Fear and retaliation pervaded the month of June in AMA Superbike racingnot because of the riders, the teams, or even the manufacturers. Rather, the dark mood was propagated by the two tire companies that dominate AMA Superbike racing, and Superbike racing worldwide: Michelin and Dunlop.
Dunlop has perhaps as much as eighty-five percent of the tire market in AMA Superbike and a full ninety percent of the all-important factory level AMA Superbike scene. They supply tires to Smokin' Joe's Honda, the Yoshimura Suzuki, factory Yamaha, Harley-Davidson, Vance and Hines Ducati and Muzzy Kawasaki teams, and a total of eleven riders.
Michelin supplies just one factory team: the Ducati team run by Fast by Ferracci.
This is a win-lose situation for both rubber manufacturers. Dunlop plasters decals on bikes and sponsor patches on some of the most well-recognized and successful names in the paddock; you can't swing a drunken umbrella girl anywhere in the pits without hitting something with the big yellow D on it. It's great exposure.
But supplying that many riders with product, and the manufacturing and logistics of handling that many tires is expensive and taxing even to a fairly large multi-national company such as Dunlop. There are compounds and constructions and sizes that must be catalogued and tested and, of course, disposed of once the weekend is over.
This is an enormous undertaking and not one without potential disaster and marketing death following just one wrong evolutionary move; choose an incorrect path in the development department and six teams and eleven riders are wasting their time and manufacturers are wasting millions of dollars trying to keep the pace.
Also, it's difficult just trying to keep that many riders contented, trying to convince them that they are getting their share of the best tires.
Trying to placate that many riders and teams is the proverbial cross Dunlop's Jim Allen must bear. When things are good, riders love him; but riders are a fickle lot, with very short memories. And even shorter career spans.
Michelin, on the other hand, has an easier time of things. With just one team and two riders to supply, Michelin France confers with Eraldo Ferracci about what works, and they load the cargo area of a trans-continental jet with the best product they have on hand and Ferracci delivers the tires to the races, most of the time, and has one of the Michelin contracted suppliers mount and balance the rubber.
Then Ferracci, Mladin and Michelin go racing.
No one else to please, no other team's needs dictate which direction development will head. What matters to Michelin is what Mat and Eraldo need, not what six teams and eleven riders need. Needless to say, Mat and Eraldo get what they need. To my memory, Mladin has yet to complain this season of tires going off or of failing. Rumor has it he gets the same grade Michelin tire that Carl Fogarty does. Mladin denies this.
The downside of Michelin's small US presence on the Superbike scene is that while Dunlop is almost over-run with numerous feedback sources--namely, teams, riders and engineers, Michelin has but two men they can get any type of feedback from: Mat Mladin and Eraldo Ferracci.
In June the tire situation began with the status quo; Dunlop and Michelin at each other's throats supplying (arguably) equal product in dry conditions. There were no cases of riders from opposite camps pointing at each other and saying, as eloquent riders will say, 'Those mothers got some sh*t.' When riders feel the other side has an eminently better tire, they get an expression on their face like they're nine years old and somebody just blew through their sidewalk lemonade stand with floored Buick.
At Elkhart Lake's Road America, the mothers at Michelin, as those eloquent riders would say, found some of that, uh, stuff, and the sound of a full-throttle Buick dragging a card table and homemade sign was heard in the Dixie-cup strewn distance.
Mladin came to Elkhart with a supernatural front Michelin tire that did whatever he or the Ferracci Ducati asked of it. It was the talk of the paddock after the race. His pass of Chandler and DuHamel in turn five was incredible, hard on the brakes and far beyond any comfortable range in late-braking. With all of the weight of the bike standing on the front tire, Mladin carved a line around his rivals, far off the racing line, and was gone.
Chandler tried to make his Dunlop front tire do the same and almost crashed. DuHamel wasn't worried so much about his front tire; it was his rear at this point causing him concern, but he still couldn't get the Dunlop front slick to do anything approaching Mladin's magic Michelin.
Chandler seethed as he watched the magic through the visor on his Arai helmet; Mat's front Michelin was an like an X-Acto knife in the corners, while his Dunlop was a sliding handful. DuHamel's Dunlops failed. Mladin won the race.
After Road America, the phone lines were buzzing. The talk from California to Milwaukee to Philadelphia was that Chandler wasn't out-ridden or out-horsepowered as much as he was out-tired and that Michelin had sent over a phenomenal new slick for Eraldo and the boys to fit to Mat's Ducati and with it Mladin was untouchable.
Disparaging words and looks were thrown in Dunlop's direction. Based on feedback from the racing departments, manufacturers held water-cooler meetings in which their alliance with certain tire companies was questioned. For manufacturers, the components of a race team that they are not directly responsible for are like bolts that can be unscrewed and replaced, if the parent company in Japan approves. Rider not motivated? Screw in another one. Fuel not giving the dyno numbers you require? Find another supplier. Tires not hanging with the competition? Explore other avenues. And they did.
At Loudon Mladin cut up the track with his X-Acto Michelins again, but his win was no doubt aided by his Ferracci horsepower as well. For Chandler and DuHamel, however, the Dunlop tire situation remained no better. Chandler's tires were a mess, as were DuHamel's. After the race Honda was patient with Dunlop, telling them that they'd seen the good times, now perhaps this was just an instance of some of the bad times that had to come sooner or later in racing. Kawasaki was said not to be quite as understanding and conversations between tire engineers and the team were not amicable. The tension had to do with two simple facts: no one is in racing to lose and you're only as good as your last result. Kawasaki wasn't about to go willingly down a path where Michelin was in the lead.
Politics also played their part. Several factory squads are on Michelin tires in the Japanese home market Superbike series. This means that a good portion of the in-Japan development work done by the Japanese factory is done on Michelin tires, which in turn means the off-site teams either join up with Michelin to keep the information metric throughout the entire world-wide factory racing organization, or you add the phrase 'but they?re on Michelins' to each development bulletin faxed to America and wonder how to interpret the info. There is a very strong movement by many of the Japanese racing departments to get all their teams on the same tires ... Michelins.
Brainerd helped Dunlop's case. Chandler's bike failed before the tires had a chance to and DuHamel went on to a triumphant win. Mladin's Michelins and Ducati were balked and with a slower motorcycle in front of him, the X-Acto knife front wasn't any help, at least not at Brainerd. DuHamel was below the lap record for a portion of the race and it seemed as if Dunlop was turning the tide. Or maybe Mat just had a bad day.
The World Superbike round at Laguna Seca in July meant that Dunlop had essentially two camps in America, the Dunlop arm that supplies all of their World Superbike teams and the Jim Allen-run US operation. The net result of this is that all Dunlop engineers and teams had an opportunity to converse and trade notes, if not actual product. And the tires used by Chandler and DuHamel at Laguna Seca were a step up from what they'd used there for the AMA race in April or at Brainerd. Both Chandler and DuHamel were competitive at Laguna Seca with the works teams.
Back in AMA racing just weeks later, the Laguna Seca WSC race benefited the entire Dunlop paddock at Mid-Ohio. It doesn't make financial sense to fly cargo-loads of tires to America for one race and then fly them back to Europe after the race. A multitude of WSC-spec tires stayed in America after Laguna for all the Dunlop factory Superbike riders to utilize. This was the break Dunlop needed.
At Mid-Ohio Chandler followed Mladin into turn six, a medium-speed right hand corner with nary two racing lines through it. Mladin braked, kept braking and turned the bike in a mili-second. Chandler, who we had seen time and again at other venues try to do the same and fumble, this time braked, braked more, tipped the bike in and followed Mladin, directly on the same line. DuHamel followed them on exactly the same line.
"The Dunlop tire worked well," Said the enigmatic Doug Chandler after the Mid-Ohio race. "I couldn?t have asked for a better tire than what they gave me today."
The leap-frogging in the tire war is again on a fairly even plane ... With both companies on the same level, although one full step up from where they were in April. That will not last.
No doubt Bib the Michelin man is at this very moment loading rubber products on a plane leaving Paris for New York that will intimidate the very life out of the multitude of Dunlop riders in the AMA series.
And in England or Japan, Dunlop has a new rear in development that is said to . . .