Panic is too strong a word to describe Wayne Rainey’s state of mind in the middle of the 1991 500cc World Championship.
The weight of the number 1 plate on his Yamaha YZR500 hadn’t slowed down the defending world champion when the season began. He finished third in what many consider the greatest 500cc race of the modern era, the 1991 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. Kevin Schwantz won from Mick Doohan with Rainey third and John Kocinski fourth, all covered by 0.556 seconds.
A continent and two weeks later Rainey beat Doohan on the Queenslander’s home track at Eastern Creek. Another two weeks later and on the third continent in a month, Rainey beat Doohan by nearly seven seconds on his own home soil, Laguna Seca Raceway. The blonde-haired kid with the surfer’s good looks from southern California was on a roll.
The battle for the 1991 500cc...
The battle for the 1991 500cc world title came down to Rainey and Doohan, Yamaha versus Honda, but more importantly: Dunlop versus Michelin. Here Rainey leads Doohan during their battle at Jerez, before Rainey dropped back due to front tire problems.
Then began the heart of the championship, the 11-race European swing, starting at Jerez. From the pole position, Rainey could do no better than third, 13.5 seconds behind Doohan, and 4.5 seconds behind his teammate, the mercurial Kocinski. The pattern repeated at Misano; Rainey on pole, Doohan winning big over Kocinski. But this time Rainey was down in ninth, and over a minute behind. It would be his worst finish of the year. Rainey regained his form in Germany, but lost out to Schwantz in an epic battle. Then Rainey lost out to Doohan by 0.185 seconds in Austria. By now he’d gone four races without a victory, the longest stretch of the past two years…and he knew why.
“I remember we were having some tire issues with tires out of round in some previous races,” Rainey recalls. “I remember I blistered a front tire in Jerez, when Kocinski beat me. And just in general, the performance, there was a problem there. And Kenny (Roberts) was sniffing around about Dunlop’s commitment and wondering what Michelin was up to,” and not for the following season — but to finish out the 1991 campaign. “When you’re in the championship battle, you want the best, especially of the tire companies.”
At the end of the 1990 season,...
At the end of the 1990 season, Michelin announced that it was not only temporarily halting development of its motorcycle racing tires, but also that it would only supply the Rothmans Honda team. This put both Yamaha’s Wayne Rainey (left) and Suzuki’s Kevin Schwantz (center) on Dunlop tires, as they battled Mick Doohan (right) and his Michelin-shod Rothmans Honda.
Dave Watkins was in charge of Dunlop’s racing efforts at the time (and up until his retirement a year ago, after 46 years with the company). A former bicycle racer, Watkins is a soft-spoken Englishman from just outside Birmingham, where Fort Dunlop is located, who’s been blessed with a marvelous equanimity; he sees problems as challenges to be solved, a chance to learn, to expand your way of thinking. Nearly 18 years since Rainey’s retirement, Watkins speaks with reverence of the three-time world champion, who he calls “Wayner” (Rainey is prominently featured in a gallery of champions on the stairwell in Watkins’ home in Sutton Coldfield).
“As far as my tire engineers go, I really had a special connection to him. He was fun,” Rainey says. “Even if we were in a good situation with our tire combination at a particular race, I still knew he was doing everything possible to try to give me the best chance of winning. His passion for winning was as strong as mine. And he knew that tires were going to be a huge part of the win or the loss. And so we won together and we lost together; he was a part of my team.”
The string of tire problems...
The string of tire problems suffered by Rainey early in the season persuaded Marlboro Yamaha team owner Kenny Roberts (foreground) to approach Michelin about switching to the French brand in midseason. Although Dunlop responded and Rainey won the 1991 title, Roberts switched the team to Michelin in 1992.
Watkins believes Rainey was one of his most insightful riders, able to quickly analyze a tire’s benefits and able to detect the smallest variation. “Wayne didn’t need a big difference to find a difference,” Watkins said. “And that’s basically the difference between a great champion and someone who isn’t. They get down to the detail much quicker. They know what’s happening underneath them.”
The making of a tire is a mixture of components, experience, and black magic, in equal parts, and Rainey knew this. He didn’t always know what made the tire different, only that they were measurably different. And that heightened his appreciation of Watkins and Dunlop.