The change of official tire suppliers for MotoGP, with Bridgestone departing and Michelin arriving, is arguably the most significant change to the class since the series went to a single tire in 2009. Changing tire manufacturers has a massive impact on everything, from bike design to rider preference, and Michelin face a huge challenge to get everything ready in time. Bridgestone helped by staying on for an extra year to allow Michelin to properly prepare, and the tires which the French manufacturer have been developing are looking very promising.
Their preparations have not been helped by conditions. Test days have been hit by rain, with testing severely hampered. This was also the case at Brno, when the majority of the MotoGP field was due to get their first outing on the Michelins since Sepang, though the factory riders had a chance to test after Mugello. The rain did give a group of journalists a chance to grill Piero Taramasso, Michelin's manager of two wheel motorsports activities.
Had the weather affected their plans for the test at Brno, we asked? "The plan was to test in dry condition so it looks like it will be not the case," Taramasso replied. "We brought some new solutions for the front. For example we had the same profile with two different casings and three different compounds. For rear tires same profile, two different casings, and two different compounds. So this was the plan."
The return of intermedates
The weather did give Michelin a chance to test some of their wet weather solutions, including an intermediate tire. "We came also with some wet and some intermediates because so far we didn’t have the chance to try, just did a few laps in Jerez and Barcelona the Monday after the race but it’s not enough data. So anyway we tried this morning, we did a few laps in intermediate, a few in full wet, but it is very difficult because the conditions change every lap, every lap. So far it was not a very conclusive test."
Though many will welcome the return of intermediate tires, Taramasso does not expect them to be used very often. "The reason was because it was asked by Dorna, they asked us to bring intermediates. The reason is for the Friday, Saturday when it’s qualifying, when it’s mixed conditions the riders don’t go out. For the spectators it is not very fun so they ask us please bring an intermediate so when the condition are not wet, not too dry, so they can do a few laps for the spectators. So we decided to bring it and the location will be three front, three rear, per weekend, per rider."
The intermediates basically use the hard wet tire compound, but with a lot less rubber cut away than on a wet tire. They are aimed at providing grip without wearing too much in half-wet, half-dry conditions. "Intermediates are designed to start in wet or damp track and then you can use it until the track is drying out. It’s quite a large window but I don’t think they will be using during the race. In the race will be all slick or wet."
The size of the tire allocation will be increased from the current situation, Taramasso said. Each rider would get seven front and seven rear wet tires (two more than the current allocation), as well as three front and three rear intermediates. The allocation for slick tires will change only slightly, with Michelin bringing an extra rear tire, making it ten front slicks and twelve rear slicks, with a choice of two compounds (with the Open class disappearing in 2016, the softer rear will no longer be available). The extra rear tire was a request from the teams, Taramasso said. "The teams and the riders they complain about this year, last year, that the allocation is too short, too small. And sometimes they have to use a used tire so they complain. They ask and because we are gentle we agreed..."
Though the riders will only have the choice between two slick compounds at each race, those compounds will change during the season, though Michelin was yet to make a final decision on which compounds would be used where. "We didn’t decide yet," Taramasso said. "We are still testing, so we need to go in Phillip Island, we need to go in Silverstone, need to go in several tracks we didn’t test. So we have to go there and then we will decide."
The ideal would be to have just a single specification everywhere, but that would clearly be impossible, Taramasso told us. They would strive to have as few as possible, however. "I guess probably to give you an idea three, four front and five, six rear," he said. The construction and profile of the tires would be the same, the only thing that would change would be the compound.
As for intermediate tires, there would only be a single specification used, which would be good enough to be used everywhere. Wet tires would have two different compounds, a soft and a hard, but with the same tread pattern.
Was Michelin still on schedule to be ready for the start of 2016? "The weather didn’t help," Taramasso admitted. "We are following the plan, even if we had no help from the weather. But at this moment we say we are still in the plan. Because rear construction is almost fixed, front and the rear profile are fixed already, so just we need to tune the compounds for some race track that we didn’t test. And we’re still working on the front, so we still have a couple of months to work, a few tests to do."
Fixing the front
One of the biggest complaints at both the Sepang and the Mugello tests was that Michelin's front tire was not up to coping with the extra loads being generated by the exceptional grip at the rear. It was pushing the front, and causing a number of crashes, the front washing out. Michelin has done a lot of work since then on improving the front tire, and this had been one area they had been hoping to test. "The rear tire, the grip is good. It’s easy, very good," Taramasso told us. "That’s why the performance, the lap time is more than acceptable I will say."
But Michelin had seen some problems, Taramasso admitted, but these were being adressed. "We had some problem, I would say it’s the balance about the front and the rear grip," he said. "Right now it looks like it’s going better and better and there’s two reasons. One reason is because we worked on the tire, we improved the front tire from Sepang to Mugello. Official riders, they told us we made improvement in the right direction, so that helps. Also the teams now they start to understand how our tire is working. So the setting, every time we test with them the setting is always better and better. The rider also they understand how to use it versus different tire, so you have to ride differently. Everything you put together, the rider, the setting, technology improvements, so everything is going in the right direction. And all the balance, grip front and rear balance is much better."
This change in set up would be crucial for the future, but it is something which the teams will only really start to focus on once this season is over. "After November, after the testing in Valencia, I’m sure that the teams will move the setting in the right way towards the Michelin, how our tires are suited," Taramasso said. The current testing schedule had not helped. "What didn’t help was that we do every time a one day test. So like you say, the teams they arrive, so the bike setting for the current tire supplier [Bridgestone - DE]. Just in one day you cannot do setting, tire test, long run. So what we do is just a few laps, do the best thing on the bike and then test, test, test. But of course it’s not the optimum condition."
One circuit where there had been problems was at the Sachsenring, where the fast right hander of Turn 11, at the top of the Waterfall, follows a long sequence of left handers, allowing the right side of the tire to cool down. It was a notorious place for crashing over the years, but Taramasso was confident of Michelin's performance at the track. "Here we went to test and luckily it was a good test for us. The tire, the compound we bring to Sachsenring, they worked well, so I hope this problem is solved but that’s why we try this year to go once to each track to try. The winter test is going also in a good direction because the winter test will be Sepang, Philip Island, Qatar."
One challenge which Michelin faces is in building a tire which suits a wide range of motorcycle designs, of V4s and of inline fours, but that had not been as hard as Michelin had expected, Taramasso told us. "I was surprised because I was thinking the choice going in very different direction, three, four, five. Actually no, all the time we converge to the same. So this is good for us because we know the direction is more clear. We know what we have to do." The long history of the single tire in MotoGP had already caused some convergence. "I was thinking that on that choice, Yamaha choice, Ducati choice, went like this where the biggest difference we see is between the choice from the test rider and the choice from the official rider," Taramasso said. "It’s the speed which is the deciding factor. But all the time we go to the same."
How would the Michelins stack up in terms of performance? "I don’t know. It’s not our priority for the first year. For 2016 our priority is to give a safe tire that you can do safely on the race and a tire that is suited well for and works well for Honda, for Yamaha, for Ducati, for Marc Marquez, for Valentino. This our goal. Try to make a more usable, polyvalent tire for all the riders. 2016 will be learning and then for 2017 I’m sure we will put more effort in the performance."
Taramasso was clear about the strongest point of Michelin's tires. "It’s rear grip. The rear grip is the thing everybody’s saying. Especially Pol Esparago, he smiles and he says, wow, this is impressive. It looks like a qualifying tire. So this is a very good point. I think it’s the one that came up all the time. Consistency also. The tire is quite consistent. It can do 25-30 laps without a big drop off."
Would this emphasis on rear grip favor some riders and not others? "Yes, I think so," Taramasso agreed. "I don’t know who, but for sure when you do a major change like this I’m sure some riders are able to adapt quickly and they can take advantage. Some others they will need more time. So for sure you will move the actual ranking. And also you have some riders maybe like Valentino, Dovizioso, they already run with our tire, so maybe come up to the speed quickly. They have experience how to run, how to use." But the tires are not like the Michelins used to be before the introduction of the single tire rule. "[Valentino Rossi] said it’s different," Taramasso told us. "He said for him it was much better now. And also Stoner, Casey Stoner he test with us in Motegi last year. He also said the same thing. He said we improved."
The introduction of a new tire also meant that the winter test schedule would be changed. Instead of going to Sepang twice, preseason testing will kick off in Sepang, before heading to Phillip Island in Australia, and then on to Qatar ahead of the first race of the season. The test schedule had been set by Dorna and IRTA, though, and not by Michelin. Taramasso approved, however. "For us it’s good. I know some teams they prefer go twice in the same track, just to evaluate the progress, see if they improved. But this was the proposition from the IRTA. For us this is very good. This is my personal idea. I think it’s because maybe the IRTA and the Dorna, they recognize Phillip Island as a very demanding track so they prefer, say okay, let’s go there. So for the race we can be ready, will be easy for sure."
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2015 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.