Interview by Adam Waheed; Story written by Seth Richards
This year marks Michelin’s second season as the MotoGP spec tire supplier. At the Red Bull Grand Prix of The Americas in Austin, Texas, we spoke with Nicholas Goubert, Michelin’s MotoGP Technical Director, to check in on the French company’s sophomore effort and the challenges it faces in “keeping the sticky side down” in motorsport’s most exciting championship.
Goubert is a familiar face in the MotoGP paddock and has worked for Michelin for more than 25 years, in departments ranging from testing, racing, and marketing. In his current role, Goubert, along with a 20-some person crew, travel to each MotoGP round to support “The Circus.”
“We bring more or less 1400 tires per race weekend because the regulation. Everything is fixed,” says Goubert. “You have to have three slicks front, three slicks rear, and then two types of wet for the front and two types for rear. If you add everything up, then you end up with 1400 tires on race weekend.”
The regulation Goubert cites is a rulebook change from December 2016. The change entails dropping intermediate tires in exchange for an additional front and rear slick option. The intermediate tires were intended for conditions where neither slicks or rain tires were suitable. But as the 2016 season showed, the intermediates were rarely used.
“It’s a change compared to last year because last year we had to have only two front specs and two rear specs for the slicks,” Goubert tells us. “This year they want you to have more because last year it was quite exceptional, if you look at the number of winners. Of course, part of it is weather, but part of it is tires as well. You try to choose the tires to [suit] everyone’s needs. So last year, in many cases we brought more than two front slicks, so they said, okay, we’ll make it a rule. After, you are to bring every time three, and then please do the same with the rear. We’re willing to doing it, so it’s pretty good.”
Providing this number of tires is necessary to give racers the safest and best rubber given specific track and weather conditions. Compared to some other tires, Michelins have a relatively narrow operating temperature.
In 2007, MotoGP rule changes required teams to pick their tire allocations on Thursday night. Prior to this, Michelin would produce what MotoGP commentators and pundits call “Saturday Night Specials” – tires designed specifically for the forecasted conditions of Sunday’s race, shipped from Michelin’s Clermont-Ferrand headquarters at the last minute, or at times, produced trackside as GP lore has it.
Bridgestone, on the other hand, did not have this option, given the factory’s location in Japan. Out of necessity, Bridgestones were developed to have a broader operating temperature. Given this characteristic of the French hoops, providing more tire options helps to compensate. Don’t rush to interpret this as a criticism; it should be noted that in 2016, Michelin’s first year back in MotoGP after a seven-year hiatus, race lap records were broken multiple times.
The logistics of carting such a large number of tires around the world is only the beginning of the challenge, considering unforeseen circumstances like the labor strike in Argentina, host of the second round at the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit.
“Everything was blocked for one day, the Thursday before the race,” Goubert tells. “We had planned actually to make, not a comparison between last year, [but between a stiffer construction tire and] last year’s Valencia tires.”
The so-called Valencia tires, introduced at the Valencia test following the final round of 2016, have a redesigned profile, developed to offer more feel at maximum lean. Goubert continues, “we couldn’t do it because the tires were not there. So we thought, okay, we’ll wait for that. Different time.”
“The Valencia tire,” he says, “was a big step for all the riders we made at the end of last year with the different front profile. We developed that profile to introduce it only from the beginning of this year, but because the championship had been decided very early last year in Motegi, we decided to introduce that new profile front tire at Valencia.”
“Everybody was very happy with it, so we thought definitely it’s simplified for 2017. Then we continued working on the compounds and on constructions, and in between the rules changed for the bikes because the winglets, for example, are not allowed anymore, and they had a lot of changes to the bikes. Basically from the beginning of the decision, we know completely we have something better than what we had in Valencia.”
Speaking of the winglets and the complication of building motorcycle tires in comparison with car tires, he explains, “[the removal of the winglets affects tire design] a little bit but not that much. I would say [the teams] could compensate with different bike setup. The wings have got a very big effect on a car because basically you can keep the same downforce when you are in a straight line or when you are cornering. On the bike, it’s not the same. So it’s efficient on the straight, but then when you lean the bike down, not the same.”
When Michelin became the spec tire supplier last year, they were returning to a different world than the one they left in 2008, particularly when it comes to the needs of a front tire.
“[Tires have changed] quite a lot for the front,” he says. “Not that much for the rear tire, but the bike’s changed a bit. They put a lot of emphasis now on the braking area. The braking points, the pressure on the brakes, and basically the disc size as well has gone up. They gain a lot of time now in the braking. First, when you gain a lot of time in braking it’s easier to overtake somebody. So we worked to have something more stable.”
Of course, having a tire that is both stable under heavy braking and one that comes up to operating temperature quickly is a balancing act. In Austin, many riders, particularly those on Hondas who rely on gaining time in braking zones, were vocal about wanting a stiffer carcass to support hard braking.
At the same time, with stiffer carcasses, temperature issues can play a factor. As we witnessed in Austin, cool, windy temperatures coupled with an increasingly bumpy surface saw riders who used the medium compound tire crash, while those who used the soft tires did not, according to Goubert. Harder compounds and stiffer carcasses mean it takes longer for tires to warm up. In other words, there is no silver bullet.
Valentino Rossi, whose lackluster pace in preseason testing was due to front-end problems that many attributed to Michelin’s softer carcass, has shown that there are ways to work around that characteristic. In Argentina, his team radically changed the weight distribution on the Yamaha YZR-M1 to seemingly good effect. Rossi has finished on the podium in every race in 2017 and now goes into Jerez with the points lead.
Still, Michelin has a stiffer construction tire that many are waiting for with bated breath. Again, the labor strike in Argentina prevented a proper test. “So we’re just waiting for the next opportunity to test again,” says Goubert, “to make sure we’re in the right direction, and if we are not, of course we are willing to go back to what we had in Valencia to start again.”
It’s clear tire manufacturers are under an extreme amount of pressure and scrutiny in MotoGP, and the financial investment is significant.
“For us, the investment is worthwhile doing, so basically we think that we’re getting more from what we invest in terms of technology [than what] we can do and in terms of media exposure,” reveals Goubert.
“The series is growing. It’s very popular in nearly every place we go. Maybe here [in the United States] it’s not the best place because we don’t get that much crowd, but everywhere else it’s huge. Except Qatar, which is very peculiar.”
Goubert reiterates that being in MotoGP is not a marketing exercise to help sell street tires. It’s worthwhile because the crucible of racing drives technological development.
“It’s very difficult to make a relation between the success you have in racing and what you sell because a lot of factors play a role, but we were convinced that it’s a good investment,” he adds. “We don’t do it only for publicity, for advertisement – we do it as well to work on the tires and develop technology. For us, that’s one of the key reason why we’re here. For example, we’re using 17-inch tires here, which is the same size as one you can have on your sports bike. You will not see a sports bike with 16 inch or 16.5 inch tires. For us, it makes things a lot easier to transfer what we learn here to our commercial products.”
While Goubert says what it’s learning in MotoGP hasn’t transferred to its street bike tires yet, it’s only a matter of time…