Six races into the season gives everyone a chance to size up where the riders, and more importantly, the manufacturers all stand. Teams have had a few races to analyze and optimize the setup of the 2019 bikes, plus a test at Jerez to find upgrades and solutions to problems which only emerge during race. Mugello is the third European race, meaning the paddock is back at tracks which they know like the back of their hand. There may still be a long way to go until the title is settled, but the shape of the championship is starting to shake out.
That leads to frustration for the riders who feel their manufacturers are not making progress. At Mugello, the frustration felt by factory Aprilia rider Aleix Espargaro boiled over into outright criticism of the Italian factory over the lack of progress being made. Essentially, Espargaro said, they were stuck with an updated version of the 2017 bike, having lost an entire season with the 2018 machine. Espargaro saw the other bikes improving, and pulling away from him on track, and there was little he could do about it.
Aprilia are bringing updates for the RS-GP, but they were not fixing the underlying problems, Espargaro said. The latest update Aprilia brought was a new fairing with revised aerodynamics, using two smaller winglet sections, instead of a single larger winglet. Having a smaller side plate made the bike easier to switch from left to right, Espargaro said, but it did not address the main problems.
"The new wings are slightly better," Espargaro said. "I was expecting a little bit less wheelie. More different. It’s true that the bike wheelies a little bit less, but I expect more improvement. But what I gain the most and what I didn’t expect is the agility. This fairing is in two parts, not in one. It’s not closed in the middle, so it allows you to have a little bit better agile bike, and here in Mugello is always welcome. But it’s not something that will put us in the podium. It’s just a small improvement. But it’s welcome."
But the problems from the start of the season were still there. "Really disappointed because the feeling is back in 2017. Same feeling, same bike, same everything," the Spaniard said. "Same problems that I had in Malaysia test one, Qatar test two, Qatar race one. No traction at all. It’s very dangerous to ride the bike, especially in the last corner in third gear. I cannot touch the throttle early because I look like I will make a highside. This is a problem that we had all season and it’s not improving. Also to stop the bike is very complicated, so always same problems and no improvement."
Even on Saturday, after setting a lap of 1'46.899 during qualifying, the fastest time ever by an Aprilia at Mugello, Espargaro was left with a feeling of frustration. "1'46.8 is I think a fast lap time. I think that nobody with Aprilia has ever gone under 1'48 in this circuit, and I did 1'46. So this is the maximum we have. I did a really good lap. I’m trying everything I can. I try many things during this weekend with the second bike completely different settings, moving the weight on the rear trying to gain some grip. But the problem is always the same. No difference. We are missing a lot of acceleration, a lot, a lot. It’s unbelievable the lack of traction we have. It’s difficult to go faster in a track like Mugello, faster than this. I’m trying to do my best. That’s it."
Acceleration a problem
The problem, Espargaro explained, was a lack of grip while accelerating on the edge of the tire, and the way the bike delivers its power. "Initially we don’t have enough grip, so I have to wait to open the throttle," he said. When I accelerate, there is nothing. MotoGP riding style is a little bit like this. You have a lot of power and even I was able to ride with Dovizioso this morning and also him in the middle of the corner is quite calm, let’s say, like this. Then when he started to pick up the bike, the power arrive. But when I start to pick up the bike, my power doesn’t arrive.¨
Where he was losing the most time was in acceleration, he said. "Yeah, it’s in acceleration. I have to say that top speed is not fantastic. If we look just at our super top speed in the draft it’s not that bad, but if you look the average is 330-something km/h and the Ducatis are close to 350 km/h all the time. But also the Yamahas are not super fast and they are competitive. So it’s not the biggest problem, but in acceleration is unbelievable."
The biggest difference was with the Ducatis, Espargaro said. "When you go behind Dovi, it’s like if he had another engine. Not on a 1000cc bike, like 1200cc."
What was even more frustrating was seeing the speed at which KTM seemed to be developing the bike, Aleix' brother Pol Espargaro starting to rack up strong results on a regular basis. Was he jealous of brother Pol? "I don’t know if jealous is the right word," Aleix said. "I feel unhappy for our side, but happy for him because I know how hard he is working. But he has to be very proud because not easy to do the step that they are doing. They are working very, very good. He told me after the Jerez test that they found something on the new engine and they improve a lot."
The most frustrating aspect was that in Espargaro's view, the KTM had now surpassed the Aprilia. "The thing is that last year at the beginning, or let’s say at the end of 2017, at Aprilia we were a lot stronger than KTM. Now the KTM have overtaken us and they are completely for sure a more competitive bike and Pol is doing a great job. So I feel yeah, we can say jealous because I would like to feel this type of develop. But they really deserve it."
Would he have been more jealous if his brother Pol was not on the bike? "I would be the same jealous, but more angry," Espargaro quipped wryly. "I don’t like that it is like this. Pol is super good at one single lap, but also the pace he’s super strong. Just three months ago I was a lot quicker at every single race. Maybe on Saturday he was better than me but never in the race. Now he’s impossible for me to follow."
The biggest gain for KTM which Aleix Espargaro could see was in acceleration. "They found in a lot of tracks a lot of acceleration," the Aprilia rider said."I’m a rider who likes a lot to analyze the sessions after. If you watch Pol last year it was like riding a horse. If you watch Pol this year, it’s not the Ducati, it’s not the Yamaha, but the way he accelerates reminds me a little bit when he was in the best time in the Yamaha Tech3. So they are doing a great job and Pol is very strong now."
Budget and stability
Was KTM's success down to a bigger budget or were they better organized? "Difficult for me to answer," Espargaro said. "Obviously the way they arrive in the championship looks like they have a lot of resources. In MotoGP it’s very, very important. You can have a lot of budget, but if you don’t have a really good organization, you throw the money. So for me, both. They have both."
But it was also a matter of stability, Espargaro said. Andrea Iannone was the third teammate Espargaro had had in three years, replacing first Sam Lowes and then Scott Redding. That disruption can hinder development, he said, drawing a direct comparison with the situation at Ducati.
"I always had said that the best example for me to watch always is Dovizioso," Espargaro told us. "I love Dovizioso’s career. How smart, how relaxed, how calm he is. The opportunity he had in Ducati to grow. Every year has been stronger, and he never cared about the teammate. With Iannone, sometimes Iannone was very strong, stronger than him. Lorenzo was super strong in some stages, but he always does his job. The continuity in Ducati gives him, apart from Marquez, that is the best of the story. He’s always there - second, second, second. Five, six victories per year. The stability pays."
Accusations of impropriety?
Though Espargaro felt that the Aprilia RS-GP was lacking in key areas, especially in power delivery, he was starting to suspect that part of their disadvantage with the electronics was that they were not getting the most out of the spec Magneti Marelli software which other factories were. Perhaps, he hinted, other factories had found ways to circumvent the control software which Aprilia had not yet spotted.
"It’s very complicated," Espargaro said. "I have to choose my words really carefully." It looked to him like that some factories were able to manage the bike in ways the spec software was not supposed to allow. "Looks like there are some things on the electronics that nobody can control. We are not controlling, but I have my doubts that they [other factories] are not controlling it."
Espargaro cited the example of slide control. The spec electronics allow control of wheel spin, but they should not allow sideways slide to be controlled, that is, the amount by which the rear wheel moves sideways, toward the outside of the track, as the rider opens the throttle at very high lean angles.
"For example, we cannot have the channel of slide. We have the channel of spin, but spin and slide are completely different things," Espargaro explained. "I don’t spin. I have a lot of side slide when I touch the throttle immediately. Looks like we are not allowed to control that, but when you follow the other bikes they spin more than us in the pickup area, but not at all in maximum lean at 55 degrees."
Some can, others can't
This looked suspicious to Aleix Espargaro. "For me this is very strange, because it looks like there are a lot of other bikes that have more power than us, and even like this they are able to create a lot of traction initially. The Michelin tires are every time harder. So it’s not coming from the tires. So it’s difficult for me to understand why they can find this initial traction, how."
Espargaro had absolute faith in Aprilia's engineers back in Noale, that if there was a way to manage this legally inside the software, they would have found it. That is what made him suspicious, he said. "I don’t know what to think, because I truly believe in our engineers. I don’t think that our engineers are idiots. I think they are clever guys. We have clever people here and we have clever people, smart people in Noale, but we cannot find anything. Sometimes you think there is something else."
Could Espargaro's accusations be correct? The underlying problem with electronics – even closely controlled spec electronics like the Magneti Marelli unified software – is that there are many different ways to tackle a problem. For example, previously, there had been some suspicion that some factories were using an advanced IMU to bypass the spec software and control power delivery more directly. The IMU tells the ECU what position the bike is in – attitude, lean angle, acceleration or deceleration, etc – but some IMUs with powerful processors were able to do their own calculation and modify the data going to the ECU to get the bike to behave differently.
This year, all MotoGP bikes are using the same IMU, and other channels of communication have been shut down, making bypassing the ECU impossible (in theory, at least). But no doubt similar results could be achieved by combining a different set up inputs to monitor the same situation. The IMU will still measure lateral acceleration, which could be used to measure slide. Combining that measurement with inputs on wheel speed from front and rear wheels, steering head angle, suspension extension, and torque on the output shaft could possibly give you a way of implementing some form of slide control.
The real advantage other factories might have is in the amount of data they have. Detecting slide is much easier if you have a large sample set with which to compare the current data with. That might allow a clever software engineer to detect the conditions in which a wheel might start to slide right at the beginning, and manage the slide before it starts, circumventing any restrictions on calculations based on hardware.
Then again, it could also be a simple questions of physics and engineering. The Aprilia's power delivery is notoriously sudden fierce, a throwback to the Italian factory's two-stroke days, and that in itself makes slide harder to control. Perhaps the advantage the Ducatis and Hondas have is simply smoother power delivery, combined with a chassis and swingarm which creates more mechanical grip.
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