As the European round of the MotoGP championship kicks off at Jerez, Michelin is expecting the challenges provided by more familiar circuits to be “a little bit easier” than what passed in the second and third races of 2016.
That is the view of Michelin Racing technical director Nicolas Goubert, who along with others involved in the French tyre manufacturer's two-wheel operation, endured an eventful two weeks in Argentina and Austin.
Fresh from receiving almost universal praise for both the performance and endurance of its front and rear tyres in Qatar, the scarcely used and radically demanding Termas de Rio Hondo circuit threw up a spate of challenges for the firm in only Michelin's second MotoGP race since the close of 2008.
Scott Redding's apparent rear tyre failure on the Saturday of that weekend caused Goubert and other senior members of Michelin's MotoGP effort to – initially – pull the two available rear tyre compounds from the allocation, only for weather to intervene.
A 'safety tyre' that had only been tested by test rider Colin Edwards, was introduced for the race. Yet, morning race day rain put paid to that plan, depriving riders of a necessary session to sample the new rubber before racing it. Thus a two-part race with an enforced bike (and tyre) stop went ahead with riders using the rear tyres that were available to them in free practice and qualifying.
It was on that Saturday evening in Argentina that Goubert and senior staff decided Michelin needed to build two new rear tyre compounds with a stiffer construction based on the 'safety tyre' in the handful of days between the second and third rounds of the year.
“We took the decision for the Sunday to do a full race with the extra type of [safety] tyres but because of the rain we couldn't,” said Goubert. “But at the same time we made a decision to race [in Austin] with the same type of tyres. We knew we didn't have them available so we knew we had to build them from scratch.”
Did building a new rear tyre and then transporting it from Michelin headquarters in France to Texas in a matter of days stretch the MotoGP operation to the full?
“I think so! That's the right word. It was quite tough to get them here and I must say that the organisers understood the situation and let us bring the tyres day after day. Then the riders had the tyres on time to use when they wanted to. It was a little bit stronger the construction. Until we know what happened with the tyre from Scott we had to take measures to make sure no incident would happen.”
The softer of the two rear compounds arrived in Austin on Thursday night, giving riders the full weekend to test its capabilities. The medium rear was flown in a day later, meaning FP3 was the rider's first chance to sample it. Although there were reports of tyre wear, feedback of both compounds was generally positive.
“We're really happy with what happened [in Austin],” Goubert continued. “Argentina was a hectic weekend. We came here with that new construction having different compounds suited to the track. The good news was that the riders quite liked the rear tyres.
“There was not such a big difference compared to what they had before and they all feared that there would have been a bigger difference compared to what there was actually. That was a very good result for us. It was still a track that we didn't have a lot of experience with. We have to tune the front tyres a little bit better for next year and that's something that we'll look at very carefully.”
Like Argentina, Austin saw a number of riders crash out of proceedings but Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi and Cal Crutchlow all admitted to making mistakes - albeit small ones - which led to their undoing in racing conditions.
From rider feedback, there was no specific fault with the tyre. It was more the precision needed with the front tyre is such that, taking anything other than the perfect line on track can have disastrous consequences, as Jorge Lorenzo explained.
“Michelin improve the front every time more and more but still we don't have the confidence,” said the reigning world champion after the race in Austin. “In the past you could lose the front but you could save the crash. Now if you lose the front there are much more chances you could crash and go out of the track. This is the next step to improve.”
Marc Marquez, who won both races in Argentina and the USA, added, “The thing is about the tyres is you try to control the limit. The thing is people always arrive in the circuit with the reference, the set-up from last year. We must understand that this year the tyres are different and the riding style is different. Of course, on the first day I arrive here and I was braking at the same point, like Bridgestone and I was not able to stop the bike. Always you must understand this limit.”
Goubert admitted Michelin had yet to achieve the optimum front-end feel at both circuits, which are particularly demanding on the front end of the bike.
“These two tracks, Argentina and Austin, are quite demanding on the front,” he explained. “That's not something that we worked on a lot during the entire preseason because all the tracks we've been to are – compared to these ones – soft on the front end of the bikes.
“We had to come up with different compounds. The one in Argentina was too hard I would say, with a lack of grip. This one [a new medium compound that was previously tested by Casey Stoner in Qatar] was a little bit better but not yet at the level that we would like to be at.”
The benefits of arriving at a race with previous testing experience were all-too-apparent in Qatar, when Lorenzo posted a new lap record on the 20th of the 22-lap race and posted a race time seven seconds faster than the previous year to match.
Michelin now arrives in Jerez, a track at which Honda, Ducati and Aprilia riders tested in November, 2015, and Goubert believes the French firm “won't be in the unknown” as they have information from several of the upcoming European circuits..
“It will be a lesser challenge because we know the tracks a lot better in Europe,” he said. “Although we haven't been to all of them in MotoGP and some of them – like the Sachsenring – are quite tough but we know these places so we won't be in the unknown as we were here so it should be a little bit easier. Then we're getting a little experience weekend after weekend so hopefully it will get easier and easier.”