This weekend Michelin aims to maintain its unbroken record in the new MotoGP World Championship - bike racing's fastest and most demanding race series.

The French company has totally dominated the enthralling first season of this new category, winning all 15 races so far. No surprise there, since Michelin had monopolised the top step of the podium throughout the last three seasons of 500 GP racing.

Michelin has already wrapped up the first MotoGP world title with Valentino Rossi, though the runner-up spot is still to be decided between Tohru Ukawa and Max Biaggi. Rossi's 2002 crown is Michelin's 22nd premier-class title from the past 27 years and its 11th consecutive success. But Michelin's strength isn't only up front, Michelin riders have filled all but one of the 45 podium-finishing positions so far, all but eight of the 60 front-row slots and currently occupy the top ten places in the points standings.

The company's all-dominant S4 profile rear slick - designed for the new four-strokes but equally effective with the traditional 500 two-strokes - is a crucial development of the company's groundbreaking 16.5in tyre, offering a fatter footprint for more grip, extra traction and cooler running for extended endurance.

The riders and Valencia...

Sete Gibernau and Telefonica Movistar Suzuki team mate Kenny Roberts Junior know that this weekend's Valencia GP is their last chance to give Suzuki's V4 four-stroke a debut-season MotoGP victory.

And considering the duo's performance in last year's rain-affected Valencia race, in which they finished first and third aboard their RGV500 two-strokes, they've got to be in with a chance.

However, the 2002 World Championship hasn't been easy for the Spaniard and American. Unlike their rivals at Honda and Yamaha, they came into the first-ever four-stroke-based MotoGP season without a year of development behind them, because Suzuki had originally planned to continue racing its RGV500 this year, introducing the GSV-R in 2003. But a change of plan commenced the GSV-R's track-testing programme in January, just three months before the first MotoGP race.

To further complicate matters, Gibernau and Roberts started the season with a rival tyre manufacturer but soon switched to Michelin as they searched for improved competitiveness.

Since then they've been on the pace on occasion, Gibernau leading September's soaking Portuguese GP before falling with just three laps remaining, and Roberts scoring his first GSV-R podium at September's Brazilian GP.

"It's been tough - that's inevitable where you're racing and developing simultaneously," says Gibernau. "But with a little more luck we could have already had a win and a few more podiums. I believe in this project and it'll come good with a full winter of testing behind us."

At least Gibernau and Roberts have been able to rely on race-winning rubber since they fitted Michelin for May's Spanish GP - the pair has access to exactly the same tyres as all Michelin runners.

"Michelin has done an awesome job with its four stroke tyres," adds Gibernau. "The tyres are better than they were and they keep improving - they keep giving us more feel and feedback, which really helps us. And that's even though the four-strokes give the tyres a harder time than the 500s - the bikes are heavier, faster and have more torque. Michelin definitely has the advantage over the other tyre manufacturers, the others have some catching up to do."

Gibernau is still working to get the best out of his GSV-R. "I've pretty much learned to understand the four-stroke, the only real trouble we've had is with engine braking into corners. The four-stroke is easier out of the turns because you can control the tyre with the throttle, it's less critical than the 500."

Gibernau will never forget last year's Valencia win - his first world-class success - and would love nothing more than to win again on Sunday. "I like the track. It's nothing special, but I'm at home so I have to make it special. I need a good result, and I know what it takes to win at Valencia, so I've just got to put the pieces together to make it happen again.

"It's one of those circuits where every corner is important, it all counts, so you've got to be good at every spot of the track. There's no place where you can make up a few tenths all in one, it's all a tenth here and a tenth there. You need a lot of front tyre for turning in on the brakes, because there's a lot of tight corners, then you need good rear traction for acceleration."

Michelin tyres and Valencia...

Michelin tyres are unbeaten in the premier class at Valencia - taking pole position, fastest lap and race victory at the 1999, 2000 and 2001 GPs. This weekend the French tyre brand aims to maintain its unbeaten GP record at the Spanish track, the shortest and one of the slowest on the GP calendar. But if Valencia is short in distance, it's not short on action, packing 14 corners into its 4.005km.

Valencia is therefore dominated by tight, in-and-out corners and a short-ish main straight, so bikes run ultra-low gearing here, making their low-gear acceleration more vicious than ever. Life at Valencia is complicated by the track's left-biased anti-clockwise layout, with nine left-handers and just five right handers, which generates boiling heat in the left side of tyres, but minimal warmth in the right side. Riders must bear this in mind every time they attack one of the circuit's right-handed turns.

"Riders have to consider this especially at turn four, because the last time the right side of the tyre did any real work was in turn 11 on the previous lap," says Michelin Grand Prix manager Emmanuel Fournier. "Our job is to make sure that riders have tyres that will cope with the many left-handers, while also holding enough heat for the rights. We have various solutions that work well, and we've already tested here this year - at the IRTA tests in February and with HRC in August.

"Valencia is very tight, with a lot of short turns, so the priority for most riders is light handling, and I think it will be a challenge for the four-strokes to beat the lighter two-strokes here. The front end is especially important, because most of the turns are quite short, so riders need good turn-in. Some of our riders will probably experiment with narrower wheel rims, which 'sharpen' the profile of the tyres, giving lighter handling and faster turn-in."

Most MotoGP riders now limit their rear wheel rim choice to two sizes - 6.0in and 6.25in (the maximum width permitted by MotoGP regulations) - and their front alternatives to either 3.5in and 3.6in, or maybe 3.7in and 3.75in, depending on individual preference. The difference in these sizes might seem negligible but even a tenth of an inch (2.5mm) in rim width can have an effect on bike behaviour.

Juggling these rim widths with different compound and construction Michelin tyres, along with an endless possibility of suspension and geometry settings, should deliver a rider's preferred handling and steering characteristics. It's a labyrinthine task that demands expert know-how from engineers and intricate feeling from riders.

"Although most of the corners are quite short, riders still need good edge grip, as well as good driving traction at high lean angles because the engine character of the four-strokes allow riders to use the throttle very early," continues Fournier. "There are also some long turns at Valencia, like the sweeping uphill lefthander near the end of the lap, and the long, downhill left Turn 13 that tightens into the final corner. That last turn is the opposite to the last left at Phillip Island, it really tightens up, rather than opening out, so riders need a strong construction front to help them brake while leant over.

"We won't have anything 'brand new' at Valencia, just the latest evolution of our front and rear MotoGP tyres that we've developed this season, in compounds and constructions suited to the special demands of this track."

Michelin's efforts to maintain its position as the supreme creator of high-performance motorcycle tyres demands year-round hard work from its engineers and chemists. So it should be no surprise that Michelin's MotoGP crew will get just two days off before commencing pre-2003 season testing with the new Ducati Desmosedici V4 at Valencia! "That's not such a bad winter break!" jokes Michelin's chief of motorcycling competition Nicolas Goubert.



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