One of our valued readers has written to ask why race sanctioning bodies can’t just make racing the same for everybody by offering just one tire, hard enough to survive race distance no matter how hard the fastest rider works the rubber.

It has been tried—by accident, as it turns out. In 1979, Goodyear was the dominant tire in AMA racing, and two top riders were laid on to ride the pre-Daytona tire test: Kenny Roberts and the less-well-known Mike Baldwin.

Such testing is a necessity because there is no simulation technology accurate enough to reveal which tire designs will and which will not survive Daytona (or other notoriously difficult circuits, like Phillip Island in Australia) without blistering or chunking. The specter of outright tire failure must be avoided because of the mortal danger to riders—Barry Sheene's terrible crash in practice for the 1975 Daytona, for example—and because of the negative associated publicity.

When on the first test day Kel Carruthers started up Roberts' Yamaha TZ750 an unusual whine greeted their ears: The crank gears were tight. They packed up and returned to California. Baldwin would ride the test, his similar but non-factory TZ looked after by yours truly. Mike passed the basic test by being able to identify by feel tire variants already tested when put back into the test sequence at random by the technicians. Each day, Mike went faster, finishing with a fastest lap time of 2 minutes, 2.2 seconds, a huge contrast to the usual privateer Daytona lap time of roughly 2:10.

This presented the Goodyear engineers with a problem. Assuming that Roberts would have gone significantly faster than Baldwin, whom they apparently regarded as a jumped-up clubman, they decided to make that year’s Daytona tire even harder than the best compromise solution on which Baldwin had gone so fast.

This was the origin of the infamous “tire of cement,” a tire so hard that no one could really keep it hot enough to perform well even on its naturally hotter-running left side. When British rider Mick Grant was asked what he expected to see in the race, he said, “I reckon a lot of riders will accumulate in the right-handers.”

And that’s pretty much what happened. The cooler-running right sides of those hard tires never warmed up, so its grip was tricky to use. Riders fell down, and most of the field was slow.

Colin Edwards and Casey Stoner
Point-and-shoot rider Colin Edwards (5), seen here battling Casey Stoner at Le Mans, needed a flexible tire carcass to lay down a maximum footprint to accelerate out of turns. He finished third on this day in France, one of his two podiums during the 2008 MotoGP season.Gold & Goose

In 1982, Honda decided to make a big push at Daytona (Yamaha had won every Daytona 200 since 1972, so there was big PR up for grabs). Since all riders had to stop twice for fuel anyway—6.2-gallon tanks and roughly 14.5 miles per gallon—Honda configured its bikes for rapid tire changing and planned to change at each fuel stop, bringing Michelin on board to develop the necessary tires. This gave Honda an advantage because a tire designed to go 75 miles can be made enough softer and quicker-lapping than a 200-mile tire.

The sanctioning body had to accept this, which had been the norm in auto racing for decades. Because of the obvious legal exposure, the AMA could not require the riders to use the same set of tires for the whole 200 miles, and likewise, no tire maker could accept such a risk. Changing tires at each fuel stop has been the norm at Daytona ever since.

Also normal today is that makers of spec tires bring to each event a spread of three front and three rear tires to cover the expected range of variation in track temperature and conditions (plus rain tires). The proven risk of providing only a single hard choice would be as poor a fit with modern attitudes toward rider safety as would returning the British GP to the Isle of Man.

As a further example, on a single day in 2008, I had the opportunity to speak separately with Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi about their tire preferences. Colin was a point-and-shoot rider, and told me, “After I get the machine stopped and turned, I need a very flexible tire carcass to lay down a maximum footprint to accelerate out of the turn.”

Rossi, a corner-speed rider, said he needed a very stiff tire carcass to provide the stability to stay on the big line of maximum radius at high speed. Because he carried more speed through the turn than Edwards, he didn’t need to accelerate as much and did not need Colin’s big footprint.

And what happened when Rossi tested Edwards’ preferred tire? “The bike jumps sideways,” he said. That is, lacking carcass strength, it could not sustain long maximum side grip.

Underlining this was Honda’s special request to Michelin at the end of 2005 for more traction. This was needed because Honda’s point-and-shoot riders needed more acceleration, as Edwards would later describe to me. But Rossi’s crew chief at the time, Jeremy Burgess, said Yamaha had all the traction it needed.

When the bigger low-pressure tire that Honda had asked for appeared in 2006, it produced severe chatter in testing, but they were able at the last moment before the season to overcome it. Yamaha at first found the tire usable, but after the initial races encountered chatter so severe that Rossi’s ability to win championship points was compromised. That, and the injuries to Ducati’s riders, put the late Nicky Hayden into the point lead, which he then successfully defended to become 2006 MotoGP world champion.

Some may object, "Well, tough! Just tell those riders if they don't like the tire we give 'em, just learn to ride it!"

Turns out that’s much easier said than done. It took corner-speed rider Jorge Lorenzo 18 months to learn to ride the point-and-shoot Ducati, after which he won two races on it. Now that he’s trying to learn to ride the Honda, he’s crashed three times, missing the last GP with a back injury. Johann Zarco, shifted by team changes from the corner-speed Yamaha to the immature KTM, has gone from consistent podium finishes to near last.

These are highly motivated professional racers, intent upon furthering their careers. And they can't because making fundamental changes to riding style is as difficult and time consuming as is learning to ride a bicycle that steers backward. Yes, it can be done, but it takes months. Race teams can't afford that.