For some race fans, the news that the tire wars are back will be music to their ears. The trouble is, the new tire wars which broke out at Jerez are of a very different kind to the period before the advent of the spec tire, when different manufacturers went head-to-head in pursuit of outright performance.
The Jerez tire wars are a very different beast indeed. These pit rider against rider, rather than manufacturer against manufacturer, with the prize being the future direction of tire development in MotoGP. The weapon handed to both sides was a front tire from Michelin using a stiffer construction, first used at the Valencia race and test at the end of last year. The two (or perhaps three) sides in the debate are using the outcome of the Jerez test to try to gain an advantage in the remainder of the championship.
If you wanted proof that Jerez was above all a tire test, look no further than Ducati's decision taken late on Sunday night to stay on for the Monday test. Originally, they had been scheduled to skip the Jerez test and head to Mugello, where they will have a private test to prepare for what is arguably their most important race of the year. But when it became apparent just how much stock some riders were putting in the new tire, the factory Ducati team decided to stay and give the tires a whirl.
Change of plans
Andrea Dovizioso only tested for a morning, trying the new stiffer tire (variously and confusingly referred to as the new tire, the old tire, the 2016 tire, and the Valencia tire, though the stiffer tire is the clearest description of the beast) before packing up and heading out. Jorge Lorenzo seized the opportunity to get more miles under his belt, testing the new tire, but most of all continuing the process of adapting to the Desmosedici, a process he had punctuated with his first podium on the bike
Everyone else, except for the cash-strapped Pull&Bear Aspar team, stayed on for the test as well. Though some teams had new parts to test – Movistar Yamaha had a new chassis to test, Repsol Honda the new exhaust Cal Crutchlow had raced, Aprilia a new swing arm, and KTM the usual container full of ideas and components – the main objective for most was to form an opinion on the stiffer tire.
At the end of the day, opinions were divided into several camps. There were those who loved it, or at least preferred it, such as Marc Márquez, Cal Crutchlow, Valentino Rossi, Sam Lowes, and Jonas Folger, praising the extra support the tire gave, which allowed them to turn into the corner on the brakes. Tech 3 rookie Folger summed it up best: "The bike is more stable on braking, especially the last moment when you go into the corner on the braking. On the brakes it's more stable, you don't feel the rubber working so much, it's just more stable. And then you turn better."
There were those who were indifferent, such as Andrea Dovizioso, Dani Pedrosa, and Johann Zarco. The new tire was no real improvement for them, either because of their riding style or their bikes, which loaded the front a good deal less. Riders who do most of their braking in a straight line, releasing brake pressure before tipping in, liked the better feel and feedback the tire currently in the allocation gives. With less load on the front during turning, the less stiff carcass transmits more information back to the rider.
Then there were those who were opposed, though not with too much conviction. Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa, Maverick Viñales were all no real fans of the new tire, though all said that if the majority decision was in favor, they would just as easily be able to race with the stiffer carcass.
Perhaps the most telling comment came from riders in both the positive and indifferent camps. In reality, the difference between the tires was much smaller than many had perhaps hoped. Valentino Rossi: "I tried it, and for me, not a big difference, but I preferred the tire with the harder carcass." Andrea Dovizioso was even more blunt: "My feeling is very similar, like when I compared last year. So for me, it doesn't matter, both tires are very very similar."
The difference between testing and racing
If the difference is so small, why was this tire being revisited? Once again, Jonas Folger had the best explanation. "When they gave us the front tire that we use now, I didn't feel so much difference. Most of the riders were saying, it's more stable, some had problems, some not, and in the end they decided to continue with this front tire. But I think also in the winter tests, nobody was pushing like now during the season. And that was affecting the decision to continue with the current tire."
The situation is reminiscent of the less stiff front tire Bridgestone brought to the preseason Jerez test back in 2012. Then, Casey Stoner immediately rejected the tire, saying it was far too soft under braking, stopping him from turning into the corner as he wished. The rest of the field liked it, however, and the tire went on to be used for the first half of the season, over the objections of Stoner and Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa.
By the Barcelona test, the rest of the field had changed their mind, agreeing that the tire was indeed too soft. On a race weekend, with much more at stake, riders were pushing much harder and running into the limitations of the front tire. Bridgestone remedied the situation shortly after.
Much the same appears to have happened with the Michelin front. At Valencia, the riders all preferred the tire with the new profile and the stiffer construction. After the winter break, when riders were still finding their feet and getting up to speed, they were going a little softer, and the less stiff tire offered better feedback. Now they are racing again, they are bumping up against the limitations of the tire, and wanting more support from it under braking.
Democracy in action
The decision on whether to switch to the stiffer construction will be taken based on the opinion of the majority of riders. If most of them agree they prefer it, then the stiffer construction tires will be available from Mugello. If most of them don't like it, they will stick with the current, less stiff tire. If there is no clear decision, then the tire will be tested again at the Monday test after Barcelona. Given the feedback I heard from riders after the race, that looks to be the most likely outcome.
The trouble is, of course, that we can't truly trust the feedback we heard. The riders who like it may have a strong preference because they believe it is better, or they may have a weak preference because they believe it can't be any worse than the tires they currently have. On the other hand, the riders who vote to stay with the current tire may decide to do so not because they prefer the current tire, but because they fear that others will benefit if Michelin bring the stiffer front tire.
The same thing happened in 2012. Valentino Rossi, knowing he was in for a second year of struggling with the Ducati, voted for using the softer front Bridgestone for the season. After he left Ducati and returned to Yamaha, he admitted he had voted for the softer front knowing that it was a worse tire. The front tire was the least of his problems, and so handicapping his rivals with a worse tire was just one more strategy aimed at helping him to be competitive. Sometimes, for a racer, making your rivals slower can be just as effective (and much easier) than finding ways to be faster.
Whatever the tire, it didn't appear to help Valentino Rossi. Yamaha had brought a new chassis to the test, which worked for Maverick Viñales, but Rossi felt did not do much for him. Viñales believed it offered a bit more rear grip, while Rossi found no benefit from the new frame. The test did provide some useful ideas for improving bike setup for the Italian, but the new chassis had not made a difference.
Viñales finished fastest at the test, while Valentino Rossi finished way down in 21st. In itself, those times are deceptive: Viñales started the test around 10:30, when the track temperature was relatively low and the surface had a lot of grip. He set his best lap time about an hour later, still well before noon. That was also before Valentino Rossi even took the track. The Italian started his first laps shortly before noon, when track temperatures were starting to rise. He never really had the right conditions to chase a fast lap.
That does not mean that Rossi is not in trouble, however. A surprisingly curt Valentino Rossi told us that he was still having major problems with the bike and the tires. "For me, in general, this weekend was difficult because our bike don't have a good marriage with the tires," he said. "This is the biggest problem. Also today, we understand something, but in the end, the feeling remain similar."
Viñales worked on setup, and tried the same setting that he had used in the race. He was a lot faster in the test than during the race, he told us. "We made a back to back compared to yesterday's race, and the result was totally different. I could make mid 1'40s, I was on the pace of Marc and Dani." Once again, he refused to say directly what he believed the cause was, though he did make the following point: "Yesterday on lap 16, 1'41.9, today on lap 16, 1'40.8. That's nearly one second per lap, that's a lot."
At Le Mans, Yamaha will be hoping to turn their fortunes around. With an incredibly grippy new surface, they should have a good chance of doing so.
On the pipe
At Honda, they continued the work of sorting out their new exhaust, and finding the right electronics mappings to make the engine work properly. There were signs they believe it is the right direction, as Marc Márquez explained. "On the acceleration side it’s helping a little bit," he said. The short exhaust made the engine smoother, and gave it a bit more bottom end torque. "It’s where we are struggling a bit now. The thing is also on the top it’s very similar. Overall, you understand better. During all the preseason when I complain that I don’t understand the connection with the gas, and I don’t understand why I am fast, this one you understand a little bit better."
Cal Crutchlow and Dani Pedrosa followed a similar program, working to help set the electronics up to manage the exhaust. The Magneti Marelli spec ECU is relatively sophisticated, but because of that, it can be hard to set up. With thousands of parameters which can be manipulated, but only directly by hand, getting it right can take a long time.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2017 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.