A full paddock marks the return to some semblance of normality for the MotoGP circus. This is why the riders and teams regard the first European round as the "real" start of the season: the riders sleep in their motorhomes rather than hotels, the teams eat in hospitality units instead of makeshift tents, those hospitality units adding a touch of vibrant color which is missing from overseas rounds. At the rounds outside Europe, the paddock is so obviously a workplace, a temporary spot which is only filled during the day. Inside Europe, the paddock becomes a village again, noise, music, and chatter filling the daytime and the night.
The return to Europe also saw an immediate return to work. Aprilia headed to Mugello, to a wasted private test where cold temperatures and the threat of rain kept Aleix Espargaro and Sam Lowes huddled inside their garages. "Every time we headed out of pit lane, it started spotting with rain," Lowes joked. He was frustrated at not being able to get many laps, but especially because Aprilia had spent money to hire the whole track for two days, and that money had basically been wasted.
Espargaro was exasperated by the sheer amount of testing Aprilia are doing. "We have many days of tests," the Spaniard told us. "Too much, actually. For example after America, I landed on Tuesday, and on Wednesday I jumped on the bike, and it was a disaster because I couldn't sleep, I was super tired." Aprilia are testing almost on a weekly basis until Valencia. "I go two days home and then on Monday I fly to Le Mans, we test here in Jerez, then we have a test in Barcelona... We have many tests."
Aprilia's new chassis
The one thing Aprilia have not been testing is the new chassis they have been working on. The Italian factory decided it needed a new chassis after running out of adjustment options with their current one at the first two races of the season. They have been moving the weight further and further forward, and now have nowhere left to go with their current frame. A new frame will come either at Le Mans, or at Mugello, which should fix this problem.
The aim of the new chassis is to move the weight still further forward and get it over the front wheel. Last year's bike had a tendency to push the front tire forward under braking, rather than directly into the ground, Sam Lowes explained. Throughout the winter, they had been working on getting the front tire loaded at ever steeper angles. The current chassis was already a step forward, but the new one should get them to where they want to be. The bike is already formidably stable on the brakes, and the next step should make it even better.
The new (or old, depending on your perspective) front tire is a complicating factor here. Lowes explained that with the current tire, which has a less stiff carcass, they are forced to run the harder compound. But getting the harder compound up to temperature is difficult, so it never really feels like it is gripping. The new front tire (the Valencia tire, as it is being called in the paddock, as it was used at the Valencia race and test) has a stiffer carcass, which should provide more support. The weaker carcass tends to squash under braking, making for a much wider footprint. This makes it harder to turn the bike in, Lowes explained. "It feels like you have a square tire," he said.
That Valencia tire is to be tested on Monday, and the data from that test may well end up affecting the chassis development for Aprilia. It isn't just Aprilia who are awaiting the tire eagerly, Honda and Yamaha are also looking forward to testing the tire, as they also load the front. The Honda more than anyone, but Valentino Rossi is also curious to see how it feels.
The tire will not make much difference to Ducati, however, though the Italian factory have entirely different problems. The Desmosedici has a lot of problems which all add up to them not being competitive, Andrea Dovizioso explained. A tight track, hot temperatures in the afternoon robbing the track of grip, and a lot of long corners, perhaps the bike's weakest point, all worked against the Ducati and its strengths, he said. The improved rear grip of the Michelins should help, but it is going to be a long weekend for Ducati.
Will the winglets be making an appearance? Not on the Ducati, Dovizioso said. "I don't think so. There are positive things but there are also negative things from them." At Aprilia, Aleix Espargaro expected to wait until Monday to try out winglets, though if the weather holds on Friday morning, they could test them in FP2, he said.
If Dovizioso expects to have a tough weekend, it will be even tougher for Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard was confident that his strength around the circuit would negate some of the weaknesses of the Desmosedici. Others were not so optimistic. Asked if he had expected Lorenzo to struggle so much with the Ducati, Andrea Dovizioso explained that he had. "For a few reasons," the Italian said. "First, his riding style is quite far away from the riding style the Ducati needs. This is the first thing. The second thing is, I knew the limit we had. He didn't know, he didn't expect it, and this is the result."
Cal Crutchlow was similarly unsurprised. The Ducati needed a much more physical riding style, he said, more so than the Yamaha. But even then, the Ducati was easier to ride than the Honda, the Englishman claimed. If going to the Ducati had been hard, going to the Honda would have been even harder.
The hard work of a rookie
Crutchlow also shared an insight into Johann Zarco, who he had found himself competing against at Austin. Zarco had tired during the race, Crutchlow explained. By the end of the race, the Tech 3 Yamaha rider was braking 30 meters earlier, a symptom of physical tiredness, the Englishman said.
Zarco put his drop in performance down to tire management, however. He had learned a lot racing against Valentino Rossi, and now knew where he had to make a step to make further improvement. "I think I was pushing a lot in the entry of the corner to compensate the time that I was losing in the exit," Zarco explained. "He was still in front but a bit far and I can see that yeah, I might be able to be fast but he is able to keep the same pace for forty minutes."
What would be needed to fix that? Zarco knows he will have to focus on tire wear. That comes from a little bit of everything, he said, and was something he would be working on at the Monday test. Those improvements would come from a combination of a lot of areas, he explained: "We need to work at and understand how much the riding style can do, and the electronics as well. We can also look at suspension and chassis." There was not a single fix, but finding the magic combination between all of these factors was where he and his team would have to work.
KTM's not-so-secret big bang
Whether Jerez will throw up any surprises remains to be seen. KTM will have a new engine at the track, though it is still uncertain whether it will be used during practice or the race or not. When it is, we will know it, both Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro said. A hint that this is a big bang configuration engine, and not such a subtle hint either. Though neither man would state it directly, all of their comments pointed in the same direction of a revised firing interval, and therefore the end of the screamer.
Getting the new engine to work is not simple, however, as HRC have found with their new RC213V. KTM's engineers have spent sleepless nights poring over data trying to find the right maps to get the new engine to work properly. But they will almost certainly try it during the weekend, and ahead of the test. "We are like testing," Pol Espargaro said. "We are not playing for the championship or even the top ten right now. Even if in the future we need to use a new engine and start from last. We don’t care. KTM and Red Bull are making a big effort to bring these new pieces for us and if, we the riders, need to do some sacrifice we are going to do it. It's clear that everything that's going to be better on the bike, we are going to use, but we need to know if it's better."
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