So, testing is over and the winter test ban can start. Riders who intend to race in 2016 are banned from testing between 1st December 2015 and 31st January 2016. Engineers now have a long winter ahead of them to try to make sense of the data gathered at the test at Valencia and Jerez, or else send their test riders out in the chill of winter, as Aprilia intend to do at Jerez in a few weeks. Those engineers have an awful lot of work ahead of them.
The men and women at Ducati will be getting the most time off over the holiday period. It is clear from the first two tests that the Italian factory has hit the ground running with the new unified software, and have the systems working relatively well. One Ducati engineer reckoned that they were already at about 50% of the potential of the software, far more than the 10% MotoGP's Director of Technology Corrado Cecchinelli had estimated at Valencia. The fact that Scott Redding topped the final day of testing at Jerez on the Pramac Ducati GP15, a couple of tenths faster than Marc Márquez and the only rider to crack into the 1'38s, is proof enough that Ducati have the situation under control. (For a full list of unofficial times, see below).
Redding has been impressive throughout the test, and was a very happy rider after Friday. "The good thing for me is that I feel comfortable on the bike," Redding said. "I know what's going to happen. Today I nearly crashed at the last corner because I tried to force the front a bit but it didn’t want to. The bike was talking to me. When you have a good feeling like this you also have a bit of confidence. You know what’s going to happen." Last year on the Honda, the RC213V did anything but talk to him. Whenever he tried to go faster, he would go slower. Now, on the GP15, he was fast, knew he could go faster if he pushed harder.
Have HRC made the same mistake again? In 2015, the Honda RC213V was a nasty beast to tame, suffering with an excessively aggressive engine. The engine was probably the single most important reason Marc Márquez could not mount a realistic defense of his second title, forcing him to try to make up in braking what he was losing in acceleration, and crashing out as a result. At the Valencia test, all eyes were on Honda's new engine, to see if they had finally fixed the problem.
Valencia turned out to be a little too complex to make a real judgment. The switch to spec electronics and Michelin tires introduced way too many variables to be able to filter out a single factor, Honda engineers taking a long time to extract some kind of consistency from the new unified software all MotoGP bikes must now use. The 2016 RC213V engine seemed a little less aggressive, but the new software made it hard to tell. The current test at Jerez was supposed to give a clearer indication, with HRC's engineers having a better handle on the unified software.
Though the verdict is not yet in, it is not looking good for the 2016 engine Honda brought for the tests in Spain. Both Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez have reported the engine as still being too aggressive, and difficult to manage, though the engine character has changed. "Last year's engine was aggressive in the top," Márquez told reporters after the second day of testing at Jerez. "Now we have more power in the bottom, but still we don't understand the way to deliver this torque. It looks like aggressive in the bottom, but then smoother in the top compared with last year." The key will be finding the right balance between the top and bottom end.
The final day of testing at Valencia was a repeat of the first day: a lot of crashes on the Michelin tires, the factory Hondas, Yamahas and Ducatis working on the brand new spec electronics, the satellite bikes and the Suzukis working on their own 2015 electronics. For the Suzukis, that was not such a problem. The new electronics were likely to be an improvement on their own electronics, both Maverick Viñales and Aleix Espargaro said, so missing out now was not such a problem. Suzuki have another test planned at Sepang at the end November, at which they plan to switch the 2016 unified software. With two days of Michelin testing under the belt, testing the spec software should be easier.
Choosing to wait until Sepang could be a smart strategy. There, with more time and test riders to help, Suzuki will have the resources to make quicker progress with the spec software. Honda, but especially Yamaha, showed that progress was possible, both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi saying that their second day on the spec electronics had been much better than the first day. "Yesterday, the thing was it was just a check out of the system to understand how they work in which corner, but the power was not done to have the best performance," Jorge Lorenzo said. "We work on that for the next morning and I felt it was much better and I improved during all the day quite a bit." Valentino Rossi agreed. "From yesterday to today already the situation improved a lot. It is still not at the same level for sure, but it looks like we can improve I think quite quickly."
The 2016 MotoGP season got underway this morning, as the sound of MotoGP bikes out on track echoed round the amphitheater of the Valencia circuit, chasing away much of the bitterness and recriminations left hanging there in the wake of the 2015 season showdown. With new bikes, new tires, new electronics, and new and old riders on new and old bikes, there was much to look forward to. It felt like MotoGP had a future again.
With new tires and new electronics, many teams had chosen to forego too many changes to their bikes, but there were still some novelties out on track. Honda had brought a 2016 bike, complete with a new engine. Factory Yamaha had an intermediate version of their 2016 bike, complete with fuel tank moved to the rear of the bike. Despite Gigi Dall'Igna's assurances yesterday that they would be testing nothing new to concentrate on the Michelins, Andrea Dovizioso confirmed that he had tried a new chassis.
At Suzuki, they spend the day working on adapting to the tires, and gathering more data for the 2016 bike. Engineers in Hamamatsu are getting that ready for the Sepang test – at least, that is what Maverick Viñales and Aleix Espargaro are hoping – a bike that will produce more horsepower and have a fully seamless gearbox.
There was some shuffling of faces and equipment in the satellite teams, with bikes being wheeled from garage to garage, and a few riders moving along with them. The happiest moment of all for riders like Eugene Laverty and Jack Miller was to wave goodbye to the Honda RC213V-RS, a bike which one rider referred to as "a piece of ****". Miller jumped onto the standard RC213V, and was immediately delighted by Honda's electronics. Laverty, meanwhile traded his Honda Open bike for a Ducati GP14.2, and was immediately impressed by the red-shirted Ducati staff who had invaded the Aspar garage, a real contrast with the Honda. That had been a real customer bike: you paid your money, and you took your bike, and you were left to get on with it on your own.
They say that truth is stranger than fiction. The more pressing question is how to distinguish between the two. Narratives are easily created – it is my stock in trade, and the trade which every sports writer plies – but where does stringing together a collection of related facts move from being a factual reconstruction into the realms of invented fantasy? When different individuals view the same facts and draw radically opposite conclusions, are we to believe that one is delusional and the other is sane and objective? Most of all, how much value should we attach to the opinions of each side? Do we change our opinion of the facts based on our sympathy or antipathy for the messenger?
That is the confusion which the final round of MotoGP has thrust the world of Grand Prix racing into. What should have been a celebration of the greatest season of racing in the premier class in recent years, and possibly ever, was rendered farcical, as two competing interpretations of a single set of facts clashed, exploded, then dragged the series down into the abyss. Bitterness, anger, suspicion, fear, all of these overshadowed some astonishing performances, by both winners and losers. Looked at impartially, the Valencia round of MotoGP was a great day of fantastic racing. But who now can look at it impartially?
There is nowhere left to hide. On Sunday, it is time for the men and women of Grand Prix racing to stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, and lend their eyes a terrible aspect. Much is at stake: a Moto3 title that really should have been wrapped up by now; a MotoGP title rendered complicated by the impetuosity of youth and old age; and just sheer thirst for glory in Moto2. Glory is what is at stake in all three classes, what young men and women dedicate their lives and sacrifice their bodies and their time to chasing. Sweet victory is there for the lucky few, the bitter draught of defeat for the rest.
It looked like the cards had already been dealt ahead of Sunday's race when the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected Valentino Rossi's request to have his three penalty points suspended. Then Rossi came out swinging on Friday and Saturday, not his usual eight or ninth times, and a struggle to make it through to Q2, but strong pace from the outset and competitive times. "I've been impressed with how fast he's going," Nicky Hayden said of Rossi after qualifying today. "He's looked very solid. We know he's a nine-time champion because he's fast on Sunday, but he's come out of the gate, might not be breaking track records, but compared to a normal Friday, Saturday, he's looking strong."
Then came qualifying. Rossi had earned passage to Q2 by right, and had told us on Friday he would be treating qualifying the same as he had every weekend, pushing hard for a fast lap. Rossi seemed to have the upper hand going into Q2, especially as Jorge Lorenzo was clearly suffering with nerves. He forgot to take off a tear off in the pits, then spent long seconds trying to sort it out with his assistant, before finally leaving the pits in a bit of a fluster. Not a good omen, we all thought.
We are creatures of habit in the paddock. After having had our biorhythms put out of whack by a wild and weird Thursday, having bikes on the track on Friday brought us all back into line, and restored a sense of normality to MotoGP. This was a race weekend once again, and the arguments and backbiting have been put aside for a moment.
Though the return of racing motorcycles going fast around a circuit brought some joy back to the paddock, the day was also tinged with sadness. Two events punctuated the day, celebrating two mighty monuments of the paddock, who depart for pastures new. At lunchtime, Nicky Hayden was inducted as a MotoGP Legend, with a ceremony and a brief press conference. In the evening, Bridgestone held an official soiree to take their leave of the paddock, as they ended their role of official tire supplier.
A Farewell to Arms
Hayden was given a warm reception, a full press conference room calling in to pay their respects to a rider who has gone through a tough couple of years. He went over all of the old ground and answered questions he has faced a million times with the same dignity he has shown throughout his time in MotoGP. Best moment? The championship in 2006, of course, when he captured the dream he had been chasing since he was old enough to know what he wanted to do with his life, become a world champion. The two wins at Laguna Seca, and victory at Assen, when Colin Edwards threw the race away in the final chicane.
Thursday at Valencia was one of the strangest days in MotoGP that I have known since I first started covering the sport professionally. Maybe it's just the fact that the usual schedule was disrupted. Every race weekend has a rhythm: on Thursday, it's a late start, then rider debriefs, then a press conference, then work; on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, it's an early start, watch practice, rider debriefs/press conferences and then work.
That rhythm was wildly out of sync at Valencia. Earlier start, Moto3 press conference, HRC press conference, a couple of rider debriefs. Then an unnatural lull, as the riders headed into the press conference room for their meeting with the Permanent Bureau, consisting of Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta and FIM president Vito Ippolito addressed the MotoGP riders and their team managers. Ten minutes after the riders started streaming through the paddock on their way to the meeting, they were all heading back out again.
What happened in the meeting with the Permanent Bureau? The first rule of meeting with the Permanent Bureau is don't talk about meeting with the Permanent Bureau, apparently, as no one was willing to tell us about it, apart from some platitudes from Jorge Lorenzo about it being interesting to get different perspectives from people to get new ideas. Not that anyone truly believed that the riders came out with new ideas, but still.
Here is the one thing which everybody has wrong about Valencia: the 2015 MotoGP championship isn't over by a very long chalk. Whether Lorenzo qualifies on pole or the front row, whether Valentino Rossi starts from his qualifying position or the back of the grid, the championship won't be done until the last rider gets the checkered flag. Everything is still to play for.
Why is the championship still wide open? Because Valencia is a fickle mistress, with a record of throwing up more than one surprise. Both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo have won here, and both men have lost championships here. Both men have dominated, and both men have crashed out. Races at Valencia are rarely straightforward, throwing up startling results more often than not. Throw in a spot of unpredictable weather, and anything can truly happen.
The cause of those surprises? Running a race at the beginning of November in Valencia means the weather is always a gamble. Even when it is dry and sunny, as it is expected to be this weekend, the cold mornings and strong winds can cause tires to cool, turning Valencia's right-hand corners – few and far between – into treacherous affairs. If it rains or is damp, the wind means a dry line forms quickly, turning tire choice into a gamble.
Seven days ago, we were talking about how the 2015 MotoGP season will go down in history as one of the greatest of all time, with the Australian Grand Prix as its glittering highlight. A week later, we saw its low point. There were some truly remarkable and admirable performances in all three classes. Dani Pedrosa confirmed his return to form with a formidable victory, his second of the season. The arm pump surgery has been a huge success, and if Honda can resist the temptation to build an unrideably powerful engine, Pedrosa will be back in title contention again next year. Johann Zarco proved once again he is the class of the Moto2 field, stalking Tom Luthi all race and riding to the very limit of physical endurance to snatch victory from what seemed like a foregone conclusion. And Miguel Oliveira demonstrated that he is capable of dominating the second half of the Moto3 season the way that Danny Kent dominated the first half, denying the Englishman the title and taking the championship to Valencia.
The trouble is, those stunning performances were overshadowed by one of the ugliest weekends of racing we have seen in a very long time. The tragedy may not have been physical this time, but it was tragic nonetheless. Three great champions let their masks slip at Sepang, revealing the egotism, spitefulness and petty rivalries that underly their success. And the fans added insult to injury, booing at a result they did not like.
So we shall skip past the victory by Dani Pedrosa, failing to shower him with the praise which he deserves. We shall overlook the stunning ride by Jorge Lorenzo, passing riders at will and subduing everyone but Dani Pedrosa. Instead, we must focus on the battle for third, the clash between Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez. On the breathtaking battle that went sour, after Rossi finally lost his cool at Márquez' provocation and unwillingness to surrender, and precipitated Márquez' crash.