Italian GP: Michelin preview

MotoGP Four-strokes set to beat GP speed record at Mugello. Mugello's thronged hillsides will be alive to the sound of roaring MotoGP four-strokes for the first time this weekend. And the superb circuit -- reckoned by many to provide the best ...

MotoGP Four-strokes set to beat GP speed record at Mugello.

Mugello's thronged hillsides will be alive to the sound of roaring MotoGP four-strokes for the first time this weekend. And the superb circuit -- reckoned by many to provide the best Grand Prix of the season -- could see the fastest top speed achieved in the history of GP racing.

World Championship leader Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin) has achieved the best top speed so far of the new four-stroke era -- 315.3kmh at the season-opening Japanese GP -- but experts reckon that the fastest four-strokes could nudge 325k mh on Mugello's main straight. Until now the highest top speed recorded in GP racing was achieved back in 1993 at Germany's ultra-rapid Hockenheim circuit, Shinichi Itoh (Rothmans Honda NSR500-Michelin) touching 321kmh during practice.

Over the past year or so Michelin has been working closely with the biggest Japanese factories to develop a new range of rear slicks to harness the awesome power output of the new MotoGP four-strokes. And the fact that Michelin riders have dominated the ea rly stages of the new series -- winning the first four races and holding the top six championship positions -- suggests that the renowned French company has got its sums right.

This weekend Rossi will continue his all-Italian rivalry with fellow four-stroke rider Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR-M1-Michelin), who kick-started his season with a third-place finish at Le Mans two weeks ago, and Loris Capirossi (West Honda Pons N SR500-Michelin), currently the best-placed two-stroke rider in third overall, behind Tohru Ukawa (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin).

THE RIDERS AND MUGELLO

This is the biggest weekend of the year for World Championship leader Valentino Rossi. The Italian is the highest-profile star in the history of motorcycle racing and is guaranteed a massive welcome whenever he ventures out on to the Mugello tarmac. Not on ly that, this weekend he may go faster on a motorcycle than he's ever been in his life.

"For sure the new four-strokes are very, very fast and when I see the speed we're doing when I check the data in the pits, I think 'Wow!'," says the three-time World Champion. "I don't know if we are close to the limit; if you're a racer you always want to go a little bit more! The important thing is track safety, you need a lot of run-off when the bikes are so fast, but with the exception of a few points, all the GP tracks are basically quite safe."

Rossi desperately wants victory this Sunday because he has yet to win an Italian GP in the premier class. Although he won the Mugello 125 GP in 1997 and the Italian 250 GP in 1999, he hasn't even finished a home GP since he graduated to the big class two y ears ago. In 2000 he fell in the closing stages while leading and he slithered out of last year's soaking race while lying second.

"I pushed too hard both times!" says Rossi who started last year's race from pole position. "Which means I want to win more than ever this time. It's a big weekend for me and all the Italian riders, especially Capirossi and Biaggi, and for the Italian fans because they like to see us fight on the track. I love the atmosphere at Mugello, it's always amazing and I think this year could be bigger than ever. But it's tough also, because the pressure is very big for me, just because I want to win so much in fron t of the Italian fans, especially after the 'casino' of the last two years!"

Rossi, who currently leads the World Championship after scoring three wins from the first four races of the new MotoGP era, will ride his RCV four-stroke for the first time at Mugello this weekend. The amazing machine, which produces almost 220 horsepower, has required the youngster to adjust his riding style and work closely with Michelin to help develop the company's new S4 profile 16.5in rear slick. This tyre has been specifically designed to handle the four-strokes' awesome power output but has also hel ped 500 riders to improve their pace.

"We have very good traction with the four-stroke but what we are now trying to improve is edge grip," he says. "The four-stroke's power starts a lot sooner than the two-stroke's and there's a lot more of it, plus the bike is also heavier than a 500, all of which makes the tyres work a lot harder mid-corner. So while the bike's corner-exit traction is better than the 500's, the four-stroke isn't so good with corner speed, and if your corner speed is lower, you can also lose some exit speed."

The gentler power delivery of the four-strokes makes them easier to ride than the fiery 500s but ironically that can make life harder for a genius rider like Rossi. "It's a little strange because the four-stroke's sweeter power delivery makes it easier to ride out of the corners, but that makes it harder for a rider to make the difference against his rivals at the end of a race," he explains. "The 500's power was more wild, so the bike was more difficult to ride, but if you took risks in the final laps and you made two or three 'spins', you could make the difference against the others. It's not impossible to do that with this bike, just more difficult."

Rossi has beaten the two-strokes at every race this year but they've been close at some tracks, especially Jerez where Daijiro Kato (Fortuna Honda Gresini NSR500-Michelin) finished just one second behind the RCV star, largely thanks to the extra grip offer ed by the new S4 profile. "The tyres that Michelin developed for the new four-strokes also work very well with the two-strokes," adds Rossi. "That's why the 500s can sometimes stay quite close to us." While working hard with Michelin on the S4, Rossi prefers to stick with what he knows when it comes to front-tyre grip. "I always use the same kind of Michelin front tyre, just slightly harder than what we used on the 500s," he adds. "I always say that the front tyre is more of a psychological choice than a technical choice. When you have 'your own' front tyre, you feel confident and sure, so you can really attack the corners."

Front-tyre performance is more crucial than ever at Mugello, due to the track's numerous high-speed, downhill corner entries. "The front is very important, especially through places like Casanova, because it's downhill and very adverse camber," observes Ro ssi. "Bike set-up isn't easy at Mugello and it's important to have a well-balanced bike for such a fast and technical track. The most technical part is the Casanova-Savelli esses and the two Arrabbiata rights. It's very fast there, so you can make time, th ough the bike needs to be just right and you need very much grip."

MICHELIN TYRES AND MUGELLO

Despite the top speeds achieved on its 1.1km straight, which generate plenty of heat in rear tyres, Mugello is one of those rare tracks that require riders and engineers to think as much or more about front tyres. The undulating circuit, which rises and fa lls through a picturesque Tuscan valley, features several quick corners with downhill and therefore adverse camber entries which have a significant effect on lap times. Riders therefore require excellent front-end grip to fire into these turns as fast as they dare, which is why they spend more time than usual considering which front tyre construction/compound combination is best for their needs. "The fast, downhill corners put a lot of stress on the front tyre so we use quite a strong construction for Mugello," reveals Michelin Grand Prix manager Emmanuel Fournier. "We will have two different constructions available for our riders, both stronger t han average. Rossi is correct when he says that a rider's choice of front tyre is more psychological than technical. This is because personal confidence is the most important factor in front-tyre choice. Valentino is the only rider who sometimes chooses a 2001 front over our 2002 front. Last year he used the same front for 90 per cent of the races, so he was completely confident with it and it became 'his' tyre. That made life very simple for him because he could rely on that tyre and focus on other aspects of machine set-up. This year he uses a slightly harder construction front, just because the four-stroke is heavier than the two-stroke.

"Of course, rear-tyre choice is also important at Mugello. It's quite a fast track, so there's a fair amount of heat build-up. We will have a good choice of S4 compounds for the weekend because while we are already quite clear on what kind of construction we need for the S4, we have a lot of new compounds that we are currently developing, maybe seven or eight. It's a good situation to have so many compounds that are working so well but it does mean a lot of work to us, clarifying riders' comments about all these tyres."

MUGELLO DATA

Lap record Mick Doohan (Repsol Honda-Michelin) 1m 53.342s (1998)

Pole position 2001 Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda-Michelin), 1m 52.554s

-michelin-

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About this article
Series MotoGP
Drivers Max Biaggi , Loris Capirossi , Valentino Rossi , Tohru Ukawa , Mick Doohan , Shinichi Ito
Teams Repsol Honda Team