There are good times to talk to MotoGP riders and there are bad times. Among the bad times are when sessions of other classes are on, or when other major sporting events intervene. Valentino Rossi's press debrief on Saturday afternoon is one example. When it clashes with the start of the Red Bull Rookies Cup race, Rossi can be distracted as he watches the opening laps on TV screens in the Yamaha hospitality. Though Rossi is the consummate professional, always giving relevant answers to the questions we put to him, sometimes we have to wait, as fourteen Red Bull Rookies all try to fit into a corner where only three will go.
On Thursday, the press debriefs of the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha riders were up against the last twenty minutes of the Tour de France stage which finished near the top of the Mont Ventoux. (Not actually at the summit: strong winds meant the finish was moved 6km from the top.) Cycling is something which MotoGP riders tend to become passionate about, as they do it so much to maintain fitness. And the finish to this particular stage became so intense that both Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro remained glued to the screen, as did most of the journos who had come to talk to them, including myself. We talked a lot with the Tech 3 boys, but none of it was about MotoGP.
Well, not quite none. As I prepared to rush from Tech 3's hospitality through the tunnel under the track to a press conference I was already late for, I quickly asked about the asymmetric front tires Michelin have brought to the Sachsenring. "We'll see tomorrow," was Bradley Smith's answer, followed by a comment that he was more happy that the French tire manufacturer has brought the extra soft front rain tire, as the soft had still proved too hard at Assen.
Talking asymmetric tires
There had been much talk of tires on Thursday, and by the time we were due to speak to the Tech 3 pair, we had already had numerous reactions from other riders. The response was universally positive, though the asymmetric tires are not expected to cure all ills. A Michelin spokesperson explained that the front consists of a harder compound on the left and in the center of the tire, covering around two thirds of the tire, then a softer compound on the remaining right hand side of the tire.
The main worry for everyone was Turn 11. "To be honest, before the season has even started, everyone is already thinking about that corner, let alone with the Michelin," Cal Crutchlow joked. The fast right hander after a long series of lefts is why first Bridgestone and now Michelin have brought the asymmetric front. Maintaining temperature in the right-hand side of the tire is crucial if it is to grip as the bikes crest the brow at Turn 11.
Yet it is not as simple as having softer compound on one side. "It's good to have the asymmetric tires," Dani Pedrosa told us, "But I think that one of the keys to the track is the temperature. Always we see a lot of crashes in the beginning of the weekend, when the track is not really with good rubber on track, and also in the morning when the track is still cold. And we will have to pay attention, because the Michelin is more dramatic in this temperature range. The weather is quite unstable at the moment. So we will see how things go tomorrow."
Treacherous Turn 11
FP1 on Friday morning is the most dangerous point of the weekend in that respect, Stefan Bradl pointed out. The Sachsenring is a "particular" track, as Valentino Rossi describes it, by which he means it is unlike any other. Riders have to not just judge whether the tires are getting up to temperature, but also relearn the precise line which is needed through the section. Stefan Bradl again: "You don't actually have so much lean angle, but if the tire is completely cold on the right side, in some place, you have to go fast through the right corner, or else you are losing a lot of time there, because it's a fast corner."
"It depends also how much throttle you roll, how much weight you put on the front, and there you have to find the good compromise. Not rolling the throttle so much to avoid putting too much weight on the front, but also you have to find away to have enough load on the front tire, to have this correct mix. Also, it's a big question mark about the line, which line you go. Because there are two fast left corners before that right, so Turn 9 and Turn 10, if you get them right, it's easier for you for Turn 11. If you get them not perfect, Turn 9 and Turn 10, it's even more risky to go through Turn 11. So it's a big combination."
"Once you get it right, once you get a good feeling for that, which takes a couple of laps in the first practice, then it's coming more easy. But I remember that we have seen a lot of crashes in FP1, because guys are getting faster, and they are not having the correct line for Turn 11, plus the weather is cold, and so on. And that sort of thing is making it more difficult."
Weighting the bike
Cal Crutchlow agreed that there is more to it than just cold tires. "I don't think necessarily that the crashes happening in Turn 11 are too much to do with the heat of the tire, I think it's more to do with the weight coming off the front of the tire. Because you're accelerating through there in sixth gear, and it's off camber, and you're starting to wheelie a bit as you change direction. I don't think it's necessarily the tire being cold. When you're putting whatever it is, 270 or 280 horsepower through the rear wheel, with the rear grip these bikes have now, I think it's more the bike balance. But it's a compromise, because for the rest of the circuit, you want the bike a different way. There you want the bike on the nose, the rest of the places, hard braking into Turn 1, down the hill, the one after that, you want more on the rear."
Will the asymmetric tires help reduce the number of crashes? It should help, in FP1 at least, though that is the session in which everyone is feeling their way around the track, and when riders are still making mistakes. "Hopefully we won't see so many crashes in Turn 11. It's not a very nice place to crash," Stefan Bradl said.
It will also depend very much on the weather. That was very much on everyone's minds on Thursday, the forecasts offering a very gloomy prospect for Friday at least. Rain on Friday would also put an end to the testing of new parts, with Dani Pedrosa intending to give the new frame trialled at the Barcelona test another run at the Sachsenring. "It depends a lot on the weather also," Pedrosa told the media, "So maybe no chance if only Saturday is dry, because for Sunday we don't know. We cannot predict things so much. If we have the qualifying in the middle, and also, we have to test the medium and hard compounds, then it's useful to have two bikes and they must be the same."
Aprilia have brought some new parts, which both Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl will be using. They include a new swing arm and new parts on the intake side, as well as some other items. The aim of the new parts is twofold, the Aprilia riders told me: to help get the weight closer to the minimum, and make the bike easier to handle, and to add some midrange power. The weight issue is especially important while getting the bike to change direction, not so much over one lap, but more over the length of a full race. "Thirty laps is a lot..." Bautista mused.
More midrange should also help the bike get around the Sachsenring, but Stefan Bradl also said Aprilia have work to do on the electronics. The tight and tortuous track means you have to be very precise with the throttle, Bradl explained. Being as smooth as possible with the throttle means that the bike never gets upset, which is crucial when it spends so much of its time on the edge of the tire.
The final parts of Silly Season
Both Aprilia riders also spent some time talking about their respective futures. With Johann Zarco now officially confirmed at Tech 3, the number of open seats on the grid is getting fewer. Alvaro Bautista confirmed that he was in extended talks with the Aspar team, where he could find himself alongside Eugene Laverty. For both Bautista and Laverty, the key is the availability of a Ducati Desmosedici GP16, with the team looking at running one GP15 and one GP16. If Laverty is only offered a GP15, then he is likely to head off to World Superbikes.
There, Laverty may come across Stefan Bradl. The German confirmed that he was in talks with teams in both the MotoGP and World Superbike paddocks. In MotoGP, the only seats still left open are at the Avintia team, though for Bradl, too, the issue is being on a Ducati GP16. In World Superbikes, Bradl has been linked to both Ducati and Honda. Bradl confessed his unfamiliarity with the World Superbike paddock, but the reason to consider a switch was because it gave him a chance at regular podiums. That is a lot easier to achieve on a good bike in World Superbikes than in the ever tougher field of MotoGP.
Where Bradl and Bautista go will be decided shortly. The two Aprilia riders both said that they wanted to make a decision soon, and have everything wrapped up before the next round of MotoGP in Austria. We could end up with a complete 2017 MotoGP grid before the end of August ...
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