Motegi Michelin preview

2001 Moto GP 500 World Championship, round 13 Pacific Grand Prix, Twin Ring Motegi - October 5/6/7 2001 MOTEGI COMMENCES FINAL PHASE OF 2001 SEASON Grand Prix racing comes east this weekend for the second time this season, Sunday's Pacific GP ...

2001 Moto GP 500 World Championship, round 13
Pacific Grand Prix, Twin Ring Motegi - October 5/6/7 2001

Grand Prix racing comes east this weekend for the second time this season, Sunday's Pacific GP commencing the final phase of the 2001 World Championship tour. After five months in Europe, Motegi is the first of four season-ending "flyaway" races, with the Australian and Malaysian GPs following on consecutive weekends. The year ends a fortnight after that at Rio de Janeiro, on November 3.

These out-of-Europe events place yet more pressure on everyone involved in GP racing - the riders, the teams and their technical partners, including Michelin. Quite apart from the stresses and strains imposed by multiple long-haul flights and a non-stop workload, there's the awesome task of coordinating the transport of thousands of tonnes of freight, most of which is rushed from one race to the next in two Boeing 747 cargo jets. Michelin freight no less than 2000 tyres to each of these four races, a quarter sent in advance by sea and the rest by Jumbo, with special compounds and constructions for each of the different racetracks. The company's total payload for each event is around 12 tonnes.

Since we are entering the final stages of the last-ever 500 campaign (before 990cc four-strokes join the premier class in 2002) we are not far away from crowning the last-ever 500 World Champion. Title favourite is Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda-Michelin) who currently leads Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team-Michelin) by 42 points. Whichever one of the two Italians wins the title, Michelin will get to celebrate its tenth consecutive 500 crown and its 21st 500 World Championship since the company's first success in 1976.

But while Rossi is well ahead on points, last month's Valencia GP proved the old adage that "anything can happen in racing and usually does." Surprise winner Sete Gibernau (Telefonica Movistar Suzuki-Michelin) won the rain-affected race to score his first GP success while Biaggi and Rossi rode cautiously to tenth and 11th. Of course, one thing is usually certain in 500 racing - Gibernau's victory was achieved using Michelin tyres, maintaining the company's unbeaten run of 50 wins.

Motegi hosts its third GP this weekend, but while all the fastest 500 riders have ridden the track before, few have any great knowledge of the place because it is rarely used for testing. The venue's inaugural GP in 1999 was dominated by wet weather, so last year's event was the rider's first chance to really get to grips with the layout. Few of them have been there since, even Honda 500 rookie Tohru Ukawa (Repsol YPF Honda-Michelin).

Ukawa raced 250s at Motegi in 1999 and 2000, taking second and fifth-place finishes, but this will be his first time at the track with a doubly powerful 500. The 28-year-old former All-Japan 250 champ therefore expects an interesting weekend.

"I think it'll be quite tough," says Ukawa, currently lying 11th in this year's 500 World Championship. "People say it's a simple circuit but I don't agree, I think it's difficult. Although the character is quite stop-and-go, a lot of the corners are quite close to each other, so they are related. If you make a mistake at one turn, it will affect your line into the next corner and so on. The trickiest part is the complex of corners from Fifth Corner to V Corner, they flow into one another, so you have to be very precise through there and maintain your speed if you want a fast lap time. You make or lose a lot of time through those five corners.

"I have to say I don't like the layout so much, especially the last few corners of the complex I just talked about. The S Curves are a bit like turns three and four at Suzuka, which is great, but instead of them leading into faster corners as they do at Suzuka, they take you into a much slower turn - V Corner. Like most riders I prefer fast turns, they're more fun and they're more of a challenge.

"The slow corners will make Motegi even more difficult on the 500 because it's not easy to control the 500's power when you're accelerating in first, second or third. The other factor at Motegi is set- up, again this is a complex job because there's so many corners and no really long straights. Getting the gearing and suspension right isn't easy."

Ukawa has had an up-and-down debut 500 season. Few riders find their 500 apprenticeship an easy affair, but Ukawa has learned plenty and also shown that he does have the speed. He took his first, and so far only, podium finish at April's South African GP and scored his first front-row start at last month's Portuguese GP. He has also suffered a few tumbles as he works at mastering the art of taming a 190 horsepower motorcycle.

"I feel my 500 riding is coming better," he adds. "I started the season in good form, feeling strong, and had a good race at Suzuka, and then got my first podium at Welkom. But the middle of the season was much tougher. I had a few crashes and lost some confidence. Doing the Eight Hour didn't help either, because I had to swap back and forth between the 500 and the four-stroke Superbike. But my feeling is coming better. I can now spin the rear tyre with confidence, and I couldn't do that at the start of the year.

"For me the big step forward came at the Czech GP in August. Michelin had been working on a new 16.5 to reduce chatter and they brought this new tyre to Brno. The tyre has a slightly softer construction, so while it has a little less sidegrip the lack of chatter actually gains you speed through the corners."

Michelin tyres have so far proved unbeatable in 500 GP racing at Motegi, whatever the weather conditions. Kenny Roberts (Telefonica Movistar Suzuki-Michelin) won the 1999 event in pouring rain and dominated last year's race, the first Pacific GP, run in the dry but with rain often threatening. It's therefore no surprise that the entire paddock will be watching the skies and the weather forecasts with greater-than-usual interest.

"The biggest challenge for us at Motegi isn't so much the track, it's the weather," affirms Michelin Grand Prix manager Jacques Morelli. "At this time of year the conditions can be very changeable and that makes the job of choosing the right tyre much more difficult, in fact it becomes a bit of a gamble. The first year we raced at Motegi in '99 we had wet and dry conditions, and last year, even though the weather was dry, the conditions still changed a lot. For example, the track temperature during Saturday qualifying was 38 degrees, but it was down to 22 degrees for the race. That's a huge difference and when you have that kind of temperature change there's nothing that riders can do except make an intelligent and calculated gamble on their choice of race tyres. It makes it difficult for everyone to prepare properly for the race."

Most riders consider Motegi quite a basic racetrack which doesn't test their riding technique to the limit. However, the plentiful slow-speed corners can make life tough for tyres, especially the rear.

"The circuit is very stop-and-go with a smooth enough surface," adds Jacques Morelli. "But there's lots of fierce low-gear acceleration that can make life tough for the rear tyre, especially if a rider doesn't make the best choice. The acceleration stresses require a strong rear slick. As for the front, there's plenty of heavy braking at Motegi and several of the braking zones are downhill, so riders need a strong construction front with very grippy rubber. They also need to be very brave to be able to brake so hard and so late while riding downhill!

"Last year Roberts dominated the race with a 16.5in rear, while Rossi and Biaggi, who battled for second, both used 17s. And Checa, who got fourth, ran a 16.5. This time last year some of the teams were still having problems with chatter when they fitted the 16.5. The tyre offers a lot more grip and that can sometimes cause chatter, which can be tuned out by adapting machines settings. We've been working a lot on this aspect of performance and we made a big breakthrough a couple of months ago with a new tyre with a softer construction. This tyres gives a lot less chatter."

<pre> MOTEGI DATA Lap record Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda-Michelin) 1m 50.591s 156.283kmh/97.110mph (2000) Pole position 2000 Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team-Michelin) 1m 49.954s Recent winners at Motegi 2000 Kenny Roberts (Telefonica Movistar Suzuki-Michelin) 46m 23.327s 1999 Kenny Roberts (Suzuki Grand Prix Team-Michelin) 51m 54.386s (Japanese GP, run as wet race)

Michelin's Partners - 500cc class (provisional list) No. Rider Nation Bike Team 1 Kenny Roberts USA Suzuki Telefonica Movistar Suzuki 3 Max Biaggi ITA Yamaha Marlboro Yamaha Team 4 Alex Barros BRA Honda West Honda Pons 5 Garry McCoy AUS Yamaha Red Bull Yamaha WCM 6 Norick Abe JPN Yamaha Antena Tre Yamaha d'Antin 7 Carlos Checa SPA Yamaha Marlboro Yamaha Team 8 Chris Walker GBR Honda Shell Advance Honda 9 Leon Haslam GBR Honda Shell Advance Honda 10 Jose Luis Cardoso SPA Yamaha Antena Tre Yamaha d'Antin 11 Tohru Ukawa JPN Honda Repsol-YPF Honda Team 12 Haruchika Aoki JPN Honda Arie Molenaar Racing 14 Anthony West AUS Honda Dee Cee Jeans Racing Team 15 Sete Gibernau SPA Suzuki Telefonica Movistar Suzuki 16 Johan Stigefelt SWE Sabre V4 Sabre Sport 17 J¸rgen vd Goorbergh NED Proton KR3 Proton Team KR 18 Brendan Clarke AUS Honda Shell Advance Honda 19 Olivier Jacque FRA Yamaha Gauloises Yamaha Tech 3 21 Barry Veneman NED Honda Dee Cee Jeans Racing Team 24 Jason Vincent GBR Pulse Pulse GP 26 Vladimir Catska SVK Paton Paton 28 Alex Criville SPA Honda Repsol-YPF Honda Team 41 Noriyuki Haga JPN Yamaha Red Bull Yamaha WCM 46 Valentino Rossi ITA Honda Nastro Azzurro Honda 56 Shinya Nakano JPN Yamaha Gauloises Yamaha Tech 3 65 Loris Capirossi ITA Honda West Honda Pons

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Series MotoGP
Drivers Max Biaggi , Carlos Checa , Garry McCoy , Loris Capirossi , Valentino Rossi , Norifumi Abe , Alex Criville , Alex Barros , Tohru Ukawa , Sete Gibernau , Shinya Nakano , Kenny Roberts Jr. , Noriyuki Haga , Chris Walker , Olivier Jacque , Jose Luis Cardoso , Haruchika Aoki , Leon Haslam , Anthony West , Johan Stigefelt , Barry Veneman