MotoGP: Michelin front tire controversy in Argentina

MotoGP spec tire supplier unexpectedly brings an additional front tire to Argentina that many accuse of being made for Valentino Rossi, and the controversy explodes into a fracas that divided the paddock

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MotoGP spec tire supplier Michelin caused a major controversy at the Argentine GP when it unexpectedly brought a new "fourth option" front tire to the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit—that many accused of being specially made for Valentino Rossi.Photo courtesy of Michelin

A huge uproar exploded at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit when Michelin unexpectly brought an additional front tire to the Argentine GP. The move from the MotoGP spec tire supplier divided the riders, paddock, and even the press room into two factions that held opposing views...but they weren’t the only villains.

Was the decision by Michelin to include an unexpected fourth front tire among the available options lamentable? And was this a glimpse into the lack of organization the championship management has in dealing with unexpected situations?

Before getting into these questions, I’ll list the facts so that everyone can form their own opinion. And as I write this I know it won’t be easy, because not even the order of what happened is clear. The declarations from those involved at the time were supposed to be "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," but they ended up being confusing and later, even contradictory.

THE FACTS

In our last Qatar GP article where we discussed the front tire problems that had plagued Valentino Rossi throughout the preseason, we wrote that in a single supplier championship like MotoGP the solution would not come from the supplier but would be found in the team box. In earlier free competition times, an individual manufacturer like Michelin would have manufactured a tire in a matter of hours with a more rigid carcass that would likely have solved Rossi's problems. I think there is no question about that.

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Valentino Rossi complained loud and hard to Michelin about its spec front tire construction that was causing him major problems with front end feel during the preseason. Although it's hard to argue with two podium finishes in two races so far in 2017...Photo courtesy of Michelin

By unexpectedly bringing a tire to Argentina that on paper benefited Rossi, Michelin forgot about the maxim: "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion.”

Upon arrival to Termos de Rio Hondo, Michelin announced to the riders that the GP would have an additional tire option outside of the three they usually have. This "special" tire, the #70 Michelin, is the one that the French manufacturer retired after pre-season testing in late 2016 after the riders—especially Yamaha's riders—complained that it generated front end chatter.

In view of these problems, Michelin decided to keep the new profile that came with this tire, but return to the less rigid carcass used throughout the 2016 season, the #6, and there began Rossi’s problems with a lack of feedback with his Yamaha M1’s front end.

"We decided to bring back the #70 after several riders in addition to Valentino Rossi complained about the front tire after the Qatar GP," Michelin's chief of staff Nicola Goubert stated in defense of the company's decision to bring the additional front tire. But this statement contradicts what he said at a midnight meeting on Sunday at Qatar, when he said that only Rossi and Iannone had complained about the #6 front tire. In Termas, this morphed into a group of 7 or 8 riders, among whom included Marc Marquez, Aleix Espargaró, Cal Crutchlow, Dani Pedrosa and others, who complained about that tire.

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Although he says he still lacks front end feel with the current spec construction front tire from Michelin, Valentino Rossi was still able to go quick enough to eventually catch up to and pass Cal Crutchlow for second place at Termas de Rio Hondo.Photo courtesy of Michelin

"Since we didn’t have time to make a #70 tire with a compound for Termas, what we did was pull from those that had already been made before the decision to change the carcass,” continued Goubert. “We knew that we wouldn’t be able to run with them here, but they would help us evaluate in which direction to continue evolving our tires.” That is, the #70s were sent out not to be used in the race, but as a test..."unless the temperature on Sunday morning fell a lot," added the French engineer. Granted, this recovered tire has characteristics that not only supposedly benefit Rossi, but other hard braking riders as well, such as Cal Crutchlow, Marc Márquez, or Aleix Espargaró.

Since the recovered #70 was not in Michelin’s forecast, the French manufacturer had to make an extraordinary shipment—and certainly a very expensive one—which, apparently due to customs problems, did not arrive in time for the start of the weekend. That is, on Friday the #70 which was on the list of Michelin options was not at the circuit. It only arrived on Friday night with planned availability to the riders on Saturday.

THE SAFETY COMMISSION'S VETO

But that availability never happened because in an unprecedented decision, the Safety Commission on Friday afternoon decided to veto that extra front tire. Claiming the next day’s weather forecast, the short time available and the confusion that could be caused by having so many combinations possible—four fronts and three rears—the riders forced the Race Commission to accept the decision.

The number of riders attending that Safety Commission meeting isn't clear, since the figures given to us ranged between 13 to 17. In any case, it was approximately half of the starting grid that made the decision. Rossi was not present at that meeting, and from what some of those there told us, no one objected to it. This is an important nuance: none opposed is different than all in favor.

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Michelin MotoGP race boss Nicolas Goubert was left with a lot of explaining to do when the disagreement regarding the unexpected "fourth option" front tire exploded into a full-blown controversy that enveloped the whole paddock at Termas de Rio Hondo.Photo courtesy of Michelin

By vetting a tire proposed by Michelin, the Safety Commission imposed a technical decision that in truth had nothing to do with safety—which is the reason for the commission’s existence.

And while some of the opposition, led by Pol Espargaró, were clearly and vindictively against it, others, as was the case with Márquez, preferred to adopt a position of "no intervention.” Be that as it may, in the end the tire that on paper could have helped Rossi leave his current crisis behind was rejected.

These were the pure and hard facts; Now to the "conspiracies".

But before that, one detail: the Race Commission learned of that available fourth tire only when the riders requested the commission's presence to announce their decision about it.

THE CONSPIRACY

A decision that immediately divided the paddock into good and bad. And who was on one side or the other depeded on the speaker. It’s not easy to explain, but here goes:

On one side were those who saw Michelin's decision to casually bring a front tire that matched Rossi’s demands as a move favoring the immensely popular nine-time world champion. Those same people explained that it wasn’t a well-known front tire, and he "already has enough here to do what he wants.”

On the other side were those who saw the Safety Commission as a council of anti-Rossi forces, an organized group that one of these supporters dared to call the “Andorra Clan,” referring to the group of riders who have residency in that tiny country in the Pyrenees. A group that includes the Espargaró brothers, Bradley Smith, Héctor Barberá, Maverick Viñales and others.

Both sides understood that their positions were nothing more than a consequence of the given situation. And the schism was not only opened between the riders, but throughout the paddock and even among journalists, where there was a moment when the objectivity that we are supposed to have was lost by some. A strange situation without a doubt.

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The Bridgestone vs. Michelin Method
Memories fade quickly, so the comment that was heard in Termas that "These things didn't happen with Bridgestone," is, again, a half-truth. Of course there were problems with Bridgestone, some of them serious, but it's no less true that there is a substantial difference between how each is managed.
The Bridgestone management never gave room for discussion because the tires were manufactured in Japan, or in the Japanese style, with Bridgestone deciding what tires were to be used at a particular GP a month or two ahead of time, and those were the tires they had, period. In fact, hard compounds were more unusable than usable, so the riders had no alternatives.
In Michelin's case, it seems that the French manufacturer is constantly attempting to prove their production prowess and speed of reaction that Bridgestone could never even think of. Michelin has proven over time on this return to the championship they can produce new tires and send them to the other side of the world in almost a week. And it seems that with this strategy they complicate things for themselves. An "insecurity" that seems unnecessary, because after some understandably doubtful beginnings, Michelin supplies a material that allows the riders to go faster and faster with a rate of crashes that is more than acceptable. Something on which all the riders currently agree...
Photo courtesy of Bridgestone Motorsport

QUESTIONS

And who was right? The answer is neither. To understand this let’s look at the half-truths and partial facts one by one.

Indeed, in spite of all the explanations, it is unquestionable that Michelin was inappropriate in introducing an unknown and unauthorized tire that was—if I may—"Rossi intended.” I’m honestly not able to say if it was a subterfuge move, or a consequence of the post-Qatar study by the Michelin engineers in Clermont Ferrand. So, in this case, allow me to resort to that of "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion"—and that was not the case at Termas.

In the same way, I don’t believe the "official" reasons the riders alleged to reject the availability of that front tire, and even less the attributions that were given as reasons for the decision over a technical aspect of such magnitude from a commission that oversees rider safety. The given reasons should have been discussed between Michelin and the teams, as well as the Race Commission. The number of tires available has nothing to do with safety. Were four too many to be tested on Saturday? The answer seems obvious: there was no obligation to test them all.

And finally, how is it possible that the management of the entire show was not “aware of what was cooking until the food burned?” How does Michelin decide to change the number of available tires and management finds out only on Saturday, when at the collective press conference on Thursday the issue had already been put on the table?

THE FUTURE

If anyone thinks that the topic of the #70 tire ended at Termas last weekend, they are mistaken. Goubert's nebulous answers to the question regarding if the already famous tire was going to be introduced again at COTA as an option to test only fueled the half-truths theory.

"We are evaluating it," was his vague answer, and when asked if there was a chance that the tire brought to Argentina was in Austin, his response was "not the compound used here"—leaving the door open to the possibility that the #70 is in Texas, but with a rubber that suits that track’s characteristics. We heard all this after asking and re-asking the same things in twenty different ways. It is precisely this lack of clarity that ends up generating and fueling the polemics and conspiracy theories.

Michelin’s lack of clarification on whether or not the vetoed tire will be in Texas in 15 days didn’t help dissipate the sensation of vagueness in this matter...why not explain things as they are?

In view of the things seen and heard in Termas, my bet is that later somehow Valentino Rossi will have access to this tire that could help him regain the confidence he lacks at the moment. A situation that, honestly, seems dangerous to me. Not because it's Rossi, of course, but because if you open the door to this manner of managing crises, I'm afraid that Michelin will end up having an influence on the outcome of races. Note that I say influence, not control. Today, a tire is proposed to help a rider out of the crisis; tomorrow, someone else may knock on the door for help and Michelin could well ignore him—a scenario that one rider lobbed at Loris Capirossi in the tense meeting on Friday night in Argentina.