From Silverstone to Misano: it is hard to think of a starker contrast in circuits. Silverstone sits atop a windswept hilltop in the center of England, surrounded verdant valleys and ancient villages. Misano nestles just above the vast string of late 20th Century hotel blocks which form Italy's Adriatic Riviera. Silverstone is often wet, and usually cold, no matter what time of year we go there. Misano swelters in the heat of a late Italian summer.
The tracks are very different too. Silverstone is a vast, sweeping expanse of fast and challenging tarmac. Misano is a tightly compressed complex of loops demanding more of fuel management than of the rider. Silverstone has old, worn, slippery tarmac with huge bumps rippled in by F1 and other car racing. Up until 2015, Misano was much the same. But it was resurfaced last year, and has fresh, dark, smooth asphalt which has a lot more grip than the old surface.
So the MotoGP riders face a very different kettle of fish a week after Silverstone. The layout of the track is likely to have the biggest impact. Where Silverstone is full of fast third and fourth gear corners which riders enter carrying a lot of speed, most of the turns at Misano are all first and second gear. Drive and traction are the watchwords, though there are three or four corners where braking is at a premium as well.
Ducati drive comes at a price
Drive and traction? Ducati and Yamaha own that. Yamaha have solid mechanical grip from a basically sound chassis design. Ducati have a lot of mechanical grip, but they gain a lot of their drive from the aerodynamic forces produced by the winglets. The winglet downforce helps reduce wheelies, and allows the riders to convert more power into acceleration.
One thing that Silverstone did make clear is that the added acceleration for the Ducatis comes at a price. Both Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso suffered arm pump at Silverstone, with Iannone crashing as a result. He lost the feeling in his right arm, trying to fight the bike out of hard acceleration points and through the changes of direction at Maggotts and Becketts, and through the stadium section.
"The acceleration with the Ducati is very, very strong," Iannone explained. "Also in the changes of direction the bike is a little strong. The most important thing was in Silverstone we had a lot of movement, especially of the last part of the corner, where I pick up the bike. The bike have a lot of movement and it was very difficult to control." Was the rear pumping, I asked Iannone? "Yes, pumping," he replied.
Pumping causes pumping
The Ducati Desmosedici GP is clearly a fantastic motorcycle, and the fastest thing on the grid. But managing that power is not easy. The extra acceleration being generated by the wings is still tying the chassis in knots in certain situations, leaving Dovizioso and Iannone battling the bike, and hanging on like grim death, from time to time. The death grip that requires is causing their forearms to become swollen from exertion, and ending with them losing feeling in their hands, especially the right hand.
Fortunately for the Ducatis, they already have a good idea of set up at Misano. The circuit is one of their test tracks, and test rider Michele Pirro has done what seems like twice the distance to the moon and back on the Desmosedici, and another trip to the moon on the Panigale R. The factory riders did a test at the circuit after Brno, eschewing the post-race test at the Czech track in favor of a chance to work on set up for what is one of the most important GPs of the year at Misano. Iannone and Dovizioso were not testing any new parts, all they were doing was working on set up. That should give them a head start in FP1, though their rivals were dubious that advantage would last much beyond the first day.
Rossi to open a gap?
The Yamahas are not far off the Ducatis in terms of drive, but they don't suffer the same shaking as the Italian bikes do. They accelerate well, turn well, hold a line, and brake reasonably. Going by results, that would seem to be the perfect combination around Misano. Since MotoGP returned to Misano in 2007, Yamahas have won six of the nine races, three each for Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi. Up until 2015, Lorenzo had finished either first or second in each of the races he has competed in at Misano. A moment of madness in a weird flag-to-flag race saw Lorenzo end that streak by crashing out, but this year is expected to be dry all weekend. Except, perhaps, for a very slim chance of rain on Sunday morning. If this weekend is anything like the rest of 2016, that slim chance could easily morph into something rather different.
If you had to pick a winner at Misano, a Movistar Yamaha rider is the obvious choice. Which one? Well Jorge Lorenzo needs it more, and is under pressure to perform. Lorenzo needs to turn his season around after a few dismal weekends, and a hot track where he has traditionally been strong would be the obvious spot for him to launch his counterattack.
The challenge Lorenzo faces is in the tires. Michelin have a new construction front tire at Misano, which features an adaptation to prevent the tire from overheating. The words "heat treatment" are likely to bring Lorenzo out in a rash: the last time Bridgestone brought a tire which had been specially treated to withstand overheating, it took him half a season – and another modification from Bridgestone – to get to grips with the tire. When he did, though, he was nigh on unstoppable.
That puts Valentino Rossi in the driving seat. The Italian has been the best of the championship contenders for the last three races, and has the bike working more or less as he wants it. This is Misano, quite literally his home track, within walking distance of his house in Tavullia. He rides the circuit a lot, training with the VR46 Riders Academy, and on other occasions as well. On Thursday night, at a presentation by Dainese – a company in which Rossi has a stake – one of the promo videos they showed for their Mugello R D-air racing suit showed Rossi riding around the Misano circuit, to test the Dainese leathers and the AGV Pista GP R helmet. It is hard to look beyond Valentino Rossi this weekend.
Nobody said it would be easy
That may complicate matters for Marc Márquez. The championship leader has a very comfortable cushion of 50 points, which should be enough for him to cruise home to the title with just six races to go. Misano, however, could be a track where Márquez loses a big chunk of points. If the two Yamahas finish on the podium, and the two Ducatis finish ahead of him, that would see Márquez lose up to 14 points to one of the Yamaha riders – in the worst case scenario, that would be Valentino Rossi. If Márquez falls any further behind, he loses a point for every place he gives up. If Cal Crutchlow has another strong weekend, or Maverick Viñales finds a little something extra, or Pol Espargaro manages to mix it up, then things could start to get worse for the Spaniard.
He will not be helped by his bike. The good thing for the Honda RC213V is that there are several hard braking points, where they can try to make up the ground they lost. The bad thing is that the Honda riders will lose a lot in acceleration, and there is a lot of it at Misano. Out of the unnamed Turn 6, or Quercia, or Tramonto, or Misano, the bike has to pull hard from first or second gear. In the case of the RC213V, that means fighting wheelie, and once you've overcome the wheelie you have the wheelspin to contend with.
Wheelspin is an issue for the Suzukis as well, though it is heat which appears to be their kryptonite. The GSX-RR is fast when it is cold, the cool track helping to generate grip. Misano is not cold, however: at the tail end of the Italian summer, temperatures are very high indeed.
Yet Maverick Viñales remains confident. His team had found a modification which had worked well at Silverstone – well enough to win the race there – but it was a change which the Spaniard believed could help at Misano as well. "In Austria we were spinning so much and in Brno the spinning was good," Viñales told me after the press conference. "In Silverstone the control with the gas was perfect. We will see here how the control is with the gas."
The rulebook: still there, despite differences
The race on Sunday will have an immediate effect on the championship, but the Grand Prix Commission also meets at Misano. This weekend, the subject under discussion are the new rules on aerodynamics, designed to rein in radical designs aimed at producing downforce in much the same way as the current winglets. A proposal has been drawn up by Dorna's technical staff, including Director of Technology Corrado Cecchinelli, Technical Director Danny Aldridge and Race Director Mike Webb. That proposal has been passed on to the MSMA, who are due to discuss it on Friday, before deciding whether to accept it or no. If the MSMA accepts the proposal, it will be submitted to the Grand Prix Commission, where it is likely to pass without comment. New regulations are needed as soon as possible, to allow the factories to develop for 2017 without chasing down blind alleys that are later closed off by the rulebook.
When I bumped into Danny Aldridge in the paddock, I asked about what would replace the Honda CBR600RR engine when Honda's contract as single engine supplier ran out at the end of 2018. Aldridge was extremely tight-lipped, though he did admit that they were in the very beginning of that process, and were starting to study alternatives. Corrado Cecchinelli had even drawn up a plan covering every possible contingency: from retaining the current Honda engines, to switching engine suppliers, to have a bespoke engine produced for the class, and even to allowing the return of two stroke engines. I pleaded for that final option, but received no joy.
Tight-lipped as Aldridge was, he did admit that there had been interest among outside manufacturers, though he steadfastly refused to be drawn on who the other candidates would be. With rumors starting to coalesce around the idea that the engine supply could go to a newcomer in the field, that is an intriguing prospect. It would also be welcomed by almost everyone in the paddock. As exciting as the Moto2 class has been from time to time, hearing 30+ riders scream past on the same bike starts to wear on you. More aural variety would be welcome, or at least a change to the monotone drone of the CBR 600 RR engine.
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