Before the second half of the MotoGP season gets underway, now is a good time to take a look back at what happened in the first nine races, and how that reflects on the next nine. There has been plenty to talk about, with new rules turning results around, and riders transforming themselves to chase greater success. There have been plenty of surprises in all three classes, and more likely to come. Despite this, clear favorites have emerged in MotoGP, Moto2 and Moto3. There is still everything to play for in all three championships, but betting against the leaders is looking increasingly risky.
New rules bring the expected and the unexpected
Fans and media were excited about the changes for the 2016 season. New tires and spec electronics should have shaken the field up, and made the racing closer. Halfway into the season, things haven't quite turned out the way we might have expected. The complexities of change have been shown to favor those best equipped to handle them. That, inevitably, means that the factory teams have done better than the satellite teams.
The spec electronics is a prime example of how this has played out. The rationale from Dorna and IRTA for introducing spec electronics was to create a more level playing field, and make the racing closer. That has worked to some extent, but only between factories rather than between teams. Prior to this season, factories such as Yamaha and Honda had a clear advantage over others, such as Ducati, and especially Suzuki. The years of R&D into vehicle dynamics – the science of managing a racing motorcycle through electronic controls – was reaping returns for the two Japanese manufacturers.
Good for some, not for others
Companies with small racing departments like Suzuki could never manage to catch up, lacking the resources and the wealth of data which Honda and Yamaha had. They were always chasing a moving target, struggling even to keep up with their Japanese rivals after giving them such a head start. The difference the spec software has made has been evident from the comments by their riders. Both Maverick Viñales and Aleix Espargaro have continually emphasized how much better the unified software is compared to Suzuki's own ECU software from last year. Talk to riders on Yamahas and Hondas, though, and they will tell you that the spec software is a real step backwards for them.
The case is a little different for the Italian factories in MotoGP. Ducati's software was never quite at the level of Yamaha and Honda, but it was not that far off. But Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna made a smart decision in 2015, which has allowed them to close the gap, and maybe even take the lead. The 2016 spec software was based loosely on the system used by the Open class bikes in 2015. Ducati supported their Open class riders strongly last season, sending a lot of Ducati engineers into the garages of the privateer teams. The experience gained has proven to be invaluable, giving Ducati a head start on the 2016 electronics.
Things are a little different for Aprilia. The Noale factory already had world class electronics, developed in part in World Superbikes. The switch to the unified software was a step back for Aprilia, also because their MotoGP effort is being run with such limited resources. Aprilia have had plenty of work to do to get the RS-GP working well with the new software. They have made significant progress, but there is still more to do. Then again, Aprilia's MotoGP bike still has so many weaknesses (not least, a severe lack of horsepower) that electronics is a relatively small inconvenience.
The biggest losers have been the satellite teams, however. With so much to learn about extracting the maximum out of the unified software, MotoGP's manufacturers have tended to focus on their factory teams. That means that engineers have been poring over data from the factory bikes, and helping optimize the electronics for their riders. Any spare capacity has been focused there, rather than spreading knowledge throughout the satellite teams.
That has left the satellite squads to try to figure stuff out on their own, for the most part. The factories have provided teams with support and updates, when they have had time, but it has been secondary to the goal of making the factory teams competitive. The gap between satellite and factory has only grown larger.
The notable exception here is again Ducati. The Italian manufacturer has repaid the work done with the Open class teams very well. They were already very comfortable with the systems before the start of the 2016 season, thanks to the data gathered last year. That has meant that the satellite teams have benefited from existing factory expertise, and that Ducati has the engineering capacity to spare to help the satellite squads.
Optimists may point at Ducati as an example of the way forward. As the other factories start to master the unified software, they will be able to pass on their lessons to their satellite teams. With the software spec pretty much frozen, and little or no development expected, the gap between the satellite and factory squads should start to close again. We may see some of this in the second half of 2016, but more likely it will be 2017 and 2018 before real progress is made.
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