This wasn’t the first time Michelin have had their party ruined – after a brutal tyre war with Bridgestone during the 2008 MotoGP Championship, the FIM (MotoGP’s governing body) and Dorna (MotoGP’s promoter) announced that the Japanese tyre giant would be the sole supplier of rubber to the premier class. Fast-forward five years and after having “achieved everything we set out to do when we entered the championship 10 years ago,” according to Kyota Futami, the then General Manager of Bridgestone’s Global Motorsport Department, they decided enough was enough and announced they would be leaving the paddock at the close of the 2015 season.
After a three-week tender process, the Michelin Man came out singing and dancing and signed a three-year contract to supply rubber to all the teams on the MotoGP grid. Now, two years into their term, we take a look at what it takes to follow the GP circus around the world, manufacture a range of tyres to suit all different circuits, bikes and riding styles and to work with the best motorcycle racers in the world.
The world is quite a big place and for everyone involved in MotoGP, from the riders to the timing officials, the team managers to the press reporters, to follow Rossi et al all year round you’re going to do some serious travelling. Imagine having to pack your suitcase 18 times a year to travel to the next round, sometimes without even getting the chance to pop home and see the wife, kids and mistress. Well, that’s exactly what Michelin do, except their suitcase has to be big enough for 1,200 tyres and all the associated fitting and balancing equipment that, despite being expertly stacked, takes up three articulated lorries. And if that wasn’t enough to worry about, joining the back of the convoy is their mobile office, which acts as a base for Michelin’s 25-strong team of staff (nine technicians who work with the teams in the pit lanes, 11 tyre-fitters, two managers, a designer and a chemist, in case you were wondering).
“Michelin have to supply a choice of three front and three rear slick tyres and two front, two rear wet tyres for every event. That equates to bringing 1,200 tyres to each round.”
I know what you’re thinking. 1,200 tyres? If Michelin were to service the Moto 1 and Moto 2 classes as well as the top class, then perhaps 1,200 may be necessary, but seeing as Dunlop are the tyre providers for Motos 1 and 2, why so many tyres for a grid of 23 riders? We asked Michelin’s Tim Walpole what they are playing at, bringing all these tyres. He said: “Michelin have to supply a choice of three front and three rear slick tyres and two front, two rear wet tyres for every event. That equates to bringing 1,200 tyres to each round. The slicks are in soft, medium and hard compounds and the wets come in extra soft, soft and medium. Yes, 1,200 seems a lot for 23 riders, but we have to have enough to cover every rider wanting to use exactly the same compounds.”
So how does it work when everyone arrives at the circuit? Do the teams just come and grab tyres as and when they please? Walpole: “They get their allocation at the start of the week and they will come back to us when they want something changing. They may start with one compound and then switch to something else to try.
“The first session can sometimes be a guessing game – the teams need to find out what the track is like, the air conditions, etc. But everyone has previous information and they work with our tyre technicians, who all share data between the teams so we have a good idea which tyre will work with each combination of bike and rider.”
The relentless nature of an 18-round world championship means that as soon as one race is over, the Michelin staff start to prepare for the following round.
Walpole said: “The tyres that aren’t used in a race are used at the next one if possible. We bring a new batch, but every race there will be some tyres that have been on warmers. No one takes tyres home – they remain the property of Michelin at all times. Between races the bikes are fitted with travel tyres.”
Locked and loaded up, the Michelin convoy begins its journey to the next event, which could be hundreds or thousands of miles away. Over the course of the season the trucks will cover more than 32,000 kilometres. I wouldn’t want to pay the fuel bill but I bet they get a decent rate on tyres.
Okay, yeah rubber is rubber but there are a million and one ways to put together a motorcycle tyre and each manufacturer will go about it in their own individual way. This will go some way to explaining why, in 2016, when Michelin came back on the scene, some of the riders weren’t convinced it was for the best.
“The job is difficult and there is a lot to do, but we are constantly striving to go forward bit by bit.”
While oodles of grip from the rear tyre was gratefully accepted, a common complaint was that the front tyre displayed a great level of unpredictability compared to the Bridgestone it replaced. This forced many riders to adjust their riding styles accordingly, but coming to Michelin’s defence, Walpole said: “Bridgestone had issues all throughout their tenure. The job is difficult and there is a lot to do, but we are constantly striving to go forward bit by bit. The riders are having to change their riding style, the manufacturers are having to change how the bikes work and that wasn’t going to happen overnight, but we are now seeing the adaptation coming into place. It’s a constant evolution rather than one big revolution.”
“Every bike on the MotoGP grid is different and providing tyres that work with all of them is a challenge.”
In 2016 Michelin were mandated to bring at least two options of compound, but they frequently brought as many as four to try and mitigate their lack of track data. While this sometimes produced incredible racing, it proved difficult for the riders and teams to test each tyre choice adequately prior to the race. This paved the way for the decision in 2017 to limit the choice to three and three. Tim told us how important the choice is: “Every bike on the MotoGP grid is different and providing tyres that work with all of them is a challenge. When you have inline fours, V-fours and all different chassis configurations, the different compound choices are the key to making it work. There is always an element of choice and riders can often change their minds just 10 minutes before the start of a race.”
Not only do Michelin provide a choice of compounds at each race, but also that choice is different for nearly every circuit. While some circuits use symmetrical tyres, Michelin prefer to use asymmetrical tyres at others, meaning the compound is softer on one side compared to the other, depending on the ratio of left-handers to right-handers. While the compound of the tyres will change from circuit to circuit, the construction of the carcass remains pretty much the same from one round to the next.
“It’s great to see records being broken and fast lap times but we will always do what we can to ensure the safety of every rider we work with.”
Also remaining constant are the tyre pressures. These are to be set at 2.0 bar (29psi) in the front and 1.8 bar in the rear (26psi) and is actively policed by Michelin. Every rim has a tyre pressure monitor, the data on which can be accessed by Michelin at any time. Walpole told us why this is so important: “In the past, teams could run the tyres at lower pressures and get loads of grip for that one glory lap. We make sure they run them at the correct pressure because, A, that’s where they have been designed to operate at optimum performance and, B, it’s a question of safety and that’s is our priority. It’s great to see records being broken and fast lap times but we will always do what we can to ensure the safety of every rider we work with.”
It’s great to hear that Michelin are concerned with rider safety, because when you watch the likes of Marc Marquez doing 320kmph on a motorbike, with neither wheel pointing in the direction he is travelling, it’s quite clear that safety isn’t something that any of the lads that actually sit on Moto GP bikes are too worried about.
The contract detailing Michelin’s involvement in Moto GP was signed some 15 months before their return to the paddock, however despite a testing programme put in place whereby Michelin were able to get to most of the tracks on the calendar, come round one in 2016 they hadn’t taken any part in a MotoGP race since 2008. Michelin’s Two Wheel Motorsport Manager Piero Taramasso explained to us why this was such a big deal: “When we came back we discovered new tracks such as Argentina and Texas. We also found new motorbikes with more power and found very different riding styles. For example, since Marc Marquez came, the riders push the front of the bike a lot more. We soon realised that the load they put into the front tyre is a lot more compared to 2007 and 2008 when we were last here.”
“We get the feedback from everyone, we analyse it all and we take the decision as Michelin what to do because we know exactly what is in the tyre.”
At the beginning everyone was happy with the grip and the consistency of the rear tyre, but there were complaints about the front. This meant it was really important for teams, riders and tyre technicians to work pro-actively to ensure that Michelin’s products were capable of letting the riders get the most out of their machinery. You would be forgiven for thinking that Michelin prefer to work only with the likes of Rossi and Marquez, both multiple world champions, to develop their product, but Taramasso insists that entire grid contributes towards the development. Taramasso said: “We listen to every rider. Each one has a different style and a different motorbike, so their feedback is different. For example, at HRC (Repsol Honda), Pedrosa is very smooth, but on the same bike, Marquez is wildly aggressive, so they experience the tyres differently. This comes across when they talk to our tyre technicians – they ask for different things, even when they are using the same tyres. We get the feedback from everyone, we analyse it all and we take the decision as Michelin what to do because we know exactly what is in the tyre. Our aim is to make a tyre that can work for everybody. This is our job, to give the same tyre to all the riders.”
“We have made big steps since 2016 but for next year we will improve in small steps, because this is what the teams and riders ask for.”
Mugello 2016 is a prime example of where this rider lead development has improved the tyres available. Riders complained about the softness of the front tyre, so Michelin built a new carcass that the riders tested back to back with the old one. The new stiffer carcass was preferred so from Mugello onwards it was used in all the fronts. Although this was a great leap forward, Taramasso explained to us why big steps aren’t always helpful: “We have made big steps since 2016 but for next year we will improve in small steps, because this is what the teams and riders ask for. They don’t want to change too much, maybe a little more stability, but they don’t want a big change because when you change too much you must change the chassis, the suspension and every time you have to learn the tyres again. They don’t want big steps, they prefer consistency and continuity.”
In two years Michelin have gone from having a decent rear tyre and a questionable front tyre, to having a full package that all the teams and riders are happy with, through constant evolution and development led by the riders, teams and tyre technicians. It’s been tough, but Michelin’s has been rewarded with a contract extension, which will see them remain as sole tyre suppliers until the end of the 2023 season. This was announced at the 2017 Michelin Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix at Philip Island, Victoria, where Carmelo Ezpeleta (the CEO of Dorna Sports) said: “Moto GP has continued to grow, excite and thrill fans since Michelin came on board as sole tyre supplier in 2016, and we are proud that our partnership will once again form the foundations of a further five years of stunning racing.”
The continuation of a single tyre manufacturer can only be a positive thing for the road bike tyre market – the more development Michelin put into GP tyres, the more technology will trickle down to production sports tyres. Today’s grand prix tyres are tomorrow’s road tyres, and that is an exciting prospect for us all.