Before the 2015 World Superbike season gets underway, just seven days from now at Phillip Island, the WSBK and WSS riders get a final chance to prepare their bikes for the flag drops next Sunday. For the first time this year, all of the riders and bikes will be on track at the same time, and we will get a hint of the season to come.
As intriguing as it is likely to be, a note of caution should be sounded. Phillip Island is arguably the best track in the world for motorcycle racing, but all the reasons that make it such a great track for racing mean it is very far from being a very good yardstick to measure performance by. The track flows beautifully, a succession of high-speed corners demanding the utmost of the skill and courage of the rider.
But precisely because it flows, it levels the playing field a little. Bikes with less outright top speed, or which are down on horsepower and acceleration, can go just as fast as a bike which is a rocket ship out of corners. A brave rider can carry more corner speed through the turn and drive smoothly out, ending up just as fast as the rider on the quicker bike.
If anyone needed any further proof that Indonesia is important to the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, the fact the Repsol Honda team chose Bali as the location to launch their 2015 MotoGP project should remove any doubt. In front of a crowd consisting of Indonesian media, regional sales teams,Honda dealers, and just a single journalist from the European media (and a very smart one at that), Repsol Honda unveiled their 2015 livery, and Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa met fans and engaged in a couple of photo ops.
A few days later, in Malaysia, Yamaha presented their 2015 racing program in front of a mass meeting of their Southeast Asian network, dealers and business partners flown in from Indonesia and neighboring countries. The Movistar Yamaha team had already been launched in Madrid – the Movistar TV millions ensured the location of that launch – but Yamaha took the time to introduce the three teams racing Yamahas in MotoGP, as well as present their activities in Asia. Frankly, the presence of the Movistar Yamaha, Tech 3 and Forward Yamaha teams were more of a crowd pleaser than actually imparting any new information.
But if Indonesia is so important to the manufacturers, and to MotoGP, why is there not a race there? Over the course of the MotoGP test at Sepang, I had a few conversations with people on the subject. On the record, the story was always the same: we need a suitable track, and as soon as one exists we will be happy to go there. Off the record, however, they were much less optimistic. Yes, a track was the most immediate obstacle to staging a race there, but it wasn't the biggest problem. One person – nobody wanted to be publicly quoted on this subject – summed up the general feeling. "Corruption. It's too expensive, and too difficult."
This is the first in a series of weekly round ups of motorcycle racing news from around the world. Every Wednesday, we will bring a brief summary of stories that did not warrant a full article of their own. So here are some stories you may have missed, for the week preceding 11th February 2015.
Ducati Desmosedici GP15 to be presented on line
It is becoming something of a tradition among the MotoGP factories: launching their MotoGP teams online. Two weeks ago, the Movistar Yamaha launched their 2015 livery in Madrid. On Monday 16th February, Ducati will be officially presenting their bikes and riders to the fans and media live on the Ducati website.
The Ducati launch is a little more significant than Yamaha's presentation, however. While the Movistar Yamaha presentation was mostly about showing off the new color scheme the factory team is to use in 2015, Ducati will be presenting the Desmosedici GP15 online. The first bike to come from the pen of Gigi Dall'Igna, this is the machine which Ducati hope will finally allow them to be fully competitive with the factory Hondas and Yamahas. The bike is expected to feature a new, more compact engine, though still a 90°V4 using desmodromic valves, fitted in a smaller chassis.
The presentation starts at 11am CET on the Ducati website. Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone will get their first ride of the bike on 23rd February, when the second Sepang test gets underway.
Should Melandri stay or should he go?
Given that Aprilia's return to MotoGP was both earlier than anticipated, and embarked upon at a very late stage, their initial times at the Sepang test could be regarded as acceptable. The new engine – with an 81mm bore and pneumatic valves – proved to be reasonably reliable, and though still down on power, at least closer to the fastest bikes. The new chassis was much less of a success, both Alvaro Bautista and Marco Melandri preferring to stay with the 2014 bike, rather than switch to the new RS-GP, as it has been dubbed.
Who has the best bike? Is it Honda? Or have they been passed by Yamaha? Did the first MotoGP test of the year at Sepang answer that question? After Monday, we thought the answer was yes. After Friday, it's clear that it's not clear. There is still a long way to go to the start of the season, and the only thing we can be sure of is the fact that this is going to be a fantastic year in MotoGP. When it's hard to point to who has an advantage, it means the racing is going to be tight.
So how did the balance of power swing from Yamaha to Honda? Yamaha turned up at Sepang with a bike that was ready to go. They had plenty of parts to test, but following the Yamaha philosophy, all of those parts offer just a small, but positive change. The bike was fast, and got a little bit faster. That meant that Yamaha were quick on the first day, and got a little quicker day by day.
The first day of the first Sepang MotoGP test is always a revealing of secrets. It's not that the factories tell the media everything they are doing, but with everyone on the track, there is nowhere left to hide. The timesheets tell the tale.
The story of the second day is always a little more complex. Initial impressions from the first day are absorbed, the data examined and analyzed, and engineers and mechanics come up with new ideas. That means that riders are working on different ideas and in different directions, some changes work, others don't. Times become much more difficult to assess.
So what did we learn today? A lot. Not so much from the lap times – Jorge Lorenzo is fastest, and looking as good as ever, Andrea Dovizioso is incredibly quick, especially on a new soft tire, and the Hondas have chosen a direction to follow – but more about the underlying state of play. It was a fascinating day, despite the fact that the standing barely changed much after noon.
I went out and stood at track side for an hour, intending to walk all around the circuit using the service road. That proved to be optimistic – despite the fact that it is cooler here than it was last year, the heat quickly becomes brutal. I made it half way round, and given a visceral sense of how punishing riding a MotoGP bike at speed must be. It is really, really tough.
There is something about the sound of a MotoGP bike that stirs the blood once again. After a long winter, in which to reflect on the many negatives of following motorcycle racing – hard work for little money, endless trips through faceless airports to faceless hotels, and long periods away from home – a few milliseconds of the sound of a MotoGP bike being warmed up is enough to make you forget all that, and melt away the misery of business travel on the cheap under the fierce heat of passion for the sport. There is nothing that excites like motorcycle racing.
It was an intriguing first day back, with highs and lows, strong performers and real disappointments. The finishing order is not completely indicative of the real strength of the field, but it offers some sound clues as to who stands where.
Marc Márquez topped the timesheets, but he had to put in a fast lap on a new tire at the end of the day to depose the Yamahas. For it was Valentino Rossi who led the way for much of the first day of testing, the Italian happy to be back on a bike. It wasn't just Rossi who was quick: Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Tech 3's Pol Espargaro were the fastest of the bunch, with Márquez and Dani Pedrosa only occasionally interjecting to spoil the Yamaha fun.
The 2015 MotoGP season kicks off tomorrow. On Wednesday, the riders take to the track once again at Sepang to continue the development on the bikes they will be racing this year, and to test out the new updates the engineers have been working on during the winter break.
And yet the two most important and interesting developments won't even be at the first Sepang test. Ducati's much-anticipated Desmosedici GP15 is not quite ready for prime time, and so will not make its public debut until 19th February at the launch in Bologna, and not make its first laps in public until the second Sepang test at the end of this month. Yamaha's fully seamless gearbox – allowing both clutchless upshifts and downshifts – will also wait until Sepang 2 before Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo get their hands on the bike.
The official reasons given for the delay are that the GP15 and Yamaha's gearbox are almost ready, but not quite, still needing a few last checks by the engineers before they are ready to be handed over to the factory riders. Those of a cynical – or perhaps even paranoid – bent may be tempted to speculate that the delays are more to do with the media than the engineering. The first Sepang test this week is well-attended by journalists and photographers alike, the MotoGP press just as eager as the riders and the fans for the winter to be over.
The second Sepang test sees only a very few journalists attend, with few publications willing to spend the money to cover the expenses for what is often just more of the same. Perhaps the factories have cottoned on to this, and are taking advantage of the opportunity to test important new parts with a little less media attention. Or perhaps it really is just a case of not being quite ready in time.
Despite the absence of the really big news, there will still be plenty to see. So who will be testing what, and what are the key factors to keep an eye on?
Analyzing Yamaha's MotoGP Launch - A Motivated Rossi, A Lean & Mean Lorenzo, And A Fully Seamless Gearbox
2014 did not go to plan for Yamaha. After the first four races of last year, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo trailed the Repsol Hondas by 76 points in the team championship, and Yamaha was 33 points behind Honda in the manufacturers standings. Marc Márquez was in the middle of an unbeaten run, Dani Pedrosa backing him up strongly. There were a lot of good reasons for Yamaha's troubled start. Yamaha was struggling to get a smooth throttle response from a liter less fuel, the new Bridgestone tires were less suited to the YZR-M1's need for high corner speeds, and Jorge Lorenzo arrived at the start of the season out of shape, after neglecting his training after surgery during the winter.
2015 looks like being the polar opposite. At the launch of their 2015 campaign, the Movistar Yamaha team looked forward with some optimism. Building on the progress made in the second half of 2014, the bike is much more competitive, Valentino Rossi arrives motivated by his strong season, and Jorge Lorenzo is lean and fit, having spent all off-season preparing. They are ready for big things.
With 2014 out of the way, one of the big sponsorship issues could also be addressed. When Movistar signed up alongside Monster, that caused a confusing clash on the fairing of the 2014 bike, with two large fluorescent green M logos on the bike. A redesign has given Movistar a little more prominence on the fairing, the logo now much larger, the text moved elsewhere on the bike. Key to the sponsorship is not just the visibility, however, it is also the ability to showcase technology. Movistar demonstrated an excellent 360° smartphone app at Aragon last year, which is the start of much more to come.
What is the difference between winning in Moto3 and finishing at the back? The glib answer is "about 50 seconds", but there must be an explanation for that gap. It is a question which many have pondered, and to which there are few easy answers. Clearly, there is a difference in equipment, level of ability, and the ability of the team to get the set up right. But is there anything we can identify directly?
The one factor which we might be able to see in the lap times is the effect of hard work. Motorcycle racing is (paradoxically) a physically demanding sport, and physical fitness is one factor which a rider has in their own hands. Training, and dedication to training, could be a factor which makes a difference. It may not be the difference between first and last, but it could well be the difference between finishing in the points and finishing at the very tail end of the field.
If fitness is a significant factor, then it should be visible in the lap times. As the race goes on, the less fit riders should get slower, while the fitter riders manage to maintain the same pace. That should be most clearly visible between the riders who finish at the front, and the riders who finish at the back. (For a fuller explanation of this hypothesis, see below.)
This is not an idea I came up with on my own. Motorcycle racers are obsessed with fitness and hard work, though some work harder than others. In various conversations with riders and team staff, especially in Moto2 and Moto3, the issue of fitness was one which cropped up surprisingly often. Managers and engineers would frequently criticize riders who they felt were not doing enough to work on their fitness. Clearly, they believe it is a factor.
In the fifth part of our season review of 2014, we turn to the Espargaro brothers. Both Pol and Aleix had excellent seasons, impressing many with their speed. If you would like to read the four previous parts of our season review, they are here: Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso.
6th - 136 points - Pol Espargaro
Being a MotoGP rookie got a lot tougher after 2013. Marc Márquez raised the bar to an almost unattainable level by winning his second ever MotoGP race, the title in his debut season, and smash a metric cartload of records. Anyone entering the class after Márquez inevitably ends up standing in his shadow.
Which is a shame, as it means that Pol Espargaro's rookie season has not received the acclaim it deserves. The 2013 Moto2 champion started off the season on the back foot, breaking his collarbone at the final test, just a couple of weeks before the first race at Qatar. He crashed again during that opening race, but quickly found his feet. He came up just short of his first podium at Le Mans, nudged back to fourth place by Alvaro Bautista.
It would be his best result of the season, but the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider was to be consistently found in and around the top six. Espargaro would go on to bag a couple of fifth places and six sixth spots. That is where he would end the year, sixth in the championship behind the factory Hondas and Yamahas, and the factory Ducati of Andrea Dovizioso. Ignoring the exception that is Marc Márquez, it was the best start to a season by a rookie since Ben Spies joined the premier class in 2010. The Texan did secure two podiums that year, and fairly comprehensively outscored Pol Espargaro in comparison.