Faces dropped as teams headed into the paddock at Phillip Island on Thursday morning. Another day of rain? Surely not. Had they not suffered enough? What was needed was some dry track time, so that the teams could get on with the piles of work they still have to do getting ready for the 2016 season, and Michelin could start to get some proper feedback on their slicks.
Their supplications to the heavens did not go unanswered. As the day went on, the sun came out and the track dried out, conditions getting better and better. By the end of the session, lap times were tumbling, riders getting close to the times set during the race in October, and Maverick Viñales getting a tenth under Marc Márquez' best race lap.
Consistency is king
Was Viñales' lap just a fluke? Not according to the lap charts. Viñales finished ahead of Marc Márquez, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, less than three tenths separating the four of them. But Viñales' fastest lap was not a one-off. The young Suzuki rider had two laps faster than Márquez' best lap, and three laps better than the best of the two Movistar Yamaha men. In total, he had ten laps in the 1'29s, only Rossi having more, the Italian having lapped eleven times in the 1'29 bracket.
More impressive than that, though, was Viñales' consistency at the end of the day. Of his ten 1'29 laps, he did four of them in a row, one less again than Rossi. Neither Marc Márquez nor Jorge Lorenzo could string together more than two 1'29s. Viñales' average pace was stronger too, his ten sub-1'30 laps being run at an average lap time of 1:29.589, nearly two tenths faster than either Márquez, Lorenzo or Rossi. This was a shot across the bows for the rest of the field. Maverick Viñales was staking his claim to MotoGP Alien status. That status is not awarded after a single fast test. But his performance at Phillip Island makes him eligible for consideration, at least.
Viñales had things working in his favor. Phillip Island is one of his favorite tracks, and he always goes well there. "Always when I come here I feel good," Viñales told reporters, "because I ride fast on the track and I can describe the feelings well to the team." The Spaniard was benefiting from the seamless gearbox making acceleration much smoother out of corners, crucial at a track like Phillip Island, where so much of the acceleration is done on the side of the tire. Suzuki test rider Takuya Tsuda has been testing a fully seamless gearbox, both up and down, which Viñales and Aleix Espargaro hope to have at the next test at Qatar.
Part of Viñales' speed came from the work done on the electronics. Suzuki had made a big step forward since Sepang, both engine braking and traction control now starting to be dialed in. He was also working with the 2016 chassis, when he believes has a lot of potential, despite some downsides. "It’s better in the fast corners without gas, it turns much more," was Viñales' verdict. "Also in the slow corners it’s better for me. It looks like it is a bit more favoring this track. The bike is heavy and you cannot make the change of direction fast. This make the lap time go slow. We need to work to have a bit more light chassis and try to have a bit more grip. Anyway, with the new chassis I think the grip is better."
Ecstar Suzuki teammate Aleix Espargaro's day was the total opposite of Viñales' glowing experience. "My worst day of testing ever," was his verdict. There had been a few minor problems, but mainly, the issue was with himself. He was as stiff as a plank on the bike, and not comfortable, Espargaro said. Nothing the team did could remove the feeling, he said, but Espargaro placed the blame fairly and squarely on his own shoulders. He had not been able to ride well, and that was what had left him down in fifteenth, a second and a quarter behind his teammate.
Disguising the problem
If the track was a factor in Maverick Viñales' quick time, it helped Marc Márquez set the second fastest time as well. Certainly, Honda had made real progress with the electronics since Sepang, which had made the RC213V a better package. "We did a big step with the electronics," Márquez said. "I mean, now we have a base that we can start to work, because in Malaysia we are completely lost. Honda did a good job but still we must work hard."
Márquez' worries center around the fact that the layout at Phillip Island masks the problems the Honda still has. "The thing is, this circuit is special," he said. "With the engine, here it looks OK. We have the problems in the tight corners with big acceleration like the last turn in Malaysia." Fast, flowing Phillip Island lacks that kind of corner.
Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa had a much tougher day, crashing at Turn 4, the slow right hander at Honda Corner. The crash was perhaps an artifact of switching tire brands. "I tried braking a little too deep," Pedrosa said. "I went in with too much speed and too much front brake. The tire couldn't take it, and I crashed." That left him riding his second bike, with a different set up, which precluded setting a decent time. Despite the crash, it was still a productive day, as Pedrosa and his team worked towards finding a base set up and a weight distribution and geometry for the 2016 bike.
Let's get physical
Jorge Lorenzo may have been third fastest, but it had been a day of tough physical work for the Movistar Yamaha man. The advantage he had had at Sepang was gone, the M1 being much more difficult to ride at Phillip Island. "We have so many problems on the front with stability, to ride with confidence on the throttle. We cannot keep the throttle very open because the front is very unstable in the corner," he said. If they can't fix that problem, Lorenzo won't be leaving the track with a lead of a second, as he had at Sepang.
It was the combination of the Michelin tires and the common software which was making things tough on Lorenzo. The bike was "much more physical," he said after the second day. "Here we are struggling to find stability on the front more so it’s three times more physical." Lorenzo conceded that it was likely that the balance of performance would shift from rider to rider, manufacturer to manufacturer as the Grand Prix circus migrated from track to track. The process of adapting to new tires and electronics was long, and opened up many opportunities.
While Lorenzo struggled, Rossi was elated. The Italian veteran was consistently fast, posting the most laps in the 1'29 bracket, and enjoying the feeling of riding with the Michelin tires. "Already from this morning I was able to go fast and have a good feeling," he said. "It is different to ride with the Michelins, but at the same time I like. It is a lot of fun. This is important." Rossi was acutely aware of where he needed to focus if he was to succeed in 2016. "I have to try to improve in qualifying, where I suffer more. For sure the game will change in qualifying with Michelin."
It has been a tough six months for Andrea Dovizioso, struggling at the end of the 2015 season, and then having problems from the very start with the Michelin tires. Thursday at Phillip Island was something a turning point for the factory Ducati man, however, Dovizioso finally getting a handle on the Michelin tires. "Michelin has better grip on maximum angle in both tires, especially the rear," Dovizioso told the media. "It gives me the possibility to turn the bike easier. It was the point where, especially in this track, I lose before. I’m really happy about that. I start to really understand the tires and my feeling was good."
Understanding the Michelin rubber had been a challenge for the Italian, as the tires were such a radical departure from his favored riding style. His problem is that he has always relied on his ability to brake late and hard, gaining ground on the entry to the corner. You can't do that with the Michelins, even with the newer, more stable tires. Michelin had tried to explain to Dovizioso how he needed to change his style, but it had taken him a while to actually put that into practice. "The step I did today is huge, so I'm really confident about that," he said.
While Dovizioso had improved, he was not the fastest Ducati. That honor went to Hector Barbera, who posted the sixth fastest time on the Avintia Ducati. The Spaniard only managed a single lap in the 1'29s, but he had a lot of low 1'30s. If any rider has benefited from the switch to the common software, it is Barbera. The experience last year on the GP14.2 is standing him in outstanding stead.
If you need something technical explained, the person to ask is Bradley Smith. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider has been brilliant in his analysis of the technical side of racing, and in his ability to explain what he had found. The British rider spent fifteen minutes explaining to journalists how Michelin's new tire worked, and the benefits it brought. The new front tire has a revised profile allowing a bigger contact patch, and that had allowed a massive gain in performance. "It's just bolt it in and go half a second quicker, which is nice," Smith said.
Smith went on to explain how the revised profile affected the bike. It was not that it was exactly like a Bridgestone front tire, he told reporters. "I would say it doesn't feel like a Bridgestone, the tires are still different. But it feels better for what we know inside of MotoGP and for the performance for MotoGP. So the profile feels a bit bigger, the contact patch feels bigger. The one thing especially with us, the bigger the contact patch, the safer you feel, the more you can actually pull the bike around and push on the handlebars. As soon as you can push on the handlebars, you can turn the bike better and you can enter faster in a few of the fast corners as well. So I wouldn't say it's like a Bridgestone, but I would say it's giving us the performance that we need and the feedback that we need."
Did it make the bike more consistent going into corners? "In Sepang they brought a step that was better, I started to feel it a little bit more. But this new front tire, slightly bigger profile, that's even better again, it's even more consistent. You can feel that bigger contact patch all the way in, which is finally what we need. It steers like a truck, but we can force it round the corner, and we can make it work like that. It doesn't make it easy to ride, but it means you can carry the corner speed through that you know that you need, and that's what finally gives us lap time. So there's more feedback coming from the front tire, which is good for everyone. And I think you can see that also in the lack of crashes so far at this test. Michelin seem to have got on top of that problem that we saw at Valencia. It seems to be a little bit better. "
Smith also had an explanation for the different lines which the Michelin tires were allowing riders to take. "The thing that we're able to do with the Michelins that we weren't able to do with the Bridgestones is actually you can carry more lean angle on more throttle. You can actually get the bike to hook around the corner from the rear tire a little bit more. Whereas with the Bridgestones, you had to kind of go in and then you sat for a little while, while it spun, and then you had to pick it up and go. But with this, if you touch the throttle early, it hooks around the corner. I think that's why you're seeing a few different lines, it's actually guys have a bit more side grip than we've had here in the past. I don't think it's really Michelin vs Bridgestone, I think Bridgestone brought tires here to be fully safe, after their drama of the two-part race. So Michelin haven't put themselves in that position yet, where they have to make a tire do a full 27 laps. So I think that's what we saw. What we got in October was the softest compound front tire that Bridgestone made, and an absolute rock in the rear, so I think we're seeing a little bit more normal balance from these tires, and that's why you're saying the different lines."
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