Last weekend I spoke to several experienced MotoGP engineers – who have worked with Bridgestone, Dunlop and Michelin – to find out what’s going on with Michelin’s MotoGP tyres. And I promised them anonymity, so they could speak 100% freely.
I had loads of questions. Is inconsistency from one tyre to the next a problem? Is setting the motorcycle to work in Michelin’s famously narrow performance window a nightmare? And many more.
But first of all, let’s look at why the MotoGP is closer than ever…
Sunday’s Doha MotoGP race ended with the closest top ten and closest top 15 in history. Awesome stuff! And proof that MotoGP is more thrilling and fan-friendly than ever.
Indeed the ten closest top tens and the ten closest top 15s have all been achieved in the last few years, specifically during the Michelin spec tyre era.
Fabio Quartararo’s (record-breaking) winning speed on Sunday night was 104mph/167.6km/h – just 0.1mph faster than second-placed Johann Zarco and 0.2mph faster than tenth-placed Aleix Espargaró. That’s a ridiculously small difference in performance, especially considering the difference in riding techniques and machine characteristics.
What does this tell us? It tells us that everyone is riding to the limit of the tyres. That’s the main reason the racing is so close.
Of course, machine specs have been homogenised by rules written specifically to create monster battles – maximum engine bore size, spec software and so on – but the Michelins are the number one equalizer, especially the French company’s front slick.
Is it good that everyone can ride to the limit of the tyres? In some ways, yes. In other ways, no.
The fact that all the riders can take the tyres to the maximum tells us that they should be able to go faster with better tyres. This should happen next year, when Michelin introduces an improved front slick. It also tells us that the tyres are rider-friendly, which is a positive.
Is tyre quality control a problem?
Do MotoGP riders complain about the Michelins? Yes, but pro-racers complaining about tyres is as inevitable as them getting to know nurses and not paying their taxes.
It happened in the 1950s when Geoff Duke defected from Dunlop to Avon. It happened in the 1970s when Barry Sheene swore he would never use Dunlop again after his near-death blowout on the Daytona banking. And it happened during the 1980s and into the 1990s, when the first question asked of Eddie Lawson or Wayne Rainey after any race was; “How were the tyres?”. Because even then they were the ultimate limit to performance.
During the two weekends at Losail a few riders had tyres that didn’t work right, two of them during the races, which isn’t good. The reason Jack Miller went backwards in the first race was because his rear tyre had a deformation on the right side, which reduced grip, causing the rear to slide off-gas.
At the second race Joan Mir’s rear tyre didn’t perform to expectations. No wonder the reigning champ was angry after the race, but if you check his race times at Qatar 1 and 2 he was actually half a second faster in the second race…
“The better refined and consistent the motorcycles become the more riders notice smaller difference in the tyres”
“Over the years we get the occasional tyre that never comes in, but that’s very rare,” one factory crew chief told me. “It’s not like every time we fit a new tyre we’re hoping it will perform in the upper part of its performance bracket. Far from it – we’re really surprised if one doesn’t work. And if one tyre feels a bit different it’s difficult to know if it’s the tyres or the track conditions that have changed. This kind of thing also happened when Bridgestone was the tyre supplier – nothing is perfect.”
There may be other reasons why current riders feel the tiniest imperfection.
“The thing is that the better refined and more consistent the motorcycles become the more riders are likely to notice smaller and smaller difference in the tyres,” said another engineer.
Consistency from one tyre to the next can always be improved, but if the tyres didn’t perform consistently the racing wouldn’t be closer than it’s ever been.
So what was Mir’s problem? No news yet. However, Mir went through Q1 last weekend, which required him to use his full allocation of tyres. According to the rules governing riders that do both qualifying sessions he was given another front and rear for the race. Was that rear from a different batch? Possibly.
What about Michelin’s narrow performance window?
The Michelins are known for their narrow performance window, which makes life hugely challenging for engineers and riders, who need to adjust their machines to make the tyres generate the correct temperature to help them perform at their best.
“We have to find the perfect window in the temperature range,” another crew chief told me. “If you are a little bit out of the range it can be difficult to make the tyre work.
“And sometimes it’s difficult for us to make a forecast for a circuit. Like at Barcelona last year the situation was quite strange – we had no grip but had high tyre consumption. At Brno there was no grip but our bike was good. So you arrive at a circuit and you never know if the grip is good or not, so it’s unpredictable.”
This is frustrating at best, maddening at worse for the factories. But is it a case of luck more than judgement in choosing the right race tyres?
There are plenty of rumours and conspiracy theories doing the rounds at the moment, so let’s take a deep dive in the Michelins
“No, absolutely not. The tyres are mostly consistent, so it’s up to you to find the tyres that work best for your bike and then use them to extract the maximum from them in the area where you think you are strongest.”
This process is so complex and requires such deep investigation into every aspect of tyre performance that all the factories now employ engineers whose only job is to work on tyres.
“Last season we started to approach the tyre topic in a different way,” said the chief engineer of one of the factories. “In the past we never looked at the tyres in a sufficiently deep way, but now we have one guy dedicated to them, which helps us to struggle less and to have to less strange behaviour from the tyres. Sometimes you fit a tyre and it doesn’t work. Why? Now we are learning to understand the way to make the tyres work in the correct way.
“For sure the process was easier with Bridgestone, because they offered less compounds and the compounds didn’t vary so much, so you could literally go from one track to the next with the same tyre and without changing the bike. With Michelin, they try many more compounds, which is interesting and makes things more unpredictable, which can be good if you are clever. It’s good for the fans too, because at every race everything can happen.”
Last season Michelin offered riders more than 35 tyre variants over 14 rounds. This year Michelin is reducing that number to simplify the set-up process.