WHO CAN STOP THE ROSSI ROMP? World Championship leader Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin) may have dominated the first half of the 2002 MotoGP season, winning seven of the eight races so far, but at this weekend's Sachsenring ...
WHO CAN STOP THE ROSSI ROMP?
World Championship leader Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin) may have dominated the first half of the 2002 MotoGP season, winning seven of the eight races so far, but at this weekend's Sachsenring event he will have to work harder than usual for victory.
The Italian youngster admits he's not a fan of the slow and tortuously twisting German circuit where last year he scored his worst result en route to capturing the last-ever 500 crown. Seventh in a race dominated by Yamaha riders and won by arch-rival Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR-M1-Michelin), Rossi may be hard pressed to continue his record-breaking romp on Sunday.
So far this year, the pace of GP racing has been dramatically accelerated, thanks to Rossi's talent plus the speed of the new 220 horsepower four-strokes and the extra grip offered by Michelin's S4 profile rear tyre, specifically designed to harness those awesome engines. Lap records have been smashed everywhere, and all four comparable races (the other four can't be compared due to differing weather conditions and circuit revisions) have been significantly faster than last year. And considering that the race pace at most of last season's 500 GPs was much quicker than in 2000, thanks to the adoption of Michelin's 16.5in rear slick, GP racing has got a real hurry on over the past two summers.
Rossi won last Sunday's British GP at record speed, 20 seconds faster than his winning pace in last year's 500 GP at the track. He has also smashed his own race records at Catalunya, where he was 36 seconds inside last year's race time, and at Jerez, where he bettered his 2001 speed by 25 seconds. Even when Rossi isn't doing the winning the pace has quickened. Tohru Ukawa (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin), only man to have beaten his team-mate so far in 2002, won April's South African GP at Welkom where he bettered Rossi's 2001 race-winning speed by 24 seconds.
Michelin-equipped riders have taken race victory, pole position and lap records at all eight MotoGP races and currently fill the top nine places in the World Championship.
THE RIDERS AND SACHSENRING
If the battle for the first four-stroke-based MotoGP World Championship is headed by three four-strokes riders -- Valentino Rossi, Tohru Ukawa and Max Biaggi -- there's likely to be another kind of confrontation dominating at Sachsenring this weekend.
While the new four-strokes have proven to be unbeatable so far, the quickest 500 two-strokes have been on the pace at the last two GPs, and are likely to impress once again at the tight and twisting German track. Some pit-lane experts suggest that this Sunday's race could offer the 500s their last chance of victory before the premier GP class goes all four-stroke. And there could no more fitting venue for the two-stroke's swansong than the Sachsenring, just down the road from Zschopau where brilliant MZ engineer Walter Kaaden developed the two-stroke engine into a world-beating force during the fifties.
Winner at Sachsenring two years ago and fifth in last July's race, Alex Barros (West Honda Pons NSR500-Michelin) is currently the highest-placed 500 rider in MotoGP. He amazed Rossi with his recent ride to second at Assen and could have been on the podium once again at Donington if he hadn't fluffed his getaway from the front row. The Brazilian veteran of 202 GPs is determined not to let his chance slip away in Germany.
"I think Sachsenring could be good for us two-stroke riders," says Barros, who has won four GPs over the past decade, all with Michelin. "The track isn't so fast, what you really need is good turning and the 500s turn well, because they're lighter than the four-strokes. The first section is very tight and I think we'll have the advantage there, and also through the long, fast lefts that follow, because the 500s can hold a line better than the four-strokes, again because they're lighter.
Barros believes the toughest part of the German venue is the mid-section, which consists of a unique string of left-handers, which have riders banked continuously to the left for more than 17 seconds. These seven successive left turns obviously make the left side of the tyres work harder than ever, but it's not so much tyre wear that concerns Barros as physical discomfort. "You're being so physical with the bike, forcing your weight over the front to keep the bike turning, and you're in the same position for a long time each lap," he says. "These corners really destroy the riders. I usually have a lot of back problems during this weekend and need plenty of massage."
"Michelin's 16.5in rear improved things for us, it really increases grip. And this year's S4 has even more grip and durability for both 500 and four-stroke riders, so at some tracks we can ride our fastest laps at the end of races."
If the German circuit doesn't make life too hard for tyres, problems can arise from the area's highly variable weather. "You have to choose your rear tyre carefully for this race, though the front isn't a problem. But I was caught out last year. I was very fast in practice and had a good chance to win but the track temperature jumped up by 18 degrees for the race, so the front tyre I chose started to go away before the finish."
MICHELIN TYRES AND SACHSENRING
Michelin has an incredible success rate in the premier Grand Prix class. Two years ago the company celebrated its 250th 500 victory and is already edging towards the 300 mark, with an unbeaten run of a further 37 successes (part of 62 in a row) achieved since former 500 champ Alex Criville (Repsol Honda NSR500-Michelin) took the 250th win at Le Mans in May 2000. And Michelin hasn't been beaten at the German GP in a decade, with victories at three very different tracks -- the super-fast Hockenheim, Nurburgring and Sachsenring.
The Sachsenring was the slowest GP track when the venue joined the GP calendar in 1998 and has undergone several revisions since then. Initially the circuit was too tight and twisting for GP racing, perhaps more suited to go-karts. But recent changes have opened up the layout, raising lap speeds by around 10kmh/6mph and, most importantly, making the track more fun for riders and more entertaining for spectators.
"This will be another busy weekend for us because it's another unknown track for the four-strokes," explains Michelin Grand Prix manager Emmanuel Fournier. "Before the season, we tested with four-strokes at many of the circuits -- Suzuka, Jerez, Mugello, Estoril, Sepang, Phillip Island and Valencia -- but the Sachsenring is one of the tracks we didn't visit during the winter. But it's not a particularly special place from a tyre point of view. There's all the left-handers in the middle of the lap which bring more heat into the left side of the rear tyre, but this isn't a concern.
"The biggest difficulty is the likely variance in ambient and therefore track temperature. This race can be as cold as Assen or as hot as Barcelona, which could mean a track temperature of 15 degrees or 45 degrees, so we bring a wider-than-usual range of tyres, most of them of fairly medium compound. Tyre temperature depends on things like track temperature and tyre slippage, but most of all the temperature comes from what's going on inside the tyre, how the compound and plies interact."