2016 Qatar MotoGP Thursday Round Up: The Return of Racing, Tire Troubles, and Silly Season Starting Early

Bikes are on track, and the roar of racing four strokes is filling the desert skies in Qatar. We can check our moral compasses at the door, sit back and once again revel in the glory of Grand Prix racing. The fog of testing is lifting, exposing the reality which lies beneath. We don't need speculation any longer. We have actual timesheets.

Conclusions from Day One of 2016? We learned a lot. Some of it confirmed what we already knew: the Yamahas are quick, especially Jorge Lorenzo; Maverick Viñales can be competitive; Hector Barbera is going to surprise a few people; the Hondas are still juggling the electronics in search of the right set up; there is a clear elite group in Moto2, which includes Sam Lowes and Alex Rins; the rookie group in Moto3 is exceptional this year.

Some of it surprised: MotoGP silly season is already in high gear, with reports that Johann Zarco has already signed for Suzuki, and talk about Tech 3 for next year; Zarco's poor times in testing were anything but representative; Livio Loi is in deadly form at Qatar, opening up a gap which shouldn't really be possible in Moto3; the rubber left on the track by the different tire brands is affecting Moto2 far more than MotoGP, instead of the other way round, as it was last year.

Carrying off where he left off

First things first. Jorge Lorenzo ruled the roost in MotoGP, just as he had done during testing at Qatar two weeks ago. If you were wondering if Lorenzo would change his approach because of the Michelins, you got your answer: Lorenzo went out to do one longish run of six laps, followed by two shorter blasts of two laps. He was fairly consistent, despite conditions not being quite ideal for MotoGP, some dust still on the track. He was pushing hard on his out lap, though the Michelins clearly needed handling with more care than Bridgestones used last year. In 2015, Lorenzo was usually up to race pace by the third or fourth sector of his out lap. In FP1, Lorenzo was still a couple of tenths off his strongest pace in sector four, and a tenth or so off in the first sector of his first flying lap. Then again, comparing the very first session of free practice of a new season with major changes to the technical regulations against an entire season at the end of a long period of relatively stable rules is perhaps not an entirely fair or valid comparison.

Lorenzo may have been fastest, but there was still good news for Valentino Rossi. The Italian was second fastest in FP1, a quarter of a second behind his teammate. In comparison, Rossi was eighth in FP1 last year, four tenths behind his teammate and nearly nine tenths behind the fastest man, Marc Márquez. That was a major step forward from last year, when he was often well down during practice and qualifying, then forced to make up places in the race. Was that the difference between winning and losing for Rossi? Hard to say, especially as he won two of his four victories starting from eighth on the grid. But it surely makes things a lot easier.

Could the tires be part of the difference? Rossi certainly liked the Michelins more. He has previously described them as a more "normal" tire. At Qatar, he compared the French rubber favorably against last year's Bridgestones. "[The Michelins] are different to the Bridgestones, which had incredible performance, but forced the rider to adapt to them," he told Italian media. "You can play a bit more with the Michelins, choose different lines and keep your own style. I like them, they're fun."

Beware Barbera

A brace of Ducatis followed the Yamahas, Andrea Iannone on the Factory Ducati Desmosedici GP leading a surprising Hector Barbera aboard the Avintia Ducati GP14.2. Or is it really surprising? The Ducatis have shown very strongly during testing, and both riders come into Qatar highly motivated. The opposition can now also no longer point to the Ducati having special soft rubber: from this year, everyone is on the same tires.

That may actually prove to be an advantage for Ducati, in a couple of ways. In 2015, the Ducatis may sometimes have benefited from the harder of the two rear tire options, the hyperpowerful Desmosedici burning through tires. That was borne out by the fact that Iannone spent his entire session on the medium rear Michelin, the harder of the two available options, while Lorenzo stuck to the soft, as has always been his preference. Of course, with Michelin now supplying the tires, that situation is not directly comparable to 2015. Different tires react very differently, and the way the softer and harder compounds react may change riders approaches completely.

Usually, when you see Hector Barbera at the sharp end of the timesheets, it means he got a tow from someone. That isn't entirely how he set his best time at Qatar. The Avintia rider did ride in a group at the end of FP1, following Valentino Rossi at a small distance. But then again, Rossi was also following Maverick Viñales in the same period, the three circulating at high speed led by the Suzuki.

Master and Maverick

Rossi was particularly impressed with Viñales after spending several laps following him, telling the media to keep an eye on the young Spaniard. "Maverick rides very well," Rossi said. "He has very good lines and a very good way to use MotoGP and I think he will be one of the riders that can win in MotoGP." Rossi then used some of the same language he had used to describe Marc Márquez when the Repsol Honda rider first arrived in the class. "He is a great talent, he is f*****g young – too young!" Viñales' time was set on the 2015 chassis and using the old version of the seamless gearbox, with only seamless upshifts. The Spaniard is set to work on the fully seamless gearbox tomorrow. If he can get that to work, he could be a real threat.

While the Yamahas, Ducatis and Suzukis – or rather the Suzuki of Maverick Viñales, Aleix Espargaro languishing well down the order in sixteenth – did well, the Hondas struggled. Dani Pedrosa was the fastest of the Hondas in seventh, Marc Márquez following close behind. The set up tweak Márquez had used during the test hadn't worked, because the track conditions had changed – more on that later. They had changed the electronics again, and it hadn't worked, Márquez said. "We expected the effect would be very small, but it was really big on the bike." That left him doing lots of short runs, rather than the longer runs he had planned.

The problem Honda face with the electronics is that they still cannot get them to work predictably. That can't really be blamed on the common software – the Yamahas and Ducatis have no problem, but they have a lot more experience with the old Magneti Marelli Open Class software. "The engine was not consistent," Márquez explained. "One lap, you arrive and the engine brake was good, the acceleration was good. The other lap, it was completely out." There is still a lot of room for improvement for HRC.

Cal Crutchlow faced similar issues. "We seem to have some strange things going on with the engine braking on corner entry," the LCR Honda rider said. "The rear keeps coming round for no real reason." The electronics problems were not the reason Crutchlow was only twelfth fastest, however. That was more about being a little cautious in the sector where he crashed during testing, and the rear wheel came down between his legs. "I was losing four tenths every lap in the corner where the bike landed on my balls!" Crutchlow joked. But he had not tried to push, and was confident of improving on Friday.

Where the rubber meets the road

Tires were a hot topic of conversation on Thursday, for a number of different reasons. Michelin had brought a new front tire, a modified version of the hard front tested two weeks ago. That helped the Hondas, as the RC213V is very hard on front tires, asking a lot of them from braking and turning. That had been a problem, Cal Crutchlow explained. "The tires are softer and we were already complaining that we were overheating the front tire in the braking," he said. That had been a problem with the rock hard Bridgestones, so the less stiff Michelins were making things worse.

It wasn't just the tires mounted on wheels which were the issue. It was also what they left on the track when used in anger. This was the first time the MotoGP riders had used the Michelins on a track where the Moto2 bikes had left the Dunlop rubber. Fortunately, the season opener at Qatar meant a different running order for Thursday, meaning that MotoGP followed the Moto2 class immediately, instead of the more normal schedule where Moto2 comes after MotoGP. Yamaha team boss Wilco Zeelenberg has complained consistently in the past on race day, saying that the Dunlop rubber laid down by Moto2 changed grip levels and the way the track responded.

There seemed to be a change for the Michelins on Thursday, once they came in contact with the Dunlop rubber put down by Moto2 the session before. There was certainly a spate of comments about how track conditions had changed since the test, and it felt a little different. There are several reasons for that, but the fact that Moto2 had already ridden is surely a factor.

Surprisingly, it seems that the MotoGP tires are now returning the favor to Moto2. Speaking to MCN reporter Simon Patterson, Sam Lowes reported he noticed a mark increase in grip in the evening after MotoGP had been on the track. More grip out of corners, allowing better drive and acceleration. With practice spread over four days, and the sequence of the classes changing a number of times, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Silly Season and Suzuki

From time to time, MotoGP's Silly Season kicks off extremely early. That happened in 2013, when Cal Crutchlow learned at Qatar that Pol Espargaro was to take his seat in the Tech 3 team for 2014. It now appears to be happening again. First, there were the remarks made by Jorge Lorenzo to the Spanish press on Wednesday, expressing mild disappointment that Yamaha would not offer him a contract to sign before the first race, and hinting that it gave him some time to consider other options, should they be presented to him. It still seems a safe bet that Lorenzo will stay, but Yamaha's gamble to delay may end up costing them more money.

The real surprise though was the news from the French magazine Moto Journal that Johann Zarco had signed a contract with Suzuki. Suzuki boss Davide Brivio tried to downplay this, saying that Zarco had only signed a contract to test the GSX-RR during 2016, and that nothing was settled for 2017. Moto Journal – normally an exceptionally reliable source, especially when French riders are involved – are adamant that Zarco also has a contract for 2017. Whether that is in the factory Suzuki team or not is still open to question: Dorna would dearly love for Suzuki to also run a satellite team, though Suzuki are reluctant. A satellite team would make sense, but only if Suzuki retain Maverick Viñales. That relies on just one thing: making sure the GSX-RR is a competitive package.

Zarco to Suzuki does open up opportunities at KTM. Zarco's name had been penciled in at KTM by most pundits, given the close relationship between the Ajo team and the Austrian factory. With Zarco gone, KTM would be looking for two riders, at least one of which is likely to be either Dani Pedrosa or Bradley Smith. For Pedrosa, he would only head to KTM if he was forced out at Repsol Honda. The rider most likely to make that happen would be Maverick Viñales.

Talking Tech 3

Bradley Smith was much talked about at Qatar. On Wednesday, Smith said he had been told by team boss Hervé Poncharal that there would not be a seat for him at Tech 3 in 2017. On Thursday, Poncharal tried to walk back that perception with the press, insisting that he had only told Smith that there might not be a seat for him next year. The situation was the same for Pol Espargaro, Poncharal said.

The Tech 3 situation will depend on a few things. Firstly, what Yamaha decide to do with Alex Rins, if Rins signs for them, as is widely expected. If the Movistar Yamaha seats remain filled, then Rins would be slotted in at Tech 3 on a Yamaha contract, just as Espargaro was. Secondly, it will depend on how Smith and Pol Espargaro perform. If they perform well, they stand a chance of retaining their seat. If they don't, then Jonas Folger is waiting in the wings.

Silly season has kicked off, and it is only going to get sillier from here.


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Comments

David, I believe you meant Zarco's name had been penciled in at KTM?

.....Bradley going to Suzuki rather than KTM? If he has another excellent start to the season, and Aleix's poor form in testing translates to an uninspiring first 1/4 of the season, I see this being a distinct possibility. As is very apparent, BS has incredible insight and is articulate enough to express it beautifully. If they can retain MV then BS could be a great development rider to partner him with. AE goes off to KTM where he would be valued for his experience in multiple manufacturers development programs previously? Personally I cannot see Suzuki keeping AE on last this season.

Thanks for the great write up, minor correction Zarco paragraph:

Zarco's name had been penciled in at Suzuki by most pundits. I believe you meant KTM.

The Tech 3 situation is wildly fascinating. Alex Rins is a sure bet. From Smith's language and Pol's lack of it, it was clear that Podiums would be more than a pre-requisite for even the #2 seat.

Although I had Smith slotted for the Suzuki slot, I'm not doubting that only if Maverick leaves, and I find it hard to believe Tech 3 will be able to get their hands on him. He would have to be in a factory endorsed effort of which only Honda and Ducati have availability.

Maverick's fate is tied to Dani Pedrosa's. Dani goes to factory Ducati if Maverick is signed by HRC and vice versa if Ducati sign Maverick, Dani can probably be penciled in again for the #2 seat. Ofcourse, Maverick could actually turn the Suzuki into a winner, and become the franchise. Fun times for this kid.

Dovi better start making moves, 2nd tier factory teams slots are drying up and I have a feeling you are out after this year.

Great write up as always David, however one thing I'm most intrigued about is how will the bikes get off the line and in particular Lorenzo. We've seen how much damage Lorenzo does in early part of the races where he eeks out crucial tenths at the beginning and then manages the gap from there, how solid are Michelins to allow that and if they are will they last till the flag?

For all of Lorenzo's 'domination' in testing and practice, I will not be surprised if there is a swarm of Ducati, Suzuki and perhaps even a Honda around him on the final lap on Sunday.

I love silly season, the never ending speculation, rumours, politics, intrigue, lies, half-truths, bluffs, double dealing and pot stirring by the press provides me with a never ending source of amusement.

So let’s start one here (it's true I promise!). Miller gone, van der Mark in with a factory Honda contract located in a satellite team with Pedrosa as a mentor/ team mate. No news on the factory Honda seat yet. Vinales hotly pursued by Honda but reluctant to commit at this stage to a dog of a bike. Any others I missed?.

What if Suzuki start running away with it?
Anyone for Rossi on a Suzuki next year - silly season yes - silly thought - maybe.

Rossi is not leaving Yamaha unless he's leaving MotoGP. .Rossi has no interest to repeat his years at Ducati riding in the pack or worse yet, trying to catch up with the pack.
The only reason why Rossi would switch team is if he thinks he's still good enough to win a title and he's being let go by Yamaha AND if he gets a package that can score him the title. Suzuki is close but not quite there yet.
I also don't see him going to SBK, instead he'd probably be focusing his efforts on rally, his business and his motocross farm.

I would turn it the other way round.... if Suzuki cannot keep Vinales given the ties between VR and Brivio then VR might act as a go between to bring Vinales into the Yamaha fold. And I can see the irony of it like a poisonous gift he is leaving at Lorenzo's door if he renews his contract with Yamaha. VR wants to end his career in Yamaha. And as he stated he'll make his decision after a few races. It's almost a win win for him: if he leaves and his seat is taken by Vinales it's all good. If he stays two more years and Lorenzo leaves he'll play the role of mentor for Vinales. I know.... crazy conjectures.... but crazier things have happened :)

>>If he stays two more years and Lorenzo leaves he'll play the role of mentor for Vinales

When has Rossi played the role of mentor to any teammate? Rossi only wants to stay if he is winning which is quite a reasonable approach. I don't think he has any desire to be the slow teammate in any team.

The same goes for Pedrosa. After 10 years in the factory Honda team if he gets booted I think he will throw in the towel. Because of his tiny size he is not always good to lead development and does he even want to? All he wants is a title. He's got plenty of cash and lots of wins. Moving to a new factory to help another rider win a title seems less than appealing to a rider who's every teammate won a title.

Chris

....he is approaching a time where he might think of legacy. He knows his time is up and if he feels he can still go on for the next two years maybe the best thing next to winning is preparing the path for his successor given the strong ties he has with Yamaha. And in the process enjoying the sight of his sworn enemies being beaten by "his" successor. Not later than 2 hours ago italian network Sky announced that Lorenzo has the contract ready in Ducati....it might be a hoax or not....

To be frank, I don't think lorenzo's domination is as huge as it is hyped upto be. When was the last time Lorenzo been dominant in a race unless he leads all the way? His biggest drawback and advantage both are the same thing, his reliance on ultra mental focus. He is nearly unbeatable when he leads and quite fragile when he is shown a front wheel. And if recent information regarding Michelins are anything to go by, then early breaking away and hammering is not as easy as bstone. Lorenzo rely heavily on gapping away at the beginning, then either pull away or keep the lead consistent. A particular set of conditions that are not tested during a motogp test. So what happens when he have many riders fighting him in the opening durations of the race. Same can be said about suzuki, it's fast... But does it accelerate as fast as to stay competent with others. Setting lap time is one thing, and fighting with 20+ other rider is something entirely different. In that context, who does the Michelins favour? The kinda riders who can chase down a gap, who are accustomed to a slow start and stronger performance on the finishing end of the race.Rossi and marc seems to be the ideal choice for this kinda tactics, both are not great starters and can really fight it out and come out on top. The kinda guys who can chase down with just a few laps remaining. My money is definitly on one of them to be much stronger than 99. Lorenzo is ultra fast, only when he is ultra focused. Michelins are more inclined to affect the factors that supports his zen like focus.

Forget suzuki for now, we are way too far away from the days when Kevin's balls added those extra few horsepowers to the ride. Ducati is the factory more inclined to create occasional upsets.

Lorenzo might crash in early laps, but no one will get away quicker. If michelins dont come in instantly, its that way for everybody. Cream will continue to rise to the top.

Hopefully no one will crash! I hope we will have a feast for eyes on Sunday. I am also hoping Marc and Dani will be up to speed and in competition for the first place!