by Peter McLaren
Outside of the pit lane, the importance of tyres is often overlooked, but while they may look relatively modest - being less eye-catching than aerodynamic bodywork and much quieter than a high revving engine - the rest of a racing motorcycle is largely useless without them.
That is because winning motor races is fundamentally about consistently generating greater acceleration forces at the tyre contact patches – in all directions (forward motion, braking and cornering) – than your rivals can.
As such, it's no exaggeration to say that tyres can decide races and in turn world championships; a 1% increase in tyre grip (whether found through rubber, chassis or suspension improvements) is much more valuable - in terms of increasing those acceleration forces - than a 1% increase in horsepower.
This level of significance is most easily seen when rival tyre companies get it significantly 'right' or 'wrong': For example, when Bridgestone got it right at Rio this year, a Suzuki took pole and Camel Honda's Makoto Tamada rode around team-mate Max Biaggi, using the class leading Michelins, on his way to victory.
"I had good consistent grip on the rear, and I also had an advantage on the front: Whereas Biaggi was pushing (his front tyre) in the long corners, I was able to keep my own tight line without a problem," confirmed Tamada.
Biaggi would later admit he was struggling: "I could hear Tamada coming during the last laps, opening the throttle as he came out of the corners, while I still had to wait (before accelerating)."
However, the Japanese rubber manufacturer got it wrong at the 2003 Hungarian Formula One Grand Prix and as a result even the Ferrari of eventual world champion Michael Schumacher had no chance – he was even lapped by first time race winner Fernando Alonso (Renault Michelin).
But back to MotoGP and it is a Michelin rider who will - barring disaster - win the 2004 world championship, and so the question isn't of one tyre company gaining an advantage over another, but instead of Yamaha's Valentino Rossi and his nearest title rivals - Honda riders Sete Gibernau and Biaggi - all getting equal assistance. If not, the title could move to whoever influences tyre development the most.
With such an important part to play in the championship battle, Crash.net
asked Michelin's competition communication manager, Andy Pope, how the French company ensures that its tyres will favour no one team or rider in the closing stages of the season...