Welkom race preview

<pre> 2001 Moto GP 500 World Championship, round 2 South African Grand Prix - Phakisa Freeway, Welkom April 20/21/22 2001 </pre> WELKOM: WHERE THE 16.5 v 17 WAR BEGAN! Following a breathtaking season-opening Japanese GP, the 500 ...

<pre> 2001 Moto GP 500 World Championship, round 2 South African Grand Prix - Phakisa Freeway, Welkom April 20/21/22 2001 </pre> WELKOM: WHERE THE 16.5 v 17 WAR BEGAN!
Following a breathtaking season-opening Japanese GP, the 500 World Championship moves to South Africa this weekend for one of Michelinis most challenging events of the year.

And the ultra-demanding track that hosts Sunday's GP has a special place in Michelinis recent history, for it was at Welkom last year that Garry McCoy (Red Bull Yamaha WCM-Michelin) won his first 500 GP, triggering a surge of interest in Michelinis 16.5in rear slick. The wild-riding Australianis dramatic win encouraged more riders to try the radical-profiled tyre, which has since come to dominate 500 GP racing.

In Japan two weeks ago McCoy took a close-run second place to race winner Valentino Rossi (Nastro Azzurro Honda-Michelin), who made history for Honda, taking the marqueis 500th win. Honda and Michelin have been long-time partners and last year it was Honda's turn to help Michelin make history, the tyre company winning its 250th 500 GP with Alex Criville (Repsol YPF Honda-Michelin) at Le Mans. Of course, Michelin enjoys technical partnerships with all the factory teams contesting the 500 World Championships and these partnerships always work both ways. At the end of the 2000 season Suzuki helped Michelin win its 20th 500 World Championship, with Kenny Roberts (Telefonica Movistar Suzuki-Michelin), while Michelin helped Yamaha win the 500 Constructorsi 500 World Championship.

Last yearis South African GP created a new 500 star -? Garry McCoy (Red Bull Yamaha WCM-Michelin). The little Australian won his first GP last March, employing a wild sideways style which hadnit been considered the fast way to ride 500s since the glory days of Michelin World Champions like fellow Aussie Wayne Gardner (Rothmans Honda-Michelin) and Americans Wayne Rainey (Marlboro Yamaha Team Roberts-Michelin) and Kevin Schwantz (Lucky Strike Suzuki-Michelin).

Back then, when engine horsepower was one step ahead of tyre and chassis technology, the fastest way to ride a 500 was sideways, using the spinning rear tyre to help steer the motorcycle, like opposite-locking a car. In more recent years, Michelin's rapidly accelerating tyre technology encouraged a return to a more classical style, using the phenomenal grip of the firm's latest slicks to ride through turns with both wheels in line. Five-time World Champion Mick Doohan could ride sideways with the best of them but his most devastating skill was sky-high corner speed, and it seemed that dirt-track talent was no longer a prerequisite for 500 success.

Then along came Gazzai. A former speedway rider turned 125 GP winner, McCoy joined the V4 jet-set midway through the 1999 season and soon realised he felt happiest when he had his YZR sideways. At first he struggled to find a tyre that would work with his way-out style. Then he started using Michelinis 16.5in rear slick instead of the 17in tyre preferred by the vast majority of 500 riders. The 16.5is radical profile suited his radical technique, putting more rubber on the road at high lean angles so he could pitch the bike on its side and then give it a big handful of throttle.

"The 16.5 has more edge grip mid-corner, which is where I like to get on the power,: explains McCoy. "The 17 is a lot flatter on the top of then tyre, so there's not enough rubber on the ground when you're cranked right over."

McCoy's switch to 16.5s at Welkom caught out his rivals. "They thought I was joking!" he remembers. But while that famous win was the turning point in his career, past glories donit concern him. McCoy now has his eyes firmly set on the 500 World Championship. "I'im not fussed about winning there last year. With the different tyre situation, everything will be completely different this time around. It will be very interesting, I'm looking forward to it."

McCoyis success with the 16.5in (which had won its first race with Schwantz in 1994) convinced more riders to try the tyre and by mid-season the majority of 500 riders were using the tyre which runs cooler for superior race-distance grip. Not that McCoy seems much worried about full-on traction. He actually likes the bike to slide around, but the technique is more controlled than it looks on TV.

"When the bike snaps mid-corner, that allows me to get the bike turned a lot quicker," he says. "People forget that everyone rode like that seven years ago and some guys have told me I should pull the bike back into line but that's not what I'm used to. Coming into a turn I tend to get the rear end a little washy, so the bike tends to want to back in there. Sometimes I get it backing into a corner sideways and before the bike's straight again, I've fed on the gas and kept the rear out there all the way around the corner. That is a good feeling, you think: That was excellent!"

McCoy won three GPs using this technique last year, gaining a huge army of bedazzled fans in the process. And that success marked him down as a major favourite for this year's 500 title, though he was concerned that he might not go so well at more traditional tracks like Suzuka, venue for the season-opening Japanese GP two weeks ago.

"Suzuka isn't my kind of racetrack, so if we can get second there, Welkom should be really good for us," he says. "It was great to get out of Japan with a second place, I'd never done any good there before, even back when I was racing 125s. It's all fast turns and you're right on the edge of the tyre all the time so I can't get on the gas the way I like to. Welkom is more of a stop-go track with tight corners, so I can back it in there and back it out!

"But things will be a lot different this year because everyone is on 16.5s, so I guess it will all depend on which compounds suit which riders. I usually run softer tyres than most of the other guys; at Suzuka I ran the softest 16.5s available all weekend and it turned out good for me. But Welkom is a very different kind of track; last year I ran a medium to hard rear and that's not normal for me."

McCoy's one concern is that Welkom will be dusty, as it was when he made his first visit to the track in late 1999. "People seem to think that's good for me because I like to get the bike moving around, but iti's not good for me because if everyone else is sliding around, I'm usually sliding around twice as much!"

Following his awesome Suzuka win, Rossi will once again be one of McCoyis biggest rivals this weekend. "I like the track," says the Italian. "The important thing will be the dust and the track conditions. It was great to win in Japan and this year's bike is very good. Last year I told Honda I wanted the new bike to have either better traction or more controllable wheelspin. I got the improved control and it makes the bike easier to ride."

Michelin's 500 GP crew believes that Welkom is one of the most challenging racetracks for a tyre engineer. Several aspects of the circuit's design and situation ensure that Michelin's technicians are kept busy throughout the South African GP.

Like many other current Grand Prix tracks, Welkom places very unequal demands on the tyresi different sides. Nine right handers and five left handers is not an unusual ratio but it is the two high-speed rights near the end of the lap that ask so much of a rear tyre, with the rider laid over at 200kmh, controlling wheelspin on the throttle.

Then there's the sand and dust, blown on to the track from the surrounding plateau, which has caused riders problems during the venue's first two GPs, in October 1999 and March 2000. This dust decreases grip, causing more wheelspin, and works like sandpaper against the tyre, increasing wear.

The dust causes another concern too, allowing track conditions to change dramatically, according to how much dust is on the surface. In 1999 and 2000 the track got cleaner as the weekend went on, lap times tumbling by up to six seconds as a result. This means that the circuit is, in effect, a different track every time the riders venture out. Riders, teams and Michelin engineers must therefore extrapolate their track knowledge to judge the likely conditions. Obviously, this is a huge concern when it comes to choosing tyres for the race.

"Itis a tough track, both for the riders and us," says Nicolas Goubert, Michelin's Chief of Motorcycle sport. "The real nightmare is the way the track changes so much from one session to the next, and especially from Saturday to the actual race."

Michelin's 16.5in rear will be much in demand at Welkom, though 17s will also be available. Most rear slicks used at Welkom are dual compound with a harder right side for those two rapid right turns, though the difference between the compound on each side is smaller than Phillip Island (where the left of the tyre gets a much, much harder time than the right).

"Welkom is hard all round on tyres, both rear and front," adds Goubert. "But the harder the tyre, the less grip, and the less grip you have, the harder the bike is to steer. I think riders who really like using soft tyres may have a difficult time there, although Garry won last yearis race. The 16.5 is very suited to the track, that's one reason Garry won last year, but of course pretty much all riders will run 16.5s this year."

Michelin has decided to withdraw qualifying tyres from the 500 World Championship, following consultations with all riders and teams.

"The majority of riders and teams believe they only complicate matters," says Michelin Grand Prix Manager Jacques Morelli. "We introduced them last season largely due to requests from one or two riders, whose special styles require very soft tyres for qualifying but it was soon obvious that most riders preferred our usual system. Also, we think one-lap tyres aren't really fair for the riders, because a rider may get slowed by someone on his one fast lap and waste his best run. We believe it's better to have a range of soft tyres, which will be good for, say, four or five laps, giving each rider a better chance of cutting his best-possible lap time. We think this system is better and easier for everyone, just as it was before."

"It's quite a complex matter anyway, because a soft tyre for one rider could be like a qualifying rider for another. Last year we found that some riders might get only one lap from a qualifier while another might be able to use the same tyre for up to ten fast laps. This year we'll be increasing our range of soft tyres after working with some of the newest 500 riders who seem to like softer rubber."

<pre> Welkom Data

Lap record Sete Gibernau (Repsol Honda-Michelin) 1m 36.554s/158.162kmh (1999) Pole position Sete Gibernau (Repsol Honda-Michelin) 1m 36.933s

Recent winners 1999 Max Biaggi (Marlboro Yamaha Team-Michelin) 45m 24.602s/156.938kmh 2000 Garry McCoy (Red Bull Yamaha WCM-Michelin) 45m 38.775s/156.125kmh



Michelinis Partners - 500cc Class

1- Telefonica Movistar Suzuki K. Roberts 15- Telefonica Movistar Suzuki S. Gibernau 3- Marlboro Yamaha Team M. Biaggi 7- Marlboro Yamaha Team C. Checa 5- Red Bull Yamaha WCM G. Mc Coy 41- Red Bull Yamaha WCM N. Haga 19- Gauloises Yamaha TECH3 O. Jacque 56- Gauloises Yamaha TECH3 S. Nakano 6- Antena Tre Yamaha di Antin N. Abe 10- Antena Tre Yamaha di Antin J.L Cardoso 28- Repsol YPF Honda Team A. Criville 11- Repsol YPF Honda Team T. Ukawa 46- Nastro Azzuro Honda V. Rossi 4- West Honda Pons A. Barros 65- West Honda Pons L. Capirossi 8- Shell Advance Honda C. Walker 9- Shell Advance Honda L. Haslam 33- Telefonica Movistar Suzuki A. Ryo

Private Teams 17- Proton Team KR J. vd Goorbergh 12- Arie Molenaar Racing H. Aoki 68- Pulse GP M. Willis 24- Pulse GP J. Vincent 14- Dee Cee Racing team M. Payten 21- Dee Cee Racing team B. Veneman 16- Sabre Sport J. Stigefelt


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Series MotoGP
Drivers Kevin Schwantz , Max Biaggi , Garry McCoy , Valentino Rossi , Sete Gibernau , Kenny Roberts Jr. , Wayne Rainey , Wayne Gardner , Mick Doohan