2014 Barcelona MotoGP Test Round Up: Yamaha's Busy Schedule, Ducati's Shortcomings, And An Alternative Track Layout
It should hardly come as a surprise that Marc Marquez should be fastest man on the day at the post-race test at Barcelona. The Spaniard has been the standout of the season, and for him to be fastest, even at a track where he has not dominated like at others, is starting to become par for the course. More of a surprise is the name of the man in second. Bradley Smith came up just four hundredths short of Marquez, making up for a mediocre race on Sunday, caused by a tire which was not performing as expected. The first thing Smith did when he started testing in earnest this morning was to try the same tire he used in the race. It was a tire which had already been used on Saturday, yet he was immediately as fast as he was in the race, and ended up going four tenths of a second faster on the same tire. Smith had something to prove, and matching Marquez' time did just that. Now he just needs to replicate it in a race.
Smith's improvement came mainly from a better engine braking strategy. All of the Yamahas have been trying to match the braking performance of the Hondas, with the Tech 3 Yamahas a step behind having only the first version of the seamless gearbox, not the 2014 version which allows clutchless downshifts. Smith found a big improvement in engine braking which allowed him to brake deeper and later, and match both Dani Pedrosa and Stefan Bradl when he rode behind them.
Jorge Lorenzo was third fastest, and the factory Yamaha was the garage which saw the most action. Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi both tried a preliminary version of the 2015 engine, with more power to attempt to take on the Hondas. That extra power came at a price: the engine was more aggressive, making it more difficult to control, and causing the bike to move more. Neither man particularly liked it, but there is still another nine months before the 2015 season kicks off to fix it.
The two Yamaha men also tried a new exhaust from Akrapovic. The new exhaust is shorter and carried lower, exiting from the belly pan more like a Yamaha YZF-R6. It provides a little better throttle response off the bottom of the rev range, which both Rossi and Lorenzo felt was a positive. The good news is that they can use the new exhaust from the next race at Assen, where it will help provide more drive out of corners. Though they did not say so, no doubt the position of the exhaust is also significant, moving weight more towards the center of the bike. The sound is also different, a little deeper.
The Movistar Yamaha team have now moved on to Aragon, where they have a private test. That test will be conducted completely behind closed doors, where it is believe that Lorenzo and Rossi will test the initial version of the 2015 bike. That is in itself slightly remarkable, as neither man has a contract with Yamaha for next season. Rossi is on the verge of a new two-year deal with Yamaha, likely to be announced at the next round. Talks with Lorenzo have only just begun, and it may be that the test is an attempt by Yamaha to show the Spaniard that his best option is to remain where he is, despite the promise of a big money contract elsewhere. Better to have a bike he can win on, rather than collect a pay check on an uncompetitive machine.
Which brings us, ironically, to Ducati. The factory Ducati riders did not have much to test, just some minor electronic upgrades. Both Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow will have to wait until the Valencia test – and signal their commitment to continuing with Ducati first – before they get a glimpse of the new bike being built by Gigi Dall'Igna. That leaves both men resigned to their fate, Dovizioso more easily accepting of it that Crutchlow. But then again, he's had a year's experience with the Bologna factory to get used to the situation.
Their alternative, should either one or both decide to leave, is Suzuki, but it is a not a choice which is free of risk. Randy De Puniet finished the test two and a half seconds off the time of Marquez. There were mitigating factors, as Andrea Dovizioso pointed out. The MotoGP regulars had already spent three days on track and had a race, while Suzuki have only just turned up, and De Puniet was on his first day of riding at Barcelona. De Puniet was also what Dovizioso called 'a strange rider'. 'I think Randy is a really fast rider, but also difficult to analyze,' Dovizioso said.
Watching from track side, you would be forced to agree. I stood watching at Turn 7, a point where you can watch the riders arrive through Turn 5, flow downhill toward 7, then up and through the kink of Turn 8. It is a complicated section where riders hold the line, then brake, turn hard and then flick the bike right up the hill. Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi, Stefan Bradl were all consistent, hitting the same points lap after lap. De Puniet was much less consistent, seemingly taking a different line every lap. This was a complaint aimed at the Frenchman when he was still riding, but it makes it hard to judge the level of the Suzuki. The bike appears to be able to turn, but whether it can hold a line or not is open to question. With De Puniet not racing, it is also conceivable that he has lost a little speed, the kind of speed that only the adrenalin rush of racing can provide. Suzuki were testing a new engine, and continuing to work on the electronics.
What they really need is a seamless gearbox, which judging by the shift noises it does not have. This is also a problem for the Open class Forward Yamaha, and something which left Aleix Espargaro a little despondent. He had tested the Forward Yamaha chassis, and had been pleasantly surprised. The frame was better in turning in slow corners, allowing him to brake later than with the Yamaha chassis. In faster corners, the Forward chassis could not quite match the Yamaha chassis, however. The new electronics were an improvement, but the problem remained the same: from 0-200 km/h, acceleration was suffering because the Open Yamaha does not have a seamless gearbox.
The riders also tested a couple of items that did not come from their factories. Almost everyone tried a new front tire, which sits between the medium and hard in compound. It was universally well received, a big improvement on the hard front which was too stiff. It gave sufficient support in braking, and also helped the bike to turn. The tire is meant for Sepang, but there were calls for it to be introduced as soon as possible.
A select group of riders – selected on the basis of being bothered to test it – tried out the Formula One layout at Turn 10, or as the riders refer to it, Turn 9, the teams regarding the kink between Seat and Wurth as just that, rather than a corner requiring a number. The La Caixa corner is exemplary of the corners around circuit, and is the scene of much overtaking. However, it also has too little run off, and no room to make more, as the wall abuts the inside of the section between the final two corners. Too many riders are hitting the wall when they crash there, and there is little the track can do about it. The only option is to run the Formula One layout, which features a much slower corner many yards before the current La Caixa corner.
Reception was mixed. Everyone agreed it was much safer, the argument was over whether it was an improvement. Marc Marquez liked it, saying that it added to the variety of corners on the track, but he was clearly in the minority. Most did not like it, saying it was too tight to be fun. Valentino Rossi refused to test it, describing it with four-letter, excrement-related word after having tried it in a Formula 1 car several years ago. However, everyone agreed that it might produce more overtaking, as the harder braking meant riders had more of a chance to attempt a pass. Whether this will be implemented next year remains to be seen, but it is clearly a sign that things will change in years to come.