Mans

This weekend's French Grand Prix is Michelin's home event on the 16-event World Championship calendar but the company's Clermont-Ferrand MotoGP crew treat Sunday's race exactly as they treat all others.

"It's our home GP but this makes no difference in the way we approach the event, we want to win every other race just as much as we want to win this one," says Michelin Grand Prix manager Emmanuel Fournier. "Of course, we'd like to see Olivier do well in front of his home fans, and maybe there's a different atmosphere within our paddock area because there's more guests, family and friends around, but that's all.

"Le Mans isn't a demanding track from the point of view of tyre wear but it's not very grippy and track temperatures can be fairly cold at this time of year. Unlike Welkom, for example, the surface works the tyres too little, not too much, so lack of grip is the main problem. We will have new compound tyres for Le Mans, 16.5in S4 rear. The Le Mans surface is also totally different to Jerez, so the tyres we'll be using will be softer than those we used in Spain.

"These tyres are the result of what we learned during the later phases of pre-season tests. The lead time for new compound and construction tyres varies from a minimum of two weeks to a month or more."

Michelin have enjoyed an excellent start to the 2002 motorcycling season, and not only in the ultra-demanding world of MotoGP. The French tyre brand has also dominated the opening stages of the World Superbike Championship. This duel-pronged develop-ment programme feeds a unique level of knowledge into the company's range of streetbike tyres, with both series providing crucial developments.

"We are very happy with the way things are going this year, both in MotoGP and World Superbike," adds Fournier. Michelin's main focus at the moment is further development of its S4 profile 16.5in rear slick, which is proving just as well suited to bikes like Honda's RCV -- which produces almost 220 horsepower and weighs 145 kilos -- and Jacque's YZR500 -- which makes around 190 horsepower and weighs 130 kilos. "The four-strokes make more power but it's smoother to control, though the way they spin and wear their tyres is not dissimilar to the two-strokes," Fournier explains. "The difference is not so much between the two types of machine, more in riding style and individual bike set-ups."

Great strides forward have also been made with Michelin's 17in front slick. "All our riders like our new front, except Nakano who has a very different style, so he uses a special front." concludes Fournier.


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About this article
Series MotoGP
Drivers Loris Capirossi , Valentino Rossi , Tohru Ukawa , Olivier Jacque
Teams Repsol Honda Team