Portugal GP: Michelin preview

RIDERS DEVELOP A LIKING FOR NEW MICHELIN FRONT SLICK The 2002 MotoGP World Championship moves towards its final phase at Estoril this weekend. Sunday's Portuguese GP is the 11th of 16 races that constitute the first-ever four-stroke-based MotoGP...

RIDERS DEVELOP A LIKING FOR NEW MICHELIN FRONT SLICK

The 2002 MotoGP World Championship moves towards its final phase at Estoril this weekend. Sunday's Portuguese GP is the 11th of 16 races that constitute the first-ever four-stroke-based MotoGP series. The circuit is the tightest and therefore the slowest on the GP calendar (though only 0.524kmh/0.325mph slower than Valencia), just the kind of place where Michelin's new front slick should make the difference.

This new tyre scored its first pole position and first win at Brno two weeks ago, Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team YZR-M1-Michelin) enjoying the extra grip and feel offered by the tyre's improved construction and compound. In fact the tyre was raced for the first time at Brno by most of Michelin's riders, who have totally dominated the first ten rounds of this year's MotoGP World Championship, taking pole position, race victory and lap record at every race. Michelin riders currently hold the top ten places in the World Championship standings, with eight-time winner Valentino Rossi (Repsol Honda Team RC211V-Michelin) leading by 80 points. And Michelin have won all four Portuguese 500 GPs, two run at Estoril over the past two years, the other two run in neighbouring Spain during the late eighties.

Just like Michelin, the new breed of 990cc four-strokes have also had it all their own way this year, defeating the once-dominant 500cc two-strokes at every race. The 500s have enjoyed just one fleeting moment of glory, when Olivier Jacque (Gauloises Yamaha Tech 3 YZR500-Michelin) grabbed pole position at the Sachsenring in July. And Estoril could provide another captivating four-stroke versus two-stroke duel, since the circuit features many slow-speed sections, where the lighter 500s should have the edge.

THE RIDERS AND ESTORIL

Estoril lap-record holder Loris Capirossi (West Honda Pons NSR500-Michelin) faces another challenging weekend in Portugal, where he will once again attempt the ultra-difficult task of defeating the faster MotoGP four-strokes. Capirossi has been one of the quickest 500 riders of 2003 but so far he's only scored one podium result, when he took second at April's South African GP. The Italian's hopes were highest for July's British and German GPs, where the track layouts suit the lighter but less powerful 500s, but he missed both those races through injury. Now he comes to Estoril, where the 500s should match the four-strokes through the track's tighter sections but will crucially lose out on the long, downhill start-finish.

"I think we'll be quicker than the four-strokes through some parts of the track, but they will be much too fast for us on the straights," says Capirossi. "Overall this has been a difficult season for anyone on a 500. I'm riding faster than I've ever ridden -- thanks to the speed of this year's NSR500 and the grip of the latest front and rear Michelins -- but it's difficult to get on the podium, let alone win a race, because some of the four-strokes have 30 horsepower more than us."

However, Capirossi doesn't give in easily, and he'll be throwing everything he's got at the four-strokes this weekend. "Estoril is a lot of fun, but some of the corners are too slow," he adds. "Also, the surface isn't so grippy and it's quite bumpy, so you have to really attack the track. Tyre-wise, the only tough part of the circuit is the final turn, it's a very long and fast right-hander, so the rear tyre has to do a lot of work through there. And, of course, it's an important corner because it leads on to the main straight, so you need to carry a lot of speed, which means a lot of throttle at high lean angles. This year will be more difficult that ever because the four-strokes will be very fast on the start-finish, so we'll have to take extra risks to stay with them.

"I like the track, but the slowest section at the back of the track, is far too slow, it's a bit of a joke. My favourite section is the high-speed right-hander on the back straight. This is probably the most important corner on the track, because if you get through there fast, you're going to get a good lap time. And when you do get it right, it feels really good."

Capirossi is renowned for his hugely entertaining, ultra-attacking riding style, which places quite a high emphasis on front-tyre performance. "For me, the front tyre is very important, so the new Michelin front is a big help," he adds. "Though this year we also need a lot of rear grip to help us chase the four-strokes. The problem is that they're very fast, so it's easy for us 500 riders to overuse our tyres trying to stay with them. Often this year I've been fast in the early stages of a race, but then I've had to slow because I've used the rear too hard. But the tyres are great now. Michelin have been working so hard for this new era and they've made big, big improvements over the last year."

MICHELIN TYRES AND ESTORIL

Two-stroke or four-stroke, the pace of GP racing's premier class has risen dramatically over the last couple of seasons. For example, Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda NSR500-Michelin) won last year's Portuguese GP after obliterating the race record by 32 seconds. The Italian attributed much of that improvement to the extra grip and endurance offered by Michelin's 16.5in rear slick. This year the race record is expected to tumble once again as Rossi & Co take advantage of the awesome speed of their new four-strokes and the added grip of Michelin's latest tyres. The S4 rear was specifically designed for the four-strokes, but has proved just as effective for 500 riders, and the latest front also works just as well with both types of bike.

Although the S4 has played a major part in the dramatic increase in lap speeds and race pace, Michelin is now putting a special effort into improving front-end grip and feel. "We are still developing the rear, of course," explains Michelin Grand Prix manager Emmanuel Fournier. "But we've had the big revolution with the rear and now it's time for a revolution with the front. Obviously, if you improve the rear a lot, you then need to improve the front to keep the bike balanced.

"But the front tyre is always more complicated, because riders take longer to get comfortable with a new front. Our new construction front is proving popular with nearly all our riders, and it took its first pole position and first win at Brno two weeks ago. Some riders like the tyre because it allows faster turn-in and changes of direction, others because it gives more edge grip, others because it offers better feedback and others because it's more stable during braking."

The tyre was used by the majority of Michelin riders, both two-stroke and four-stroke, at Brno and should prove popular at Estoril, where corner-entry is crucial. But as for the two-stroke versus four-stroke duel, Fournier expects the four-strokes to rule again this weekend.

"The two-stroke versus four-stroke battle will be as interesting as ever at Estoril," he says. "When we tested here in February the 500s were faster but, of course, the four-strokes have come on a long way since then. Maybe the 500s will be quicker through the slowest section but they'll struggle to stay with the four-strokes on the long start-finish."

Not only does Estoril have the slowest average speed of any GP circuit, it also has the most contrasting layout, with a whole range of corners, from very fast to very slow. This requires a major compromise in bike set-up and tyre choice, and the work of riders and engineers is further complicated by the inconsistency of the surface.

"This is probably the dustiest circuit we come to," adds Fournier. "The track is usually very dirty on the first day and if there's strong winds in the area, more dust gets blown on to the surface. This makes the grip characteristics very inconsistent, rather like Catalunya, which complicated our job; the dust and sand pollute our comprehension of tyre performance. This is why we bring a bigger-than-usual range of tyre compounds to Estoril, because it's so difficult to predict the grip levels.

"The contrast of corners requires a big compromise, because riders need easy steering for the slow turns and stability for the fast corners. This concerns the chassis engineers as much as us, but from our point of view it means fairly medium compound and medium construction tyres. The toughest corner for the rear tyre is the final turn because it's a long sweeper through which riders use a lot of angle and a lot of throttle. But we have less difficulty with this kind of corner than in the past, because our S4 rear gives much better traction."

-michelin-

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About this article
Series MotoGP
Drivers Max Biaggi , Loris Capirossi , Valentino Rossi , Olivier Jacque
Teams Repsol Honda Team