Michelin have been celebrating a landmark event this year and rightly so, because it's 25 years since Michelin introduced the radial tire, which has made an important contribution to motorcycle performance and safety ever since. Back then we didn't guess that radial tires would quickly take over from the old cross-ply design.
But Michelin clearly knew they had come up with something special, because they organized the most ambitious press launch I've even known and, fortunately, invited me to take part. Five grand prix stars – including Wayne Garder, who would win that season's 500cc world championship – and five journalists rode in a blind test at Donington Park, in which Michelin's new 59X radial tire was pitched against four leading cross-ply competitors.
The fact that Michelin were prepared to stake so much money and credibility on the launch and to persuade five of their top racers to take part, shows just how important the radial tire's launch was – and how confident they were of its superiority. Either that or they had organized a fraud that would have ruined the company. Michelin's confidence sprang from the fact that, along with the earlier introduction of tubeless design some years earlier, the radial tire introduction was the biggest thing that had happened to tires since John Boyd Dunlop had developed the first inflatable tire 100 years earlier. Radial tire construction allowed significantly lighter weight, which, in turn, allowed improved feel and grip.
Michelin was the leading grand prix tire brand in the '80s, so their race-developed radial tire technology sounded promising. Even so, I was dubious when receiving the invitation to Donington. I've never had much time for conventional tire launches, at which journalists of widely ranging ability ride round on the new rubber before typically going home to write that the tire 'seemed to work well', with little or no basis for comparison.
But this launch was different: a blind test, at which each rider would use the same motorcycle all day, riding two sessions on each make of tire before awarding ratings in six categories: stability, braking, handling, grip, comfort and confidence. Tire makes were given code letters; the running total was displayed on a scoreboard opposite the pits; the winning tire's identity would be revealed to several hundred press and trade guests at the end of the day.
As you can imagine, the chance to spend the day thrashing round Donington with a bunch of GP heroes was a thrill, though not without frustration for me. I was allocated a Kawasaki GPX1000RX, which was big and heavy, but would have been fine. But my motorcycle's front forks had a habit of locking almost solid under had braking, a problem that changing its front wheel, fork oil and brake fluid didn't cure. My lap times were erratic until Kawasaki produced a substitute GPZ.
From then on it was fantastic fun. Honda team-mates, Gardner and Haslam, on CBR600F and VFR750F respectively, were play-racing and leaving black lines out of the bends. Winner rode his Yamaha FJ1200 into a gravel trap on his first lap, then had half its footrests swan off for more ground clearance. My best moment was passing 500cc championship leader, Gardner, although admittedly he'd just come out of te pits and soon carved back past.
At the end of the day, the Michelin PR man's boldness proved justified. The Michelin 59X won all six categories, proving the radial tire superiority – and forcing the other manufacturers to hurry development of their own alternatives. I can't recall such an ambitus and high-profile product launch in all the years since. Perhaps, that's because there simply hasn't been a product that has improved so many motorcycles so dramatically.