“Hard compound” “Soft compound” “Hard compound” “Soft compound” “HARD COMPOUND” “SOFT COMPOUND” “Hard compound” compound” “Hard compound” “Soft compound”

The only thing in the history of motorsports commentary even more tedious than tyre strategy was refueling strategy, and if we have one thing to thank global climate catastrophe for it is saving us from any more of that.

Points of note : there are still many Tyre manufacturers based in their origina countries. Firestone is still American, Michelin is still French, Pirelli is still Italian. The obvious stand out is inevitably, Britain with Dunlop one of many many national brands discarded like an old raincoat in the Thatcher era.

Are Tyres a ecological nightmare? Yes. Tyres are still a product of dead dinosaurs though and some sort of alternative will have to be found to them. There is work on this, using food waste as a substitute instead of petroleum products.

Even with artificial tyres however there will be no alternative to the commentary on them and their choices, because they are genuinely vital, arguable as vital as the machinery being used to  push them around the track.

How vital are the choice of tyres? Well here are two obvious exceptional instances.

In almost every instance of a ‘Tyre War’ in a motorsports championship, where more than one type of tyre manufacturer is available for the teams, (last time in F1 it was Bridgestone vs Michelin), one choice is invariably massively superior to the other and all teams on the lesser rubber may as well not have shown up for the races at all.

Valentino Rossi is (currently) the Greatest of All Time in MotoGP and was dominant up until about 2016 when his race performances and confidence began their sad decline to his presumed near retirement today.
What changed in 2016 to so affect the greatest motorcycle racer of all time?
MotoGP switched from slide friendly Bridgestone tyres to stickier but less forgiving Michelines.

Just from a personal perspective if you have gone directly from really bad cheap tyres to good ones, particularly on a motorcycle, you will immediately understand the attention they get. The patch of tyre that makes contact with the road for a bike is about the size of the palm of your hand and the sudden and imediate confidence you get from good rubber is a real surprise. When I went from the original fitment to Bridgestones on my Triumph 900 I thought I was riding a different machine entirely.

Formula 1 currently uses Pirelli. Pirelli had a mainly unsuccessful rivalry with Goodyear in F1 up until 1991 when they finally threw in the towel having won just three times in 210 races since 1985. New regulations imposed grooved tyres on Goodyear in 1997 and they left the sport with a dominant record. Pirelli returned to replace Bridgestone (who developed an uncomfortably close relaionship to Ferrari in the meantime).

In a championship striving desperately not to look like a one make series, and introduce more strategy and variables, the current Pirelli’s are apparently designed to provide a real choice in progressive tyre wear, hence the attention devoted to them in the commentary. The variety of tyre choice in F1 has effectively replaced the variety in engine constructors and configuration seen the in the near standard ‘power unit’ we currently have. The emphasis has gone from managing the metal to managing the rubber.

WSBK and BSB do not use Michelin but Pirelli, which is another hidden variable which makes the jump between MotoGP and WSB far harder that it might appear at first glance.

MotoGP and Formula E use Micheline. Micheline previously supplied F1 until a spectacular fall out following the infamous 2005 Indianapolis GP race, in which Michelin failed to provide tyres which could safely race on an oval track.

With no opportunity for pit stops the skill of managing the tyres in bike racing is mainly down to the rider and again effective management of your rubber can make as much of a difference as the rest of the bike. At Philip Island 2019 Cal Crutchlow and Jack Miller where surprised to spot the rest of the grid choosing soft rubber on what they considered to be an abrasive surface. They both went for harder compounds and though they rarely ran near the front during the course of the race they eventually finished in 2nd and 3rd. Some of Mark Marquez’s absolute dominance in MotoGP, on a machine which is neither the quickest nor the easiest to ride, is obviously down to supernatural management of his grip, which can be seen in his frequent last lap surges to victory.

A real unknown factor which can figure in motorcycle sport from Michelin and Pirelli is bad quality control. When you hear riders complain about tyres sometimes this is a result of genuine, dangerously substandard rubber delivered to the race teams. As detailed here by Matt Oxley, quoting Cal Crutchlow

“… The quality control is really, really, really a problem. We show our data to Michelin; we show them that with 20 per cent throttle at that point of the corner this tyre has got more spin than the other tyre with 50 per cent throttle. But apparently both tyres came from the same batch. Some will be good, some will be bad… you get what you get and you have to deal with it.”

When you are already racing some of the most dangerous machines on earth to the limit you really don’t want to have to consider your palm sized contact with the road turning into liquorice just because quality control at the tyre supplier isn’t what is should be. (It would seem this is not currently a problem in the higher sporting latitudes of Formula 1)

To be fair some of this is exacerbated by the riders. The article reference above features a real dig from Crutchlow at fellow British rider Scott Redding, for abusing his tyres for fun with burnouts to such an extent that Michelin subsequently introduced much harder, more robust compounds.
Some riders covet their rubber ans when it is possible to see a direct comparison between them in one championship it is easy to see the successful riders dividing into factions based on their chosen tyre manufacturer.

In The Golden Age of World Superbike AKA Back In The Day (aka the 90s) riders could easily be split into the Michelin guys with superior grip up to the limit with their precise riding style, and the Dunlop guys with less grip who could powerslide around the circuits as if drunk on their own coolness. I have some audio from an interview I did with peak era Anthony Gobert, lecturing on the subject of sliding the rear, which makes every surfer I’ve ever heard sound like Sheldon Cooper.

Formula E also uses Michelin, which is a challenge as often they are designing rubber for racers which don’t currently exist. This at least allows them a few good stabs at their old friends at F1 “We started off with an 18inch tyre – that made the most sense because its a good size for road tyres. Formula 1 uses 14-inch tyres, which makes no sense because it’s too far from what we have in normal life. We want to have this link with reality because we want to use competition to understand and to test new technologies.” That’s Serge Grisin Michelin program manager – for Formula E.

So why is the coverage of rubber so non sexy? Like so much of motorsports knowledge it is presumed to be known by the fan because most fans are presumed to already be engineers and petrol heads even before they have a chance to be. This blog seeks to address some of that
Am I saying this blog is for soft headed liberal arts students who never saw Daddy strip down a clutch in front of them? Yes, yes I guess I am.