Spec Tires - Are They Necessary?

Putting everyone on the same tires seems to be all the rage these days—but is it good for the sport?

It began as a rumor that slowly pinballed from one end of the Motegi press room to the other. By the time Carmelo Ezpeleta, the genial CEO of Dorna (the Spanish company that has the promotional rights to the MotoGP World Championship), was able to receive a trio of English-language journalists a day later on the morning of the Japanese Grand Prix, his proposal-which had sparked a firestorm when it first appeared late Saturday on the official MotoGP website—was well known and exhaustively debated.

"The problem is the result of the races," Ezpeleta said. "The impact on the show has been very bad." So he floated the idea of spec tires in MotoGP. The reactions were almost equally split between condemnation and commendation. And now the proposal is being considered for the AMA Superbike Championship.

Casey Stoner was largely responsible for the MotoGP curveball. The 21-year-old Australian was not only winning, he was winning by big margins. But more importantly, Valentino Rossi wasn't winning. The seven-time world champion is the consummate showman; if he chases the leader for most of the race and makes a pass on the final lap, he is hailed as the conquering hero. And so everyone sticks around to see how the races end.

But when Rossi was winning tires weren't an issue. A few years ago Bridgestone was still maturing and not a consistent threat, but that changed dramatically in 2007. The world's largest tire company builds tires that work over a wide range of temperatures, unlike Michelin, which builds very narrowly focused tires due to the French company's C3M-process "overnight specials." These were tires built with data gathered during Friday practice and shipped to European venues from Michelin's headquarters in France for the race on Sunday. When the tire companies agreed to restrict the number of tires for each event in 2007 to 14 fronts and 17 rears—including two qualifiers—and force riders to make their choice on Thursday, it played into Bridgestone's more versatile rubber. Said Fiat Yamaha's Colin Edwards at Motegi, "This weekend's a perfect example. I had five tires that I chose, but four of them are absolutely junk. Absolute junk. I wouldn't give those to my worst enemy and make him race them. One luckily happens to work, and that's where we're at." But it also meant they wasted much of Saturday practice and qualifying on tires that were worthless for gathering data or racing.

Bridgestone tire boss Hiroshi Yamada agreed versatility was their aim. "This is one of the targets with our tire, a wide range of working for the compound, construction also. I think if we are talking about the range of the temperature, I think the compound is more important than construction."

The twists and turns in the days following the Motegi GP weekend suggested that Bridgestone would end up being the sole supplier, even though Yamada was against it. "This has not been decided yet, but if they decide to go to one-make rule, then I'm very disappointed," Yamada explained. "If we have no competition then I won't have the same feeling that I did today when we won the championship."

But in the end, Bridgestone got another premier rider for 2008, Michelin ramped up its program, the tire restrictions were loosened and the show went on. Ezpeleta brokered a deal three weeks later that put Rossi on Bridgestone tires (his teammate Jorge Lorenzo will remain on Michelins). The Italian press reported that Ezpeleta visited Rossi in his hotel room, where Rossi threatened to quit if he didn't get Bridgestones. Whether the story is true or not—and a fair number of paddock wags believe it is—it illustrates the drawing power of Rossi. No one else commands that much attention, certainly not the Repsol Honda team, which was convinced to stay on Michelins after rider Dani Pedrosa pined for Bridgestones.

The conditions were similar to when the World Superbike series organizers, the Flammini Group, decided to go to spec tires. In 2003 Michelin was supplying tires for two bikes, the Fila Ducati factory team of Neil Hodgson and Ruben Xaus, who did most of the winning and finished one-two in the championship. James Toseland was third at a deficit of 115 points. And it had been that way for a few years. Even the top Dunlop riders had product that the down-fielders couldn't get. The grid was spread out and the racing was predictable.

The first hint of change came early in the season. Maurizio Flammini warned the tire manufacturers that if they didn't change their policies, he'd have to take action. The Flammini Group proposed that each manufacturer had to commit to 60 percent of the paddock with its best tires. The lack of response on the part of the tire manufacturers forced Flammini's hand, and he quickly pushed the spec-tire rule through (the contract went to Pirelli, which Dunlop discovered by reading Motorcycle News).

The lack of competition has clearly stagnated tire development in WSBK. Even today, four seasons on, not all of the lap records have been broken. Neil Hodgson's lap of 1:35.007 from Valencia 2003 still stands. The best Pirelli time so far was set this year by Yamaha Motor Italia's Noriyuki Haga at 1:35.356. Compare that with MotoGP, where Rossi's '03 lap of 1:33.317 has been repeatedly eclipsed and now goes to Pedrosa's 1:32.748, set this past November.

When the World Superbike Championship visits Miller Motorsports Park this summer, the riders will run on the shorter, 3.06-mile Outer Course, which the AMA has used for the past two years. The AMA moves to the 4.5-mile Full Course. Track general manager Alan Wilson says it is to prevent direct comparisons between the two series. Dunlop road race boss Jim Allen thinks there was corporate pressure involved. "It's no accident that we're going to Miller and we're having a different racetrack than the WSB guys," he says. "And Alan Wilson can say it's his idea all he wants. I don't believe it."

AMA Pro Racing is considering moving to spec tires in 2009, though the organization vehemently denies it if asked. In the second half of 2007 there were several proposals floated by the AMA's road race manager, Morgan Broadhead. Some ridiculed Broadhead for his ideas, but his approach was a refreshing change from the standard AMA secrecy. Among the proposals was one that would have all tire companies homologating five tires at the start of the season. For each race the companies would choose two tires and a safety tire and bring them in enough quantity to supply all of their riders, whether factory or privateer. (Because of the nature of the track and tires, Daytona would be exempt). Essentially each company would have control tires. Unfortunately Broadhead suffered serious head injuries practicing for a WERA race in Florida. He was in a coma for 17 days and has since returned to his parents' home in Utah for intensive speech and physical therapy. He won't be able to continue his duties and won't immediately be replaced.

"I'm not bothered either way. I think it would be fine," Yoshimura Suzuki's Mat Mladin says about spec tires in an e-mail. "We are basically spec tire in Superbike now anyway." Will it enhance competition? "No!" he writes emphatically. It won't change the results. "We are basically spec tire now. All the factory teams use Dunlop."

Dunlop supplies its best development tires to all the Japanese factory teams in the AMA series, while also providing tires to MV Agusta and Jordan Suzuki. All the Dunlop teams are on allocation. They're given a set number of tires for the season; above that, they pay. Given their rapidly rising testing habits, many pay a lot extra.

"The one thing we've worked very, very hard at, the one thing we pride ourselves on, is supplying the same tires, same specification, to all of our contracted teams," Dunlop's Allen says. "Essentially in the case of Superbike, it's all the teams." In addition Dunlop allocates tires to Celtic Racing, Erion Honda, Graves Motorsports Yamaha, Matsushima Performance and others. For some privateers it can be the difference between racing and not racing. Erion Honda's Jake Zemke credits Dunlop for allowing him to continue racing in 1998 when he was on his own.

"In Jake's case, anything with a tread pattern on it was a good tire when he started," Allen laughs. Zemke agrees. "I turned my DOTs into slicks. When I was a privateer in '98 doing everything on my own, I was fortunate enough to have some support from Dunlop," he says. "When I rode 750 Supersport as a privateer for the first time, Jim Allen wanted to help me out, gave me tires. If I'd had to pay for tires I wouldn't have been able to race. As it was we already missed three races."

What Zemke isn't against is competition. "If another company wants to come in to supply Superbike tires, great. I think the competition is great. It's good for the bike manufacturers; it's good for sales. They want to win on Sunday and sell on Monday. They want to be able to put out ads that we won the Daytona 200; we won this Supersport championship."

Given its history in World Superbike, it's no surprise that Pirelli supports control tires. Christoph Knoche, Pirelli's North American racing "channel" manager, says, "Generally speaking, we support it." And though he says he can't speak for the company, they will bid on the AMA series if asked.

Pirelli doesn't race in the Superbike class. Without any of the top teams, the company knows it can't win. Pirelli-supported teams are given an allocation of tires, but with Superstock running on 17-inch wheels there are no specific Superbike tires (which run on 16.5-inch wheels). Team M4 EMGO Suzuki's Geoff May rode in 11 Superbike races with a best finish of fifth at Daytona. Most of the time May was using the races as practice for his Superstock effort.

"We are not in Superbike at the moment because we don't see the point in racing against full factory teams," Knoche says. Because Pirelli doesn't have a presence in the AMA Superbike class, it relies on World Superbike as its development arena. "We get a chance to try it on all different bikes, which normally we don't get," he says. "We get Superbike, Supersport, Superstock. We get the advantage out of this proving ground on standard production tires which we sell." But, Knoche admits, competition does breed excellence. "Put it this way, if somebody comes up with an awesome tire and you have to beat that person, you have to develop a little faster.

"Racing now in AMA I normally say [Dunlop has] a 15-year advantage against Pirelli. So we have to keep up and we have to close the gap, but we want to win really fast. With control tires you can slow that down, but you take results from that into normal development, which we sell to people that are racing against other tire manufacturers which have to be up to date."

The British Superbike championship announced on December 13, 2007, that it had chosen Pirelli as its control-tire supplier. BSB went to a spec tire for many of the same reasons as WSB. Michelin supplied the HM Plant Honda team, which won the past two championships. Dunlop supplied the other factory teams but not the privateers.

Why Pirelli was chosen over Dunlop isn't known. BSB series director Stuart Higgs says the two offers were essentially the same. Likely it had something to do with Pirelli's experience in WSB-a party to the contract talks says the contract was based on the WSB contract, with Pirelli sizes.

With Dunlop being marginalized out of MotoGP-the Tech 3 Yamaha team went to Michelin for 2008-the company was hoping to split its development between BSB and AMA. Now all development of the British product will be done in America. But what happens in 2009? Will Dunlop be out of the worldwide racing picture? The decision will be made some time during this year.

The AMA Superbike Championship doesn't suffer because of the tires. It suffers because Ben Spies and Mat Mladin are dominating like no two riders ever have. Between them they won every race in 2007 and all but one race in 2006.

Dunlop opposes spec tires on a number of fronts, mostly due to their effect on development. "That's one of the big downsides as we see it. It doesn't foster development; it stagnates racing and therefore stagnates the transition to street tires," Allen says.

The Yamaha Tech 3 MotoGP team helped develop Dunlop's STQ line of tires that first showed up at this past December's Daytona tire test. With the loss of the Yamaha Tech 3 team, Dunlop lost its best development ground with the best riders and the most horsepower. If the AMA went to a control tire and Dunlop didn't get the contract, it would find itself out of racing in the biggest market in the world.

"I think that our view basically is we've never solicited, never encouraged spec racing. We race for competition," Allen says. "And we've never asked anybody to look at that; we've never asked any favors in that regard. So the company policy, as long as I've been with the company, has been to oppose spec-tire racing. What we want is open competition.

"Having said that, if we are presented with a situation where spec tires are called for, we'll fight to protect what we've built over the years. We'll fight to keep what we've built, whatever that means."

The support-class tire situation is more even. Pirelli has made strong inroads in Supersport and Formula Xtreme. The highlight was its one-two finish in the '07 Daytona 200. In Supersport, at least, privateers are on more equal footing. "The fact of the matter is that in virtually all of the Supersport races this year, the tires that we sold to the AMA privateers are the tires that [Jamie] Hacking and [Roger] Hayden and [Josh] Herrin and the rest of them were using," Allen says.

When Michelin came in to support Ducati's factory team in 2004, it quickly learned how difficult it was to make tires for the AMA tracks. The company that had won nearly every premier-class grand prix and championship for a dozen years could muster but one victory. Still, Dunlop took the threat seriously enough to fly in tire technicians and engineers from the U.K. for every race.

"Tires are pretty specific for the tracks we race on here," Zemke notes. "It forces manufacturers to build us better tires to last longer, be safer, have more grip. If I'm on spec tires, what's the driving force behind development? There's no reason for the tire manufacturer to continue developing if it's a spec tire. With nobody pushing them, how hard do they need to try?"

Only time will tell.