French GP: Michelin preview

MICHELIN KEEPS MAKING HISTORY Michelin achieved its 325th premier-class GP win in China two weeks ago, so maybe it's time for a little history: A French company with a proud history, Michelin is one of France's most renowned names, right up ...


Michelin achieved its 325th premier-class GP win in China two weeks ago, so maybe it's time for a little history: A French company with a proud history, Michelin is one of France's most renowned names, right up there with Chanel, Monet, Renault, Gaultier and Renoir.

Established in the late 19th century, Michelin creates tyres at factories all over the world, employing 125,000 people and producing an astonishing 180 million tyres per year for every kind of vehicle, from your average hatchback car to Valentino Rossi's Gauloises Yamaha MotoGP bike and from the most humble scooter to Airbus's massive new A380 airliner.

Currently dominating all the major motorsport World Championships - F1, WRC and MotoGP -- Michelin has an extra-special record in MotoGP. The Clermont-Ferrand brand has won 22 of the last 24 premier- class World Championships, including an unbeaten run of the last 13 titles.

Its success on home tarmac has been similarly impressive, with victory in all but seven of the last 31 French GPs, which takes us right back to the days when the French round of the World Championships was staged around the daunting Charade street circuit, just a few kilometres from the front door of Michelin's Clermont-Ferrand HQ.

Ironically Michelin never won the premier-class on its own doorstep, if only because the company was taking its first tentative steps into GPs when the daunting street circuit was deemed too dangerous for GP racing. Pierre Dupasquier, Michelin motorsport director, remembers attending French GPs at Charade as a schoolboy and later while leading Michelin's first forays into GP racing.

"I remember watching Geoff Duke and John Surtees, dreaming about getting involved in racing, but only dreaming, with no real hope of it happening," says Dupasquier, the man behind much of Michelin's motorsport success. "Instead I use to ride everywhere on my bike, to Finland, to Turkey, to Dakar. I loved riding, I crashed many times trying to go fast but I never thought I'd get involved in racing."

Dupasquier, 67, first joined Michelin in the early 60s and became fully involved in the company's race efforts in '73, just before Charade was struck from the GP calendar. "It was an absolutely marvellous circuit, like a mini Nurburging," he recalls. "It was in the hills, so it was uphill, downhill, blind crests, amazing, but also very dangerous. I remember the last few GPs there, giving our new PZ2 tyres to Christian Bourgeois, who was one of the first riders to start going really fast with our tyres. The PZ was just a road tyre, the PZ2 was the same tyre with a softer compound for racing. But these were the tyres that started us on the road to the success that we enjoy today."


Sete Gibernau (Telefonica Movistar Honda RC211V-Michelin) comes to Le Mans with plenty of work to do after a tough start to his 2005 season. Second at the opening Spanish GP, after a controversial last-corner clash with reigning World Champion Valentino Rossi (Gauloises Yamaha Team YZR-M1-Michelin), Gibernau also led in Portugal, only to crash in the rain, and finished fourth in the rain-lashed Chinese GP two weeks ago.

The Spaniard hopes that his luck will turn in France, where he has enjoyed considerable success. "I've won at Le Mans the last two years," says the world number two. "But neither of those victories was easy -- last year I had to contend with some chatter and the year before it was a tricky wet/dry race."

"You need a good front at Le Mans because that first turn is so fast and you're always pushing the front through there, plus it's a really important turn because you can make some time on the other guys. You also need a good rear with good driving traction because there's a lot of slow corners, which you're exiting on full gas.

"Tyres are important at Le Mans, just like they're important everywhere. And they get more important with every year, because the more power you have and the more grip you have, the greater the role the tyres have to play. Michelin has taken another step forward this year with the rear, you only need to see the lap times we're doing to understand that."

Gibernau currently lies fifth in the points chase after three races but is still confident he can challenge for the world title again. I'm riding better than ever and I'm stronger than ever," says the Honda rider, who took pole position in China. "My speed at the first three races has shown we're very competitive, so I know I don't need to change anything, I just need to keep working in the same direction and have a little luck."


Michelin has won the last 12 French GPs at three different circuits -- Le Mans, Le Castellet and Magny Cours. This weekend the company goes for its 14 premier-class success at Le Mans, 31 years after the late Barry Sheene (Texaco Heron Suzuki RG500-Michelin) scored the brand's first Le Mans 500 GP win. Like most race venues, Le Mans has been constantly upgraded and last year underwent much- needed resurfacing.

"The new surface is much better, it's grippier, especially in the wet, which means it's also safer," says Nicolas Goubert, Michelin's chief of motorcycles competition. "Le Mans' layout isn't so exciting though, it's very stop-and-go with a lot of slow corners, so the emphasis is on braking and acceleration. From a tyre point of view, riders need a lot of traction for accelerating out of the slow corners. We have worked very hard since the advent of MotoGP to give riders maximum traction to cope with the bikes' massive power outputs. We've been very successful in this, so this year our priority has been to improve sidegrip. This will also help riders at Le Mans, because they can now use more corner speed, which allows them to get through corners faster.

"Of course, the weather could also be an issue at Le Mans -- two of the last three GPs there have been affected by rain, and the new flag-to-flag rule changes things for us and the riders. It can be a bit of a worry because it produces situations in which riders are on track without the ideal tyres for the conditions, like at Estoril where Sete was leading on slicks when he came across a wet part of the track and crashed. It's impossible to make a slick that also works in the rain, though slicks can work in the damp while they stay hot, so long as there's no deep standing water. Even then, if riders have to slow down too much the tyres cool down and then lose grip. This will be more of a problem at some tracks than others -- at places like Phillip Island and Valencia, where you use quite hard slicks, the tyres will lose grip more quickly in the damp.

"The new rules create a whole new set of circumstances. Of course, flag-to-flag races are more interesting for the fans, plus you see different riders come to the fore, like Alex Barros (Camel Honda RC211V-Michelin) who won at Estoril. Maybe his success in the damp was partly thanks to his endurance racing experience -- he's won two Suzuka Eight Hours with us."


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About this article
Series MotoGP
Drivers Valentino Rossi , Alex Barros , Sete Gibernau , John Surtees , Phillip Island