Honda vs Yamaha: Cal Crutchlow Helps Explain Why The First Corner Decides The Race
Jorge Lorenzo has won the last two MotoGP rounds in utterly dominating style. Though his win at Mugello was by a greater margin, the victory at Barcelona was one of the most impressive of his career. Afterwards, both Lorenzo's team manager Wilco Zeelenberg and Monster Tech 3 rider Cal Crutchlow said of the Barcelona win that it was probably one of the best races he had ever ridden. Lorenzo had made only one mistake, the Spaniard said afterwards, and it was so small it did not even show up on the data.
As he had done at Mugello, Lorenzo ensured that he won the drag race to the first corner, aggressively outbraking Dani Pedrosa to take the lead. From that point, he held the Hondas at bay until Dani Pedrosa finally broke, the Yamaha man going on to win by nearly two seconds. It was the second race in a row which Lorenzo had led from the start and gone on to win the race. In fact, all three of Lorenzo's wins, at Qatar, Mugello and Barcelona, have come in the same manner: Get into the first corner in the lead, push hard in the early laps, and ride as perfectly and as fast as possible throughout the entire race. There is simply no one else in the world capable of riding a motorcycle for 25 laps at full speed as well as Jorge Lorenzo at the moment.
As impressive as Lorenzo's wins have been, the one thing they have lacked is spectacle. There has been no drama, no battles, no need to defend, and the only place Lorenzo has needed to attack has been off the line, an area perhaps aided by the new clutch Yamaha have been using for this year. Does Lorenzo not enjoy the battle, is he incapable of holding his own in a battle, or is it down to the bike? It is a question which is debated by fans around the world, with an answer apparently hard to give.
The real explanation lies in the design approach which Honda and Yamaha have taken, and the way the bikes force their riders into a particular approach. The Honda's strength is horsepower and acceleration, as it always has been. The goal of HRC's engineers has been to build a bike which stops and starts well: stable on the brakes, to allow riders to wait as long as possible before applying the anchors, and with strong acceleration to get out of corners quickly, and good top end to motor past their rivals. For Yamaha, the focus has been on maneuverability and handling, as it always is. The goal is to make a bike that is as easy as possible to manage under all conditions. The Yamaha makes good power - top speed is only down a fraction on the Honda and Ducati - but horsepower is a secondary consideration.
These two approaches also mean that Yamaha and Honda use the tires differently. The strength of the Yamaha is that it can carry a lot of corner speed for a long time, gaining time through the corners, and getting the maximum out of the edge grip of the Bridgestone tires. The drive of the Hondas means that they use the fatter section of the tire, a centimeter or two inside the edge. The difference in approach is visible in riding styles, with Lorenzo smooth and flowing, while Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez hammer into the corner hard, get the bike stopped, turn it as quickly as possible and then lever it up, so that they can get on the gas and start to accelerate. The two different styles also mean that each bike can have an advantage at different circuits, depending on which tire Bridgestone have brought. If the tire has been built for edge grip, the Yamaha will do better; if the tire is aimed at providing drive, Honda benefits. Though Bridgestone try to provide a tire which allows as broad a range of riding styles as possible, finding a perfect balance is hard at some circuits.
Yamaha's decision to build a bike which can carry as much corner speed as possible is a tactical one. In theory, maintaining a high corner speed is the fastest way around the track: any speed lost in braking has to be gained again in acceleration. Minimizing the speed lost means the bike can exit corners faster, and needs less horsepower and acceleration, placing less stress on engines and using less fuel. With limited resources, however, Yamaha have spent more time focusing on handling and corner speed, and less time and money working on acceleration. There is nothing much wrong with the Yamaha engine, but when compared with that of the Honda, they are clearly outgunned.
Yamaha's focus on corner speed is both its strength and its weakness. With less power off the bottom end of the rev range, the Yamaha is at a disadvantage if forced to give up its corner speed. Where the Honda powers out of the corner, the Yamaha is simply not as quick.
After the Barcelona race, Cal Crutchlow explained to reporters how he saw the advantages and disadvantages of Yamaha's design philosophy. His problem, he explained, was that he kept getting stuck behind the Hondas, and that made it hard to ride the bike the way it needed to be ridden. "When you're with other riders, that's the problem," he said, "When they brake, you're in their air, or they take different lines, they brake in different places. Don't forget, when you're racing somebody, you normally brake where they brake. Or a little bit after if you want to pass them or whatever. So you get lured in to what they do."
The only way to avoid this, Crutchlow explained, was to get out in front at the start and lead from the beginning. "You don't really see Lorenzo coming from behind and passing any more," Crutchlow said. "He leads in the first corner and that's it, finito." This is also the weakness of the Yamaha, and the reason the Hondas posed such a threat, Crutchlow said. Lorenzo only really has one way of winning. "I don't think the Yamaha is able to come from behind any more. I think we lose if they're ahead, we lose on acceleration a little bit," the Tech 3 man said. "We saw in Qatar, when I was sat behind the Hondas, if you're behind them, it's so difficult to ride behind them. If you're in front of them, like Jorge was, or [if you have a clear track] like Valentino was coming from 5 seconds back, you ride your own race, you can easily [go faster]. It was the same in Mugello: at the start of the race, we couldn't ride behind them, and then as soon as they slowed at the end of the race, I could come up on them, because I've got clear track [ahead of me]. That's very similar to what the way Lorenzo rides when he's alone in front."
This does not mean that there is only one style which suits the Yamaha, however, Crutchlow explained. "If you look at mine and Valentino's style, we're very similar, but we're different to Lorenzo. And up to a certain point, we can go as fast as Lorenzo, so it can be ridden in a different way. It's just the way Lorenzo rides it, as I've said many times before."
This clash of design philosophies does not bode well for Yamaha in the long term. At Qatar, Valentino Rossi could get past Marc Marquez and hold off his attacks, but then that was the Spaniard's very first MotoGP race. At Jerez, Marquez showed how to use the Honda's horsepower to make up for mistakes. Three times he overshot the hairpin at the back straight, and three times, he was back with Jorge Lorenzo within a few turns. Some of that is down to the Honda, though a large part is also down to Marquez' incredible ability to recover from mistakes. While making up for mistakes is possible on the Honda, it is a much more difficult matter on the Yamaha: Valentino Rossi got into the first corner too hot at Qatar, and it took him many laps to start closing the gap again.
Though the Yamaha is still arguably capable of setting the fastest theoretical lap around the circuit, their reliance on corner speed means that Jorge Lorenzo needs to get into the first corner in the lead. If Dani Pedrosa or Marc Marquez can get ahead of him, it is very hard to retake the position. Lorenzo may be able to brake later, but if he does so, he will lose out on acceleration. Though Yamaha have worked hard to improve this area, it remains the weakest point of the bike compared to the Honda. It could end up being the Yamaha's Achilles heel.