New electronics was just one of the changes for 2016. The switch from Bridgestone to Michelin has been a much bigger story in the first half of this season. The wildly different character of the tires has had a big impact on the championship, changing riding styles and rewarding some riders, and punishing others.
How should we appraise the first nine races with Michelin as official tire supplier? Their return has seen both ups and downs, highs and lows. In a sense, you could say it has gone very much as you might expect it to go, in that there were always going to be surprises they hadn't taken into account. As Harold Macmillan once said when asked what he feared most, "events, dear boy, events".
The biggest fear of the MotoGP riders after the Valencia test in November last year was Michelin's front tire. A spate of crashes – over twenty in two days, with almost everyone hitting the floor – where riders lost the front inexplicably was a great cause for concern. To their credit, Michelin worked to address that issue, bringing a much improved front to a private test at Jerez in November, and another iteration to Sepang. The front had grip again. It was no Bridgestone, but there was at least some predictability to it and some feedback from it.
Trouble at the back
Surprisingly, it was the rear which turned out to be the biggest problem for Michelin. The first warning came when Loris Baz' rear tire exploded during the Sepang test. After much finger pointing between the team and Michelin over tire pressures, it finally emerged that the tire had suffered a puncture, most likely caused by something on track.
Worse was to come. At Argentina, Scott Redding suffered a massive delamination of his rear Michelin during practice. With just 24 hours before the race, Michelin and Race Direction decided to shorten the race and run it as a flag-to-flag with compulsory pit stops. For the next couple of races, Michelin shipped in a new construction of rear tire which was significantly harder than the tires used so far. That created mayhem for some, with riders at opposite ends of the size spectrum complaining of a total lack of grip. Dani Pedrosa complained (and still complains) that his light weight prevents him from generating enough heat in the tire to create grip. At Jerez, Scott Redding complained that the rear just spun, never gripping.
Why the blowouts?
Was a design flaw to blame for Redding's tire blowout during FP4 in Argentina? Maybe. There are plenty of possible causes for the incident. Track temperatures were way above those recorded in previous years, and much hotter than when Michelin tested there last year. The already abrasive track was made even more aggressive by the amount of sand and dirt on the track. (For some inexplicable reason, the track owners do not want to host any events on the circuit, except for international racing. So the track is always filthy, never rubbered in.)
Then, of course, there is riding style. Some riders have been accused by others of smoking up tires with an overly aggressive application of the throttle. It is especially the larger riders, such as Scott Redding and Yonny Hernandez, at whom the finger of blame is pointed. 'When I saw the smoke coming off their rear tires as they passed me, I knew I'd be back past a couple of laps later,' Eugene Laverty said at Barcelona. All that heat is going into the tires, robbing them of grip, and stressing the tires.
Have the spec electronics played a role? Almost certainly. Previous systems were self-learning, adapting the amount of traction control to suit tire wear on each lap. The really clever systems were even predictive, dialing in the appropriate amount of TC to deal with expected levels of grip. The unified software has fixed settings, which riders can switch between manually. This means that the system only has optimal grip for a very brief period. The rider has to manage the rest of the time, before switching to a different mapping once the tire reaches a set level of wear (or more often, after a set number of laps).
Some riders are better at this than others. Valentino Rossi was a case in point. As John Laverty, manager and rider coach of Eugene pointed out to me, Rossi spent all of practice working on tire conservation at Jerez. He then went on to take pole, and win the race after leading from lights to flag. For the first time in his career, a statistic which underlines just how remarkable his career has been, at every stage.
So the tire situation is starting to settle down, at last. As they gather more data, Michelin are producing ever better tires. There is nothing wrong with the performance of the tires: the race lap record was broken at Qatar, the pole record was broken at Le Mans, and race time records were set at both Qatar and Mugello. Elsewhere, times have generally been very close to the pace of the Bridgestones they replaced, with the exception of the two races which came after Argentina, using extra hard rear tires.
There have been hiccups, and the Michelins are still fundamentally different tires to the Bridgestones, with a different character and different behavior. When Michelin have got it wrong, which they have on occasion, they have moved quickly to rectify the situation. The speed with which they flew new tires out to Austin was exemplary, and they reacted similarly quickly when the cold caused problems at the Sachsenring. But fundamentally, the Michelins still operate in a narrower temperature window than the Bridgestones. 'T was ever thus.
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