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Michelin lighten the load with new 16.5in front tyre

Michelin lighten the load with new 16.5in front tyre

Michelin lighten the load with new 16.5in front tyre

In the face of strengthening competition to their recent dominance of MotoGP from the likes of Bridgestone and Dunlop, French tyre manufacturers Michelin have been busier than ever during the off-season months, attending test sessions in Europe, Asia and Australia. One of the main focuses of the company's testing program has been introducing riders to its new 16.5in front tyre, which it brought to MotoGP last season.

The new, lighter tyre is designed for quicker handling and improved feedback and Michelin's chief of motorcycle competitions Nicolas Goubert is hopeful it will catch on as well as the 16.5in rear that they introduced to great effect four years ago.

"The main difference between this tyre and the 17 is weight – our aim was to build a lighter tyre to create a lighter-handling bike, so that riders can flick from one side to the other quicker," explains Goubert. "So far the results have been pretty good – nearly all our guys are using the 16.5. Some guys are sticking with our 17 because it can take a while to get comfortable with a new front tyre. The first few races will be crucial, because it is only in races that riders can really understand the performance of a tyre.

"We've made no big changes to our rear tyre – just normal developments to improve compound and so on. But we are working hard to keep pace with the engine makers. The fastest bikes are now doing over 340kmh, and we don't think they're going to stop there."

Like all of Michelin's MotoGP riders, Honda youngster Nicky Hayden has devoted a fair amount of winter testing time to evaluating the 16.5in front, which features a slightly smaller diameter for less inertia but has a larger contact patch for improved feedback.

"The 16.5 front is the big difference this year," says Hayden. "We got the 16.5 working good, it's definitely the way to go for us. It gives me more confidence on the way into corners. As you're trail braking it in, you can be more aggressive with the front. It gives you more confidence. The rear tyre has come on too – it's got improved edge grip and feel, plus more acceleration grip."

As one of the most demanding circuits in racing, Welkom is a challenging start to the season for Michelin's dedicated crew of engineers who work with most of the top riders and teams in MotoGP. For former AMA Superbike Champion Hayden, it's like a home from home. "I like Welkom, I felt comfortable there last year," he says. "It should be a good track for us this time too. It's got an American feel to it – tight, narrow and you've got to push hard. Tyres are real important at Welkom because the track is pretty abrasive, though the amount of horsepower and weight we've got means that a lot of it comes down to tyres wherever we're at.

"It's one of those tracks where you have to think a little bit about conserving your tyres. Last time I never had the luxury to think about conserving tyres because it was my first season in MotoGP – it was just open the throttle and go for it! I hope I get more time this year to think about saving tyres – you need something left to fight with for the last few laps, especially if you're up front."

Hayden added that he has no doubt about where the race will be decided on Sunday, and that tyres will play a crucial part. "It's the three right-handers near the end of the lap," he reveals. "If you get comfortable through them and carry a lot of speed, especially onto the back straightaway, that's gonna do a lot of good for your lap time. You really get some heat into the rear tyre through there."

"Welkom and Phillip Island are the toughest tracks on tyres," confirms Goubert. "Riders need very ‘strong' tyres at Welkom to cope with the high running temperatures. A lot of the heat comes from the three right-handers towards the end of the lap, where riders spend a lot of time on the edge of their tyres. Welkom is demanding both for fronts and rears. It's the kind of place where riders need to think about conserving tyres.

"The track used to be very bumpy and slippery until they resurfaced it for last year's GP. We hope the circuit won't have lost too much grip since then, though it is normal for a new surface to lose some grip quite quickly. Last time the grip was above average, but it's difficult to predict how it will be this time."

MotoGP, 2004

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