Friday is turning into update day, especially since Ducati opened the can of worms which is aerodynamics in places not covered by aerodynamics. The first day of practice at any race now is the day the other factories roll out their new swingarm attachments, or devices, or whatever you want to call them. But let's be honest: they are aerodynamic spoilers.
Jerez was no different. On Friday, both Aprilia and Yamaha debuted their versions of Ducati's swingarm spoiler (poetic justice for Yamaha, as their water-deflecting spoiler from last year was the inspiration for Aprilia and Ducati to start adding parts to the swingarm). Stefan Bradl, making an appearance as a wildcard as a reward for his role as HRC test rider, was spotted riding a chassis covered in carbon fiber (stuck on top of aluminum, not an entirely CF frame).
Normally, test riders don't attract too much media attention, but HRC's obsessive secrecy managed to change that around. As soon as Bradl entered the garage, mechanics from the test team put up massive screens, hermetically sealing off the garage to prying eyes. This alerted the media to the fact that Something Big Was Going On in Bradl's garage, and a group of keen observers gathered every time he exited the pits. That kind of behavior did more to draw attention to what Honda was doing, rather than keep it out of the public eye.
The hidden, the visible, the overlooked
These clearly visible changes were a reminder that there are plenty of updates brought at almost every race. But for the most part, these changes are to the parts we cannot see: software updates, chassis updates where stiffness has been modified using different wall thicknesses, a slightly different way of layering carbon fiber to build a swingarm, which looks identical to the previous version, but behaves slightly differently. Ducati have had a different swingarm for a couple of races, though nobody noticed it. It was only the paddock grapevine which brought us this news.
While all eyes were on the swingarm spoilers at Aprilia and Yamaha, Ducati used the distraction to roll out a bunch of updates at Jerez. First, there were the much enlarged (and much stiffer – they are no longer rubbing against the tire wall, erasing the Michelin logo as they go) wheel covers on the front wheel. Instead of covering less than a quarter of the bottom of the front wheel, they now extend from much further forward all the way back to the brake caliper. They have gone from covering an arc of perhaps 80° to something closer to 130°, at a rough estimate. See below for the old and the new wheel covers.
Old wheel covers (photo Tom Morsellino)
New wheel covers (photo Niki Kovacs)
A lot of people had spotted the wheel covers, but only the eagle-eyed photographer Niki Kovacs saw that Ducati also appear to have not one, but three different versions of the swingarm spoiler, or what the Italians like to refer to as the 'spoon'. First, the original version of the spoiler, a full length spoiler with three long aerofoils.
Original spoiler – long, and angled sharply forward (photo Niki Kovacs)
In addition to the original version, Ducati had another version which used a shortened lower aerofoil, and so was not quite as long as the standard one.
'Mid-sized' spoiler – angled sharply forward, but with a shortened lower aerofoil (photo Niki Kovacs)
Finally, there was a shortened version, which was more vertical and less angled forward. That also used a shortened lower aerofoil.
'Short' spoiler – angled closer to the vertical, with the shortened lower aerofoil (photo Niki Kovacs)
MotoMatters subscribers have access to a gallery with much larger versions of these pictures, but these should give you an idea of just how important aero is to Ducati.
Loopholes large enough for spoilers
How come Ducati can use different versions of the swingarm spoiler? The regulations only talk about the aero body being homologated, and limited to one update a season. But the whole issue with Ducati's wheel covers and swingarm spoiler is that they fall outside of the aerodynamics regulations, and so can be altered at will. Now that Ducati have established that the swingarm spoiler is to cool the rear tire, they can change it as often as they like. Which they appear to be doing.
(It is also worth noting that all of these photos are of parts which appeared on the factory Ducati bikes. Jack Miller is using only the original wheel covers, and the original swingarm spoiler).
Update: I have had confirmation from Technical Director Danny Aldridge that there are actually two different spoilers, not three. The original, long version of the spoiler, and a shorter, more vertical version. Each design has to be submitted to Aldridge for approval (they still have to be obviously for the stated purpose of cooling the rear tire), but they can change them as often as they like, as they are not part of the aero body homologated at the start of the season.
Ducati aren't the only ones to have cottoned on to the freedom allowed by the swingarm spoiler. I saw two versions of Aprilia's spoiler, one on Aleix Espargaro's bike, one on Andrea Iannone's bike. The Aprilia spoiler looks very much like the Ducati version, with three aerofoils. But the aerofoils are detachable, and so Iannone used a version with two aerofoils inserted in the morning, then with three in the afternoon. Espargaro's spoiler had all three aerofoils fitted in both FP1 and FP2.
While Ducati, Aprilia, and Yamaha all had highly visible updates, Honda had one which could not be seen, according to Marc Márquez. The crashes at Austin of Marc Márquez and Cal Crutchlow had come from the rear of the bike as much as the front, the engine brake struggling to cope with the Honda RC213V's flailing rear end as the riders brake hard for a corner. Sometimes the rear bites, and then pushes the front, and that tips riders over the limit and onto the floor.
That has been fixed with a software update, and maybe a little bit more, Marc Márquez revealed. "I'm very happy today, because honestly speaking the problem that we had in the first three races - okay in Argentina you can say 'you won' but the problem was there, I was able to adjust. But in Austin I was not able to adjust," Márquez said.
"The Repsol Honda team did a great job, especially in Japan, they worked with the test team and we improve a lot on that area and especially in the entry of the corner," he explained. "Now I feel better in the way that is more predictable, the engine. So this is something that helps a lot to be safer on the bike because if not sometimes I was doing some mistakes that I didn't understand. And today we were working in a better way."
The news that Honda has solved their problem with unpredictability on corner entry should be a concern to Márquez' title rivals. In previous years, it took them until Barcelona at least before they fixed the problem. If the new setup is enough to solve the issue from Jerez, then Márquez will be a tough man to beat.
The times from Friday only confirm that impression. Márquez was fastest in FP1, then fourth quickest in FP2, but that doesn't tell the full story at all. Márquez set his best time at the end of the morning session on a hard rear tire with 18 laps on it. He then put the same rear tire in at the end of FP2, and set his quickest lap on the hard rear's 21st lap. Almost everyone else did their best FP2 time on tire which was either new, or had just 2 or 3 laps on it. Márquez is fast without even trying, and that must be a concern.
The weather played a huge role too. It was hot and sunny, track temperatures rising quickly from the morning to the afternoon, the track over 20° warmer in FP2, and hovering just under the 50°C mark, where grip vanishes completely. That meant that while some Yamahas were fast in the cooler conditions of the morning, they went backwards in the afternoon. "When we lose grip, we don't lose two tenths or three tenths, we lose one second," a frustrated Maverick Viñales explained. "It's very difficult to find a setup, because in the morning it's working well, in the afternoon it's very difficult to go with it. So it's difficult to find a compromise on the bike."
The problem was the electronics, Viñales explained, something which has been an issue for the past two years for the Yamaha. But they had made progress, the Spaniard said. "We worked hard, we made five or six runs in FP2, and finally we found something better, but still we need much more to be competitive."
Things were much worse for his teammate, however. "I was not fast and my pace is not fantastic," Valentino Rossi said. "I am quite low in the ranking and we are a bit in trouble, we are not strong. It looks like the marriage between the M1 and the tires and the track is not fantastic." They had hoped that the new asphalt would help, Rossi explained, but the fact that the new surface is so dark means it is holding a lot of heat, and making it even hotter. "We tried the spoiler, the spoon, for us to have a bit less temperature in the tire. It is a small help but I tried with and without and it is not a big difference."
The problem was also that Jerez has been difficult for Yamaha in the past few years. That did not give Rossi much for the Spanish GP this weekend, but it left him optimistic that solutions could be found at other tracks. "If we are able to be strong here it is very positive, but if we struggle here it is negative for this weekend," Rossi said. "For me, it is not the final answer to the season for this weekend. It is Jerez. Maybe we will struggle in Jerez but we go to Le Mans next week and the bike works well. It does not finish everything here. But for us to continue to fight in the championship we need to take some points, and we need to stay concentrated and work harder than in other places where the bike is good so we can take as much as possible."
If there is some light on the horizon for the Yamahas, it is that the rest of the weekend should be a little cooler, but more importantly, see a bit more cloud. Cloud cover should shield the asphalt from the suns fierce rays, and help to reduce the track temperature significantly. That may be enough to bring them back into contention.
Ducati good, hot and cold
The Hondas are up – Jorge Lorenzo was quick in the morning, suffering a little more in the afternoon with track temperature – and the Yamahas are down, but the Ducatis are fast pretty much whatever the conditions. Andrea Dovizioso was particularly pleased with progress on the first day, ending FP2 in second behind teammate Danilo Petrucci, and finishing the day third overall.
"Overall the grip is good," Dovizioso said. "We will see because we have just started the weekend and the track will change before the race. At the moment in the afternoon our speed was really good. I’m happy because we did a small improvement with the set-up and our speed was of the top group. So I’m happy about that. I don’t think it will be enough because there are some riders with a really good speed and there is still time to improve the situation with this weather. But overall our base is good."
Danilo Petrucci was equally pleased. "For sure the feeling is very good," the factory Ducati rider said, after finishing the day as fastest. "I’m happy about the feeling with the bike. I was talking before with my people and the bike the same like Austin, but I have a better feeling here. It’s good for me because I can ride the bike like I want." Qualifying was a worry, he said, as pushing for a single lap was not his forte.
And he will need to do a quick lap, as will so many others – Alex Rins spent the day working on tire choice, for example, rather than chasing a single lap. The new surface has a lot of grip, without being too abrasive, meaning tire wear should not be a massive issue. But the added grip means that times were very fast. Marc Márquez' time in FP1 was just three tenths off the outright pole record, and some in the paddock suspect we could see a 1'36 when qualifying comes around on Saturday afternoon. If the track is a few degrees cooler than it was on Friday afternoon, we could see records shattered.
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