Blame it on the Bass Strait. The weather, or perhaps more accurately, the weather, the climate and the environment, has a huge effect on the Phillip Island circuit. The weather, because the strong winds which blow in off the Strait brings regular dowsings of rain. The climate, because the hot summers, cool winters and wet weather places a severe strain on the asphalt. And the environment, because the sea breeze brings in salt, and the Antarctic ozone hole means UV levels are high, both of which have a corrosive effect on the circuit surface. Perched on top of cliffs overlooking the Bass Strait is a stunning setting for a race track, but the Phillip Island circuit pays a heavy price for the privilege.
All of those factors have combined this year to throw the Australian round of MotoGP a curveball, or to make it more colloquially accurate, bowled MotoGP a googly. The weather at Phillip Island was at its most deceptive, relatively warm and sunny, but with clouds bearing quick showers blowing in at regular intervals. No class would escape the tricky conditions, though some were more badly affected than others, Moto3 losing the first half of FP2 to the wet.
For the MotoGP class, the climate, and the effects it has had on the track, was of greater significance. Everyone complained of a lack of grip, the track having lost a lot of its natural grip in the past two years since it was resurfaced. The rear kept spinning up, said riders on bikes from every different manufacturer. "The problem is the rear on this tarmac, that two years later is much less grippy," said Jorge Lorenzo. "Maybe this rear tire was good two years ago but now it's a little bit too hard and it spins a little bit."
Get a grip
The lack of edge treatment on the tire didn't help, as far as Lorenzo was concerned. "For sure this anti-heat rear tire without the edge is not the best for the grip. In the pick-up area in second and third gear there is a sudden spinning that is very aggressive that you cannot stop." The combination of the aging asphalt and slightly too hard tires was the reason the lap times are so much slower than in 2013, when the track was newly surfaced, Lorenzo opined. It is worth remembering, however, that the tires in 2013 were not able to last the race, so it is perhaps not surprising they were capable of producing record lap times.
If it was bad for the Yamahas, it was even worse for the Hondas. "I heard some guys were complaining about rear grip," Cal Crutchlow joked. "If they could be riding the Honda this year, they would really know what no rear grip is." Though he went on to express his appreciation of just how hard Honda were working to solve the problem for 2016, getting drive out of corners remains the weak point for the Honda. "At the moment, we've got way too much acceleration and we haven't got enough grip," Crutchlow explained.
Rear grip or no, Marc Márquez still managed to put his Repsol Honda at the top of the timesheets. To an extent, the fact that he has not had any rear grip all season gave him a bit of an advantage. "The thing is that during the season we are struggling always so here we are used to these slides," Márquez said. They came to every track with ideas to tackle a lack of grip, and had ended up with a pretty good set up. Márquez and his team were still working on solutions to improve rear grip, but they had a solid start. The fact that they had the same problem last year just made things easier.
Márquez' race pace is strong, both on new and used tires, though his best time of the day was still over a second slower than the ultra-fast race lap record from 2013, and a second and a half off the pole record. Asked who he expected the main challenge from, Márquez was clear. "The Yamaha riders are really fast, especially Jorge." Lorenzo was indeed quick, lapping consistently in the low 1'30s to match the pace of Márquez. Lorenzo had been fastest in the morning, and was quickest for most of FP2 as well, until Márquez put in a new tire to top the timesheets.
There or thereabouts
While Lorenzo was second, his teammate and main championship rival Valentino Rossi was well down the field in ninth. That, however, was mainly due to the fact that when he put a new rear tire in halfway through FP2, he had been unable to make much of an improvement. Concentrate less on a single fast lap, and the picture for Rossi is much more rosy. His race pace is pretty much on a par with Lorenzo's, lapping consistently within a tenth or so of Lorenzo.
But it is dangerous to read too much into the timesheets this early. A lot of riders were being cautious and focusing on set up, rather than a fast lap. Rossi had tried two different set ups, one aimed at reducing the amount the rear tire wants to spin, the other at improving corner speed. The aim was to find a compromise that minimized the effect of the spinning rear, while keeping lap times as low as possible. Dani Pedrosa was pursuing a similar goal, though the Repsol Honda man managed to secure sixth spot overall. Pedrosa has more work to do, however, lapping in the mid rather than low 1'30s.
It's Miller time!
The first day of practice and the special nature of Phillip Island did throw a number of interesting names into the mix. Shock of the day was Jack Miller, the Australian taking a brilliant fifth place in FP1, then only narrowly missing out on the top ten in FP2. His fast time may have been set on a soft tire, but even his race pace on the medium (the hardest rear for the Open class, softest for the Factory Option riders) is very good. Miller was lapping around the 1'31.0 mark, with regular dips into the 1'30s.
Clearly, racing at home has made a huge difference to the Australian, but there are more factors at play. Probably the biggest influence has been Alberto Puig, who has taken over the mentoring of Miller at the behest of HRC. Puig is imposing the discipline and work ethic required to compete at the highest level, and this is starting to pay off. At a track like Phillip Island, the rider really can make the difference, regardless of bike characteristics or even set up. Casey Stoner demonstrated this irrefutably by harrying both an ill-handling Ducati and a sweet-handling Honda around the Island to domination, the gap to the rest pretty much constant regardless of the bike he was on.
Having a background in dirt track helps too. That's what Stoner and Miller both grew up doing, and the same is true of Nicky Hayden, the man who finished in twelfth, directly behind Miller. A fast track with a lot of left handers, where you spend a lot of time sliding and spinning up the rear is right up Hayden's street, and it shows. The American held the lap record around the circuit for five years, from 2008 until they resurfaced the track in 2013. Hayden's race pace is good too, pretty close to Miller's. Podiums may be out of the question, but as it looks now, both Hayden and Miller could be in the second group battling for fifth or sixth position.
The next alien?
That Phillip Island is a special track, rewarding a special approach and a special set up was demonstrated by the strength of the Suzukis. Both Maverick Viñales and Aleix Espargaro finished the day in the top ten, but Viñales' third fastest time was particularly impressive. He may have set his quickest time on the soft rear, but the Spanish rookie was quick on the medium tire too.
Viñales left the rest of the field impressed. "For me, Maverick have a great potential," Valentino Rossi said. "When you follow him on the track he rides very well. For me, Viñales in the future will be one that can win." Cal Crutchlow agreed that Viñales had a special talent, saying that he expected the Spaniard to be "phenomenal" in 2016. Crutchlow did point out that Viñales had the soft tire – a tire which, to be fair to Crutchlow, he denounced even when he was allowed to use it at Ducati – but he was still left impressed. "Maverick's done really well."
Viñales himself said the improvement had come from his team. "I feel motivated because the team is working much better than other races," he said. "Also I feel great with the bike here. I could push 100 percent." They had made steps forward at Motegi, which had improved his feeling with the bike. That improvement was still there at Phillip Island, and his team had found yet another step as well. That improvement was good enough to make him fastest through the first sector of the track, the end of the main straight and through turns 1 and 2. "The bike is really good there," he said. "It has round corners. We arrive in two really tight corners that are difficult but I feel great with the bike."
Though there were a lot of complaints about the rear tire, the riders were impressed with the new asymmetric front. The new design reverses the philosophy of last year's tire by making most of the tire the extra soft compound, with a slightly harder compound on the heavily stressed left edge, instead of having the extra soft compound only on the lightly stressed right edge. Last year, all of the crashes had come just as the bike was tipped in after braking, when the bike was still on the harder of the two compounds. By having the center of the tire softer, those braking crashes should be eliminated.
The new asymmetric worked really well, was the general consensus. Comparing it to last year's tire, Marc Márquez explained, "On the straight braking we felt OK but had many crashes. You feel Ok but suddenly you were on the ground. This year looks like a little bit safer, and also you can push a lot and brake hard." Bradley Smith agreed, saying "I think it is a better option than it was here last year." The change had been in the right direction, Andrea Dovizioso said. "It really good. I think they made the right choice to change a little bit the construction. Safer, and with the temperature we had today, it worked."
Cal Crutchlow sounded the only minor note of criticism, though given the fact that he was still annoyed at having crashed out of a podium position while using the tire last year, that is understandable. "I actually went out of pit lane forgetting that I had it on, because I didn't really want to use it," he said. "I was s****ing myself about what happened last year." The result was definitely better. "I went out and just pushed immediately, and it felt OK." There was room for improvement, however, as he could feel the point at which the two rubbers joined. "You can feel the band where there's a bit of an overlay, which is not too nice."
Along with tires, all the talk was of winglets. Both Yamaha and Ducati ran the full gamut of winglet options, running with them, without them, and a combination of the two. The aerodynamic options are complicated at Phillip Island by the strong winds which are forever gusting there, especially down the front straight. Jorge Lorenzo ride bikes with and without the winglets, but he remained undecided. They helped keep the front wheel stable, but he also noticed a small effect on top speed along the front straight, the headwind creating an even greater effect.
That it was an issue was especially obvious in the Ducati garage, with both Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone running through every possible permutation. They tried bikes without winglets, with just the lower winglets, with both the lower and upper winglets, as used in Japan, and in a new twist, they also tried using just the upper winglets, in the configuration used by the Yamahas. In the end, both riders ended up with the winglets on their bikes. Iannone explained that he couldn't feel the difference between having the winglets fitted or not, and so decided to stick with them. "I have always had the winglets, and I like them. I don't want to change anything," he said.
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