What did we learn from the first proper MotoGP test of the new era of Michelin tires and spec electronics? More than we hoped, yet less than we think. A quick run down on the state of play after Sepang, with more to come over the following days.
The riders approached the Sepang test with some trepidation, fearing that Michelin had not fixed its wayward front that caused so many crashes at Valencia and Jerez. Their fears were unfounded, the new front tires which Michelin brought – a total of five different types, of varying construction and compound – were all a massive step forward. They were not as stable as the Bridgestones they replaced, but they had gained a lot of predictability and feedback. There were very few crashes which the riders said they had not seen coming.
That does not mean that all of the problems have been solved. A couple of people went down at Turn five on Tuesday, in crashes they described as strange. Casey Stoner (more on him later) had a typically concise and thoughtful analysis. "There's a little point after probably 45°, that [the tire profile] goes down just a little bit more, that it doesn't seem to match with the rear with some of the profiles that we've tested," Stoner explained. "That gives everybody a little bit a nervous feeling, and essentially why people are struggling into Turn 5, a big fast open corner, going in, when the bike goes light, it doesn't like that feeling. It makes the bike a little nervous, and I think that's when the front wants to break away."
There were also problems with the rear, with Loris Baz' rear Michelin exploding spectacularly at high speed along the front straight. That came down to a question of underinflation, though the incident caused the softer compound to be withdrawn just in case. Analysis at Michelin's headquarters in Clermont Ferrand in France should help identify whether the compound was up to the task at Sepang, or whether it was just tire pressures. Fixing the pressures is easier, with Michelin keen on making tire pressure sensors compulsory in MotoGP, just as they are in Moto2.
As for durability, the Michelins will last race distance in difficult conditions, as Bradley Smith proved by doing a race simulation at the end of the day, posting 20 full laps of the Sepang circuit. "The first twelve laps were really solid," Smith said. "Then when the tire drops the issues become more apparent. That’s really interesting for us to know. That’s where there is a lot of time to be gained, in that final third of the race." The way the tires behave over race distance is different to the Bridgestones. "I’d say it’s different. They go longer. The Bridgestone gave a good five or six laps before they dropped. Then it was stable."
Coping with that will be a task for the rider, and could make the latter stages of the races very interesting. Fitness will be paramount, as riders struggle with a bike that is becoming ever more difficult to ride. Electronic set ups will also be crucial, the riders needing to carefully use a number of maps to preserve their tires during the race. At the moment, I expect that races will turn exciting toward the end. Being in the front group or leading will not be enough, you will also have to manage your tires. Riders could drop out of podium positions as their tires drop off, while others could come through from sixth and seventh place to claim podiums if they manage their tires carefully.
The unified software package is either acceptable or awful, depending on who you talk to. For Honda and Aprilia, who have put a lot of time and effort into their own proprietary software in the past, it is an abomination. For Yamaha, it's usable. For Ducati and Suzuki, it's fine. The system has so far mostly worked well, but there have been issues trying to get it to behave as the factories would want it to. Almost everyone has problems with traction control on corner exit, and especially on engine braking, making it tougher for the rider to control. And the factories with the least problems are the factories with the most usable power delivery.
They are also the factories who put the most into the Open class software last year. Both Ducati and Yamaha gave a lot of help to their Open class teams in 2014 and 2015, and are plucking the fruits of their efforts. Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna stated explicitly that their strategy had paid off. "In terms of software, I think we start since the beginning of the ‘Open’ class because the ‘Open’ software is the starting point of this software. We start since the beginning of this class to work with the software and I think that we learn quite a lot with the last two seasons. So we have some benefits compared to the others from that point of view." With eight Ducatis on the grid this year, they are continuing that strategy, using all of their bikes to figure out how to get the best out of the unified software.
Yamaha good, Lorenzo great
Jorge Lorenzo spent all of 2015 telling journalists that he believed he was the fastest rider on the grid, with the most wins, most poles, most fastest laps. His claims were met with some scepticism, as it was Valentino Rossi who lead the championship for nearly all the races (except for the final one, crucially). After the first test of 2016, there can be no doubt who is the quickest man on the grid, at least so far. Not only was Lorenzo the only man to get under the two minute mark, but he led his teammate by nearly a full second. It wasn't just with a single lap, either: fully eight of Lorenzo's laps were faster than Rossi's best time, and four of those were 1'59s.
There are a lot of things working in Lorenzo's favor: his silky smooth style and throttle control upsets the bike least, helping to reduce tire wear and the work the electronics need to do. He can use the rear Michelin to generate corner speed, running on the edge of the tire once again. The rest of the field need to catch up quick.
The Yamaha is also an advantage. The M1 has a user-friendly engine and agile handling, making few demands of the electronics. The bike built for the Michelins tested last year is no longer necessary, the bike with the fuel tank at the rear not seeing much use throughout the test. The hybrid bike, the 2016 machine most like the 2015 M1, is the bike both Rossi and Lorenzo concentrated on, and which both prefer. This is also good news for the Tech 3 team: they will have the factory M1s used by Rossi and Lorenzo last year, which should work well with the Michelins.
Rossi may be a second behind his teammate, but he spent more of the rain-disrupted day testing parts rather than looking for a rhythm. He did not go chasing a fast time in his last outing, though he did put in a couple of fast laps towards the end of the day. Rossi's gap to Lorenzo is not anywhere near a second. But it's a sizable gap nonetheless.
The times of the Tech 3 team are deceptive, though Pol Espargaro appears to be genuinely struggling. Bradley Smith, on the other hand, is taking the same approach which he did last year, working methodically to figure out the best set up rather than worrying about his position on the timesheets. That approach is borne out by the fact that he was the only rider to do a race simulation on the final day, putting himself through the wringer while others chased times. His pace is impressive, and he reckons that fifth or sixth in the championship is possible again. Smith is the poster boy for working smarter, not harder, so we shall see if his approach pays off once again.
Groundhog day for Honda
On the face of it, the Hondas do not seem to be too far off the pace, taking just the headline times into account. Dig deeper, and you see that HRC remain firmly planted in the hole they dug for themselves before the 2015 season. The engine – even the new spec of engine with a supposedly softer power delivery – is too aggressive, and that is confounding attempts to fix it using electronics. Especially with the unified software, aimed at reducing the influence of electronics on racing. Honda's policy of producing a trillion horsepower and then taming it with electronic wizardry is proving to be a busted flush, for the second year in a row.
The Repsol Honda riders are remaining diplomatic on the affair, but Honda debriefs are all about the subtext. Dani Pedrosa: "I think we are losing overall, so I think technically it must be related to a big thing – we have to see. There are so many things different on the bike, not only the engine, but also the tire and electronics." Marc Márquez: "It was a little bit easier to keep the pace but anyway we are struggling and we are far from where we want to be. It's a big question mark even for us because the problem for me is that with the electronics, we are too far from the level."
The problem Honda have is that they will to do more than play around with the electronics to fix the bike. Cal Crutchlow tested the engine Honda had brought to the Valencia test for the Repsol Honda team, and said that it was an improvement, but not a radical one. Crutchlow set the fourth fastest time, just behind Márquez, but to set those times required taking a certain amount of risk. They cannot turn that one-lap pace into consistent race pace. It is looking increasingly unlikely that will get sorted by Qatar.
Ducati – an embarrassment of riches
Ducati may be losing the soft qualifying tire and the ability to develop the engine, after losing their concessions for 2016, but they have shown they are ready to fight on equal terms with Yamaha and Honda. The bike is good, with only detail changes in geometry to suit the Michelin tires being the main difference with the GP15. Ducati's real problem is not the hardware, but the riders brought in to race the bike, a point ably made by test rider Casey Stoner, who was also the fastest Ducati rider on the track.
There is reason for optimism, however. Stoner was not the only Ducati man to beat the factory Andreas, Dovizioso and Iannone. Danilo Petrucci, Scott Redding and Hector Barbera were all quicker than the factory men, but then again, they were riding well sorted machines and could focus their efforts on set up, rather than development. Once Dovizioso and Iannone get the GP16 sorted, they should be closer to the front again, though Dovizioso especially needs to come to terms with the Michelins.
The hiring of Casey Stoner appears to have achieved one thing. A commonly shared theory around the MotoGP paddock is that Ducati will be going after a top line rider, preferably one of the four aliens (though the chances of Valentino Rossi returning to Ducati are very slim indeed). To convince a potential champion to come to Ducati, they have to prove that their bike is capable of being competitive at the front. Having Stoner run at the front on his return to MotoGP, after a year off a MotoGP bike, and eight months off a motorcycle, is proof enough that there is not much wrong with the Ducati. The bike is now a properly tempting prospect.
Suzuki – big steps forward
What can we say about Suzuki? The new engine is everything Maverick Viñales and Aleix Espargaro hoped for, with the power they were missing in last year's bike. The seamless gearbox removes the disadvantage in acceleration they had, and the fully seamless, due to be tested either at Phillip Island or Qatar, will put them nearly on a par with the Hondas and Yamahas.
There is still a lot of work to do, and some worrying signs that it will not be easy. Maverick Viñales spent his day on the 2015 chassis (with 2016 engine), saddling Aleix Espargaro with the donkey work of developing the new bike. The issue Suzuki face is that the feedback from their two riders is so radically different. For Viñales, the 2016 GSX-RR has much better grip in the rear, but doesn't handle. "Honestly," he told us, "if we can make the 2016 bike turn I will go to it because I have more grip." For Espargaro, precisely the opposite is the case. "There are some good things [with the 2016 bike], especially the handling," he said. "But we suffer a lot with the grip."
Solving this conundrum will be key to the success of Suzuki in 2016. Maverick Viñales was ecstatic that he could follow Marc Márquez all the way down the straight, without losing any ground. That means the power is there, and the GSX-RR must still have some of the legendary agility the 2015 bike had. Putting together a package which suits both Espargaro and Viñales may be hard, but Suzuki are not that far off.
Aprilia – treading water
Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista tested last year's bike, working on electronics and tires, while they await the arrival of the brand new prototype being built by Romano Albesiano. They were near the bottom of the timesheets, but that means little, given that the RS-GP machines the pair used are headed for the crusher in a couple of weeks' time. We won't know anything about Aprilia until we see the brand new bike out on track.
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