It has been a relatively quiet week in the world of motorcycle racing, with much of the focus on preparations for 2015 rather than actual on-track action. The past week has seen riders spending more time on stage than on track, as many teams have presented their 2015 racing programs. This is but the calm before the storm, however: from Saturday, there is another bumper period of world championship action, with MotoGP testing at Qatar from 14th-16th March, Moto2 hitting Jerez from 17th-19th, followed by the second round of World Superbikes at the Chang circuit in Thailand from 20th-22nd.
There have been some bikes from other series circulating in the past week, however. The British BSB series has been testing in Spain, the MXGP championship has raced in Thailand, two weeks ahead of the World Superbike series' first visit to the country, and in the US, Florida is gearing up for the Daytona 200.
A piece of history?
That race will be a rather peculiar affair. When Daytona Motorsports Group lost the contract to run the AMA road racing series, tough negotations began with MotoAmerica, the new sanctioning body for AMA. The DMG overestimated their bargaining position, and MotoAmerica were happy to pass up on the Daytona 200. Once a historic event with a big name line up, the race has slipped gradually into international obscurity and domestic impopularity.
One of the more intriguing match ups of the 2015 MotoGP season is the battle between the two newcomers from the support classes. Maverick Viñales and Jack Miller are both close friends and fierce rivals, sharing a motorhome off the track, doing battle on it. Viñales has come to MotoGP early, after just a single year in Moto2, where he was very competitive within a short space of time. Miller has made an even bigger jump, skipping Moto2 altogether and heading straight to MotoGP from Moto3. It is a huge leap for the Australian, switching from a narrow, 55hp, 80kg razor of a bike to a 158kg, 250hp monster.
So how have they adapted? Though the two are only a few days apart in age, comparing their progress is fraught with difficulty. Viñales, riding the Suzuki GSX-RR for Suzuki, is on a factory prototype inside a factory team. Miller, on the other hand, is riding an Open class Honda RC213V-RS with the LCR team. Viñales has a large team surrounding him, with sufficient backing to act on his input. Miller has a much smaller group around him, though he has the excellent fortune to have Cristian Gabarrini as his crew chief, one of the very best in the business. But perhaps the biggest and most important difference is that Viñales has experience on a larger, heavier bike, having raced in Moto2 in 2014, while Miller has only ever raced a lightweight Moto3 machine.
Yet it is still possible to measure progress. By comparing the times they set during the two Sepang tests, and seeing how much quicker they got, and how much closer to the front, there is a glimpse of how the two riders are doing. Furthermore, if we compare their progress to the progress made by riders on the same machine as them, we get a better measure of how they are progressing.
The departure of Bridgestone and the arrival of Michelin as official tire supplier to MotoGP is an extremely delicate operation, in terms of marketing, tire development, and motorcycle set up. Bridgestone have paid a lot of money for the exclusive rights to MotoGP branding with their tires for 2015; Michelin have done the same for the rights from 2016 onwards. Neither company wants to tarnish their brand or see the value of their investment diminished, either by rider comments expressing a preference one way or another, or by lap time comparisons showing either firm up.
This posed problems for the Michelin test, held on the fourth day of the Sepang MotoGP test. After the factory test riders had tried the Michelins at the first Sepang test, it was the turn of the MotoGP regulars. To avoid any comments which might favor one factory or another, Bridgestone imposed a blanket ban on riders or team members speaking to the media after the test. All Bridgestone branding was removed from bikes and leathers, and no visible Michelin branding was allowed, even down to the manufacturer's logo on the tire sidewalls. With major money on the line, the PR gagging order was enforced rigidly, and observed religiously. No official times were released, nor made unofficially available by the teams. A range of times have seeped out from journalists present, but given that only a few laps were timed by a few people out of practice with using a stopwatch (or its modern equivalent, the smartphone), those times can be taken as guidelines only.
Perhaps the biggest problem was posed by the requirements of tire testing. The riders have just completed three days of testing, building speed and confidence on their 2015 bikes with the latest generation of Bridgestones. They have put in a lot of laps in extreme heat, and are running out of reserves of energy, despite their almost superhuman fitness levels. Their minds and muscle memory is completely attuned to the Bridgestones, so putting them onto a different tire with different characteristics poses a major risk. The riders are focused on pushing hard, and expecting a particular feel from the tires, front and rear. It is potentially a recipe for disaster.
2015 MotoGP Sepang 2 Day 3 Round Up: Marquez vs Lorenzo, Honda vs Yamaha, And Why The Open Honda Is Still Slow
Take a glance at the timesheet after the final day and it is easy to draw some simple conclusions from of second Sepang MotoGP test. Marc Márquez reigns supreme, with Jorge Lorenzo is the only rider to get anywhere near to him. Cal Crutchlow has improved, but at the moment is only fast over a single lap. The Ducati Desmosedici GP15 is fast, but only in the hands of Andrea Iannone. Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa have their work cut out if they are to match their teammates. Bradley Smith has surpassed his teammate, Pol Espargaro. Suzuki is close, but not quite close enough, while Aprilia are hopelessly lost.
As attractive as those conclusions are, the underlying truth is a lot more complex. Testing is exactly that, testing, and everyone is on different programs, trying different things at different times of the day. Or as Dani Pedrosa succinctly put it, when asked if he was trying out a new strategy for qualifying during the test, "we were just trying. That's why we are here." Marc Márquez was undeniably faster than the rest of the field, and his race simulation was undeniably faster than anyone else's. But just comparing the times does not provide the whole picture.
Márquez' race simulation was fearsome to behold. 19 laps at an average of 2:00.760, just one shy of full race distance. 16 laps of 2:00, just three of 2:01. While it is impossible to know how fast his out lap was – the analysis timesheets available only show the full lap times, and no partials, and Márquez embarked on his race simulation after spending 15 minutes in the pits – that pace would have seen him beat his own race time from last year by some 25 seconds. That is seriously fast.
2015 MotoGP Sepang 2 Day 2 Round Up - Marquez vs Lorenzo, Thumb Brakes & Seamless Gearboxes, Ducati's Tires, And Melandri's Fall
After the excitement and confusion of the first day of testing at Sepang, some semblance of normality returned on Tuesday. Cooler temperatures and more stable weather meant that riders had much more time to do work on track, the heat and humidity not quite as oppressive as they had been the previous day. The excitement over new bikes and gearboxes had also subsided, and the hard grind continued.
If Tuesday is representative of the normal state of play in MotoGP, then it seems like there are already two favorites for the title emerging from the pack, though margins are slim indeed. Marc Márquez and Jorge Lorenzo were the only two riders to crack the two minute barrier, posting fast times early on in the day, then getting back to work on 2015. Nobody else got near, with the exception of Andrea Iannone, who piled in a quick lap at the end of the day to fall just short of two minutes, the Ducati GP15 quickly proving its worth.
Marc Márquez was perhaps the most relieved rider. After losing a day due to untraceable braking issues, things were back to normal as soon as he hit the track on Tuesday. Márquez was cagey about the cause of the brake issue, joking that he did not want to reveal the secret to his rivals, in case they too suffered the issue. The Repsol Honda rider spent the day focusing on electronics and engine management, working hard to make up for lost time. That left him still with work to do on Wednesday, when the team will turn their attention to the chassis he is supposed to be testing. So far, Márquez has been sticking with the chassis he used at the last Sepang test, but Honda also have a chassis with 'something for the rear'. Whether that is in the frame, swing arm, shock mount, or linkage is not clear.
If the purpose of testing in Sepang is to ensure that as little time as possible is lost to the weather, then the first day of the MotoGP test fell well short of its objectives. The Malaysian circuit sweltered under oppressive tropical heat all day, rendering most of the day of little use for testing. With track temperatures approaching 60°C in the early afternoon, the grip disappeared, and the heat made riding a MotoGP bike a punishing affair. Then, just as the riders returned to the track as the air began to cool, a tropical thunderstorm washed the track out, with lightning causing the session to be red-flagged for a while. It was not a day in which the teams could get an awful lot done.
That was a shame, as they had an awful lot to do. Ducati had brought the GP15 for its on-track debut, Yamaha had its fully seamless gearbox, Suzuki had unleashed a few more horses from its GSX-RR, and Aprilia had a stack of chassis and electronics solutions to test on track. With on a couple of hours of productive track time, much was left untested.
The biggest question mark at Sepang would be how the Ducati GP15 would work. Would the new bike built under the direction finally cure the understeer which has plagued all previous iterations of the Desmosedici? Andrea Dovizioso had that question answered in the first two corners, he told reporters. When he went to turn the bike in, he found himself on the inside of the kerbs. All of the effort the previous bike required was gone. The GP15 turns, which was exactly what was required of it. "I'm really happy," Dovizioso said. "Now we can work in a normal way. When the bike turns like the competitor, I think you can adapt the bike to your riding style."
The engineers have had two weeks to pore over the data from the first MotoGP test at Sepang, identify problems, analyze strengths, and find more ways to go faster. Their analyses have been translated into designs, into new parts, into yet more software, ready to put their theories into practice. On Monday morning, at 10am Malaysian time, the MotoGP riders get to try out all of the new parts and ideas thought up by their factories and teams in search of a few more fractions of a second.
The eyes of the world will not be on what the engineers did between Sepang 1 and Sepang 2, however. Attention will be focused on Yamaha and Ducati, who will be testing hardware which has been a long time coming. Yamaha is bringing its fully seamless gearbox to the Sepang 2 test, and Ducati will roll out its Desmosedici GP15 for the first time. Both could make a significant impact.
In the short term, Yamaha's seamless gearbox is likely to be the most important development. It has not been officially confirmed that Yamaha will be bringing the full seamless gearbox (seamless in both upshifts and downshifts). Officially, people wearing Yamaha shirts will tell you that nothing has been decided yet, but well-informed gossip says that the seamless gearbox will be there, for both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo. Yamaha's test riders have been using it for several months now, Colin Edwards having tested it extensively at the end of last year.
Almost without realizing it, we find ourselves in the midst of a glut of motorcycle racing action. For 11 days, bikes and teams are testing, racing, and being introduced to the public at large. On Monday and Tuesday, the World Superbike teams had their last test of the pre-season at Phillip Island. From Tuesday to Thursday, the Moto2 and Moto3 teams are testing at Jerez. On Friday, the 2015 World Superbike season gets underway Phillip Island, culminating in the races on Sunday, featuring shock substitute Troy Bayliss. Then, from Monday, MotoGP returns for three days of testing at Sepang, followed by an extra day with Michelin tires, with the factory riders at the helm.
In between, we have seen the launch of the Ducati Desmosedici GP15, the CWM LCR Honda team is set to be launched on Wednesday, and there is even a presentation here in Holland by Eurosport, in which they will reveal their plans for MotoGP coverage in The Netherlands for 2015. There is so much going on that there are barely enough hours in the day to actually write about it. Enjoy the cornucopia while you can.
Crash! Bang! Wallop!
Anyone watching the presentation of Ducati's 2015 MotoGP bike will have learned two Italian phrases: "Emozionante" and "tanto lavoro". Both were extremely apt. Getting from where Ducati were to where they are now with the Desmosedici GP15 had needed "tanto lavoro", a lot of hard work, and they still had "tanto lavoro" ahead of them. The results were "emozionante", a fantastic word nearer to exciting than emotional. But both exciting and emotional were apt phrases. The sense of eagerness was palpable among Ducati staff at Bologna on Monday.
For good reason. The GP15 presented in a long, loud, and rather meandering show is radically different from what came before. The presentation was a very Italian affair: an Italian TV presenter introduced the Italian managers and Italian engineer of an Italian bike, to be ridden by two Italian riders, to an audience consisting entirely of Italian journalists, with the honorable exception of Slovenian channel POP TV, a team from Dorna, and the rather less honorable exception of myself. But the bike being presented looked very far from Italian: from most angles, this looked like a very Japanese motorcycle, in concept and in execution.
What has changed? Everything. Even with the fairings on, it is clear that this is a very different motorcycle. The engine is still a 90°V4, using desmodromic valves, but it is rolled back much further than its predecessor. The engine in the GP14 had already been rolled back around its axis compared to the starting point some three years ago. The rotation is now complete, the engine a few degrees further back, and very close to the location used by the Honda RC213V.
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.