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.