The test on Monday at Jerez was probably the most important test of the year so far. A chance to test the day after a race, in similar conditions, and with ideas born of the data from the first four races of 2016 to try out. There really was a lot to test: not just parts and set up, but also three new front tires from Michelin, as well as further work on the "safety" rear tire introduced after Argentina.
First out of the pits was Bradley Smith, determined to turn his tough start to the season around. Last on to the track was Valentino Rossi, rolling out of pit lane some time after 2pm. Celebrations of his astounding victory at Sunday's race must have been intense: the Italian was very hoarse when he spoke to us at the end of the day.
A major focus for all of the riders was on tires. Michelin had brought three new front tires to test, and the riders also had the remainder of their allocation from the weekend to use. There was nothing new at the rear, but given how little experience they had with the construction introduced after Scott Redding's rear tire delaminated in Argentina, there was much still to be learned. Bradley Smith had described it as "a prototype". The tire had done a handful of test laps, and then two races. It had created problems for everyone at Jerez on Sunday, and so much work was focused on finding more rear grip.
The front had been less of a problem at Jerez – there were just two crashes in the MotoGP class at the Spanish circuit (Loris Baz on Friday, Alvaro Bautista in the race), compared with 61 crashes in Moto2 and Moto3 combined – but Michelin are still working on finding the right balance with the front tire. The French tire maker had brought three new front tires to be tested on Monday, though their opaque tire designation system made it tough to try to figure out which riders had tested what, and which tire they preferred
There was a new version of the stiffer construction tire, a tire which few riders had gotten on with, as it provided too little feedback. The new version was as unloved as its predecessor. There was also a tire which was halfway between the stiffer and softer constructions, but that, too, met with little appreciation. Only Maverick Viñales expressed his approval for that one.
The tire most riders favored was the revised version of the softer construction tire. The issue with that tire was that it tended to collapse under braking, causing the front wheel to lock up and making the steering very heavy. The bike became very difficult to turn while braking. The revised construction was aimed at helping here, with some additional harder rubber in middle of the tire, giving it a little more resistance under braking.
Pol Espargaro was enthusiastic. " It was exactly the same as the [soft construction tire], but with an extra edge, an extra part in the middle of hard rubber, extra hard rubber in the middle, to avoid the locking or the soft feeling when braking. It was really, really good. My feeling braking improved. I keep the good feeling in to the corner and inside the corner not closing, not locking," Espargaro said.
Valentino Rossi agreed, saying it was better because it had more grip, but also because it was better under braking and on corner entry. Aleix Espargaro agreed, but reported some vibration with the tire. Not chatter, he was quick to stress, but a little vibration.
Michelin took the feedback from the riders back to their French HQ in Clermont Ferrand. The objective of the test was to try to close in on a single construction of front tire which will suit as many different riders and bikes as possible. A decision on that is still some way away, however: the plan is to introduce new tires at Assen, giving them another test at Barcelona with which to get more feedback.
No to 2016
There may have been a lot to test, but not all of the factories had an equal amount to do. For Yamaha, their aim was to test the 2016-style chassis, with the fuel filler in the tail, and the fuel further towards the rear of the bike. Neither Jorge Lorenzo nor Valentino Rossi were particularly enamored of it. "I felt better with the conventional fuel tank, so I think we will continue with that one," Rossi said. "The bike became different to ride. The lap times are not so far, but for me, entering the corner is more difficult."
At Honda, Dani Pedrosa's crew were throwing a plethora of minor changes at the bike. New triple clamps and suspension parts were tested in an attempt to get more grip on corner exit, the real bugbear of the Honda, and especially for flyweight Pedrosa. The had also focused on managing the torque of the engine through electronics, as well as on the power delivery and traction control.
Pedrosa felt that Honda was at a disadvantage compared to Ducati when it came to electronics. His explanation came in the form of imitation, Pedrosa trying to copy the different sound the electronics made on the Honda and Ducati when they started to cut in. "You don’t hear the same noise on our electronics than on theirs," Pedrosa said. "On theirs, it looks like much faster, the cut," he said, going on to make a fast staccato sound not far off a smooth running engine. "Instead, on ours, it sounds like pop, pop, pop, pop." That was a fast popping noise he made, but still slower than that of the Ducati.
The difference in sound was audible from trackside. One of the joys of testing at Jerez is taking lunch at the restaurant under the grandstands between Turns 11 and 12. Sitting there with photographers Tony Goldsmith and Cormac Ryan Meenan, we compared notes on the bikes coming through.
The electronics on the Ducati GP14.2 sounded roughest, with clear and loud interference. The electronics on the Hondas sounded vicious too, a buzz saw rasp added to the RC213V's already murderous exhaust note. The Ducati GP16 sounded relatively smooth, little noise added as the traction control fired. But it was the Yamahas which sounded smoothest, TC barely engaged at all as the riders cracked the throttle.
There was, however, a very loud bang from the Yamahas just before the apex of Turn 12, and a few moments before the engine noise started to rise. We sat speculating on what was causing the bang, and I asked Bradley Smith what it was during his debrief. "I don't know," he quipped, "I've never watched myself ride!" He did have a theory, however. "I would say it’s a backfire," Smith told us. "Obviously, there on the apex you’re at your maximum lean. At your maximum lean that’s when the butterfly is going to close to its maximum point. So all I can think is that the butterfly closes there and any fuel that’s remaining or gases or whatever just gets burned, and then when you crack the throttle then it’s back to normal again." When Smith explained it to us, it all suddenly made sense.
Happy Tech 3 boys
Smith and his Monster Tech 3 Yamaha teammate Pol Espargaro both had very good tests. For Bradley Smith, it was crucial that he find his way again, after a tough start to the season. They played with some geometry and weight distribution, but more importantly, they moved him back on the bike. As part of a radical experiment with the M1 at Austin, Smith had been moved forward on the bike, while also changing the set up. The set up proved to be fine, but moving Smith forward had proved to be a mistake.
Once back where he belonged, Smith was a lot more comfortable, and also much faster. "As soon as we put me back there all of my natural instinct feelings started to come back," Smith said. "We weren’t able to do that before because we didn’t have the bike in the right position where it loaded the front in the right way, so we moved me forward. Now we’ve actually got the front loading the right way we can work on moving me back on the bike." Smith had hoped to find three tenths of a second, to get him closer to times set by riders in the front group. He and his team had improved by half a second, leaving Smith optimistic.
Pol Espargaro, too, was optimistic. Modifications to the suspension, and a new part had helped to make a huge difference to rear grip. " I’m really happy, because suddenly when we test one piece on the bike everything change so much, especially with used tires," the Spaniard said. He would not be drawn on exactly what it was he had changed, but the description makes it sound very much like a revised suspension link.
Improvement was marked. "We had the problem during all the weekend that we had so much spin on the rear," Espargaro explained, "and then when we catch the kerbs there’s spin plus the extra grips that the kerbs have, it generates big movement in the bike. But with the setting we have now, we have improved so much." It was visible from the restaurant: Espargaro looked a lot more comfortable on the bike, and though the bike still shook its head when he rode over the kerbs, the movement was much easier to control.
Those darned wings
Winglets were one item which got a good run out at the test. Suzuki put a lot of work into testing its winglets, while Honda trialed a new set of bizarre triple decker wings at the front of the fairing. They helped, but Marc Márquez, who had tried them, was not a fan. "For me for the motorbikes is much better without the wings," he told the media. "If they start to go in a lot with the aerodynamics then it will be more difficult to follow the riders. They will be more difficult to overtake because then on the acceleration will be like Formula 1. You lose the aerodynamic and then you cannot take well the slipstream, so will be more difficult." The safety aspect was also a concern, he said.
The winglets are likely to be banned at the end of the year anyway. The MSMA met on Friday to try to come up with a proposal to put to the Grand Prix Commission, but they could not reach an agreement among themselves. During the GPC meeting, Dorna and IRTA told the MSMA that they were to come up with a proposal at Le Mans, and if they did not, then Dorna would unilaterally issue a ruling. That ruling will almost certainly be to ban them from the start of next season.
Though it would remain a shame if one avenue of truly unique and fascinating development were to be closed off, it is probably better for the sport in terms of cost. Ducati are unhappy with the situation, having invested heavily in aerodynamics and gained an advantage in that area. Honda are believed to have made a persuasive case to Ducati, however, by pointing out that Honda have three wind tunnels at their disposal, as well as an army of aerodynamics engineers ready to immerse themselves into the subject. If need be, Honda can spend money like water to win. That is a battle which Ducati cannot afford to get involved in, despite being owned by Audi.
Just testing the bike
For some riders, there were not a lot of new parts to test, preferring to focus on set up instead. Maverick Viñales of Suzuki was one of those. Sometimes, he said, it was better not to have a stack of new bits waiting to be tested at the back of the garage. It was better to focus on the fundamentals of making a bike that works at most tracks. "You can concentrate in another way," Viñales told us. "Now we concentrate only for find a good setup and a good base to bring to Le Mans. Then we can make one step more in Le Mans."
Like so many satellite riders, Eugene Laverty had no new parts to test – Avintia Ducati had chosen to go home, preferring not to risk expensive crash damage during the test – and so had spent the day working on Geometry, and trying out ideas for which there is normally not much time during a race weekend. The improvements had been there, Laverty said, but they were hard to see on the timesheets. The fact that he was using a test engine with much less power meant that his times were slow, however.
Riders and teams now head to Le Mans, to prepare for the French Grand Prix. The next collective test they get is after the race in Barcelona, in just under six week's time.
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