What did we learn from the Phillip Island MotoGP test? We learned that the rule changes for 2016, new electronics and Michelin tires, have made learning anything from testing very difficult. To borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, we learned that there are still plenty of known unknowns, and even more unknown unknowns. The most interesting thing to come out of the test is that a few of the unknown unknowns turned into known unknowns.
To put it more simply and bluntly, we had our noses rubbed in our ignorance. What we learned from Phillip Island is that the teams and manufacturers are still slap bang in the middle of adapting to the new regulations, and that things are changing fast. Jorge Lorenzo's whitewash at Sepang does not mean we are in for a long and boring season, only that if we had to race at Sepang today, Lorenzo would end up winning by half a lap or more. At Phillip Island, there was nothing left of Lorenzo's advantage, and if they were to race today, the Movistar Yamaha man would struggle to get into the top five, let alone get on the podium. At Phillip Island, Marc Márquez looked like the man to beat, with Maverick Viñales the most likely candidate to do so.
What Phillip Island did teach us above all is that the first half of the season is likely to be pretty messy. A rider may rock up at one track and blow the competition out of the water, then next weekend struggle to even make it into Q2. One factory may lock out the top slots at one circuit, then miss out on the top ten the next. There are a lot of variables at play, and teams and most especially factories will need a while to get all of their i's dotted and t's crossed. Right now, the teams are finding out that it isn't just the devil that is in the detail, but a veritable coven of succubi, incubi, familiars, goblins and hags. It turns out gremlins are real, and someone has been sprinkling them generously with water.
Wind, rain, and tumbles
Perhaps it's the rain at Phillip Island, or maybe it's just the layout and location of the track. That location, and the climatic conditions it creates, may be why so many riders fell on the final day of the test at Phillip Island. It was hard to keep count, but there were at least thirteen crashes, with several riders going down multiple times. The front Michelin was the first and most obvious culprit to be given the blame.
Several of the crashes bore an obvious resemblance to the falls which happened in 2014, the first year Bridgestone brought its asymmetric front tire. The crashes then happened while riders were braking for corners and nearly upright. As they rolled off the top of the tire to tip the bike in for the corner, the front was letting go without warning, dumping the rider on the ground. "It was exactly like my crash here when I was with Ducati," Cal Crutchlow said. The crashes were happening at around the same time of day, with most of the fallers going down in the final hour or so of the test.
What does it mean? It means that the front tire Michelin brought was probably a little on the hard side. The challenge Phillip Island poses tire manufacturers is a formidable one, with the many left handers requiring a harder compound to handle the high stresses on the left of the tire, while the lack of right handers means the middle and right side of the tire cools quickly, especially in cooler temps and high winds which come blowing in off the Bass Strait. There are no easy solutions to this.
Pushing and saving
The crashes have the riders worried. "We have not so bad rear grip and we’re all closing the front," Cal Crutchlow explained. "As soon as you take the weight off and really push the front tire really hard, you have a moment. But if you don't push enough, you have a moment. You have to find the middle."
Marc Márquez explored the limits of that middle on his way through Hayshed, falling and holding it on his knee for what seemed like an age. It left Crutchlow deeply impressed. "If you get a chance go over to turn eight and look at the black line. Marc saved a slide for 3.7 seconds on his shoulder, his arm, his leg. Everyone else would have crashed after two tenths, not 3.7 seconds." The crash had come just as a few spots of rain had started to fall, Márquez explained. "I saw a couple of light spots but I thought ‘OK, I finish this lap’. But when I go into Turn 8 it was more wet for some reason, I lost the front and for three seconds the steering was completely closed, and I was there with the elbow like Brno 2013." This time, sadly, there was nobody there to capture the moment on photo.
The reason so many riders fell in the last hour of the test was because they had no option but to go out and work. The final day of the test had started dry but overcast, and the teams got in a solid couple of hours before the rain came. It took the best part of four hours for the rain to stop and the track to dry, leaving the MotoGP riders a little over two hours to complete the work they had planned. The sudden temperature drop triggering a spate of crashes also interrupted proceedings, the session being briefly interrupted by red flags a number of times.
Fast and consistent
Marc Márquez ended the day as fastest, the fact that the Repsol Honda rider topped the timesheets illustrates just how confused and confusing the current state of play is in MotoGP. Honda have done a lot of work on the electronics since Sepang, and that has made an enormous difference. "In Sepang honestly we were lost," Márquez said. "We don’t know the direction, we don’t know anything. But here we start to work well. Honda did a good job with the electronics, we have some base." It meant that Márquez was both comfortable and consistent, the two very likely related.
But Márquez' speed at Phillip Island does not mean the factory's woes are over. The peculiar nature of the Australian track may just be disguising the issues HRC is having. "This is one thing, because here the acceleration is not the important thing because you go out from corners in third or fourth gear," Márquez said. "The corners where we are struggling are first and second gear." At tracks with slower corners, and acceleration from low gears, Honda could still be facing problems. Qatar will be crucial here, the track offering a good mixture of both fast and slow corners.
Márquez' consistency was more revealing than his speed. The table below shows the number of laps in 1'29 completed by the top riders, as well as the average of their pace. Márquez leads the way with 15 laps, and is over a tenth quicker on average than the rest of the field. The names behind Márquez include a couple of big surprises. Hector Barbera with 8 laps of 1'29, and the fastest average of the rest. Maverick Viñales, less of a surprise given that the ECSTAR Suzuki rider was the fastest man on Thursday, and remains the fastest man of the test, but he also posted 10 laps in the 1'29s. Valentino Rossi also had 10 fast laps, though his average pace was just a fraction off that of Barbera and Viñales.
|Rider||No of 1:29s||Average|
Too tall? Plenty fast!
Perhaps the most impressive performance came from Loris Baz, however. The Frenchman put in a total of 14 laps in the 1'29s, with an average pace roughly equal to Rossi's. More impressively, he was able to string those laps together at will. Márquez, Lorenzo, Viñales, Rossi and Pedrosa all did sequences of three or more laps in the 1'29s, but Baz capped the lot.
Towards the end of the test, the Avintia Ducati rider went out for one run of 12 laps, in which he did three consecutive 1'29s, along with three 1'30.0s and a 1'30.1. After returning to the pits for a quarter of an hour, he went back out again for a run of 11 laps, putting in a 1'30.1, followed by four 1'29s, two 1'30.0s, then three more 1'29s. For a rider who was written off for being too tall, he is showing fearsome pace.
The strange case of Avintia – Aspar
The complexities of testing, and the huge differences they are having on the teams were illustrated rather well by the results of Baz and Barbera. There are two teams on the grid using Ducati Desmosedici GP14.2s, the Avintia squad of Baz and Barbera, and the Aspar Team of Eugene Laverty and Yonny Hernandez. Barbera finished fifth fastest, with Baz in seventh, while Hernandez and Laverty finished eighteenth and nineteenth, and last of the GP regulars, only Suzuki test rider Takuya Tsuda behind them.
How is that possible? There are a number of possible explanations. Firstly, Avintia have been using Ducatis since Aragon in 2014, and so have amassed a solid body of data and understanding of the Ducati, especially from the 2015 season with the bikes. They have experience of last year's Open class software, which worked relatively well with the Ducati, and the factory have supported them throughout last year.
The Aspar team, on the other hand, have switched from Hondas to Ducatis for 2016, and their experience with the Open class software last year was disappointing. They had little help from Honda, and the Open class RC213V-RS did not work well with the software – issues which the factory teams are now also facing with the common software, though Jack Miller, who has experience of both, says the new software is a massive improvement over last year.
Aspar are also perhaps the least-well funded team on the grid, meaning that in the past couple of years, they have had to let their best engineers and mechanics go to other teams, who have offered them more money. Low on manpower, and facing huge challenges adapting to new bikes and new software, the differences are obvious on the timesheets. Aspar today announced they had signed a new sponsorship deal, joining forces with a new brand of energy drink, Motard. Though energy drink sponsorship is hardly a differentiating factor in MotoGP at the moment, the inflow of funds will be very welcome, and may allow the team to find the resources to help close the gap to the front.
Detail versus development
It is also remarkable that both Avintia Ducatis were ahead of the factory bikes. The two Andreas, Dovizioso and Iannone, put this down to the fact that they were still working on figuring out the GP16, or D16 GP as we are supposed to call it. They were not working on the final details, fine tuning set up in the pursuit of lap times, but rather trying to figure out a base set up and testing parts with which to go into the season.
Despite his spot on the timesheets, Andrea Dovizioso was particularly happy, his team having found a solution to the chatter which was bother him mid corner. What was most pleasing was that they solved it so quickly: chatter is usually horribly complex, without a single and easy solution. This time, Dovizioso's engineers got lucky.
At Pramac, Scott Redding kept on grinding out strong times, as did Danilo Petrucci, though they could not get close to the Avintias. Petrucci suffered a broken right hand in a heavy crash, a casualty of the spate of late falls. He is slated to miss the Qatar test, prompting speculation that Pramac may need a replacement rider for the first race of the season. The good news is that such a replacement is likely to be a Ducati test rider. The bad news for Casey Stoner fans is that test rider is likely to be Michele Pirro.
Movistar ups and downs
The Ducatis were not the only bikes to see a difference between the teams and riders. At Sepang, the Yamahas had been strong, both Movistar Yamaha riders posting impressive headline times, and Jorge Lorenzo and Tech 3's Bradley Smith showing excellent pace. At Phillip Island, Jorge Lorenzo went completely astray, struggling to find confidence in the front and to be competitive. Lorenzo may have finished the test in fourth overall thanks to a decent time on Thursday, but on Friday, he was down in ninth. He also crashed, an uncharacteristic error by the Spaniard.
His teammate, meanwhile, was much more satisfied, and closer to the front on Friday. Where Lorenzo has struggled, Rossi has found himself growing in confidence and improving his feeling with the bike. Rossi was fifth fastest on Friday, though he finishes behind Lorenzo in the overall standings over three days.
What the test has cleared up for Yamaha is that the 2016 chassis the factory brought is a step too far in the wrong direction. Designed around the Michelin tires tested throughout 2015, the changes made by Michelin for this year have rendered the new Yamaha chassis obsolete. Rossi and Lorenzo will be racing the hybrid chassis, a modified version of the 2015 frame, both saying they were much happier with that chassis than the 2016 item. This is also likely to be good news for the Monster Tech 3 team: Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith will have the bikes which Rossi and Lorenzo were racing at the end of last year, which will be very close to the factory machines for this season.
As we discussed yesterday, Phillip Island has confirmed that Maverick Viñales is going to be a force to be reckoned with in 2016, at Phillip Island at least. The new engine is powerful enough to at least stay with the Hondas and Yamahas, and the seamless gearbox makes the bike easier to handle. The 2016 chassis is not yet where it needs to be, say both Viñales and Aleix Espargaro, Viñales calling it too heavy, making the bike harder to turn. The 2016 chassis does have more grip, though it is not as agile as the 2015 frame. Suzuki have found part of a compromise, using the 2015 swing arm in the 2016 frame, which made a difference, but was not enough to solve the problem.
While Viñales shone, Espargaro found himself in a slough of despond, "the worst test of my career" in his own words. He put the blame firmly on himself, and his inability to get comfortable. Whatever his team had tried, it had not worked. The Spaniard will have to hope that a change of circuit will help lift him out of his funk, and get him rolling again.
Can we summarize what we have learned from the Phillip Island? We learned that Honda has made a big step forward with the electronics, and that they are making progress taming the aggressive engine, at least at tracks without a lot of low-speed corners. Márquez is still quick when he is confident, Cal Crutchlow can be impressively fast when things come together, and Tito Rabat and Jack Miller still have a lot of work to do this year.
We learned that the Yamahas are fast, but not invincible, and that Valentino Rossi is as determined to win as he was last year. Jorge Lorenzo's advantage at Sepang is genuine, but fortunately for the rest of the field, he does not hold that advantage at every circuit, and will struggle at tracks with low temperatures and fast corners.
We learned that the Suzuki has a good chance of being genuinely competitive this year, the lion's share of the gap having been closed down. Suzuki is a factory which has benefited from the common software, Suzuki's engineers able to concentrate on refining what they have, rather than having to match what Honda and Yamaha have already invented. Maverick Viñales has a viable claim to MotoGP Alien status, though he has not quite earned his extraterrestrial passport yet. Aleix Espargaro is fast, but he is human, and he needs to find a way of overcoming himself if he is to succeed everywhere.
We learned that there will be plenty of Ducatis at the front this season, though intriguingly, the actual riders and versions at the front are likely to differ from track to track. The GP16 is on the way to being a better bike than its predecessor, but for the moment, the GP15 is outperforming it. Meanwhile, the GP14.2 is still an excellent bike in the right conditions, and capable of challenging at the front. Whether Baz and Barbera make it to the podium or not remains to be seen, but they will be mixing it up in the top six or seven often enough, much to the chagrin of other factory riders.
We don't know what we don't know
Most of all, we learned that there are still a great many unknowns in the coming season, and many different ways each race could play out. Will the gaps be closer? Almost certainly at some tracks, and probably not at others, and your guess is as good as mine as to which is which. The results of the first race are unlikely to be indicative of the rest of the season, though chance may turn out that they are. There will be new faces in the top ten, and maybe even new faces on the podium, but the top four is likely to retain much of their dominance of the class.
We will learn more in two weeks' time, when the MotoGP teams head to Qatar for the final test. A lot will change there, as the engineers of the teams and factories go home and have a chance to study the masses of data gathered at Phillip Island, and can contrast it with Sepang. There will be genuine surprises, and there will be riders at the front who we expect to be there. 2016 remains an utterly intriguing season, and we haven't even started to discuss the silly season which awaits us.
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