Q&A with Michelin's Nicolas Goubert: On Tire Technology, and Michelin's Development Direction

Three quarters of the way through their first season back in MotoGP, and their first as a spec tire supplier, Michelin took the unique decision to start holding regular debriefs for the media at each race.

Aragon was the first of such debriefs, and was therefore a lengthy affair. In it, Michelin's Racing Technical Director, faced some very broad-ranging questions about the development of the French firm's tires throughout the season.

But he also covered more general questions, such as the R&D and marketing benefits of going racing, the direction Michelin are following, and how they are trying to accommodate of so many different riders. Goubert offered a fascinating insight into where Michelin stands at the moment, and how they intend to move forward.

Q: You've never been a spec tire manufacturer for a series before, how difficult is it to supply tires that are going to work for everyone?

Nicolas Goubert: If your question is how difficult it is to please everyone, I would say it is impossible. Absolutely impossible. So of course we try to listen to the guys and try to give them what they are waiting for, but it’s very difficult to get it right. We’re happy to arrive with quite a few variations on the front end of the bike because we know it’s critical for the year for the riders to make good lap times and to keep their confidence. So as you probably noticed from the beginning of the year we’ve brought most of the time three different fronts, sometimes four, for two purposes. The first being to cover all conditions, and because we don’t know very well the conditions we’re going to encounter. And then the second thing is to try to cover everyone’s need. Sometimes we get it better than other times, but it’s impossible to please 100% of the field for sure.

Q: On Thursday, Aleix Espargaro complained saying that Michelin is going to stiffer and stiffer rear carcasses every time, and that is very difficult to understand your system of working. Is there any system that you are following?

NG: No, what we try to do is solve the problems we have. We had a few troubles with the rear tires and we try every time we have some trouble to have a counter measure. For example in Jerez, the first problem we had was in Argentina, and then in Jerez some people complain about spinning. So every time we try to come with something better to solve the previous problem.

I can understand that some of the riders are feeling a little bit lost when we present them the tire menu. But there is a very clear line behind that. We’re not doing that with closed eyes. The line is as I said to improve from the previous tire. There’s always a way to improve. Until we get satisfied, and riders get satisfied with the performance of the tires we will keep making modifications.

Q: Which type of tire do you want to build? Which type of riding do you expect the riders be able to do?

NG: First concern is to try to have the answer to the rider’s requests. We will go where they will lead us. That’s why we’re here for.

Q: Obviously the first year back to a championship is the most difficult. Do you feel like you’re getting close to a baseline? How far off do you think you are from that baseline?

NG: Not that far off. We had a big issue in Argentina and then from the following race we worked on minimizing the spinning, trying to get less and less spin in the rear tire. We worked on that line for races and races and I think we’ve improved quite a lot. Step by step, we made quite a good step from Jerez to now and then again to Mugello and so on and so forth. I think now we are not far from where we were at the beginning with the rear tire. We’re probably not there yet. Of course that has to be done, and at the same time we have to adapt to the track layout and temperature we’re going to encounter. Here is different than Misano. Phillip Island will be different. Sepang with the new asphalt will be different again. So we follow a line but every time we have to adapt and to look at where we’re going to, in terms of tracks.

Q: Is it going to be a lot different next year when you have a full year of data behind you?

NG: Yes, definitely. It will be a lot easier. Of course unexpected things will happen here and there but it will be a lot easier.

Q: As you say, now you’re bringing multiple choices but as you go into next year will there be a narrower range of choices?

NG: For the rears, actually most of the time we bring only two choices, like there was in the past. For the last few races we got it right where we wanted to be. So that would stay the same.

For the front we have not defined exactly what we will do but as I said earlier we will to try to cover the maximum of the riders’ needs. So whether or not we go to only two choices or we’ll keep mainly three and sometimes four, that’s not been completely decided yet. It will depend on which level we are at the end of the year. We will look carefully at all conditions we’ve been through.

As you probably know, for next year on the front we will change the front profile. We did some testing already in Brno, the Monday after Brno. We tested the same profile at Misano. Hopefully if the weather isn't lousy, we will do again that same test with the Honda guys in the middle of next week. If all these reasons converge I think we have already the new profile for next year. So that’s going to be the next big step for us. Then we’ll decide how many options we need.

Q: How are you changing the profile for next year?

NG: Basically the same step as the one we did during the winter season last year. Comparing from Valencia, first test in Valencia, and then the profile we brought at Sepang was mainly to give more potential at maximum angle. We suffered a lot of crashes in Valencia and we made a big step there.

We think that giving even more potential with the profile will give us more room to play with in terms of compounds. Then, if we don’t get the compound exactly where it needs to be at every track with the temperature we think we’re going to have, if there is a big change in temperature and so on, if you have a profile and construction which give you a big margin to play with, then even if your compound is not 100% suited to the conditions you’re going to have, then it doesn’t create any hassle.

Q: You had a new profile for the race in Qatar which was a big for step forward. Obviously many other adjustments, and now some of the riders say that the front tire is getting towards what the Bridgestone front was like. What have you done in those four or five months to the front tire?

NG: You’re going to be very disappointed. The main choice of the riders today is the tire we had in Qatar for the race. We made some variation of compounds. We made one variation of construction for Misano, but I will say Misano was a bit special.

For me, a big thing was tune a little bit the compounds to the conditions but it was all of work done by the teams to adapt the bike setup. A lot of work done by the riders to get used to the tires. Even somebody like Marc told me about two races ago, Brno maybe, he had a big moment. He said to me, going through moments like that is where you gain a lot of confidence, because you know how the tires are going to react in this sort of condition. To be able to use the tires 100% you have to know how they react if you go 101%.

Q: Do you think that there’s an increased level of performance at maximum angle you will also increase the rider’s feeling?

NG: Yes, and the rider’s confidence.

Q: Are you getting any push back from Dorna for that? One of the problems which we have is the bikes are getting too fast for the tracks.

NG: We’re involved in car racing as well, and we have a lot of discussions with the FIA. Sometimes some of the guys are asking us to put the car’s performance down using what I would call bad tires. Fortunately it’s not happened here. I don’t think it will.

Q: There’s a lot more race tire choice now than there has been the last few years where everybody tended to choose the same tires. We’ve become aware that a lot of riders are for sure telling lies. Are you aware of these kind of games that the riders are playing?

NG: Yes, as you said it’s a game. They want to keep for themselves their final choice, which I can understand. But they’re very keen to know any time they can what the other guys are riding on. We do tell them when it’s during the test. But in the race, they can see if they watch TV. They could ask their crew as well.

Actually for us during the testing it’s sometimes valuable information to make them decide what to run. I’ll give you an example. We have here a hard tire for the front which is a dual compound. Today and Cal Crutchlow and Loris Baz tested it. Until we get the results, I would say we are quite careful. Cal wanted to test it, and Cal and Loris or Marc, they’re the kind of people who were the first to jump on the hard tires because they need that. So, we have to know when it’s good and if some riders are not used the same way as these guys to ride on the hard tires, somebody has tried and didn’t give any trouble. So it will be useful for everyone.

Q: One thing we saw mentioned this week is that you may be putting RFID chips into the tires?

NG: It’s a system we developed in WEC, endurance racing for cars in Le Mans for example. We’ve been using that for the last two or three years. We will not use the same device in motorcycle tires, and the reason is very simple. We put the chip in the sidewall. And the sidewall of motorcycle tires will make it very difficult, and we don’t want to take any risks. But we’re working on a different system. We’ve been working for one year with Dorna on a different system to be able to give the same information live to everyone on TV. We’ve got ideas. I don’t know when it will be effective. We’re still aiming at having something next year. When next year, I don’t know.

Q: As a company are you happy about the amount of information you get to be here and develop your tires and your technology?

NG: Yes. We’ve got a very good relationship with the teams, the factories, and very good technical exchanges with them. We know where the series wants to go. We have a very good relation with Dorna. One of the reasons Michelin does racing of course is as everybody else for the image. That’s a given. But the other very important thing for us is to develop the technology. To be honest with you, if the regulation does not put a 17 inch wheel in the rules, I don't think we would have come. That’s a good way for us to transfer technology afterwards to our everyday user, the motorcycle user.

Q: When can customers expect to see MotoGP technology in their tires?

NG: I can give you some examples of breakthroughs we did through GP 500 and MotoGP in the past. There are three famous ones within Michelin at least. The first is radial tires. That’s an old story because that's Randy Mamola's era, and Freddy Spencer. Then silica, the first time we used silica were on the wet tires in motorcycles. I happened to be at Suzuka, and Freddy Spencer came, he decided to do one-off, I think it was early 2000 or late ‘90s, so a long time after he had stopped his career. I asked him, what has changed the most on the tires between the era you were fighting in 500s. He said, straight away the grip on the wet is unbelievable. And that's silica, and you find silica in all type of tires for road tires.

The third example, and more recent, when we started in MotoGP in 2002 we very quickly used nearly everywhere multiple compounds on the rear tires. We were the first ones to transfer that to the mass market tires with the Pilot Power series.

Now to be able to tell you which new breakthrough will to the consumer tires? I don’t know yet. It’s a little bit too early. We need to do it first.

Q: If you had to compare all the manufacturers, who is the quickest to understand and adapt to your technology since the beginning of the season? Is there one that stands out?

NG: Eight winners, all bike brands*. Difficult to say that somebody is standing out.

* except Aprilia – DE.

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First year back....much less sophisticated electronics on the bikes...lap n race records been broken. I'd say the new spec tyre supplier is taking names and kicking ass!!

I hope Michelin will be allowed to take more cues from WEC than just the chip. In that championship they build the tyres to the specification of the car and not the other way around. As it should be.

I know I've heard rumblings about Michelin, but I for one am happy with the way this year has gone for them. Coming in to MotoGP as the new sole supplier was definitely a difficult task for anyone, and they've done well. I don't really like how they handled the Baz tire incident at Sepang, and I know there was another issue I had with them that I can't remember; overall though, I think you would be crazy to say they haven't done a good job. Whether due to the tires or the electronics (or both as it most likely is) this year has thrown up quite a few surprises. It's nice to see Michelin be relatively open about what they've done, what they're doing, and a bit on how they're doing it.

Terrific article! Goubert's comments show that a "spec" tire is the traditional sense is not the norm in MotogP racing as Michelin's technical development is constantly ongoing with new tires at virtually every track. An expensive proposition for Michelin and somewhat of a moving target for riders it never-the-less pushed the speed forward and must be a boon to the manufacturers of the motorcycles used in the series.