2015 Mugello MotoGP Friday Round Up: The Problem With The Honda, And Ducati vs Yamaha

What did we learn from the first day of practice at Mugello? We learned that Jorge Lorenzo is still at the same steamroller pace he was at Jerez and Le Mans. That Valentino Rossi is following a plan, rather than chasing a lap time. That the Ducatis are fast, almost obscenely so, and that's before they put their special Mugello engine in. That Aleix Espargaro is one tough son of a gun. That the Hondas are still fast, when the conditions are right. And that Mugello might just be one of the places the conditions are likely to be right.

Why would the Honda be good at Mugello when it was so bad at Le Mans? Marc Márquez explained in a little more detail after practice on Friday. The biggest problem of the Honda RC213V is the aggressive nature of its engine, both in acceleration and braking. In braking, the bike is sliding more than the riders want it to, and in acceleration, the riders are having to fight the bike's willingness to wheelie and spin out of the corner. Because Mugello is such a fast track (more of that later), the teams have to gear the bikes longer, both for the main straight and for the more flowing corners. Longer gearing means that the engine has to work harder to try to lift the front wheel, taming the power a little. "It looks like here the character of the engine is smoother, also because the final sprocket is longer and then the gearbox is longer," Márquez told us. "The bike is pushing less, the corners are faster and don’t have that big acceleration and that helps us."

This is in part why the problems weren't spotted at Sepang. "In Valencia when we did the test after the race I said, if it feels like this we will have problems next year," Márquez said. With a lot of tight corners which need to be geared rather short, and colder temperatures meaning denser air, allowing more oxygen into the engine, and producing more power, the engine was at its most aggressive. When they went to the Sepang tests, where Honda had brought new chassis and the latest revision of the engine, the bike felt a lot better.

That, it turns out, was down more to the conditions and the circuit than anything else. Márquez explained, "the thing is that the temperature is higher, the humidity is high, a long circuit, long gearbox, and this aggressive character of the engine was not a big problem because the engine is slower with the high temperature and humidity." The riders put the improvement down to the new parts. That turned out to be a mistake. "But then when we arrive in Qatar I saw that was aggressive, but ok we didn’t have time to change the engine and then we start the season like that," Márquez said.

HRC finds itself trapped, between its own hunger for horsepower and the rules freezing engine development. Believing, as they always do, that what the RC213V really needed was more power, Honda's engineers pushed the limits of power. The riders objected at Valencia, HRC introduced some major electronics updates at Sepang, and the riders then noted the improvement. At Qatar, in the colder temperatures again, that aggressiveness raised its ugly head again, but with a little less than two weeks to go before the start of the season, Honda did not have time to modify the engine, then submit the specs for sealing at the season opener.

Honda are now stuck with that engine to the end of the year. The engine freeze means that the only modifications which may be made are for reasons of safety. The security of Marc Márquez' MotoGP title does not fall into that category, which means that HRC have to find different ways of making a more usable bike. That means extensive work on electronics to try to tame the engine. But here, too, Honda face trouble, with software being frozen from 1st July this year, ahead of the adoption of spec electronics for the 2016 season. Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, Cal Crutchlow and Scott Redding could find themselves stuck with a bike that is very far from perfect for the second half of 2015, with very little they can do about it.

It is a foible of HRC's otherwise outstanding engineering department that they always end up chasing horsepower. Speaking to Thomas Baujard of the French magazine Moto Journal, 1987 world champion Wayne Gardner said that this was a problem which the riders had complained about throughout Honda's time in racing. "Like Doohan and Spencer, I was always asking Honda for engines which were not just powerful, but also usable," Gardner said. "But they just couldn't stop themselves from chasing even more horsepower."

In previous years, Honda has been able to remedy its mistakes, throwing its formidable engineering resources into producing a more usable engine. The rules now prevent that, with both engine and software frozen. They face another 13 races with this problem, and there is nothing they can do about it. It makes you wonder whether this could be the one thing which cures HRC of its addiction to horsepower at the cost of all else. A long period of subpar results (well, subpar for Honda) may make them finally learn the lesson, that rideability is just as important as horsepower. With the engine freeze per season set to stay until at least 2021, and almost certainly beyond, successful manufacturers simply cannot afford to get it wrong at the start of the year.

Of course, it is easy to blame the engine freeze, and claim this is not in the spirit of Grand Prix racing. But engine development had already been limited by the durability rules, allowing only five engines per season. Under those rules, a factory might consider introducing one, perhaps two updates during the year, a far cry from the times when new engine updates might come several times a season. And the engine freeze on successful manufacturers has allowed new entries to catch up. Davide Brivio told me earlier this weekend that the engine freeze and the spec software had been two factors which had encouraged Suzuki to return to MotoGP. They knew they had a development gap to Honda and Yamaha when they entered the class, but they also knew that the gap would only get smaller, and not bigger. They no longer felt that they were running as fast as they could just to stand still.

The Honda has more problems than just an aggressive engine. The braking is a problem, and that in turn affects the front end. At Le Mans, Márquez said, he hadn't been able to brake as he wanted. To compensate, he had had to pivot the bike on the front tire to get it turned, placing a greater stress on the tire. In the morning, with temperatures low, the front tire had allowed that. As the temperatures rose, the medium front was too soft, not allowing the Hondas to use that technique of pivoting the bike on the front. Without having tested the hard tire, the Honda riders opted for the medium front. That tire was not able to support the bike, and washed out, dumping everyone except Cal Crutchlow on the ground. Crutchlow was suffering just as much with the front, but crashed when he caught his boot under his brake pedal.

So can the Hondas make an impression at Mugello? So far, the signs are good. The bike is far from perfect, but the worst excesses of the RC213V have been tamed. Marc Márquez was consistently fast, and showed a decent race pace as well. Scott Redding impressed, the Marc VDS team finding something to give him more confidence in the front, allowing him to end the day in 7th. Cal Crutchlow was quick in the morning, but couldn't go fast when he put a new tire in. Dani Pedrosa was solid on the hard tire, but had a problem with the electronics when he put the soft tire in. Pedrosa was also testing himself and his forearm, trying to get into a race rhythm again. He was working on a lot of things rather than focusing on a quick lap, and it showed in his placing.

The Hondas will have their work cut out, though. Jorge Lorenzo was fast from the off, putting in his usual blistering pace. He was handicapped by not having his crew chief with him, though, Ramon Forcada being absent for personal reasons. It prevented the team from working on set up, with other team members trying to pick up the slack, a far from ideal situation at the start of a race weekend. Forcada is due to be back in the garage on Saturday morning, bringing some semblance of normality to the garage, and putting Lorenzo back on track. After a day of practice, Lorenzo looks like the man to beat.

Of course, you can never rule out Valentino Rossi. The Italian was fast in the morning, but ran into trouble in the afternoon, as the team tried out the hard rear tire. That did not give him the grip he had been looking for, despite the fact that there is little difference between the hard and the medium. They also tried a set up change which did not work out as expected, leaving Rossi floundering in ninth. There is much more to come from the Italian.

But at Mugello, all eyes are on Ducati. The Desmosedicis are flying, the factory men taking advantage of the test they had here just over two weeks ago. The bike is really fast, a Ducati breaking the record for top speed, at 350.1 km/h. According to the telemetry, the official top speed is on the conservative side, the peak speed being some 4 km/h faster. The improvement has not come from the GP15 either: the fastest man was Hector Barbera, on the Open class Avintia Ducati GP14.

If anyone is to challenge Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso looks the most likely candidate. Like Lorenzo, Dovizioso's race pace is formidable, lapping not far off the times of the Movistar Yamaha rider. Dovizioso is believed to be getting a new engine on Saturday, though he was noncommittal about it to the press. But Ducati really want to win at Mugello, and are throwing everything they can at the task. Dovizioso's worry is tire wear, the one area where the GP15 is still struggling. The Yamaha is a known quantity, can manage a tire to the end of the race and still retain its speed. That is still a weakness of the GP15, using up the tire just a little too much. Right now, it is too close to call.

Aleix Espargaro's courage deserves a mention. The Suzuki rider destroyed the ligament holding his thumb to his hand in a crash at Le Mans, and has surgery to rebuild it. His doctors told him he really needs to rest it for two to three weeks, but Espargaro is determined to race. He rode without painkillers on Friday, but could not manage more than two or three laps without the pain becoming unbearable. He will try again on Saturday, but will use some painkillers, then an injection for the race on Sunday. The target is only to finish, but even that is probably beyond him, he admitted.

Total votes: 57
Total votes: 34

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Comments

So if Dovi cannot break away from the Yamaha's, they can just sit behind and they will arrive at the end of the race with more fuel than they would otherwise have and more tyres, sweep past, and job done. Rossi will be make it interesting because he is good at scheming in these situations.

I think the on off nature of the Honda's power delivery is exacerbated by the fuel restriction that they are responsible for, and this problem will evaporate when the stupid fuel embargo is removed next year. Rules that they introduced in order to gain an advantage over their opposition. Although we were given a ludicrous explanation along the lines of "it is to help improve the fuel efficiency of the scooters that we sell in Asia". What I would like to know is when this tripe is served up how come no one laughs.

Total votes: 75

Honda culture has historically been known for its civility. Strange to read they're only chasing HP.

Total votes: 49

Everyone is operating under the same rules. The manufacturers have real and continuing goals in engine efficiency and fuel management - well beyond the mileage of scooters in Jakarta. Honda took their eye off the ball a bit but will, of course, recover. Fortunately they have a (young) pilot able to ride around most problems until they get solved.

Total votes: 54

"The manufacturers have real and continuing goals in engine efficiency and fuel management - well beyond the mileage of scooters in Jakarta."

If what you imagine is true, MotoGP being central to Honda's fuel efficiency program, then why did they ask for it to be made a rule? Every team will use the minimum amount of fuel that they can. They spend a fortune on saving grams. Do you really believe that they just "fill 'er up"? Honda are free to use only 16 litres if they like and that would also give them a significant weight advantage. If they think that running 16 litres of fuel might harm their performance then they are also free to use their very significant resources to conduct all their fuel management research in anyway that they deem fit. Perhaps like every other automotive manufacturer on the planet. To date there seems to be a dearth of "Honda makes ground breaking advance in the field of fuel management due to MotoGP technology" announcements that would support your view.

The simple reality is that they knew they could run on 20 litres and that other manufacturers would have difficulty with that, so under the guise of "green is good" etc they proposed lowering the fuel limit to 20 litres. This is why Dorna is throwing that rule in the trash can, because they know it is blatant manipulation to gain an advantage.

Total votes: 76

It is wrong to assume that detuning an overly powerful and aggressive engine via electronics adjustments might actually be an achievable task? Or gearing adjustments for that matter?

I'm genuinely asking. How much flexibility might Honda find via these strategies?

Total votes: 53

So how many Marquez race wins will it take before everybody is complaining again how Honda spends the most money and games the rulebook so that they always win?

Chris

Total votes: 52

Honda was once the 900lb gorilla of GP racing but those days are over. Ducati is now backed by giant AUDI and the Germans didn't buy the bike maker to lose races. Take heart, racing fans, Honda's days of gaming the rule book are finished.

Total votes: 55

That Pedrosa never mentioned this issue "last year" Honda needs to quit whining like a schoolgirl and run what they brung. I thought Honda's prowess was due to their proprietary software? Racing has an ebb and flow maybe it's just not their year. I deeply regret that a 3 peat appears impossible at this point I guess they will have to make do with their back to back world championships, pity. At least their corporate manhood stays intact with the excessive horsepower and all. Pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered.

Total votes: 48

"Racing has an ebb and flow maybe it's just not their year. I deeply regret that a 3 peat appears impossible at this point I guess they will have to make do with their back to back world championships, pity".

Lets not forget how balanced the last 8 years have been. 2 World Championships each to Stoner, Lorenzo, Rossi and Marquez .. in no specific order of course.

Methinks you are right Bultacofan - there is an ebb and flow for any number of reasons, and motorcycle racing is not unique in this phenomenon. Look at any sport and see that long term domination is the exception rather than the rule .. within the tight boundaries of elite sportsmen and women of course.

I love the ebb and flow.

Total votes: 49

"The front tire was not able to support the bike, and washed out, dumping everyone except Cal Crutchlow on the ground."

Let me get this right... Everyone on a Honda crashed in practice except Cal?

Total votes: 48

That quote comes from a paragraph covering the problems the Hondas had under braking during the race at Le Mans.

Total votes: 46

I can see that Honda has fallen from grace and in a way that is good because not only does it encourage Yamaha, Ducati and Suzuki to do something with their machines but also gives us respite from the constant barrage of conspiracy theories. I don't think Honda will ever win anybody's sympathy but I think setting aside all our prejudices and our extremely well judged takes on the ethics or the lack of them in Honda while writing the rule book, it is good because it does show that the law of averages is very much a law of physics. Honda and Marc Marquez were not going to win every race they took part in forever.

Total votes: 40

When they win, it is because they outspend everyone, and manipulate the rules...

When they don't it is because they are stupid...

Thinking about David's article on WSBK earlier in the week, perhaps Honda plays the (apparently essential) role of the villain?

I for one hope that the endless hatred does not drive them away from the sport.

Total votes: 55

No special helmet design this season for VR 46 ??

Total votes: 40

Rossi always unveils his new helmet on Saturday.

Total votes: 47

It was pointed out to me that the Hondas used the medium front tire at Le Mans during the race, not the hard, as I wrote. They decided to use the medium, because they had not tested the hard at all all weekend, and played it safe. The article has been updated to reflect this.

Total votes: 43

Why isn't this just an engine mapping issue that can be adjusted via electronics? What makes it an issue that needs fixing through the (sealed) mechanical parts?

Total votes: 42

"It is a foible of HRC's otherwise outstanding engineering department that they always end up chasing horsepower. Speaking to Thomas Baujard of the French magazine Moto Journal, 1987 world champion Wayne Gardner said that this was a problem which the riders had complained about throughout Honda's time in racing. "Like Doohan and Spencer, I was always asking Honda for engines which were not just powerful, but also usable," Gardner said. "But they just couldn't stop themselves from chasing even more horsepower."

Mike Hailwood is reputed to have asked much the same thing way back in the mid 60's, after some years with MV, when chasing a better handling bike. Honda gave him more horsepower instead.

Seems that history does repeat itself!

Total votes: 52