Nicolas Goubert Interview: Why Michelin Returned, And The Challenges They Face

The switch from Bridgestone to Michelin as the official tire supplier for MotoGP promises to be perhaps the most important change to the class for 2016, though the change to spec ECU software runs it a close second. Up until the Valencia tests, held after the final race of the year, the performance of the Michelins was still shrouded in mystery, the official riders contractually obliged to keep quiet about the French tires while Bridgestone was still the official tire supplier.

That all changed on the Tuesday after Valencia. With the handover to Michelin, the riders were free to speak, as were the principal players inside the French tire manufacturer. The teams had a lot of work to do, their job not made any easier by the fact that so many riders crashed at Valencia. Riding styles needed to change, as did the weight distribution of the bikes. But question marks remained over the performance of the Michelin front tire, especially, with so many riders lowsiding over the two days of the test.

On the Tuesday at Valencia, got a chance to speak with Nicolas Goubert, the head of Michelin's motorsports program, alongside Israeli TV5 commentator Tammy Gorali. Goubert gave an update on the progress of their MotoGP program so far, and addressed several of the issues they had faced during testing. Of course, Michelin were delighted to be back in the premier class again. "This is our first official test after seven years and it's great to be back in MotoGP," Goubert said. "With the exposure and the riders that we have here it's a great opportunity for Michelin. When you know some people from the past it's nice to work with them again but working with new people and new riders it's always interesting to see their reactions to a new tire that they haven't been working with but both cases have been very interesting."

Testing times

Goubert admitted that Michelin still had a lot of work to get through before the start of the season. "There's some work still to be done for us. We've done a lot of testing with the test riders. We've had three official tests with some of the official riders." Testing with the official riders mid-season had not been completely ideal, as they were thinking more about the rest of 2015, rather than looking ahead to 2016. "Three sessions isn't a lot and the riders were kind enough to spend time using the tires but they were focused on something else at the time and of course their championships."

With 2015 done and dusted, the riders had the time and mental space to give the Michelin tires their full attention. "Valencia is the first time that everyone is focused on our tires and getting the most from them for the 2016 championship. We did a lot of testing this year with people like Colin Edwards and other test riders and they helped us to get to the level that we are at now. The level we are at is a lot higher than what we had earlier this year but it's still not high enough for MotoGP riders. We will have two more tests this year and then three tests next year that are all in a condensed month of activity." With such a short time between the tests and the start of the 2016 season, there was not much time to develop the tires based on the results there. "It's difficult for us to evolve the tires at those tests because of the times."

New challenges

Goubert emphasized that their approach now was different to when they left the class at the end of 2008. Then, they were in competition with Bridgestone and Dunlop, but now they were returning as a single tire supplier. That meant making tires more universal, and usable by every bike on the grid, rather than tailoring their tires to the needs of specific bikes or riders. "MotoGP is different for us now because we are the only manufacturer in the class and we need to make sure that our tire suits every bikes needs. Of course we'll have different tires at Jerez or Phillip Island but that's the same as previously. I think that the teams like to have something that they know well and that's one worry less for them."

Why the crashes?

Goubert also addressed the number of crashes which have happened throughout tire testing. "Most of the crashes were from the front end. With the electronics that we have now you don't see a lot of big highsides any longer like we did in the 500 era. Now crashes come from the front." The problems were twofold, Goubert explained, down to both riding style and bike set up. "It's a shame that we had so many crashes, but people are here to try and find the limits. Riders have a new package and need to understand how to set their package up differently for these tires." Michelin had work to do, Goubert acknowledged, but so did the riders and the teams. "We have to improve our tires to make them closer to what riders are looking for but the riders also have to adapt to what our tires need. You don't ride a Michelin like another brand of tires and that adaptation will take time."

The main goal of the Valencia test was to allow the riders to familiarize themselves with the character of the Michelins. "We aren't concerned with lap times or durability here this week, we know how to handle that and make them better. Obviously there will be some places where we haven't been to or have limited knowledge of the track and it could be difficult next year but times and durability are not a major concern for us. The main concern was for people to get comfortable with the Michelins, the 17-inch wheels and the electronics. There are a lot of new elements for next year."

MotoGP's biggest change

One of the biggest changes during Michelin's absence was the difference in the way racers were riding. Gone were the days of trying to get out of the corner as well as possible, now, the emphasis was far more on corner entry, Goubert explained. "MotoGP has changed a lot technically now and there's even more of an emphasis on braking now. You can see this with bigger (340mm) front disks, and that means more stress on the front tire."

What's the point?

Perhaps the biggest question we had was why Michelin were returning to MotoGP. When they left at the end of 2008, Goubert had declared that they had no interest in being a single tire supplier, and left that role to Bridgestone. In the meantime, with almost every form of motorsport now having gone to a spec tire, their attitude had changed. There were many benefits to participation, Goubert explained. "MotoGP is an investment for us and we get more back for us than we put in. This is the second most recognizable motorsport on the planet and it's growing. In Michelin we use racing to help develop our products and the move to 17-inch wheels in MotoGP makes it easier for us to transfer what we learn here to road bikes."

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Brilliant interview and I was interested in what Nicolas had to say about riding styles. I had been focused on the Michelin tire construction but that really is only part of the story. Since Michelin's DNA dates back to the two-stroke era could this signal a new dominate style of riding? More like Lawson, Rainey or Doohan? it adds another new variable to the coming season, especially if the Michelin front tire development plateaus.