Are Michelin deciding the 2017 MotoGP championship? That would be an easy conclusion to draw after the war of attrition which the Gran Premi de Catalunya at Barcelona turned into. It would also be inaccurate. This race, like the race at Jerez, was about managing tires in poor grip conditions, with the added complication in Barcelona of extremely high tire wear. The riders and bikes which managed that best ended up at the top of the results sheet. The bikes and riders which struggled with that went backwards, and lost out.
And yet Michelin undeniably has a role in all this. After the race, Honda boss Livio Suppo pointed out that we were seeing different manufacturers do well at each different race. The pendulum swings between one and another, as a particular team or a particular factory hits the performance sweet spot for the tires, and gets the most out of them. At the next race, it's a different rider, a different bike, a different team.
The criticism Suppo had was that the sweet spot for the tires could be hard to find. "The tires seem to have a very narrow operating window. If you get it right, you can be competitive," he told me. If you didn't get it right, if you couldn't find that operating window, you are in deep trouble. "Maybe it would be better if that window was bigger."
That may be true. When Bridgestone were official tire supplier to MotoGP, their tires had a much wider operating window. But that tended to reward the teams with the biggest budgets to spend the most time analyzing data, finding the perfect setup, and the riders who could ride with inch-perfect precision for 25 laps. That left little room for improvisation, for adapting to circumstances, for the element of surprise. Whether you prefer the Bridgestone way, rewarding relentless precision, or the Michelin way, rewarding the ability to adapt quickly, is probably a factor of where you as a fan fall on the Motorcycle Racing Purist Scale. However you feel about it, though, the racing in the Michelin era is undeniably more entertaining.
The benefits of experience
Even the purists who deride the idea that anything other than the best bike should win, the fact was that the Barcelona MotoGP race was won by the clever application of experience to the extreme conditions, understanding that everyone would suffer with extreme tire wear, and so focusing on the strengths that situation would leave. The riders on the podium were two 31-year-olds and a triple world champion, on factory bikes and with experienced and clever teams around them. Andrea Dovizioso, Dani Pedrosa, and Marc Márquez all got it right in the conditions, where others struggled.
Pedrosa had started the race as red hot favorite, after setting a blistering pace in the withering heat of FP4 on Saturday. The Repsol Honda rider had half a second advantage over the rest on Saturday, and with temperatures even higher on Sunday – track temperatures were up to 55°C on race day, after being 51°C during FP4, temperatures usually associated with Malaysia rather than Spain – the race would be all about tire conservation. In those conditions, Pedrosa's light weight and silky smooth riding style is a positive advantage, stressing the tires less than heavier and more aggressive riders.
Changing the story
That narrative looked all set to unfold when Pedrosa got the holeshot from the start. Leading in to Turn 1, it seemed only a matter of time before he opened a gap and disappeared into the distance. It took four corners to make clear that fate had a different story to tell. Jorge Lorenzo had already proved he could be quick around the Montmelo circuit by getting his first front row start on the Ducati. He backed it up by rocketing into the lead at Turn 5, and immediately trying to push for a gap.
Lorenzo may have had the lead, but he was never able to open a gap, a pattern which would repeat itself until the final five laps of the race. By lap five, Marc Márquez was on his tail, bringing along Dani Pedrosa, Andrea Dovizioso, and a remarkably strong Jonas Folger to join the fray. That Márquez had even made it past the start had been a miracle: Danilo Petrucci had swerved hard left at the start and slammed into the side of Márquez, nearly knocking him into the gravel.
The reigning champion himself was surprised to still be in the race. The incident with Petrucci was the latest in a long line in what had seemed like a disaster-filled weekend. Márquez crashed four times on Saturday, then again during the warm up on Sunday. Before his crash in warm up, he had tripped over a starter roller behind the bike as he swapped from one bike to the other. "After five crashes it was not easy. Yesterday was hard, was difficult to sleep at night. But this morning I say 'OK, today will be a good day'. But just go out, go in box, crash there with the start machine, then take the bike and crash again. I say 'what's going on! What's happening! I want to go home!' It was difficult but I go out in the race and just a few seconds after the start, big contact with Danilo! I say 'OK, what's going on again?'"
From front to back ...
Márquez had settled down after the start, and after five laps of chasing Lorenzo, he attacked into the hairpin at Turn 10 on lap six. The attack put Lorenzo a little wide, allowing Pedrosa to sneak through as well, followed by Dovizioso at the start of the chicane. Lorenzo's loss of places would start a precipitous slide, but unlike in previous races, that slide would come to a halt, and even be reversed. Lorenzo would drop down as low as eighth, and find himself caught in a battle with Valentino Rossi. But he would not finish eighth.
Márquez may have seized the lead, but he would not hold it for long. Two laps later, Pedrosa fired past into Turn 1, while Dovizioso outbraked Márquez into Turn 10, a feat in itself. With the tires showing their first signs of dropping, a temporary truce was called, Pedrosa leading Dovizioso leading Márquez with nothing between the three.
Latched onto the back of the leading trio was the redoubtable Jonas Folger, the German who had been by far the best of the Yamaha riders throughout the weekend. But it was clear that Folger was at the limit of managing his tires just staying with the leaders, and he could never stage a genuine challenge for the lead.
The demands of the toughest possible conditions started to take their toll on the German rookie. The race had been hard mentally because the track conditions kept deteriorating throughout the race. "It was really hard to understand when I used each mapping and at what point," Folger said afterwards. Should he use a less aggressive engine map, and risk losing touch? Or should he use one with more engine power, and risk eating up his rear tire? He tried one, then the other, to no avail. "The first time I lost the connection to the leading group it was when I used a softer switch because I wanted to save my tire. But when I lost the connection I went back to the powerful one and then burned the tire."
Folger's loss of ground would eventually drop him back into the clutches of his teammate, Johann Zarco. The Frenchman had an outstanding race, charging through the field form fourteenth, once again proving his remarkable ability to conserve tires while maintaining a fierce pace. Losing three seconds at the start, Zarco basically ran the same pace as the leaders all the way until two-thirds distance. He would pass his teammate Jonas Folger at the end, but finishing fifth is a very strong result.
That should not overshadow the achievement of Jonas Folger, however. The German picked up a lot of experience in an important race, and a change to his position on the bike – moving him backwards, angling the clip ons inwards and adding a tank pad – made him more comfortable on the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha. At this race a year ago, Tech 3 team boss Hervé Poncharal had bemoaned his ability to attract talented riders, with so many factory rides available. At Barcelona this year, we were all gently reminding him of those quotes.
Saved for later
Folger only really lost touch with the leading group once Andrea Dovizioso turned up the pace. The Italian had been biding his time behind Dani Pedrosa, preserving his tires and keeping his powder dry. He had been using the Ducati's superior acceleration to save his front tire, so he was ready to stage an attack. With nine laps to go, he dropped the hammer, rocketed past Pedrosa along the straight, and pushed for a gap.
Marc Márquez knew that the time had come to make a choice. He had come to Barcelona to win, and reestablish himself in the championship. "Honestly the target today was the victory, even with four crashes yesterday and today again. I arrive here on Thursday and I say to the team, 'this weekend I want to take a risk'." He quickly pushed past Pedrosa, and tried to chase Dovizioso down. But the pace of the Ducati man was relentless, and Márquez knew he could either settle for second, or crash trying to win. With Maverick Viñales so far behind, he chose the sensible option.
That left Dovizioso to take his second MotoGP win in a row, and only his fourth win in the premier class. There were a lot of things that made this special: it was the first time that Dovizioso had ever won two races back to back, something he had not even managed while winning his title in 125s. It was also the first time since 2009 that Italian riders had won two successive racers, the last time being when Valentino Rossi triumphed in Brno after Dovizioso had won at Donington Park the race before.
But most remarkable of all was the way in which Dovizioso had gone about it. He knew this race would be about tire wear more than anything, and had worked on leveraging the strengths of the Ducati when the tires went off. He hadn't concerned himself about setting impressive laps during practice, and had not shown his hand. "We weren't the fastest but we were focused to ride the bike in the heat with a used tire and when we started during the race, nobody had grip and nobody was able to push because everybody had to save the tire. A lot."
When the time came, he was ready to pounce. Dovizioso knew that Pedrosa had been pushing his front tire hard under braking to maintain his pace, still the Honda's weakest point. The Ducati doesn't need to do that so much, so he had been using the bike's acceleration to make up the ground lost in braking. By the end of the race, Dovizioso knew that he had an advantage. It was one he leveraged to the maximum, and which carried him to victory.
With two dry victories in a row, does this mean that the Ducati is a championship winning bike, and does Dovizioso also now ascend to the ranks of the MotoGP Aliens? The answer to the first question is still a resounding no, according to the man who has won two races on the GP17. The bike has a clear advantage in top speed, but it still lacks agility and a willingness to turn. "The limit is the same as four races ago," the Italian said. When conditions go their way, when they can use the outrageous top speed of the Ducati, they have a chance. But on a normal track, with good grip, it would always be hard.
Mind over matter
As for Dovizioso himself, it is hard to say if he is now an Alien. In the press conference, but Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa clearly labeled him as a contender for the championship. And now just seven points behind Viñales, that is obviously true. Something has certainly changed about Dovizioso, the Italian calmer and more focused every weekend.
Dovizioso hinted at what had changed in the press conference. "Like I say from middle of last year I believe I understood a lot of things about life and it helped me to approach everything; the life and the sport in a different way, with a different approach. And from that my results were much better." When pressed, Dovizioso remained expressly vague. "You can meet some people and some people can explain to you some thing and you can live in a different way. Every people can understand or become mature about different things in a different moment in your life. Small things but creates a big difference."
What does it mean? Even the team aren't entirely sure what Dovizioso is going, as he keeps it very close to his chest. But the Italian seems to have found someone to help him ignore distractions, maintain focus, and concentrate on what matters. It is, if you like, some form of mental coach, though many riders are still nervous about admitting they would employ such a person, fearing it would be seen as a sign of weakness. And yet clearly it isn't. Motorcycle racing, like all forms of elite sport, is largely a mental game. There might be a tenth or so in bike setup, but there is always three or four tenths to be found between the ears of a top-level rider.
Márquez and Pedrosa were happy to settle for second, with little they could do about the onslaught from Dovizioso. Márquez had thought about pushing, but realized that would not end well. "When Dovi pushed, I tried to push hard for three laps, then I say 'OK, I will crash again, so better to keep these 20 points'." Pedrosa acknowledged that Dovizioso had been stronger than expected, and had simply managed the conditions better.
… And from back to front
Jorge Lorenzo crossed the line in fourth, after having staged a remarkable comeback. After dropping to eighth, he found he could step up his pace again and fight his way forward. He had chosen the hard rear tire because he believed it allowed him to be faster at the beginning, but it also gave him better pace at the end of the race.
Afterwards, Lorenzo was happy, having learned more about the Ducati and how to manage it. "Nine seconds to the leader: first time I am less than ten seconds away so a good race but obviously I want to win and fourth place is not where I want to be," he said. But he had learned to be much less aggressive with the throttle, and that allowed him to nurse the rear tire and gave him better drive at the end. "In the past I suffered so much in hot conditions because I was one of the riders that went to full throttle sooner so it wasn't helping for spinning but in these last races I have understood more how to save the tire. I am improving a lot in that area, and we are lucky that we don't have the same graining in that area of the bike as other riders."
Does this mean that Lorenzo has mastered the Ducati? Like Dovizioso, he still sees a clear need to make the bike turn better. "We are closer and I need a more natural bike to spring my potential. Right now I am doing good races but not exceptional races." That is only possible with a bike which does not want to run wide.
Old vs New
While the satellite Yamahas finished fifth and sixth, the factory Yamahas had a dismal day. It left Valentino Rossi unhappy, and Maverick Viñales exasperated. Perhaps more worrying was their different assessment of the problems, however. After being beaten by riders on the 2016 Yamaha M1, both Movistar Yamaha riders were asked if the 2016 bike was better than the 2017 bike they have at their disposal. Maverick Viñales was blunt, speaking to the Spanish press. "I tested the 2016 M1 and I tested the 2017 M1, and the 2017 bike is much better."
Valentino Rossi saw it differently. "For me, the main problem is that the bike has more understeer and after the problem becomes very big for the rear tire. The old bike, under my point of view, turns better, and stresses less the rear tire - and here like in Jerez they are faster than us." Rossi said he was having to use the throttle to help get the bike turned, and that was what was creating problems with tire wear. With Yamaha testing a new chassis at Barcelona, he will be hoping to find some answers to these issues.
The Lost Boy
At least Rossi had an idea what was wrong. Viñales was left clueless as to where his problems lay. Or rather, he firmly believes that the issue lies with Michelin, and will brook no alternative explanation. "This morning, with 15 lap tires I did a 1'46.1. This afternoon, with new tires, a 1'46.7, going to crash. I really don’t know. I don’t know what to say. I tell every day the same, so I don’t know. Our bike is good. That’s what I can say. It was good in Qatar, Argentina it was good. All the races, our chassis, it’s not this. The problem is not the bike."
What Viñales is conveniently ignoring, of course, is the vast difference in track temperature between warm up and the race. On Sunday morning, track temperatures were around 33°C. Whent the race started four hours later, 2pm, track temperatures were pushing over 55°C. It should be unsurprising that the track felt very different, yet Viñales was still taken by surprise.
Though he still leads the championship, the Barcelona race left Viñales dismayed at events. "It’s really hard now," he said after the race. "I don’t know what is happening and what’s going on. For our bike, one race is OK, one race not. And another race OK, another race not. We started the season at a really good level, I felt nobody could stop me in the first two races. I was feeling like the best. And now I feel like 10th, 15th. I was pushing the same today than in Qatar - well in Qatar I pushed less, because it was tricky, the track. Argentina I was controlling it and today I was pushing 120%. Luckily I could recover at the end, but I was 15th and 16th, so I don’t know. Honestly, for me it’s a big drama in my head right now, because I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I’m doing the same as in Qatar, Argentina and the other races. I’m riding the same way."
Back to normal
The cure for Viñales will most likely come at Assen. With Jerez and Barcelona behind us, MotoGP moves on to a run of tracks with much more normal conditions. The rest of the tracks on the calendar, bar one (Valencia), have all been resurfaced relatively recently or have pretty good grip. Though the weather may conspire against them from time to time, the coming races will unfold far more normally. From here on in, the treacherous combination of abominable grip levels and excessive tire wear will not be the deciding factor.
That should make the purists happy as well. As Andrea Dovizioso said in the press conference, "small things always can create a big result." It is back to working on details of setup, fine tuning suspension and electronics and geometry and weight distribution. Tires will still suit one bike better at one circuit, and another bike at the next, but in the end, the rider and team which discover Michelin's sweet spot quickest and exploit it best will be the ones filling their trophy cabinets.
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