Michelin Estoril preview

2001 MotoGP 500 World Championship, round 11 Portuguese Grand Prix, Estoril- September 7/8/9 2001 FASTEST 500 SEASON, SLOWEST 500 TRACK The fastest 500 World Championship in history tackles its slowest circuit this weekend. But while Estoril...

2001 MotoGP 500 World Championship, round 11
Portuguese Grand Prix, Estoril- September 7/8/9 2001

FASTEST 500 SEASON, SLOWEST 500 TRACK

The fastest 500 World Championship in history tackles its slowest circuit this weekend. But while Estoril may be the slowest of this year's 16 Grand Prix venues, it poses as big a challenge as ever for the 500 pack.

This Sunday the circuit's tricky curves play host to one of the greatest 500 title battles in history. Italian gladiators Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda-Michelin) and Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team-Michelin) have all but dominated the 2001 series, winning nine of the ten races so far. Two weeks ago at the Czech GP they were once again way out front and duelling for victory until Biaggi crashed out. Rossi now leads the series by a more comfortable 29 points, but with 150 points to play for at the final six races, he is far from home and dry.

The two Italians have really forced the pace this year, helped all the way by Michelin's 16.5in rear slick. This tyre, which now dominates the 500 grid against the company's 17in rear, offers more grip and longer life, allowing a dramatic increase in race pace. All five of this year's GPs run in comparable conditions to last year have been drastically faster: 25 seconds at Suzuka, 35 seconds at Welkom, 23 seconds at Jerez, 16 seconds at Le Mans and 32 seconds at Brno a fortnight back.

You can therefore expect the action to be just as fast and furious at the last six races. Estoril is GP racing's penultimate outing in Europe this year, with the Valencia GP concluding the Continental season on September 23. A punishing run of three back-to-back GPs follow, with races in Japan (for the Pacific GP), Australia and Malaysia on consecutive Sundays during October, followed by the grand finale at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Saturday November 3.

THE RIDERS AND ESTORIL

Estoril hosted its first Grand Prix last September and proved to be a complex and demanding racetrack, despite an average lap speed of just 146kmh/91mph. Riders found the circuit to be anything but easy, with a bumpy and dusty surface, as well as strong winds, giving them a sometimes scary ride.

It was therefore no surprise that wild-riding Garry McCoy (Red Bull Yamaha WCM-Michelin) dominated the race, and the former speedway rider will be out to repeat that success this weekend. Injured at May's French GP, McCoy has yet to win a race this year but is now back to full strength and raring to go.

"Estoril is the kind of track that wants you to be aggressive," says the Australian, renowned for his attacking, sideways style. "It's pretty bumpy and slippery, so I just pretend I'm on a motocross bike! You've not got the smoothness that you get at other places, so you just forget where you are and have fun."

McCoy rides his YZR500s very loose, apparently almost out-of-control, skipping the back end sideways into the turns and executing glorious, wheel-spinning corner exits. It's a technique that pays dividends at some tracks more than others. "There's not a lot of grip at Estoril, so I back the bike into turns, throw her on her side and then back her out of there," he grins. "It's not the toughest circuit on tyres, even though my style means I can always use softer compounds than the other guys. The only place where you're really working the tyres is the final right that seems to go on forever. You're on the edge of the tyres all the way through there, on the throttle in fourth gear and going quicker and quicker. Sometimes I lay some big black lines through there, just through carrying too much corner speed, or other times when I want to kick the bike sideways to line her up for the straight. Apart from that and the kink on the back straight, which you can take flat if you get it right, it's all tight turns which are pretty easy on tyres.

"The most exciting bit is coming into the first turn ­ you're going really quick down the straight, then you're braking and going from sixth to first, and the track seems so narrow there. It's really hard to pick up your braking marker and a lot of people run off the track there, you can't afford to make any mistakes because the corner turns back on itself."

Winner of three GPs last year, McCoy can take much of the credit for the 500 pack's shift to Michelin's 16.5in rear slick. He was the first rider to win a GP with the 16.5 in seven years, and the first to adapt his machine settings to make the most of the tyre's advantages, provided by a different profile that puts more rubber on the road at maximum lean for more grip, cooler running and extended life. But his success with the 16.5 encouraged his rivals to make the switch and now all the top 500 riders enjoy the tyre's benefits. As his crew chief Hamish Jamieson says: "We were the first to start using the 16.5, so we had an initial advantage, but now the others have caught up."

MICHELIN TYRES AND ESTORIL

Pre-season tests at Estoril suggest that this weekend's Portuguese GP will not buck the 2001 trend for much faster races. Hard-riding Loris Capirossi (West Honda Pons-Michelin) topped that February session, his 1m 40.109s best a massive two seconds inside the lap record, set during last September's wind-swept inaugural Estoril GP.

And times could be faster still this weekend, because Michelin will have another version of their new 16.5in rear tyre at Estoril. This new-construction tyre was first used at Brno two weeks ago, where many riders were impressed with its chatter-free characteristics. The 16.5 has increased grip so much that chatter is an inevitable problem at some circuits but Michelin have been working flat out on the problem and this latest tyre seems to be a breakthrough. "We've been working on this new tyre since the Catalunya GP in June," says Michelin Grand Prix Manager Jacques Morelli. "Chatter is a very tricky problem but it seems that we've found the right direction. We'll have a different version of the tyre at Estoril, with just the compound adjusted to suit the track.

"We expect lap times to be faster than last year, as they've been at most tracks this season. But Estoril is a strange track and much will depend on the weather. It's often very windy there because the Atlantic isn't so far away. Friday's first session will probably be quite worthless because the track is usually very dirty and it'll take a while to clean up. And if it is windy during the weekend, more sand and dust will be blown on to the surface."

Given reasonable weather conditions Morelli reckons that Estoril's most outstanding characteristic is the strong contrast between fast and slow corners. "Every track has a certain nature," he adds. "Sepang is very wide, Mugello and Brno are known for their off-camber corners and we know that Phillip Island is very hard on tyres, while Estoril has a big contrast in its corners."

Such contrasts demand that tyre and bike engineers must work towards a delicate compromise ­ in tyre choice, chassis settings and engine set-up. In an ideal world, Michelin's engineers would give riders soft and malleable tyres for Estoril's slow turns, and harder, more stable tyres for the fast corners. That, of course, isn't possible, so the challenge is to design front and rear tyres that will give riders what they need through every one of the track's 13 corners.

"The differences at Estoril are much bigger than normal. You have the fast, final right hander, which riders go through on the throttle, getting quicker and quicker, where they can really burn the rear tyre because they want to get on to the main straight as quick as possible. Then you have the very, very slow chicane. We aim to give riders a grippy front tyre to give them confidence into the tight turns and a stronger rear for that very important fast turn."

ESTORIL DATA

Pole position 2000
Garry McCoy (Red Bull Yamaha WCM-Michelin) 1m 40.736s, 149.452kmh/92.865mph

Lap record
Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda-Michelin) 1m 42.200s, 147.311kmh/91.535mph

Fastest 2001 pre-season test lap
Loris Capirossi (West Honda Pons-Michelin) 1m 40.109s

Recent winners of the Portuguese GP
2000 Garry McCoy (Red Bull Yamaha WCM-Michelin) 48m 07.663s, 145.982kmh/90.709mph (first GP at circuit)

- www.michelinsport.com

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Series MotoGP
Drivers Max Biaggi , Garry McCoy , Loris Capirossi , Valentino Rossi , Phillip Island