Michelin's Nicola Goubert talks about MotoGP tire progress

Catching up after a seven-year absence is no small feat, but one of the French company's top engineers reveals what it's learned so far

michelin nicola goubert talks about motogp progress
Michelin's return to MotoGP--now as the spec tire supplier--after a seven-year absence is being taken very seriously by the French company, with its considerable resources all being brought to bear in developing the latest generation tires.JaimeOlivaresGGPPpre2016

After seven years away from GPs, Michelin returns to the pinnacle of motorcycle racing, MotoGP, as the spec tire supplier for 2016, replacing Bridgestone. Throughout the 2015 season, Michelin worked intensively to prepare for their 2016 comeback, testing at the majority of the championship circuits on the Mondays following the closing celebration of each GP. But with the season over, testing time has concluded and the challenge is now real.

Ahead of the season kick off this coming February 1 in Sepang, Malaysia, there was a great demand to speak with the Michelin representatives regarding what’s happened, what is to come, and the rider’s first impressions following the first rides on the new tires. The person to speak with was clearly Nicola Goubert, the person fronting the Michelin MotoGP comeback project. Goubert, a GP veteran, is one of the top engineers in the French company, which facilitated the straightforward and clear conversation with him.

The first topic on the agenda was Michelin’s change of mind regarding their participation in spec tire championships. In 2008, Michelin resigned from world championship motorsports on the grounds that they wanted real competition with other tire manufacturers – meaning they had no interest in being a sole supplier. Now they are back in the spec tire format...what caused this change of mind?

“You're right,” admits Goubert. “We walked away from F1, from the World Rally Championship (WRC) and from MotoGP in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and the sole supplier situation was indeed one of the reasons. At that time we had no interest in being involved in these championships with this type of format. But since then, we have realized that a series without competition with other manufacturers has its value if it is high level and the corresponding regulations allow the further development of technology or even compels you [to develop]. Such series for us are still the right place when it comes to advances in development, which can further be translated to our products for the road and ultimately to our customers.”

michelin nicola goubert talks about motogp progress
One of the top engineers at Michelin and a long-time veteran of the GP wars, Nicola Goubert is one of the main persons responsible for development of the French company's MotoGP spec tire as it takes over from Bridgestone this year.JaimeOlivaresGGPPpre2016

The turning point for Michelin’s philosophy occurred in 2011, when they returned to the WRC after the International Automobile Federation (FIA) opened the series again to all tire manufacturers. “We said, ‘Okay, we can compete with anyone,’” explained Goubert. “Then, the tire manufacturer that was already participating in the series stopped, and suddenly we were practically the only supplier. But we realized that we could still work. The regulations were very clever and forced us to design tires with improvements in running performance.” This unexpected circumstance proved to the skeptics within the company that a single supplier format offered enticing possibilities for product development.

“At that time we thought if F1 or MotoGP would offer us the opportunity to return, even as the sole supplier, we would closely examine the possibility. And it happened with MotoGP. A very positive point for us to consider our comeback in MotoGP was Dorna’s decision to go with 17-inch wheels. A 17-inch wheel is the size you see on any everyday bike, on the road models, and it is a size that makes the transfer of technology much easier. Everything seen in MotoGP development can be quickly transferred to the tire technology of road motorcycles, on our commercial products.”

Michelin’s view regarding the tire diameter contrasts with that of Bridgestone when they served as the sole MotoGP tire supplier. Bridgestone’s technicians concluded that 16.5-inch tires offered the best overall compromise and the best performance. Goubert doesn’t hide that Michelin’s interests in MotoGP tire development have two components: the sportive one and the commercial side. “Racing is a place where you have to do your best, but always within a certain framework. First you need to follow the rules, and in our opinion the actual rules are very clever. Because they allow you to work in [relation to] your everyday product. Racing is not about being as fast as possible. There is a framework, and there is very good one for us.”

"Looking for the balance"
Following the official end of the 2015 season, two tests with the new Michelin tires were held: the first in Valencia and the second in Jerez. The riders praised the French rear slick for its exceptional grip, but with the same intensity they criticized the front tire performance.

“In these tests, especially in Valencia, something became very clearly evident,” admits Goubert, “the riders reported that with the existing set-up, i.e. the last race’s set-up, they felt differences between the performance of the front and rear tire. A basic concept was disturbed, which applies to cars, but even more for motorcycles: You have to have a good balance between front and rear. This balance has to do with the set-up of the bike, the front tire performance in relation to the rear, and with the rider’s riding style. Within these three aspects, we have work to do. The riders must adapt their riding to the new product, the engineers have to adapt their setup to squeeze the most out of the tires, and we have to adapt and try to give the riders more confidence in the front tire.

michelin nicola goubert talks about motogp progress
Quality control is certainly one of Michelin's strong points, and the checks never stop. Here a technician runs a just-mounted rear tire on a laser apparatus to check for any profile defects.JaimeOlivaresGGPPpre2016

"In Valencia we missed the potential of the front tire, and we think an explanation is the compound that we used there. One of the difficulties is that riders are reluctant to switch front tires. It would be great if we could build a front tire that covers all possible conditions, but unfortunately this is not the case. The tires we had at our tests in Aragon and Misano, which worked pretty well there, were not right for Valencia. We need to work on a broader spectrum, which we have already begun for the next tests in Jerez.

“Obviously we were and are not happy about the number of crashes; we have to learn to react properly because nobody wants to see riders down. As I said, it had to do with the level of grip of our front tire and as said, the analysis showed us that we need a different compound. You can learn from experience; bad results are sometimes a good lesson.”

But the Michelin representative emphasizes that there is not only work to be done by them, but also by the other parts of the equation. “The teams and riders also need to learn,” he points out. “Some of the riders told us at the end of the two days that they had begun to adapt to the new tires, regarding their riding style. Those riders who found it easiest to get used to the new package are those who have the least experience with the previous tire brand. People like Viñales, Baz and so on. They had one year of experience in the MotoGP, but previously they were on different tire brands in other categories. Because they competed only one year with this package, they can adapt their bikes and their riding style a little faster. I'm sure the other guys will catch up. It is only a matter of time.”

michelin nicola goubert talks about motogp progress
A number of MotoGP riders crashed during the initial pre-season Michelin tire tests, with most attributed to the front tire. Goubert says that Michelin is still adjusting the spectrum of tire construction to work with the different tracks.

Development direction
The message Goubert sends is clear: We have our job to do, but we aren't the only ones who will have to adapt to the new situation. But as we were speaking with the tire maker's chief engineer, we asked him about the development direction they would follow during the winter work. Would they need to focus only on new compounds or also on modification of the carcass construction?

“The bulk of the work will be done on the compounds, but there are a few things we'll change with the structure. The work on the construction will have benefits for all track conditions. In my opinion, our main task lies in finding solutions for low track temperatures, and for places where the front tire is a little stressed. In Valencia, the track temperature was not very high, but also not very low. But there you have a track layout that stressed our front tires a little, especially the right side. Our compound works quite well when there is a lot of stress on the front tire, as in Misano, where it is hot and where you are loading the front wheel. However, for tracks with less front-load we need to come up with another solution.”

Let’s consider the first race of 2016 in Qatar. This first round is certainly a great challenge due to the special circumstances of that race. Being a night venue, the temperature conditions change dramatically after dark. Michelin can’t afford to not be prepared for it, but will they be? Again, Goubert radiates the impression of having everything under control. But it is the image the man in command has to show, isn’t it?

michelin nicola goubert talks about motogp progress
"Our compounds work quite well when there is a lot of stress on the front tire, as in Misano, where it is hot and where you are loading the front wheel," Goubert said. "However, for tracks with less front-load we need to come up with another solution.”JaimeOlivaresGGPPpre2016

“We were at the 2015 tests in Qatar and the conditions were not very good. But we have official tests two weeks before the race and expect learn a lot there. Moreover, we have the February tests in Sepang, and the demands on the front tire performance in Sepang and Qatar are quite similar. At both circuits, it is hot, and even if the temperatures drops in the evening in Qatar, they will stay somewhere around 25. A completely different challenge there is the sand on the asphalt; it makes the asphalt particularly abrasive. But overall, I'm not too worried about the Qatar Grand Prix.”

Regardless of the positive words from Michelin’s chief engineer, what will determine their success or their defeat is what happens on the track. And this will be determined by a stopwatch. If the lap times are similar to those from Bridgestone, everything will be fine; if they aren’t…Michelin will have a problem. “At Valencia on Tuesday or Wednesday nearly all the riders were already lapping faster than in the race on Sunday. All but Iannone, who finished a tenth of a second behind his best time on the previous tires. We have seen that our lap times are competitive. We are not worried. On some tracks we might be a bit slower, especially where we have never been, as in Argentina or Austin. On others we will be at the same level, maybe even a bit faster.”

“Of course, the lap times are important because they show that the potential is there. But more important is that everyone can find the necessary confidence to explore the limit with our tires. And for us it is important to strike the right balance between front and rear. Currently, the focus is more on this point than on the lap times. Besides, it will be difficult to draw a perfect comparison between the new and the old lap times because of the new electronics. If you ask me how big the influence of the new electronics will be, my answer is: Nobody knows at this time. What is clear is that the new machines were slow in the beginning. Will they get to the same level quickly? I hope so. Only then the comparison of lap times will be possible, and will be fair.”