Phillip Island is a very special race track. That has an upside – it rewards courage and talent, and has provided some spectacular racing – but it is also special in the more pejoratively euphemistic sense of the word. It challenges not just the riders, but motorcycle designers and racing teams as well. Above all, it challenges tire manufacturers: with wildly varying temperatures, strong winds blowing in cool and damp air off the ocean, an abrasive surface, high-speed corners, more left handers than right handers, and the most of the lefts faster than the rights. It can rain, be bitterly cold, be bathed in glorious sunshine, or in sweltering heat. Try building a tire to cope with all that.
After last year's fiasco, both Dunlop and Bridgestone tried to do just that. They came to the track in March to test tires and gather data to build tires for this weekend. The only minor problem is that the test came at the end of Australia's long summer, and temperatures were much more congenial than now, as the country emerges from its Antipodean winter. The tire selections brought by Dunlop and Bridgestone are much better than last year, but they are not quite perfect. At any other track, that wouldn't be a problem. At Phillip Island, even being not quite perfect can land you in trouble.
That tires are an issue was evident from the number of riders who crashed, both in MotoGP and in Moto2. Most crashed in right handers, a lot going down at MG, which would be one of the most difficult corners of the year wherever it was located, but a fair few followed suit at Hayshed, the right hander that follows on from Siberia (the most aptly named corner on the calendar) and precedes Lukey Heights. There were crashes at the Honda hairpin as well, the other right hander, where hard braking is at a premium.
Temperature played a role in both Moto2 and MotoGP. With track temperatures around 35°, it was a little too warm for the extra soft front tire, and not quite warm enough for the soft tire. Making it much more difficult was the wind, sucking away any heat the riders managed to get into the right side of the tire. The asymmetric front, which has a softer compound on the right side, was a little better than the symmetric version of the same tire, but even then, the right side rubber was a little too hard, some riders felt. Aleix Espargaro said he would have liked the asymmetric tire to have the extra soft compound on right, and something halfway between the extra soft and the soft on the left.
Conditions should improve over the rest of the weekend, with temperatures expected to rise as the weekend goes on. The one problem which many MotoGP riders were worrying about is the fact that the race on Sunday starts late, at 4pm local time. That is right about the time when it starts to cool down a little, making choosing a front tire a very difficult choice. The extra soft tire – the 31, to use its Bridgestone denomination – might just work if it cools off enough. But the focus for Saturday will be working on the asymmetric tire. With a day's experience and two sessions of data to work with, the teams will come up with better solutions.
The rear tire is less of a problem, though the much harder compound being used to give it endurance means that the lap times are nearly a second slower than last year. That had been a deliberate choice: the tires tested in March were only half a second slower than last year's race tires, but even they did not have the endurance to last a full race simulation. The compounds which Bridgestone have brought would definitely last race distance, the riders agreed. That left the teams with a lot of work to do, however. "We have to work on set up to stop the tire from spinning too much," Rossi told reporters. The rear spinning was a problem for everyone, however, the result of the choice of a harder option.
Is Bridgestone's choice of a harder tire the right one? The rider consensus says that it is. Phillip Island is indeed very special, and it was always thus. "This track is very, very difficult for the tires," Valentino Rossi told reporters. "Also in the past this track was very critical in terms of blisters, even on the 500s." A repeat of the 2013 fiasco has been averted, with Bridgestone telling teams to run 0.35 to 0.4 bar extra in the rear to help prevent blistering. But creating a perfect tire for Phillip Island may only be possible by violating the laws of physics.
So who did best? Jorge Lorenzo made his intentions perfectly clear, lapping quickly both morning and afternoon, and maintaining a very consistent pace. Marc Marquez was second fastest, but not far off Lorenzo's time, and if anything, even more consistent than the Movistar Yamaha rider. Marquez had struggled with rear grip in the morning, but his crew had worked hard to find solutions. That progress should worry his rivals.
The Ducatis were fast, but not happy. Both Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone complained of a lack of feeling from the rear tire, making it easy to push over the limit. At a track where the Ducatis should be at a disadvantage, they are surprisingly fast. If they can create a bit more feel at the rear, they might even be competitive.
The improvement is not just down to the Desmosedici GP14.2, either. Cal Crutchlow is much more competitive here than he was a few races, the upward trend from Aragon continuing. The gap to the front is much reduced, and the Englishman is 7th, sandwiched very tightly between the two Espargaro brothers. Crutchlow's improvement confirms the theory that it takes about a year to get used to the Ducati. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for Crutchlow, that knowledge won't be much use to him next year. But as he'll be on a Honda RC213V, I doubt he'll be too worried.
The man who may be worried is Dani Pedrosa. The Spaniard struggled all day on Friday in the low grip conditions. Playing on his mind, perhaps, may be the news that his long-time crew chief, Mike Leitner, told him that he would not be back at his side again in 2015. Though Leitner said officially that it was largely due to personal reasons, he also made it clear to the German publication Speedweek that the decision of Pedrosa to replace two of his mechanics had played a part. There had been rumors earlier in the year that Pedrosa had been thinking of dropping Leitner as well, and that cannot have made for a solid working relationship. Who will replace Leitner is as yet unknown. Leitner himself has put forward Ramon Aurin, who is currently Pedrosa's data engineer. Leitner himself will take three months off to think about his own future, though as an Austrian living just an hour from the KTM factory in Mattighofen, he would make the ideal technician to help guide KTM's MotoGP project, due to debut in 2017.
There have also been discussions among the existing manufacturers on the future of MotoGP. The new set of regulations for 2016 only specify the use of the spec ECU and spec software, 17-inch wheels and the return of Michelin as the single tire supplier. The remainder of the rules are still open, though there are only three real questions on the table: fuel, weight, and engine allocations.
According to Moto.it's Giovanni Zamagni, the three current manufacturers all have slightly different ideas on the subject. As you might expect, Honda want to keep the fuel allowance as stingy as possible, proposing to raise it only be a single liter to 21 liters. Yamaha would be happy with either 21 or 22 liters, while Ducati want 22 liters. Dorna are keen to have the fuel allowance as generous as possible, making 22 liters the more likely limit. At most circuits, that would be more than enough, with only Motegi and possibly Misano being a real problem.
Where Ducati and Honda do agree is on the minimum weight. They would like to see the minimum dropped to 156kg from its current 160kg. Yamaha, however, are keener on 158kg, as their bike is both physically larger, and they have taller and heavier riders, as a rule.
The real bone of contention will be engine development and allocations, however. Both Yamaha and Honda want 6 engines per season, and engine development frozen for the year. New factories would be allowed 8 engines, and be free to develop their engines, as is currently the case. Ducati, however, want up to 9 engines a season and free development, though they are willing to compromise, allowing two or three update moments during the season. Honda, especially, have raised the engine durability regulations as one of the major R&D benefits of MotoGP at the moment, and with the electronics removed, this will be more important. Honda may be willing to compromise on one of their three demands, but not on two.
Most likely is that some form of compromise will be found along the lines of the current competitiveness concession for Ducati. Factories who have not won a given number of races in the last few years may be given extra concessions, to allow engine development and more engines. Those concessions could be taken away if and when they start winning. With that in place, Honda may be willing to concede 22 liters of fuel, and both Honda and Ducati pushing through 156kg as a minimum weight.
Any final decision will probably have to wait, though. More meetings will take place at Sepang, with a preliminary agreement either at Valencia or in December. The factories won't start concentrating on 2016 until the preseason tests in February and March have finished, and the grid assembles at Qatar for the kickoff of the 2015 season. That gives the factories a little more leeway and a little more time to reach an agreement.