It’s tempting to think we’ve never had it so good when it comes to bike tyres. Compared with the rubber from ten or fifteen years ago, the levels of grip, wet performance, handling and stability of modern tyres are stunning.
It’s not just the raw performance that impresses though – the operating envelope of most road tyres has widened massively as well. When I started riding nearly 30 years ago, a touring roadbike tyre would have no chance of working well on a proper sporty Sunday blast, while a super-sporty fitment would be a disaster on a wet commute. Nowadays, you can easily ride your bike to nine-tenths on the road with a tyre that works well in the wet, and still lasts for a full season’s riding.
If you want to go proper bananas on a track though, you still have to pick something specifically designed for the job. Take a big, 200bhp superbike onto a committed track ride, with a normal road tyre, and you can soon find the limits of the rubber. Even the sportiest of road tyres can struggle in those conditions – and many trackday fans end up fitting slicks for the ultimate performance.
But we’re here in Qatar to try out a possible solution. Michelin’s launching its new Power RS tyres here, and the French firm reckons the new hoops combine useful sporty-road-riding abilities with ultimate circuit performance. That’s to say, they offer a decent level of wet performance and mileage, yet they can also do the business when riding hard on a track.
The secret is down to a new carcass construction, plus new rubber compounds, and a cunning multi-compound arrangement on the tread layers. On the rear tyre, for example, the carcass has a main ply layer which covers the whole tyre, then folds back up over itself again through the sidewall. That lets Michelin have a flexible tread crown area, while stiffening up the sidewall zone, to optimise both grip levels, and stability under acceleration.
The tread pattern looks fairly minimal, but the techs tell us that it’s been cleverly optimised for wet performance: the amount of grooving is at its maximum at the typical wet lean angles. Which makes sense when you think about it: if you don’t lean over to the edge of the tyre when it’s wet, you don’t really need water-clearing grooves there – so you can have more rubber on the deck in dry cornering situations with maximum lean.
The Michelin techs have been working on the new tyres for two years they tell us, and they’re very excited that we’re here to give them a try. I’m pretty excited too – Qatar’s Losail MotoGP track is a proper job, and the row of bikes in the pit lane is as serious as cancer. Every bike is a recent litre-class superbike – Kawasaki ZX-10Rs, BMW S1000RRs, Yamaha R1 and R1Ms, Honda Fireblade, Aprilia RSV4s and Ducati Panigale 1299s. Yum.
We start off at a gentler pace though. Michelin’s also launching the RS in a range of small bike sizes, for the burgeoning 300cc supersport class. The smaller tyres have a bit less tech in them, but Michelin reckons they still raise the bar massively in this important sector. We’re bussed out to the car park, to a micro-sized version of Losail laid out with cones and white lines. Three laps of this on a KTM RC390 is the plan, followed by a wet-braking test through a giant puddle laid by a water tanker.
I’m first out, and while it’s hard to make any real judgement on the tyres from such a short run, I don’t fall off the little 390 round the mini-Losail, despite my best efforts. The wet braking test is impressive though – I hammer the brakes on with abandon from about 30mph, and the KTM just stops, without any ABS interference or hiccups. Fair enough.
The next riding session promises to be much more informative. There are two sets of identical bikes laid out on pit lane – one set with Michelin’s old Pilot Power 3 supersports tyres, and another set with the new RS rubber. The plan is to go for three laps on the old rubber, then three laps on the new ‘uns, and we should get a firmer idea of the difference. I jump on an S1000RR and off we set.
Now, the old Power 3s weren’t really a legendary tyre, and they never caught the imagination, swamped a little as they were by better fitments from the opposition. But they’re pretty decent on the first few laps today at Losail. We have a Michelin rider in front to lead us round, and while he was going fairly steady, I still get a good impression of the Power 3s. I’ve been to this track before, albeit a long time ago (the 2008 Fireblade launch), so I have a rough memory of where it goes, and the Power 3s feel fine. Nothing spectacular, just like a normal road sports tyre with good grip, fast-ish steering and the odd wobble when you get hard on the gas, or make a wee mistake mid-corner. The three laps are done quickly, and I’m back in the pits to swap onto an identical S1000RR, using the new RS tyres.
Back out on track, and it’s fair to say there’s a big difference. The BM instantly feels much more like a track bike, especially at the front end. There’s a new sense of stability and plantedness, with a very precise ‘on rails’ feel through Losail’s turn one. Yet you get an instant response to your steering inputs – a very good trick indeed. The Michelin man (one of the SERT Suzuki endurance racers) is going a bit quicker, but we’re still being a little bit steady, so I’m not sure about the grip from the back end just yet. There’s plenty available, but it’s hard to tell if it’s much better than the old tyres.
The second session finishes, all too quickly, and we break for dinner at the circuit. We’re riding at night (obviously!), partly to avoid the perishing heat of the day, but also because it’s cool (ha) riding under floodlights. My memories of Losail are now fully reinforced, and I’ve got a pretty solid idea of the layout now, as we finish our hummus and flatbread, and don our still-damp, sweaty riding gear for the main part of the riding test.
I can’t find my earplugs, and by the time I dig them out, all the ‘premium’ bikes have been snapped up by the other journos, gah! I’m not complaining too much though – there’s a very nice ZX-10R sitting free, and a 200bhp+ superbike with gas forks and full electronics is more than enough to keep me happy.
Out we go into the night. There’s no instructor now, so I can get stuck in and try as hard as I like. I’m a little cautious at first mind – I’ve got my health insurance all paid up for the trip, but there are stories of journos crashing the day before, and someone ending up with two broken legs, erk. I don’t fancy testing the Qatari NHS out, so I’m building up pace gradually. The front tyre is feeling as good as on the BMW earlier though – stonking grip on the brakes, and a load of communication in the bends. Down the Space Shuttle landing strip that is Losail’s main straight, there are no wobbles when hard on the gas, and when you hit the brakes hard at 285kph for the first corner, the front end of the big Kawa is supremely assured. Indeed, the only worry I had at the bottom of the straight was an illogical sense of mechanical sympathy for the poor brake pads getting hammered into the discs at full chat…
Halfway through my 20 minutes, I’m pushing harder and harder, and the Michelins just get better and better. I’ve got no worries about them at all, and where on a normal road tyre you’d start to get little warning signs that you were taking the piss a bit, these just got on with it. It’s no exaggeration to say I felt as comfortable as I would have done on a decent set of slicks – I can get on the gas as soon as I fancy, brake late and deep, and generally push this 200bhp superbike like it was a 600. It’s beguiling stuff, and I’m very impressed indeed.
But then I’m suddenly very knackered indeed. Manhandling a big bike round this big track is hard work, and I’m more than ready for a wee rest as the red lights come on and the flags come out. Back into pits for a gallon of iced water, and a sit down to gather my energy and my thoughts. I’m keen to get out again though, on another bike, to see if I can find any flaws in the Power RS.
I’ve definitely learned one lesson though, and before the other group comes back into pits, I’m ready to go, with my earplugs in, and I grab an R1M before the other journos. We’re sent out, well-spaced, for a final 20 minute run round.
The R1 feels much more different to the ZX-10R than you’d maybe expect. Of course, the crossplane-cranked motor lends the power delivery a torquier feel, but the Yam also feels slimmer, taller, harder – more like a race bike. I feel like I’m a little more relaxed than on the Kawa, but am still pushing as hard as I can. That totally-compelling front end feel remains, and it seems like you can just take liberties whenever you want to. Braking at the end of the mini straight before the last bend gets later and harder, and it appears you can’t fall off, no matter what you get up to. Ditto the back end – the R1 motor gives a stack of grunt much lower down the rev range than the ZX-10R, and you can really feel the back end digging in. Again, the comparison with slicks comes into my head, the total assurance that these tyres aren’t at their limits yet, no matter how hard you’re pushing them.
The session’s over, and we’re flagged into the pits for the last time. I jump off, and the mechanic and I give the rear tyre a quick once-over. It looks utterly, utterly fried, with big snotters of rubber balling up all down the right hand side and massive, cut-up rough patches. The tech makes approvingly Gallic noises and gives me a thumbs-up as I thank him for his help. I can’t quite believe that a tyre which looks this destroyed has just carried me round this track with such aplomb though. Extraordinary stuff.
So there you have it. The new Michelin Power RS works incredibly well for a reasonably quick-ish rider, on big bikes, at a proper track. Will it be as good as a road tyre? We don’t know yet – but I’ve got a set in the UK to try out, and will be giving them a razz round some local highways and byways ASAP.
In the meantime, though, if you’re looking to try a new road-legal track tyre, these new Pilot Power RSs are most definitely worth considering…
*The Power RS tyres are available now. More info here.