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, 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...

"A good question and interestingly one that not only relates to MotoGP: we have the same situation in F1 and WRC," began Pope. "All our tyre development is undertaken in the same way in fact.

"Tyres are developed both on a long term basis by engineers looking at future developments in materials, fabrication processes, etc etc and also on a race by race process, which is really where we are talking about.

"Each race and each test session, all the MotoGP riders will test a certain number of solutions, obviously both front and rear, in an effort to find the right tyre for the coming race. But all the comments and figures coming from these sessions are collated and analysed and go towards future developments.

"This means that although a certain tyre may not be used for a race, testing it may give us some very interesting information for a future race. This can then be incorporated into a new development tyre that will be produced as one of the tyres for that forthcoming race.

"These will of course be tested again before that race, both during practice but - perhaps more importantly - during the many 'private' test sessions that each of the teams undertake with us."

Pope then explained that riding style, rather than machinery, was the overriding factor in tyre choice and revealed that all tyre development data is pooled together - there is no separate Honda, Yamaha, Ducati or Aprilia tyre programme - making it unlikely that one team could gain a significant advantage over the others.

"To try to answer your question more directly, there is not a Honda tyre and a Yamaha tyre," he stated. "To give a simple explanation, you can see yourself that for example Sete and Max, despite having 'similar' machinery, do not ride anything like each other. Therefore their tyre choice will more often than not be different.

"In fact, what happens is that all the data is pooled before a decision is taken as to which tyres would be best suited - in our opinion - to a forthcoming race, taking into account for example the possible differences in temperature.

"Therefore we would turn up with maybe 3 different fronts and 6 different rears - quantities by way of an example - for a given race, in sufficient quantities for each and every Michelin rider to be able to try each one. These differences could be in the casing or the rubber compound, or even both.

"From the moment the rider, his engineer and his Michelin technician start trying them, then it's all down to them. Sometimes, to get the best out of a given tyre, certain set-up changes - usually suspension - may be required. Only the rider and engineer can decide this. The work between this little group is therefore to find the best tyre in terms of grip, speed and endurance, both front and rear, and at the end of the day the final decision rests with the rider."

Pope concluded by stating that there are no special tyres for the championship contenders, but did admit that it is the top riders whose opinion carries more weight when it comes to influencing future development.

"I think it is important that I stress that at the start of any race weekend, the same types of tyres are available to every rider. It is Michelin's policy to be equitable to everyone," Pope said.

"However, it also fair to say that - when I say all data is accumulated from all riders and this goes into the next level of development - for sure the riders that are at the top of the time sheets consistently are those that will help our performance gains more than a slower bike," he added.

The first of five remaining races, which will decide the fate of the 2004 world championship, takes place at Motegi on September 19.



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