In a typically robust column written at the end of last week, David Miller, editor of Bikesportnews.com, suggested that the time which double World Superbike champion Jonathan Rea had set on Thursday at the combined WorldSBK and MotoGP test at Jerez had made the MotoGP bikes look a bit silly. Rea had ended the day as the fastest rider on the day, setting a time of 1'38.721, nearly a quarter of a second faster than Alvaro Bautista, who was riding the Ducati Desmosedici GP16 at the track.
Rea had set the time on a modified version of a road bike, costing something in the region of €300,000, beating the satellite Ducatis (estimated lease price, just shy of €2 million), satellite Hondas (official lease price €2 million, actual cost to lease about 50% higher than that), and the factory Suzuki, KTM and Desmosedici GP17 ("I'm sorry sir, you'll have to put your checkbook away, this one isn't for sale").
Miller draws a number of conclusions from this, some sound, some based more on hyperbole than reality. The claim that MotoGP is no longer a prototype series is unfounded. MotoGP bikes (and their predecessors, the 500cc two strokes and four strokes from whence they came) have never been prototypes, as Grand Prix racing was hobbled by rules from the birth of the series in 1949. The ban on forced induction, imposed in the 1930s when the excess of horsepower made possible by supercharging far outweighed contemporary braking technology, was left in place.
The technology straitjacket
Further cost-cutting limits on technology were placed on the series through the years, killing off the aerodynamically efficient dustbin fairing, the glorious V8 Moto Guzzi and Honda 6 Cylinder 250 RC166, and now custom ECU software and winglets. There may have been brief windows of opportunity as technologies changed for privateers or small upstarts to make an impact on Grand Prix racing, but throughout its long history, factories have controlled access to winning machinery, and dominated the series.
Miller's claim that MotoGP serves no purpose in developing road bikes is also misleading. Manufacturers can understand the fundamentals of motorcycle dynamics in MotoGP, especially how a bike responds under braking, in corners, and under acceleration. Electronics may be reduced, but they are still highly sophisticated, offering lessons on fuel use, engine mapping, and throttle response. Fundamental research is always useful in unexpected ways; it was research into the intermediate vector bosons which led indirectly to the invention of the World Wide Web.
In the land of the blind
That Jonathan Rea and Chaz Davies have the talent to be in MotoGP is beyond question. What is holding them back is a combination of age and prejudice. Team managers in the MotoGP paddock pay little attention to World Superbikes, with the result that very few riders in the series get offered a ride in MotoGP. Thankfully, that attitude is slowly starting to shift, thanks to Ben Spies and Cal Crutchlow, and more recently Loris Baz and especially Eugene Laverty.
The issue of age, however, remains. Team managers are always looking for The Next Big Thing. The Next Big Thing always seems to looks suspiciously like The Current Big Thing, and The Current Big Thing is a 23-year-old Spaniard who came out of the Spanish CEV championship and through 125s and Moto2, that is where team managers are looking. As good as Rea and Davies are, they are both about to turn 30, which MotoGP team managers believe means they have a limited shelf life. Of the youngsters in WorldSBK, Alex Lowes is 26, and Michael van der Mark is 24, and neither one is dominating like either Rea or Davies. There are good reasons for that, but MotoGP team managers don't have time for such reasons.
Millions wasted to go slow?
There is one point that Miller makes that is worth discussing at more length, however. Paraphrasing his point, Miller states that the millions manufacturers spend on their MotoGP bikes are not reflected in the difference in lap times between the prototypes and the production-based World Superbikes. There may be some merit in that argument, but to make it on the basis of the Jerez test is a little specious.
There is way more at play here than just fast World Superbikes and slow MotoGP bikes. There is the question of who is riding at the test and who is not. And above all, there is the question of tires. Conditions at the test were ideal for the Pirellis, the spec tire of the World Superbike series performing very well in a wide range of temperatures. The MotoGP Michelins are much more sensitive, and though Michelin had brought a soft front tire specifically to deal with the cold conditions, it was still right at the limit of its operating conditions.
The best point to start when making a comparison is to look at the timesheets. I extracted the data from the Jerez circuit's excellent live timing page (which tragically does not appear to have an archive of data accessible from outside) for some of the fastest riders from Thursday at Jerez, and compared the times with lap times from World Superbike and MotoGP races at Jerez both this year and last. I then used this data to draw up a comparison between the riders at the various events.
|Rider||Event||Lap source||Total time 19 laps||Diff||Total time18 laps||Diff|
|Jorge Lorenzo||Jerez MotoGP 2015||Race laps 2-20||31:30.737||29:50.621|
|Alvaro Bautista||Jerez Test 2016||Best 20 laps||31:32.576||1.839||29:52.507||1.886|
|Danilo Petrucci||Jerez Test 2016||Best 20 laps||31:42.550||11.813||30:01.889||11.268|
|Jonathan Rea||Jerez Test 2016||Best 20 laps||31:46.162||15.425||30:05.435||14.814|
|Chaz Davies||Jerez Test 2016||Best 20 laps||31:47.415||16.678||30:06.401||15.780|
|Valentino Rossi||Jerez MotoGP 2016||Race laps 2-20||31:50.256||19.519||30:09.509||18.888|
|Alvaro Bautista||Jerez Test 2016||3 longest runs||31:51.812||21.075||30:11.390||20.769|
|Aleix Espargaro||Jerez Test 2016||Best 20 laps||31:52.360||21.623||30:10.759||20.138|
|Jonathan Rea||Jerez Test 2016||Race sim #2||31:53.919||23.182||30:13.041||22.420|
|Tom Sykes||Jerez Test 2016||Best 20 laps||31:55.084||24.347||30:13.940||23.319|
|Marco Melandri||Jerez Test 2016||Best 20 laps||31:55.395||24.658||30:14.242||23.621|
|Jonathan Rea||Jerez Test 2016||Race sim #1||32:05.469||34.732||30:23.664||33.043|
|Tom Sykes||Jerez WSBK 2015||Race 1 laps 2-20||32:28.987||58.250||30:44.626||54.005|
|Chaz Davies||Jerez WSBK 2016||Race 2 laps 2-20||32:33.033||1:02.296||30:47.624||57.003|
Although Jonathan Rea's headline time drew the most attention, what was even more impressive was the fact that he ran not one, but two race simulations on Thursday. The first, using the hard Pirelli, was nearly twelve seconds slower than his second run, and ended with Rea suffering arm pump. Yet two hours later, Rea went out again, and went even faster. So fast, in fact, that the 19 flying laps he did on his second run were just 3.663 seconds than the 19 laps from lap 2 to lap 20 which Valentino Rossi did during the MotoGP race in May.
Does this mean that Rea's race pace would be good enough to get on the podium in the MotoGP race if he entered on his Kawasaki ZX-10R? That would be stretching the truth. First of all, World Superbikes do few laps around Jerez: each WorldSBK race is 20 laps, or 88.5 kilometers long, while the MotoGP race is 27 laps or 119.5 kilometers. Rea's pace was fearsome, but he only needed to maintain it for three quarters of the distance that a MotoGP rider would have to.
The comparison with Valentino Rossi's 2016 race is also not really fair. Rossi's race time was 31.588 second slower than Jorge Lorenzo's race winning time. The reason for that is simple: after Scott Redding's Ducati had blown a rear tire at Argentina, Michelin had gone with a very hard tire carcass for safety reasons. On Jerez' track surface, made exceptionally greasy by the hot spring sun, the rear had little grip, and times were slow.
That does not mean that Rea's race simulation was not impressive, however. If you compare his race simulation to the fastest World Superbike races in 2015 and 2016, his performance is other worldly. If Rea had run the same pace during race 1 of the 2015 event, he would have beaten winner Tom Sykes by 35 seconds. If he had run the same pace during race 2 of the 2016 Jerez weekend, he would have beaten Chaz Davies by over 39 seconds. Even his slower first race simulation was quicker: 23.5 seconds than Sykes' 2015 race time, 27.5 seconds faster than Davies 2016 race time.
What if we compare Rea's times to the other riders at the test in November? Comparing like for like is difficult, as Rea was the only rider to put in a full race simulation. Of the other riders, nobody did runs of more than 9 or 10 laps. Ranking each rider's lap times from fastest to slowest, and taking their fastest 19 laps offers a better comparison.
Comparing both MotoGP and World Superbike riders, Alvaro Bautista comes out of the test as fastest on the Aspar Ducati GP16. His quickest 19 laps are just 1.839 seconds slower than the first 19 laps of Jorge Lorenzo's record-breaking 2015 race time, and 10 seconds quicker than Danilo Petrucci on the Ducati GP17, still sprouting winglets for the Jerez test. Rea's quickest 19 laps are 13.5 seconds slower than Bautista, but faster than anyone bar the two Ducatis. That includes Aleix Espargaro on the factory Aprilia, and the remainder of the World Superbike field.
Compare the World Superbike field, and Rea once again comes out on top. Only Chaz Davies comes anywhere near to Rea, the Aruba Ducati rider's best 19 laps just 1.253 seconds slower than Rea's. The world champion's Kawasaki teammate is a good bit slower, Tom Sykes needing nearly 9 seconds more to cover his 19 fastest laps. Davies' Ducati teammate and World Superbike returnee Marco Melandri is already up to speed. His fastest 19 laps were just 9.233 seconds slower than Rea's, and four tenths slower than Sykes.
|Rider||Event||Lap source||Total time 19 laps||Diff||Total time18 laps||Diff|
|Jonathan Rea||Jerez Test 2016||Best 20 laps||31:46.162|
|Chaz Davies||Jerez Test 2016||Best 20 laps||31:47.415||1.253||30:06.401||6.401|
|Jonathan Rea||Jerez Test 2016||Race sim #2||31:53.919||7.757||30:13.041||13.041|
|Tom Sykes||Jerez Test 2016||Best 20 laps||31:55.084||8.922||30:13.940||13.940|
|Marco Melandri||Jerez Test 2016||Best 20 laps||31:55.395||9.233||30:14.242||14.242|
|Jonathan Rea||Jerez Test 2016||Race sim #1||32:05.469||19.307||30:23.664||23.664|
|Tom Sykes||Jerez WSBK 2015||Race 1 laps 2-20||32:28.987||42.825||30:44.626||44.626|
|Chaz Davies||Jerez WSBK 2016||Race 2 laps 2-20||32:33.033||46.871||30:47.624||47.624|
Looking at the combined times of the fastest riders at the Jerez test, what conclusions can we draw? Are the World Superbike machines really that close to the MotoGP bikes? To really know the truth, we would have to have Marc Márquez, Valentino Rossi, and Jorge Lorenzo at the test. To make it even, both WorldSBK and MotoGP bikes would have to use the same tires, but that is an impossibility given that the two sets of machines have been developed to use very different rubber.
What is clear, however, is that both Jonathan Rea and Chaz Davies are the cream of WorldSBK, and are capable of holding their own in any company. The times they posted were impressive, while Rea's race simulations were simply devastating. Leaving Jerez, the numbers 1 and 3 of the World Superbike championship head into the winter break as clear favorites for the championship next year.
Of the MotoGP riders, it is Alvaro Bautista who has impressed. The Spaniard was already making major steps aboard the Aprilia RS-GP, but he has transitioned well to the Aspar Ducati GP16. He was lapping at the kind of pace to match Jorge Lorenzo from 2015, and was well clear of the rest of the field. How well Bautista's pace will stand up once the MotoGP field reassembles in Sepang at the end of January, we will have to see.
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