The infection of the MotoGP paddock is almost complete. At Jerez the last of MotoGP's factories fell to the winglet virus. Aprilia debuted some massive double decker items on the nose of the fairing. Suzuki brought a more modest pair, sitting below the bike's nose. And Honda's case of winglets grew more severe, the tiny side-mounted winglets replaced with much larger versions, akin to the early Yamaha ones. The only holdouts are most of the satellite teams, and even they are starting to look longingly at the mustachioed factory bikes.
Why is this happening? Because the winglets provide a tangible benefit. Not huge, but big enough to make a difference. As Valentino Rossi put it, after also succumbing to the winglet infection, "small wings, small help." That had been the tenor of rider comments on winglets from the moment they first started to appear at the start of last season.
But at Jerez, we finally heard from a rider who was unashamedly enthusiastic about the wings. Aleix Espargaro had spent Thursday night pleading with Suzuki engineers to be given a chance to try the winglets during the weekend, instead of waiting until the Monday test, following the original plan.
Planted with wings
Espargaro explained in detail what difference he felt the winglets made. The main benefit was the added stability in faster corners. "I think on the corners where I felt the difference today, for example in Sito Pons (Turn 5), without the winglets, you have movement in the handlebars, because the front tire is not touching the asphalt. With the winglets, you have less movement because the tire is just touching the asphalt."
That stability through fast corners gave the rider more confidence, and made it easier to manage the bike. "MotoGP bikes are very demanding bikes physically, so the winglets help to push the bike a little bit more into the asphalt, so it's a little bit easier to ride," Espargaro said.
"In Sito Pons (Turn 5), for example, it's the corner where you can have a little bit less anti wheelie. I'm not sure 100% how fast we are going there, but for sure more than 160 km/h. So you can have a little bit less anti wheelie control, so a little bit more power, and less shaking in the front. So it's more easy to ride the bike in those places," Espargaro said.
While Espargaro did not feel that the winglets were generating much extra stress on the tires, Marc Márquez was less convinced. He feared that the larger winglets Honda was running could contribute towards the front tire overheating. "Yeah you are pushing more to the front so looks like then on the fast corners it is easy to overheat the front maybe."
Managing this meant being more aware of what is going on with the front tire, Márquez explained. "This is something critical, because if you push but the bike is turning, then you don’t overheat the tires," Márquez said. "But if the bike is not turning and you try push, and closing the front, then you overheat the front. I know that it’s difficult because there are some technical questions, but we are trying to understand well if we have some advantage."
Even Valentino Rossi had succumbed to temptation, using the winglets at Jerez after studiously trying to ignore the trend for the past half year. He acknowledged that there was some small benefit to using them. "For me the wings help a little bit for the front contact," Rossi said. "So when you open all the throttle the front tire touch a little bit more. Also, for example, for the last corners here, if you have a bit more contact on the front tire it helps. It’s just for that. This morning I tried without and this afternoon with, and I think I will continue with the wings that give a small help."
Holding back the tide, or Knútr inn ríki
There is a counter-movement, of course. Many riders, notably Bradley Smith and Dani Pedrosa, would like to see the back of the winglets sooner rather than later. It was something which Smith had first raised at Aragon last year, when he found himself in close quarters battle with Andrea Dovizioso, and being badly buffeted by turbulence coming off the Ducati Desmosedici GP15.
At the next meeting of the Safety Commission, Smith had expressed his concerns about the effect of winglets. "I brought it up at Aragon last year, and since then, it's been on and off, on and off. It's something that we can't influence from a performance point of view, we can only influence it from a safety point of view. And if enough riders complain about buffeting, about these things hitting into riders as well, because obviously we saw at the first corner in Argentina, where Iannone crashed into Marc. Those type of things, it's a safety issue."
The actual collisions were less of a concern than the buffeting for Smith. "I'd say it's the turbulence, just because riding at 350 km/h and the bike starts shaking and the pads go back, you don't know have any front brake. So for me, that's more dangerous than crashing into another rider. I believe that they are a soft enough material that they either break off or they won't cause any damage through their leathers to any other rider. But when you're at full stick, sixth gear, and your brake pads go apart and the front end is wobbling around, that for me is a safety issue."
Having said that, the riders were not necessarily either fanatically opposed to the winglets, nor fervently committed to their use. "I think that we're not very reliant on them, so whether we had them on the bike or if we didn't have them on the bike, it won't matter," Smith explained. "If they say on Saturday they will be there or they won't be, I don't think anyone is going to be in uproar and say, this is unfair and my setting's going to change and this that and the other. I honestly think it's just an extra add on that's not really creating a performance benefit substantial enough."
An uncertain future
How much is the performance benefit? "It's less than a tenth a lap, and it's more to let the rider not go for the rear brake, not roll off the throttle in one part of the race track. That's my honest feeling about it." It is not that wings are making a massive difference, but in a sport which is all about eking out the tiniest possible advantage in every area, then putting it all together in the hope of building a real advantage, every little bit helps.
How long with the wings last? That is the $64,000 question. On Saturday evening the MSMA – the association of manufacturers in MotoGP – meet to hammer out the future of winglets in the sport. They will put together a proposal to define just how much aerodynamics will be a factor in MotoGP. The chances of them proposing to ban it are negligible, given the amount of time, money, and effort the factories have put in.
But defining restrictions could be even more difficult: in most cases, all imposing arbitrary limits does is force engineers to come up with creative ways of circumventing the rules without breaking them. To an extent, that is very much the reason factories go racing, to inspire their engineers to think outside of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
While winglets may have been on everyone's minds, it was not the riders' main concern on Friday at Jerez. That was the state of the track, which has degenerated to such an extent that there is barely any grip. No matter who you spoke to at Jerez, they all said the same thing: they had no rear grip, and getting traction out of corners was almost impossible.
Rear tires were doing one of three things out of just about every corner on the track: spinning; sliding; or spinning and sliding. What they weren't doing was hooking up and generating drive, a consequence of tarmac which is badly aging. The riders were intent on raising the issue of having the track resurfaced in the Safety Commission, just as they had done last year, and the year before.
That makes the task of judging how well the Michelin tires are coping with Jerez a very tricky task. You could say that Michelin has done a job to match that of Bridgestone at Jerez. After all, the riders are complaining about a chronic lack of grip just as much this year as they were last year.
One thing the lack of grip did do was show up just how strong a design the Ducati GP14.2 was. Hector Barbera had an outstanding first day at a track he loves, finishing second in FP1, then fourth in FP2. But he wasn't the only old Ducati to do well: Yonny Hernandez put the Aspar GP14.2 into eight in FP1, teammate Eugene Laverty put his GP14.2 into tenth in FP2. They were both hot on the tail of Andrea Dovizioso, and well ahead of Andrea Iannone on the factory Ducatis.
Iannone's explanation was simple. "The GP14 has very good grip, and we lose a little bit of this with the GP16." The price Ducati had paid for better agility and corner entry was sacrificing the fantastic traction that makes the GP14.2 such a weapon in tricky conditions and in the wet. The GP14.2 is finding traction where every other bike is falling short.
There were other surprises at the top of the timesheets. Aleix Espargaro put the Suzuki GSX-RR into third, he and his team finally starting to slot the pieces into place to make himself competitive. The test at Austin on the Monday after the race had given them a chance to work through a few things, and especially to discount the 2016 chassis once again, but everything was starting to fall into place.
Same as the old boss
No surprises at the very top of the timesheets, however. Jorge Lorenzo was fastest in both sessions on Friday, just as he had been last year. If anything, his advantage was even bigger than in 2015, but that should not necessarily been seen as a harbinger of the kind of dominant performance he displayed last year. Lorenzo had used a new rear tire at the end of both sessions of free practice, while others were continuing on old tires. That made their times difficult to compare, Lorenzo said, as he was following "a different strategy."
Lorenzo was confident, however. In terms of pace, he was still fast, though he put himself top three, rather than outright fastest. The other two quick men were Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi. In addition to working on his race pace, Rossi also has been working to improve his time straight out of the gate. "We always try to work on the first laps because it is very important and the other riders are very strong from the beginning, especially Lorenzo," Rossi told the media.
One of the reasons for making a step forward was because he felt that much more comfortable on the bike this year. "Last year I was more in trouble for find the right balance. Looks like this year we work well with the team and we can be strong from the beginning."
Still, as much as Rossi has improved, his out laps are still not on a par with Lorenzo's. As an example, the reigning world champion was usually within a couple of tenths of his fastest sector time in sectors two, three and four on his out lap. Rossi, by contrast, was six or seven tenths in sectors two and three, only matching Lorenzo's pace in the final sector of his out lap.
If it is any comfort, Marc Márquez is much worse. The Repsol Honda rider was nearly a second slower than his best time in every sector on his out lap, only really picking up the pace on his flying laps. What that will mean in the pace very much remains to be seen.
This was, of course, just the first day. Returning to Europe has made a lot of things easier for everyone in the paddock. Simple practical things, Bradley Smith told us. No longer do you need to spend half an hour driving to your hotel, and an hour going to dinner, before discussing the last few details with your crew. Riders go from garage to hospitality for dinner, then back to the garage, then off to their motorhomes to sleep. That was an extra hour, hour and a half with which to work. In a sport where being prepared is the difference between winning and losing every little bit helps.
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