The 2015 MotoGP season will go down in history as one of the best and most memorable of all time. The title was tightly contested between two of the best motorcycle racers of all time, while two more of the best motorcycle racers of all time won races and helped make the championship exciting. It saw a resurgence of Ducati, bringing the grand total of competitive manufacturers back up to three, along with a solid return to the fold of Suzuki. It saw rising young stars join the class, showing promise of becoming possible future greats.
Above all, 2015 offered fantastic racing, with the results going all the way down to the wire. We were treated to triumph and tragedy, the title battle ebbing and flowing between Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo almost week to week. We saw races decided by fractions of a second, brave passing maneuvers rewarded, while hubris was punished mercilessly. We saw controversy, including one of the most controversial incidents in many, many years, where a clash between riders looked like deciding the championship. The title went down to the wire, decided only at the final race, in another event which was filled with controversy. It was eerily reminiscent of the 2006 season, the first year I started writing about MotoGP.
The aftermath of the 2006 season also has valuable lessons for 2016. There were major changes to the technical regulations for 2007, just as there are for this year. In 2007, MotoGP went from 990cc bikes to 800cc, with restrictions on tires and fuel. 2016 sees the introduction of spec electronics – the so-called common or unified software – and the switch from Bridgestone to Michelin tires. Unfortunately for the new fans who were captivated by the spectacle of 2006, the 2007 championship saw the combination of Ducati, Bridgestone and Casey Stoner get the rules right to devastating effect, and the Australian run away with the championship. It shook MotoGP to its core, and marked a pivotal point in MotoGP history.
2006 or 2007?
Could history repeat itself? There are certainly plenty of parallels. Once again, Ducati look like having adapted to the new regulations much better than others. There are some surprise names up at the sharp end of testing – Maverick Viñales for one, Scott Redding perhaps another. Changes to tires have disrupted existing strengths and weaknesses, and expected patterns. Of only one thing can we be sure: the 2016 season is unlikely to unfold as we expect. Surprises lurk around every corner.
Chief culprit behind many of those surprises? The switch to Michelin tires. The French tire maker has had ups and downs on their return to the premier class. The bikes have changed more than anticipated, braking later and harder, cornering faster, with a radically different weight distribution than when Michelin left at the end of 2008. That change took some time for Michelin to adapt to, with rider after rider washing out the front end and crashing. A major change over the winter fixed most of those issues, as did changes to bike set up. Implementing mandatory tire pressures then corrected the mistake that led to Loris Baz' rear Michelin exploding at Sepang.
What testing made clear, however, is just how differently tires behave at different tracks. Jorge Lorenzo dominated at Sepang, was mediocre at Phillip Island, then was fastest again in Qatar. The sudden drop in temperature which is a regular feature of Phillip Island afternoons saw riders crash out again and again. Changing conditions and changing tracks will catch Michelin out throughout the season, as they add to the data they already have at each track. Sometimes, the tires Michelin brings will suit a particular rider at a particular track, while at the next, they will find themselves cursing the French tire maker. This is a curve ball that every rider on the grid will have to be wary off. It will be great for the fans, however, as each team struggles to get a handle on the tires, and rider fortunes rise and fall week by week.
Electronic surprises, and the possibility of tire trouble
Could the electronics cause as many surprises at the tires? You would have put money on that after the first full test of the common software at Valencia. But the winter break was just what the data engineers and electronics boffins needed. With time to sit down and go through the data, they could overlay the new system against the old, and work out what the common software needed to get the best out of their machines. At Sepang, it was clear that Ducati were streets ahead, though Yamaha and Suzuki were rapidly gaining on them, while Honda and Aprilia struggled. At Phillip Island, Honda made a step forward, followed by another one at the final test in Qatar. There is still plenty of room for improvement, but the worst of the gremlins have been ironed out.
There will still be an effect from the electronics, however. And that effect has to do with tires, as former Bridgestone press officer and tire guru Carmine Moscaritolo explained in a post on LinkedIn. For the past ten years or so, starting from the switch to 800cc in 2007 and growing as the bikes got faster, the focus of electronics switched from merely controlling power and managing the bike to focus on tire degradation. The longer tires last, the faster a rider can go at the end of a race, and so the electronics were focused around keeping the rear tire in peak condition for as long as possible.
By the end of the electronics war which this triggered, the ECU software being used by Yamaha, Honda and Ducati had become predictive, assessing tire wear as the race went on, extrapolating that wear, and preemptively adjusting the electronics lap by lap as the race went on. The advent of the common software means this capability is gone: it is still possible to set up the electronics to be different in every corner, but they no longer adjust themselves automatically each lap. Instead, the rider leaves pit lane with two or three different software settings, which they can switch manually as tires start to wear. The rest, they have to do themselves, using the throttle, body position, and sheer ability.
Who wins from the new rules?
Who will this favor? For a start, it will help riders who are better at tire management than others. That doesn't thin the field out that much, given that riders coming up through all classes have extensive experience with that. If you think the MotoGP spec software is dumbed down for 2016, you should see what the Moto2 software is like.
It may benefit riders who are smarter, calmer, and have more experience, however. Riders who race with the red mist descending are more likely to simply forget to switch to a softer map in time, and burn them up before the race is over. Smart riders will be able to juggle three maps instead of two, allowing them to manage tire wear more closely. Experienced riders will be able to better judge the exact moment at which they will extract maximum benefit from switching maps. Talent, judgment, intelligence: three key attributes which separate the great motorcycle racers from the merely good.
Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord
Tires and electronics may change, but one thing will remain the same. The intense rivalry created between Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez is set to continue unabated. There is little desire on the part of either man to let it lie, though Márquez has been much quieter about it in public than Rossi. Rossi's public pronouncements have been both bitter and fierce, declaring roundly that he was cheated out of the 2015 MotoGP title by the actions of Márquez, and referring obliquely (though prompted) to the actions of Ayrton Senna at Suzuka in 1990, when Senna deliberately took out Alain Prost in the final race of that F1 season to secure the title.
Márquez has been far more circumspect in his statements to the press, expressing regret that the situation continues. His actions, though, are a lot less conciliatory. In the latest episode of the Paddock Pass Podcast, Steve English told us a story from the Phillip Island test, of Marc Márquez pulling up alongside Valentino Rossi as Rossi was doing a test start, looking across at Rossi and giving him a long and hard stare. As one team member who has worked with both Rossi and Márquez said to me after Valencia, the two biggest egos in the paddock were always destined to clash. That conflict will continue throughout 2016, and probably until one or the other retires from MotoGP.
In it to win it
It is going to be hard for Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez to avoid running across each other. Both start 2016 with a good shot at the title. Not as good as reigning champion Jorge Lorenzo, judging by testing, and better than Dani Pedrosa, but the top four remain fairly intact. Of MotoGP's four Aliens, it has been Pedrosa around whose head the clouds of doubt have begun to gather. The Spaniard only finished inside the top ten overall in one of the three preseason tests, at Phillip Island.
Before the winter test break, there had been speculation Pedrosa could benefit from the switch to Michelin tires. They could suit his style, the reasoning went, and as the rear Michelin had so much more grip than the rear Bridgestone, he would not struggle as much to generate traction. That theory may still be sound, but it ran into a much bigger obstacle in the form of the spec electronics. Honda have consistently struggled to figure out the common software and get it to work with the RC213V. There has been progress, with big steps made between each test. It has also depended very much on the track, with the lack of grip much more of a problem in the tighter turns at Sepang and Qatar than the fast sweeping corners at Phillip Island. All of this has left Pedrosa frustrated, calling for rapid improvement.
Marc Márquez has shown that improvement is possible. It has been Márquez who has consistently been the fastest Honda rider, though Cal Crutchlow has occasionally got the better of him on the LCR Honda. There were small steps at Sepang, a bigger step between Sepang and Phillip Island, then a step back between Australia and Qatar. In the end, it took a crash and a radical experiment to obtain some kind of improvement. At the suggestion of his crew chief, Santi Hernandez, they turned Márquez' bike upside down, and it worked. For the first time, Márquez left a test confident. That offers hope for Márquez, but also for his teammate, if the solutions found for Márquez work for Pedrosa.
What Márquez has to wonder is if he can match the pace of the factory Yamahas. His final runs after the transmogrification of his Repsol Honda must leave him confident. His long run was significantly faster than anyone else at the test, and he did more laps at a faster pace as well. Though the headline times have Jorge Lorenzo ahead, the Yamaha man trails Márquez on average pace. If this is indicative of Márquez' real position ahead of 2016, then he is back in with a chance of the title. If it is just a blip, a result of the peculiar conditions at Qatar, then Márquez may be in for another year of disappointment down the stretch.
Blue on blue again
As far as that is concerned, 2016 bears an eerie resemblance to 2015. Two Yamahas, both strong, with Jorge Lorenzo once again better in outright speed, while Valentino Rossi rules again on consistency. Lorenzo dominated Sepang and Qatar, but had a much tougher time at Phillip Island. Rossi didn't dominate anywhere, but was always roughly at the same place. Here again, headline times may deceive: while Lorenzo struggled with tires and worked on set up, much of the grunt work of testing was handed to Rossi, assessing new parts on run after run. Rossi is definitely better than he looks on the timesheets. But will he be good enough to beat Lorenzo consistently?
So who does testing leave as favorite? The Yamaha M1 is clearly the superior motorcycle, despite the fact that it has changed little since last year. In a sense, Yamaha have been helped by Michelin, the improved front tire meaning that the more radical version of the YZR-M1 with the fuel tank filler at the rear is no longer necessary. The Yamaha was a fantastic motorcycle in 2015, with an engine that produced usable power and not too much in the way of electronic intervention to manage it. Different tires, two more liters of fuel, and spec electronics have not affected it much, and the bike is as good as it ever was.
Yamaha have found a little more power, in part through reductions in friction. That had been a factor in the choice of ENEOS, as sponsor and oil supplier. The oil ENEOS developed for Yamaha gave the M1 a handful of badly needed extra horsepower. Though the M1 remains down on power compared to the Honda and Ducati, they are close enough to stay in the slipstream, and so much better through the corners that it is an unbeatable package. It still does best in the hands of Jorge Lorenzo, but Lorenzo will have problems at some tracks, where the tires do not suit him. Valentino Rossi will have to capitalize in those moments, and try to pull as much of a gap as possible.
He will be assisted – irony of ironies – by Marc Márquez in that endeavor. It is still unclear whether the Honda can win consistently, though you can be sure the Spaniard will be trying. Not quite as hard as last season – the biggest lesson from 2015 for Márquez, he keeps telling the media, is that he has learned that it is better to settle for points when you can't win than to try pushing for a win that you are simply not capable of, crashing out and scoring zero. If Márquez' set up gains also transfer to Pedrosa, then the championship could get really complicated once again.
A mob of dark horses
The best thing about the 2016 season is that there are a host of new names ready to insert themselves into every podium race and cause headaches for the championship candidates in the title chase. The switch to spec electronics has given a massive boost to Ducati, with the two factory riders and the men at Pramac regularly featuring at the front of the pack. They were joined there at Sepang by Casey Stoner: on the one hand, an embarrassment, given that Stoner was just a test rider. On the other, a hopeful sign indeed. The bike is clearly good enough to win.
Much of their great leap forward has come from the common software. Ducati are reaping the benefits of their investment in their Open class teams in 2015. They have a very solid handle on how the electronics work with their engine, and how to get the best out of it. All of the Ducatis – GP16 (or Desmosedici GP, as we must call it), GP15 and GP14.2 – have featured near the top of the timesheets, demonstrating that the underlying concept of the bike is strong. The switch to Michelins may also have helped, added rear grip given them much more drive out of corners and the ability to exploit more of the abundant horsepower of the motor.
The weaker Michelin front may also have helped. It is no longer possible for the Hondas to brake well after seeing God, pivot the bike on a dime around the front wheel, then try to get some grip on corner exit. Already weaker than their rivals, Ducati have probably lost less in turning than Yamaha and Honda. The Michelin doesn't support the same level of extreme trail braking all the way to the corner either, moving braking back to the point where the bike is still in a straight line. That helps the Ducati GP15 especially, the bike suffering in braking stability. It also helps the racing: having to brake earlier means more opportunity to try to pass other riders on the brakes.
Having so many technical changes has actually helped the Pramac team more than the factory squad. Scott Redding and Danilo Petrucci had nothing much to test during the preseason, and could instead focus on chasing the best base set up for the Ducati Desmosedici GP15. That has paid off for the pair of them, though Petrucci's crash at Phillip Island, where he broke his hand, worked against him. Redding, on the other hand (to coin a phrase), has been straight up impressive, posting strong times at all three tests and finishing second in Qatar. Above all, Redding's race pace has impressed. He has shown himself capable of not just posting a quick lap, but also of pounding out the fast times lap after lap.
Redding's gain in speed has not just come from the bike, however, a good deal of it is also down to the nut between the handlebars, as the saying has it. After spending his first year in MotoGP bemoaning the fact he did not have a full factory RC213V with which to compete against the top riders – and more specifically, Marc Márquez, who he had raced against in Moto2 – he had a shock when he finally climbed aboard one in 2015. Redding and the bike never got on, the Englishman bemoaning his fate at Assen and wondering wistfully how things would have fared if he had joined Pramac Ducati. Going by his results in testing so far, you would have to say incredibly well. The bike fits Redding's lanky frame better, the additional horsepower – usable now, as the bike actually has grip – helps overcome his weight disadvantage, and Redding just feels more comfortable on the bike. If testing is anything to go by, the Pramac Ducati man could be a regular site on the podium. Though Danilo Petrucci has only had limited time during testing, he too could be at the front more often than not.
That might end up being something of an embarrassment for the factory Ducati riders. So far, the two Andreas, Dovizioso and Iannone, have been unable to match the pace of the Pramacs. That, however, is somewhat illusory, as the two factory men have been engaged on working out the finer details of the 2016 version of the Ducati Desmosedici. They have had contrasting fates during the 2016 preseason, Iannone taking to the new tires and electronics like a duck to water and finishing inside the top four on a couple of occasions.
Dovizioso has had a harder time of things, struggling to work out what to do with the new Michelins. The elder of the two Andreas had a specific problem: known as the last of the late brakers, the weaker front Michelin took away his strength. Shorn like Samson, Dovizioso had to figure out an alternative, and it took him most of the preseason to find out how to go faster. The Italian made a big step forward at Phillip Island, and was happier overall at Qatar. If Dovizioso is to retain a factory ride for 2017, he needs a strong 2016. Motivation will take you a long way.
The next Alien?
If the Ducatis look to be crowding out the podium, they could well be joined on a regular basis by the Suzuki of Maverick Viñales. The improvements to the Suzuki GSX-RR – more power, a different chassis (though one which is yet to convince him), and a seamless gearbox – have transformed the bike from an also-ran to a tool capable of competing. Was this all that was missing for Viñales to turn into the next Alien? It's a little early to tell, but the results of testing are promising. Fastest at Phillip Island, third quickest at Sepang, and constantly in among the front runners. Viñales will be chasing podiums all year.
Yet there is a question mark hanging over the Spanish sensation. Time after time, Viñales proved himself capable putting in a fast lap. Look at his longer runs, however, and Viñales' performance is less impressive. At Qatar, the pace of Viñales' long runs put him a lowly seventh, ten seconds slower than Marc Márquez over race distance and roughly half a second a lap behind the Repsol Honda. Comparing lap times during testing can be difficult – everyone is on different programs, at different times – but Viñales may still need a little bit of help to make the next step. It still looks like a safe bet that we will regularly see the blue of his Suzuki in among the red of the Ducatis up on the podium this year.
Chasing the Ducatis are a gang of four, the group which has shown itself to be the best of the rest for the past couple of years. The Tech 3 riders Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro, LCR Honda's Cal Crutchlow, and the second Suzuki of Aleix Espargaro have all be close during testing, but still missing that certain something. Cal Crutchlow has put in the best times, finishing close behind Marc Márquez in all three preseason tests so far. Crutchlow's race pace has not been so strong, however, leaving doubts over where he will be able to finish in races. Whether those doubts are justified is the question: Crutchlow's times are often erratic during free practice, yet he pulls it together in the race and manages to string together lots of fast laps. Given the depth of competition, grabbing podiums will be tough in 2016. Yet there is every reason to believe that Crutchlow is capable of it.
The one rider we have been expecting to see on the podium this year is Bradley Smith. The Tech 3 rider was deeply impressive in 2015, learning how to be fast and consistent when it counted during races, rather than chasing one-off fast times during practice and qualifying. That has been his approach to preseason testing as well, his modest spots on the timesheets disguising what he has actually been working on. How that translates to races remains to be seen, but Smith's intelligence could well assist him here. If there is one rider capable of managing different engine maps, and working out how best to mollycoddle his tire to get the best out of it, it is Bradley Smith. The Englishman stands to be one of those who gains most from the switch to spec electronics.
On paper, the Espargaro brothers should be challenging for podiums every week. Yet Pol on the Tech 3 Yamaha, and Aleix on the ECSTAR Suzuki both suffer from the same problem: chasing speed they override the bike and go slower than they are capable of. That cost both men good results in 2015, and it is something they need to address in 2016 if they are to progress. At Suzuki, Aleix suffers a similar fate to both Rossi at Yamaha and Dovizioso at Ducati: being the most experienced of the rider pairing, he is lumbered with the test work. There may be more to come from Aleix Espargaro, but we will not know until it is time to go racing.
Playing the joker
That Ducati have benefited from the change of regulation is all too obvious. That has allowed the Avintia Ducati riders especially to punch well above their weight. Last year, the Avintia Ducatis were GP14.1s, using the spec software, and the experience with those bikes is translating directly to 2016, which sees Hector Barbera and Loris Baz on GP14.2s. Both men are quick, but they are quick in different ways. Barbera is fast on a single lap – and in a change from previous years, he is quick without needing a tow off other riders. Baz, on the other hand, has posted decent lap times, but his race runs have been extremely impressive. Once the season gets underway, both Baz and Barbera could form a real threat, should others slip up. Baz, in particular, promises to take the label of "too tall to race" and rub it in others faces.
In the Aspar garage, Yonny Hernandez is also benefiting from a year on the Ducati in 2015. Hernandez' problem is that he has moved to Aspar, where the bikes are new, and a severe lack of resources means he will not get much help to go quick. He is clearly capable of doing so, as he showed in testing. Now he just needs to reproduce that during the race.
Make or break
The lack of familiarity with the Ducati Desmosedici GP14.2 and the lack of resources in the garage are the biggest obstacle to success for Eugene Laverty. The Irishman signed a two-year deal with the team on the understanding that he would get a competitive bike in the second year of the contract. The Desmosedici GP14.2 is competitive, but Laverty still needs help from an experienced mechanic to make the next step up in MotoGP. After health issues with his original crew chief, Laverty's regular mechanic Phil Marron has taken over the reins. That has left the day-to-day maintenance of the bike in the hands of young, inexperienced mechanics. Laverty has paid the price for that with a series of crashes during the preseason.
Laverty will have to impress if he is to remain in MotoGP for another year. But expectations for the Irishman are a good deal lower than they are for Jack Miller. After a difficult rookie season, which was partly down to being lumbered with an unwilling Open class Honda RC213V-RS, and partly down to a lack of physical preparation on the part of Miller, the Australian will have to turn his results around if he is to serve out the third year of his three-year contract with HRC. Honda were less than impressed that he turned up at Sepang last year overweight and out of shape, and brought in Alberto Puig to help turn Miller around. So far, he has done relatively well. If he does not continue on that path, he will be out on his ear.
Room for improvement
Jack Miller's Marc VDS Racing teammate has it a good deal easier. Tito Rabat is guaranteed of being the 2016 MotoGP Rookie of the Year – easy when you are in a class of one. So far, Rabat has failed to impress, but then again, Rabat has always been a slow learner. Team owner – and financial power behind the team – Marc van der Straten is still grateful to Rabat for securing the first championship for the team in Moto2. The Belgian beer baron will have patience enough with Rabat to keep him long enough to learn the ropes in MotoGP.
Patience is exactly what the factory men at Aprilia will need. The brand new Aprilia RS-GP made its first appearance at Qatar, then its first public outing a week later at the official MotoGP tests. There was little difference in times between the new bike and the old bike, but that probably had more to do with the newness of the RS-GP than anything else. Until the RS-GP has had its teething problems sorted out, there is nothing more for Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl to do than to grin and bear it.
What a year?
Will 2016 be more like 2006, with a restricted role for electronics creating fantastic racing? Or will 2016 be more like 2007, when new regulations meant that one manufacturer got it right, and the rest struggled to play catch up? So far, the omens are good. Taking the best laps of a group of riders from the test at Qatar, there is nothing to choose between Lorenzo and Márquez over race distance, with both Redding and Rossi in close contention after that.
New electronics and new tires will cause a shake up, success one weekend no guarantee for the next. There is plenty of room for surprises in the upcoming season, and plenty of candidates to be the protagonists in those surprises. There are some strong riders, and there is the kind of intense and bitter rivalry that drives everyone on to much greater heights. This could well turn out to be a very good year in MotoGP. Perhaps even the best ever. The trouble is, we say that every year...
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