May you live in interesting times, runs an apocryphal Chinese curse. The first Grand Prix of 2016 certainly provided us with plenty of events which might be termed interesting, in both the common sense of the word and the apocryphal curse. The three races at Qatar were thrilling, tense, intriguing, and mind-bogglingly bizarre.
It is hard to know where to start. The first race of the day proved to be the most conventional, Moto3 serving up its usual treat. A very strong group of eight riders, including all of the championship favorites bar Fabio Quartararo, battled all race long for victory, Niccolo Antonelli finally coming out on top by just 0.007 seconds, beating Brad Binder into second.
The Moto3 draft lottery
Binder had controlled the group along with Romano Fenati for much of the race, and spent the last laps trying to convert that control into a win. The long run from the final corner to the line leaves two equally risky options: try to follow another rider through the final corner, and use their slipstream to slingshot yourself to victory; or try to push early in the lap and build just enough of a gap to hold off any attempts by others at using the draft. Binder settled on the latter, and nearly pulled it off.
Nearly, but not quite. Niccolo Antonelli took a deserved and impressive win after a tough weekend. Arriving at the track with a fever, Sunday was the first day he had started to feel vaguely human. There was also the matter of a broken collarbone, suffered in a fall during practice. Antonelli's tendency to crash is often held against him, but it clearly did not slow him down at Qatar.
Star of the lead group was surely Nicolo Bulega, the 16-year-old rookie teammate of Romano Fenati, and product of the VR46 Riders Academy. Bulega was impressive throughout practice, as were two other big-name rookies coming in to Moto3 from the FIM CEV, Aron Canet and Joan Mir. Unlike the two Spaniards, however, Bulega finished in the front group, with a genuine shot at the podium. Bulega has all the makings of being something special in the future.
Moto2 madness – and not in a good way
If the Moto3 race was conventional, Moto2 was anything but. A mass jump start took a ridiculously long time to sort out, throwing the race into chaos. In the end, eight riders were penalized, including seven of the first eight men on the grid. Sam Lowes, Alex Rins, Johann Zarco and Marcel Schrotter were all punished quickly, and came in to do their ride through penalties within a couple of laps. A lap or so later, Takaaki Nakagami and Robin Mulhauser were also given ride throughs, which they duly served (though Nakagami looked like missing his ride through window and risking a black flag).
What was bizarre is that the first four to be penalized were the four whose violations of the rules were the least obvious. Lowes had barely moved, only just getting his front wheel onto the paint before the lights went out. Rins moved a little further, but clearly braked trying to stop. Zarco also clearly moved, but also tried to stop.
The two most egregious offenders were not punished until the very end of the race. Both Franco Morbidelli and Sandro Cortese moved a huge amount, though Morbidelli braked to stop himself. Cortese just kept going, clearly gaining an advantage, yet it took the best part of half an hour for Race Direction to place their starts under investigation, then ten more minutes to hand them a penalty, by which time it was too late for them to do a ride through, and so they had a twenty second time penalty imposed instead.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
There is an awful lot wrong with every aspect of these penalties. Firstly, the MotoGP rulebook states that riders who commit jump starts must be informed within four laps of the start. Clearly, that was not the case for either Morbidelli or Cortese, punishment handed down with just a lap to go. Were their time penalties even legal? Race Direction has a lot of freedom to adapt the rules in exceptional circumstances, which this may perhaps be regarded as. But for such a late decision to be taken is utterly bizarre. The only reason I can think of for considering this is that another team issued with a penalty complained about Morbidelli and Cortese. Race Director Mike Webb was not immediately available for comment, nor did Race Direction send out a press release, leaving us all guessing for the moment.
The lateness of the penalties imposed on Morbidelli and Cortese proved to be rather unfair. While the two men had just twenty seconds added to their race times, Rins, Lowes and Zarco, who were punished earlier, and lost more time in the ride through, and finished behind Morbidelli. Rins' ride through had taken him approximately twenty-three seconds: he finished in eighth, less than a tenth behind Morbidelli. Lowes, too, had reason to be upset. His ride through had taken twenty-five seconds, and he finished less than two seconds behind Morbidelli. Subtract their penalties, and Rins and Lowes are fighting for the win, with Luthi a couple of seconds behind.
The problem is that the twenty seconds added to Morbidelli and Cortese's race time is a fixed penalty set in the regulations. There is no room to impose another penalty, despite the fact that the length of a ride through can be either much longer, or much shorter than twenty seconds. At Valencia, a twenty second penalty is harsh; at Le Mans or Sepang, it is very lenient indeed.
For those with an inquiring mind, you can find the rules on jump starts on page 35 of the FIM regulations, under heading 1.18.14, which I posted on Twitter on Sunday. The rules are clear: no motion is allowed before the red lights are dimmed, though Race Direction may decided to ignore such movement if the rider involved manages to bring the bike to a stop, and not gain an advantage. You could argue that Morbidelli stopped his bike after the jump start, and did not gain an advantage. But the same argument could be made of Lowes, and possibly Rins and Zarco as well. Two races after the controversial events at Sepang, the last thing Race Direction needed was more controversy about the rules.
Meet the new boss?
After the chaos of Moto2, MotoGP saw a return to some semblance of normality. Indeed, perhaps too much of a semblance of normality: five of the top six were the same riders who had finished in the top six in Qatar in 2015. If Andrea Iannone had not crashed out, it would have been six out of six. The top six finishers were all on factory bikes, though the good news was that it was Maverick Viñales in sixth on board the Suzuki GSX-RR, making it four manufacturers in the top six, rather than the three it was last year.
Lap times were very consistent, and little happened that was entirely unexpected. It was by no means a boring race, but the New World Order we had all fervently been hoping for with the advent of the Michelin tires and spec electronics singly failed to materialize. The new boss looked very much like the old boss, though with a lick of paint and a spot of lick and polish.
Jorge Lorenzo did what he believed he was capable of in 2015, winning the race with a comfortable margin. It had been far from easy, but the pace laid down by the Movistar Yamaha rider once he took the lead had been punishing. All Andrea Dovizioso, Andrea Iannone, Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez could do was follow, though they could never get close enough to challenge.
With two laps to go, Lorenzo turned up the pace, breaking the lap record set by Casey Stoner back in 2008 and cracking into the 1'54s. It was too much for Dovizioso, Márquez and Rossi, and Lorenzo had victory in the bag. If he had set out to prove a point, he had done so most emphatically. "Today, I spoke on the track," he said afterwards, calling the win one of the three best performances of his career.
Laying down the law
The way Lorenzo disposed of Dovizioso and Iannone was perhaps the most impressive aspect of his victory, (apart of course from the withering pace he set throughout). The Yamaha M1 was outgunned on top speed down the straight by the Ducati, though Lorenzo could stay with the Desmosedici in the draft, something which Marc Márquez found almost impossible on the Honda. Lorenzo never let either Dovizioso nor Iannone get close enough to use their horsepower advantage, and when he needed to, he dispatched the Italians with ease.
The key to Lorenzo's victory had been tire choice, and his decision to dump the harder tire and use the softer. He had been using the harder tire during warm up, he told the press conference, but had not felt happy with the tire. He saw that Maverick Viñales had used the soft tire and been quick, so Lorenzo decided to roll the dice. His gamble paid off handsomely.
Dovizioso was content with second, seeing it as a return to form after a long and difficult period at the end of 2015. "Last year we fight for the victory so everyone expected me to be fast," Dovizioso told the press conference. "But this is not the reality. The reality is we need to remember how we finished the season and the feeling wasn’t so good." The good news for Ducati was that Dovizioso felt he had a better base with the bike than last year, and he hoped to carry that forward.
Marc Márquez was more resigned to having taken third, rather than content. The Honda RC213V was suffering badly with acceleration, getting left for dead by both the Ducati and the Yamaha out of the final corner and on to the straight. The problem looked even worse than last year, when Lorenzo was easily gapping both Márquez and Pedrosa out of the final corner at Valencia. He had reverted to his old riding style, having abandoned any attempt at trying to ride more smoothly to suit the Michelins. The good news for Márquez was that it worked, something which wasn't always the case in 2015, causing him to crash out of many a race.
Third time not so lucky
Valentino Rossi was content to settle for fourth, knowing that this was all that was possible. Unlike Lorenzo, who had gambled on using the soft rear tire, Rossi had stuck with the hard rear, and gotten the best out of the tire he had. Electing to run the soft may not necessarily have made any difference, however. "It's very important to understand the rear tire choice," Rossi told reporters, "because I don't know if with the soft I can be more competitive. Because me and Márquez with the hard, it looks like we suffer a bit more compared to Lorenzo and Dovizioso. But this is not sure, so maybe I put the soft and I go slower."
Rossi's problem was that he simply had no trumps left up his sleeve. "Unfortunately, it's not a mistake about strategy," Rossi said. "Is just because I don't have any more than this. So I was strong, but not strong enough to try one attack, I did not have one sector, one braking, one part where I was faster than the guys in front of me. I was always there, but always ten meters behind." He was fast enough to follow, but not fast enough to attack.
Despite this, Rossi was still pleased with his race, taking it as a sign he can be competitive down the stretch. "It's not so bad," he said of his performance. "It's better arrive fourth two seconds from the first, than arrive second or third at ten seconds." There are tracks coming up where he will be stronger.
Where the factories stand so far
So what can we say about the relative strength of the bikes? First of all, the Yamaha M1 is still the best package on the grid, as witnessed by the fact the Movistar Yamaha team had two riders in the top four. Their advantage over the Ducatis has shrunk, however, the Desmosedici GP improving in braking and turning, and having a clear advantage in outright top speed.
The Hondas are still struggling, only Marc Márquez capable of being truly competitive. Dani Pedrosa finished fourteen seconds behind Lorenzo, while Jack Miller and Tito Rabat finished dead last (though thankfully for the person tasked with writing the press release, still just in the points), forty seconds off the pace. Cal Crutchlow felt he could have been with Pedrosa, but a problem with the timing loop sensor meant that the bike got lost on the track, could not recalibrate itself, and had traction control and engine braking settings kicking in at the wrong point on the circuit. A lack of engine braking caused Crutchlow to crash.
This is a familiar tale, having also happened to Yamaha and Ducati in the past, both of whom have long used Magneti Marelli hardware. Marelli ECUs are prone to losing their way on the track, calibrating themselves using the track timing loops, but making critical errors. The advent of the spec software era merely means that these bugs will now reach a wider audience.
And Suzuki? The bike is a little reminiscent of the old V-twin 500cc two strokes, though perhaps the brilliant Proton KR two-stroke triple would be a better comparison. The Suzuki has power, and it handles superbly, by they are still getting murdered on horsepower. Maverick Viñales told reporters that he was losing ground to Pedrosa on acceleration, a worrying development given Marc Márquez' problems with acceleration. If you are slower than the slowest bike at one point in the track, that does not bode well.
Michelin manage magnificently
How was Michelin's return to the premier class? The leaders finished the race seven seconds faster than last year, with a brand new lap record, smashing Stoner's time from 2008 set on a Bridgestone-shod Ducati. Comments after the race were very positive, and genuinely so, rather than being forced due to sponsorship obligations. "Sincerely, the pace was a surprise," Valentino Rossi said. "Because it was a great pace. This means that Michelin did a very good job, and also the electronics is good."
A slightly more worrying development is the fact that only fifteen of the twenty starters actually finished. Five riders crashed out, almost all in the same way, by losing the front. Though everyone was full of praise for the job done by Michelin, especially with the new front tire which got rid of most of the problems, the front tire still has its foibles. It will take a while for the teams to dial this in, especially as this was the first time the MotoGP riders had raced directly after the Moto2 race, which tends to leave a lot of fat, juicy Dunlop rubber on the track.
Electronics – same as it ever was
The electronics, too, performed well, now that the teams had had three races to get them dialed in. There was still plenty to learn and plenty of room for improvement, but overall, the tires had withstood the punishment imposed upon them by the common software. "Like with the tires, with the electronics we expect more difference," Rossi said. "We expect to struggle more. The electronics are a little it less, but anyway work very well."
The tale of Scott Redding illustrates how much room there still is for improvement. The Englishman had suffered in the first half of the race, after the team had decided to set the bike up to use less fuel and use less power. "The package was good, we just didn’t take advantage of it," Redding said. "If we had the full power in the beginning – what I switched to half way through – we could have made a difference, got up the road and settled into a rhythm."
Such lessons are more readily identified and more easily fixed in a factory team, with its army of data engineers to pore over every trace and signal after each run in testing and practice. Hence the fact that the top six riders were all on factory bikes. Though the common software makes for a more level playing field, the factories will still have the advantage.
The lesson of the first MotoGP race of the new era is that not as much has changed as many hoped. With time to go over the data, and to watch the race again, there may be more clues to what the future of MotoGP might look like. Over the course of the next week, we will take a deeper dive into what the Michelin/common software era means for the premier class.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2016 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.