MotoGP is all set for its second big technical regulations change in half a decade. Following the shift from 500cc two-strokes to 990cc four-strokes in 2002, next year's bikes will be reduced to 800cc in a bid to reign in performance.
All the manufacturers involved in bike racing's biggest series are designing all-new motorcycles for these new rules. But while engine capacity is being cut by almost 20 per cent, the bikes won't be dramatically smaller because minimum weight limits will barely change.
While Ducati (supplied by Bridgestone) is so far the only manufacturer to publicly debut its 800cc racer, Michelin is also preparing for the switch, with its first tests with MotoGP partners Honda and Yamaha scheduled after the summer.
"The last big change we had, from 500s to MotoGP bikes, was a huge step," says Nicolas Goubert, Michelin's director of motorcycle racing. "Long before we began testing the new MotoGP bikes in 2001 we knew that we were looking at a huge increase in horsepower and we knew the torque characteristics would be very different. So we worked on our MotoGP tyres for more than a whole year before we started racing the bikes.
"Looking at the 800s, the bikes will stay pretty much the same but they will make slightly less horsepower and torque, which should make the bikes less demanding on tyres. It's difficult when you have to develop a tyre to handle more horsepower, but when you're going the other way, it should be easier.
"We will soon start testing with the 800s, evaluating the new bikes with our partners, mainly in Japan. But we have been thinking about 800s for a while. We keep them in mind even when we are working with the 990s at the moment. If we think of some new development which might be useful for the 990s, but would take six months to get right, we don't continue with that development. But if we are working on something that we think will be useful for the 800s, we obviously keep working in that direction.
"Everyone says the 800s will be more agile than the 990s, though I'm not absolutely sure about that because the bikes will weigh about the same. True, the engines should be slightly lighter which should allow the designers to put the mass where they want it, which may make the bikes slightly easier to handle, but it certainly won't be a huge difference, it won't be like going back to 130 kilo 500s.
"We expect the bikes to produce a little bit less horsepower than the 990s, but for how long? One year, two years? For sure we won't be making bigger tyres for the 800s, there won't be any dramatic change in profiles, but I'm not convinced that we'll be making smaller tyres for these bikes.
"Less horsepower should put less heat into the tyres but the 800's torque output could be more brutal than the 990s, so it's difficult to predict how they will wear the tyres. If the torque is more brutal, it could mean that the predictability of the tyres will become more important, but the fact is that the latest electronics are so sophisticated that torque delivery may not be an issue. We will see when we start testing..."