American riders have played a huge part in the success of Michelin in motorcycling’s premier-class World Championship. Six legends from the USA have won a total of ten 500cc/MotoGP crowns with Michelin tyres over the past quarter of a century.
Michelin’s American roll of honour:
Freddie Spencer (Honda-Michelin), 1983/1985
Eddie Lawson (Yamaha-Michelin), 1986/1988, (Honda-Michelin) 1989
Wayne Rainey (Yamaha-Michelin), 1990 & 1992
Kevin Schwantz (Suzuki-Michelin), 1993
Kenny Roberts Junior (Suzuki-Michelin), 2000
Nicky Hayden (Honda-Michelin), 2006
The first member of Michelin’s American winners was Fast Freddie Spencer, who won the 1983 500 title aboard Honda’s first two-stroke GP bike, the NS500 triple, then followed that with his 1985 success aboard the company’s NSR500 V4. And the man from Louisiana has played his part in the success of the nation’s latest World Champion, Nicky Hayden. Hayden regularly visits Spencer’s High Performance Riding School facility to keep in track trim and get advice from the former world champion.
Hayden says: “Normally I always go down to Freddie’s facility to ride during the winter and sometimes I ride there during the summer break too. I always talk to Freddie every few months because he does understand the riding side of things.” This year Hayden has been fine-tuning his riding style to suit the new breed of 800cc MotoGP bikes, which require higher cornering speeds: “I’ve changed my riding a little bit, I’m not out of line so much getting into the corners and fighting the bike.”
Spencer didn’t just win the 1983 and 1985 500 world titles with Michelin, he also won the 1985 250 crown, making him the only man in history to win concurrent 250 and 500 titles. And during this time he played a huge role in the development of Michelin’s first radial racing tyres, the ancestors of the company’s current radial street tyres, like the Michelin Pilot Road 2.
“From a tyre standpoint, the radial was the biggest improvement in my career,” says Spencer who used Michelins for all his 20 500 victories, as well as his seven 250 successes. “As a rider you look for grip, you look for feedback and you look for endurance, and the radial improved all those areas, and it definitely had an impact on other areas of motorcycle design. The first thing I noticed with the radial rear was how much more grip and stability I had in high-speed corners, and I could pick up the throttle earlier, which was something I'd always worked on.”
Eddie Lawson was the next rider to make history with Michelin. The quietly spoken but stunningly fast former dirt tracker won the 1986 and 1988 500 titles with Yamaha, then switched to Honda to take the 1989 crown, becoming the first rider in history to win back-to-back 500 titles on different makes of machinery.
The Americans were the first riders to bring sideways action to the World Championships, utilising the skills they’d learned on US dirt track ovals to devastating effect in GP racing. Wayne Rainey was arguably the most spectacularly sideways rider in 500 history.
“As a kid, being sideways was as normal as riding in a straight line,” says Rainey, who learned sliding and throttle control from the earliest of ages. “When I started roadracing in the early eighties, I didn’t know if it was right or wrong but it was what I felt comfortable with. If the tyre wasn’t spinning and the bike turning, I didn’t feel right. When I switched to Michelin in 1990, those tyres changed everything for me. All of a sudden, I just had so much grip, but I could still spin the thing when I wanted to.”
Kevin Schwantz’s 1993 success was the USA’s sixth straight title in the 500 World Championship, but after the Texan took the number one plate it was to be another seven years before another American would achieve the same honour.
Californian Kenny Roberts Junior won the 500 title in 2000, becoming the first son of a former champ to win motorcycling’s greatest prize. KRJR’s dad King Kenny Roberts had won the 500 title in 1978, 1979 and 1980.
Roberts Junior has used Michelin tyres throughout most of his premier-class career, and with good reason. “Michelin has always been great at producing tyres that give good, consistent grip from start to finish,” says Roberts, who rode through the sport’s biggest technology shift in 2002 when the championship switched from two-stroke 500s to four-stroke 990s. “Michelin’s first four-stroke GP tyre was amazing, it was the biggest step forward I’ve ever had from a tyre. It’s the consistency, the turning, the feel and the grip – the tyre just feels so good and natural. The thing is that all bikes with Michelin tyres are so good at the end of races that if you want to beat the other guys over those last few laps, you’ve got to set the bike to work well on used tyres.”
Reigning MotoGP champ Nicky Hayden has used Michelin tyres since he first came to MotoGP in 2003, direct from lifting the US Superbike title. Winner of three MotoGP races, the former dirt tracker has had a difficult start to his title defence but was back on the podium at June’s Dutch TT, which he finished in third place. “Michelin don’t win all these races and world titles by being lucky, they put in the work and take the information from the riders,” he says. “We’ve seen a lot of improvements since I first came to MotoGP, like the bigger front we used last year, the 16 in front which we’re using this year and the wider profile rears. I just really like the grip, the handling and the consistency the tyres give to me.”
This year at Laguna Seca Hayden goes for a hat-trick of US GP victories aboard his Michelin-equipped Repsol Honda RC212V.