What MotoGP needs now is a little industrial espionage
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It’s the early hours of a chill dark night on the eve of the 2005 British Superbikes round at Ireland’s Mondello Park, 30 miles outside Dublin. A hooded figure tiptoes through the paddock, past campervans and motorhomes, full of riders twitching in their sleep – saving front end slides or getting thrown over the high side.
Then past the lines of team artics, until he finds the Honda Britain truck. Looking left and right and up and down the paddock he slides a pair of bolt cutters from under his hoodie and with a grunt and a heave he cuts through the padlock hanging from the rear door.
Another look around and climbs inside, flashing a torch around until he locates the tyre rack. He takes one Michelin rear slick, mounted on a rim, slips out of the door and quietly rolls the wheel back to his own van, at the other end of the paddock, hides it under a mattress and tries to forget about it.
Until Monday morning, when he drives into Dublin and meets the man from [insert name of tyre company you think sponsored the theft] who swaps the wheel and tyre for a Jiffy bag bulging with cash.
This actually happened. In 2005 Michelin ruled MotoGP, where its transporters were guarded day and night. The French company wanted to develop its slicks for the Suzuka Eight Hours, which runs superbikes, but by then the World Superbike was a one-make series, with Pirelli, so Michelin used BSB to develop its Suzuka tyres.
Some rival tyre manufacturer had decided that industrial espionage was the best way to improve its own rear slick – steal the best and have your tyre designers dissect it to discover its secrets.
I think MotoGP needs something similar to happen during this weekend’s Le Mans 24 hours, which takes place while MotoGP riders go about their business at the Circuit of the Americas in Texas, USA.
Dorna is working hard to grow MotoGP – by introducing Saturday sprint races, increasing fan engagement and hiring a new chief commercial officer who used to work for the USA’s National Basketball Association – but surely the best way to make MotoGP more popular is to create better racing, like fans enjoyed so much just a few years ago? To achieve that the championship needs either revised technical rules or a better front slick, or both.
Michelin makes great rear slicks but is struggling to create a better front slick. The company has been promising a new front for several years, while its current front becomes more and more overloaded, due to downforce aero, faster engines, stronger brakes and so on.
Its current tyre overheats when riders battles in a group, which increases tyre pressure, reducing grip, so riders must either slow down to cool the tyre or risk crashing.
We most recently saw this in MotoGP’s last dry GP, at Portimao three weeks ago, where Maverick Viñales got close to leader Pecco Bagnaia, which overheated his front, so he had to ease off, then try again. It’s MotoGP’s yo-yo effect.
And if new tyre pressure rules are enforced from May’s French GP onwards – to be decided at the Spanish GP later this month – this problem will get worse, so the racing will become even more processional, which will have fans turning off their televisions.
There is a simple way out of this problem. The Le Mans 24 hours is the first 2023 round of the world endurance championship, which is the only global bike racing series open to tyre competition. Bridgestone has won the last two titles – with Yoshimura Suzuki and FCC Honda France – and will be at Le Mans in force, alongside rivals Michelin, Dunlop and Pirelli.
Bridgestone was a major force in MotoGP from the early 2000s, taking its first pole position in 2001 (with Jeremy McWilliams), its first win in 2004 (with Makoto Tamada), its first title in 2007 (with Casey Stoner) and its second the following year (with Valentino Rossi). These were the first years that Michelin had been beaten to the MotoGP/500cc title since Yamaha’s Wayne Rainey won the 1991 championship with Dunlop. In 2009 Bridgestone became MotoGP’s first spec tyre supplier. The company decided to withdraw at the end of 2015, bringing Michelin back into the paddock.
The tyre that made the difference for Stoner and Rossi those titles was Bridgestone’s amazing front slick, which gave a huge advantage in corner entry. The Bridgestone front is super-stiff, so it has less feel than the Michelin, but the more a rider hammers the tyre the better it performs.
This is the opposite to the Michelin front, which gives more feel but requires more gentle treatment. The Bridgestone deflects (squishes) a certain amount, giving a stable contact patch, which some MotoGP riders called “a platform”, from where they could get away with just about anything.
“I remember with the Bridgestone front, having 15 bar of [front brake] pressure with 60 degrees of lean, elbow on the ground, locking the front and not crashing,” Aleix Espargaró told me a couple of years ago. “The Bridgestone front was like a rear qualifying tyre in the front – unbelievable!”
The Michelin front’s carcass is softer, so when a rider pushes too hard it deflects too much, effectively collapsing the contact patch. Or it gets too hot, which increases tyre pressure, shrinking the contact patch and reducing grip, which is why so many riders lose the front as they’re only just starting to peel into corners.
Indeed the tyre often locks in a front line, because it can’t handle the braking performance of a MotoGP bike’s carbon brakes.
“The biggest struggle we have with the Michelin front tyre is locking,” Brad Binder told me last year. “It’s a real shock at first because you don’t expect it – [when it’s locking] you just hold the handlebars to make sure you go straight and don’t drift left or right.”
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This is one reason why some engineers are calling for MotoGP’s ban on anti-lock braking to be lifted. This would be good or bad, depending on your viewpoint: good, if you think it would help improve ABS technology for the road; bad, if you think it would leave another riding skill to be looked after by electronics.
Of course, Bridgestone’s front isn’t perfect. It requires a lot of skill and understanding to master. Stoner understood that the tyre liked lots of load, so at some corners he used to run through the whole corner with the front brake on, to keep the tyre deflected to maintain a larger contact patch.
So now MotoGP finds itself in the position where engineers are calling for ABS and where we may see a winner take the chequered flag, only to be disqualified minutes later because his front tyre was 0.1 bar under pressure. Both these things would be a disaster for MotoGP.
A stiffer Michelin front slick that loves to be hammered and doesn’t have a pressure problem would transform MotoGP’s racing spectacle. But how to achieve this?
It’s three in the morning, halfway through the 2023 Le Mans 24 Hours. The howl of several dozen inline-four motorcycles is deafening, all-pervading, never-ending and will take you to the edge of your sanity, if you allow it. In among the madness, behind the circuit’s vast brutalist pits complex, bathed in the sodium low of floodlights, stand several rows of juggernauts, full to the brim with racing tyres. There are Michelin trucks, Dunlop trucks, Pirelli trucks and Bridgestone trucks.
A youngish man, wearing all the kit – Yoshimura Suzuki jacket, pit-lane bicycle helmet, headphones and full credentials – has been watching them for a while, from afar. He’s especially had his eye on the Bridgestone trucks, taking a deep interest in the movements of Bridgestone staff, security men, some of them struggling to stay awake, and team mechanics, who come and go with their trollies stacked with wheels and tyres.
Each and every used tyre is marked, removed from its rim and carefully stored away in one of the Bridgestone trucks. Security is a massive deal. Every tyre must be accounted for – this is clearly stated in all Bridgestone contracts signed by teams using its tyres – so there’s zero chance of taking a tyre from a team. If you want one, you must go to the source.
Which is where the man in the Yoshi jacket is headed. He’s been watching the goings-on in the Bridgestone tyre-changing awning for long enough and he’s spotted his chance. Two of the security men were chatting and one of them has now disappeared. Probably gone to the toilet.
He walks with confidence, like he knows where he’s going. A privateer team mechanic has just dragged his tyre trolly into the awning and is chatting to a couple of tyre fitters, while the security man helps another mechanic unload his trolly. Yoshi-jacket bloke calmly and quietly takes a front wheel, with worn front slick, from the blind side of the trolly and, taking care to keep the trolly between him and the mechanic and fitters, walks away, steadily, purposefully, not in a panic.
He keeps walking until he arrives at his team’s truck, at the other end of the paddock, where he hides the wheel in his bunk bed. Later he will remove the tyre from the rim, meet the man from Michelin and collect his envelope of cash. (Of course, we’d never really suggest that Michelin would do such a thing – this is all just a fictitious product of my fevered brain.)
It’s just an idea… Or perhaps MotoGP could run different brands of tyres at front and rear, like Yamaha’s factory 500cc team did in the 1990s, when Michelin’s front slick was better than the tyre offered by Dunlop, with which Yamaha had a contract. So Yamaha ran a Michelin front and Dunlop rear – a combination christened Michelop by the paddock – and had some success.
So that’s what MotoGP needs – a little industrial espionage, or Bridgelin.
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