The 2016 MotoGP season got underway this morning, as the sound of MotoGP bikes out on track echoed round the amphitheater of the Valencia circuit, chasing away much of the bitterness and recriminations left hanging there in the wake of the 2015 season showdown. With new bikes, new tires, new electronics, and new and old riders on new and old bikes, there was much to look forward to. It felt like MotoGP had a future again.
With new tires and new electronics, many teams had chosen to forego too many changes to their bikes, but there were still some novelties out on track. Honda had brought a 2016 bike, complete with a new engine. Factory Yamaha had an intermediate version of their 2016 bike, complete with fuel tank moved to the rear of the bike. Despite Gigi Dall'Igna's assurances yesterday that they would be testing nothing new to concentrate on the Michelins, Andrea Dovizioso confirmed that he had tried a new chassis.
At Suzuki, they spend the day working on adapting to the tires, and gathering more data for the 2016 bike. Engineers in Hamamatsu are getting that ready for the Sepang test – at least, that is what Maverick Viñales and Aleix Espargaro are hoping – a bike that will produce more horsepower and have a fully seamless gearbox.
There was some shuffling of faces and equipment in the satellite teams, with bikes being wheeled from garage to garage, and a few riders moving along with them. The happiest moment of all for riders like Eugene Laverty and Jack Miller was to wave goodbye to the Honda RC213V-RS, a bike which one rider referred to as "a piece of ****". Miller jumped onto the standard RC213V, and was immediately delighted by Honda's electronics. Laverty, meanwhile traded his Honda Open bike for a Ducati GP14.2, and was immediately impressed by the red-shirted Ducati staff who had invaded the Aspar garage, a real contrast with the Honda. That had been a real customer bike: you paid your money, and you took your bike, and you were left to get on with it on your own.
Of course, the Open category disappears in 2016, with MotoGP just a single class again. Ducati, Honda and Yamaha are all running under the same rules – 22 liters of fuel, spec electronics, seven engines a season, limited testing, and engine development frozen. As factories which have yet to accumulate sufficient podiums, Aprilia and Suzuki will have unlimited testing and 12 engines a season, and the same fuel and electronics as Honda, Yamaha and Ducati. Tire allocations are identical for all of the factories, with a choice of two tire compounds at each race. The soft tire will continue to use the white band, and the medium will have no band and a black sidewall. The hard tire will use a yellow band, in accordance with Michelin's corporate colors. The wet tires will use a blue band, while the intermediates which Michelin are due to allow will carry a silver band.
At Tech 3 Yamaha and LCR Honda, there were very few changes to be had. Cal Crutchlow had tested both Nissin and Brembo brakes, a rather confusing experience leaving him unsure about the feel in the brake lever, as master cylinders, calipers and brake lines were being swapped. Pol Espargaro had the least to test, sticking with the 2015 Yamaha chassis he had been using all season. Teammate Bradley Smith swapped his 2015 bike for one of the M1s from the factory Yamaha garage, albeit without the fully seamless gearbox. Smith was delighted, having run up against a physical limit in set up all season, preventing him from getting much more out of the package. The revised rigidity of the factory chassis made everything much easier, Smith said, and gave him confidence he could improve his times next year.
The biggest change came with the tires, Michelin taking the place of Bridgestone as spec tire supplier. The Bridgestone name was still on display in a few places, as teams failed to use the Michelin patches to cover up all of the Bridgestone logos on sponsor backdrops and team clothing. While that was clearly the fault of the teams, the fact that some of the bikes were seen with Bridgestone transport tires (basically, the tires used to start the bikes on the rollers while the engines were warmed up, and for wheeling the bikes around the paddock on) down to Michelin not having enough tires to sacrifice as transport tires.
How did the tires perform? As expected, the riders confirmed what we had heard only in paddock gossip and off-the-record comments: the rear is fantastic, the front is a bit more critical, with a tendency to let go without much warning. That behavior was in "the DNA of the tires" Valentino Rossi said, and while the Michelins he and Dani Pedrosa had used before 2008 were a very different tire, their character was recognizably Michelin.
The fickleness of the front meant a lot of riders went down, all of them over the front, and several of them in strange places. Several riders, including Marc Márquez, lost the front at Turn 3, a spot where almost nobody had crashed all weekend. "90% of crashes are over the front tire," Michelin boss Nicolas Goubert told us, a point which is valid, but which does not cover the entirety of the situation. There were a lot of crashes, much more than had happened all weekend.
Why did they crash? Clearly it was the nature of the tires, but it was also still a lack of familiarity with the tires and a need to modify set up and weight distribution to handle the behavior of the tires. Bridgestone's fantastic front and less grippy rear meant that the teams had moved a lot of weight backwards to generate more grip. That process now has to be reversed, to help the front Michelin to grip.
As ever, Bradley Smith provided the clearest explanation of the tires, expressing an opinion that was widely, but not universally shared. "The best way to describe the Bridgestone front is that it had a massive platform, it didn't really move as much," Smith said. "The tires didn't really flex and if it did flex, it was minimal. So the contact patch remained consistent all the way into the corner. Whereas the Michelin they have a slightly different construction process than the Bridgestone and they move a little bit, so you don't have that same contact feeling all the way into the corner, and there's a couple of places where it goes big – small – big – small, and that's where you have to be careful. It means just as a rider, you have to slow the entry process down by milliseconds, though for us it feels like a night and a day, and just respect it for what it needs to do. "
Where was the danger area for crashing with the Michelins? "It seems to be off-brake and initial touch of throttle. That seems to be the danger area. Actually on-brake seems to be ok. You just have to be a little bit smother in that transition and pay a bit more attention." All of the current riders confirmed that it would take some mental remapping and adjustment to get used to the tires, and give themselves a better sense of what the tire can handle and what it can't.
Not everyone was unhappy with the front Michelins, however. "I'm really happy about the tires, the feel from the beginning is really good," said Andrea Iannone. "I'm a little bit surprised, because so many people talk about the tires as being worse compared to the Bridgestone, saying especially in front, it's a disaster... At the moment, the front tire for me is perfect."
The change Iannone had understood and learned to exploit was the way the rear tire helped in braking, taking some of the load from the front tire. Massive rear grip meant that he could use engine braking and rear brake to help slow the bike down, instead of trail braking into the corner and loading the front. "With the Bridgestone, it's really important you arrive with the braking in the middle of the corner. With this tire, no. Because the rear reduce the speed more compared to the Bridgestone. With Michelin you use more the rear tire, with the Bridgestone you use the front tire. It's two different styles." The Michelin front is not capable of withstanding the massive forces generated by trail braking very deep into corners at major lean angles. Riders were not getting much warning before the front let go, washing out and causing them to crash. But the grippy rear meant that the rear would still handle engine brake into the corner, slowing the bike with the rear tire rather than the front.
The other big change for 2016 is the introduction of the spec electronics. Only Scott Redding, the factory Yamahas and the Repsol Hondas used the spec electronics, much, and of that group, only Scott Redding like the new electronics. Redding may not necessarily be the best judge, however, the Englishman just happy to have stepped off the Honda and onto the Pramac Ducati GP15.
At Yamaha, they called the electronics "a step back," Valentino Rossi comparing them to the level of electronics in 2008, 2009. Rossi was clearly not happy, finishing the day well down the order in twelfth, eight tenths off the pace of the fastest man, Marc Márquez. Dani Pedrosa concurred, though he would not be drawn on a date. It was only like electronics from "many, many years ago," Pedrosa said. "When I tried the new electronics, the bike was completely different, and it is clearly a step back, so there is a lot of work to do, and a lot of set up to do," the Repsol Honda man told us. The problem was the crudeness of the controls. The riders were used to traction control that acted immediately and smoothly. The 2016 traction control was slow to come in, aggressive when it did.
Pedrosa's troubles with the electronics had made it hard to understand where the problems were. HRC had brought a new engine with them, to help with the aggressive nature of the 2015 platform, but the electronics had masked any sense of how good the engine might be. "Unfortunately the electronics set up was so bad that I couldn't really judge the new engine. So I tried to do one go but in one go only half of the electronics were working, so I went out with no traction control one time. And the we saw that it was so complicated that I couldn't really make a comparison from the engines, because the same electronics in one bike and the other bike was not the same, so we will focus to get the best focus in one, and they try this setting in the other one."
Pedrosa will return to working on the electronics on Wednesday, on the final day of the test. He will not be alone: teammate Marc Márquez will continue his work on the spec software, as will the factory Yamaha riders. There is a strong chance that at least one of the factory Ducati riders will join them, as they get ready for 2016. There is a lot of work still to be done before Qatar.
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