2015 Qatar MotoGP Thursday Round Up: Racing For Real, And The Strange Consequences Of Sponsorship Falling Through
When the flag drops, the speculation stops. Though usually, a rather more forthright word is used instead of speculation. After the long winter of testing, of trying to assess who was trying what on which lap to try to compare lap times, MotoGP is underway for real. Everyone on track is looking for race pace, and a fast lap to ensure they get into Q2. It is a whole lot easier to comprehend, and infinitely more thrilling.
Conditions had not looked promising ahead of practice. Strong winds blew down the front straight in the late afternoon, raising fears that they would coat the circuit in dust and sand. Then shortly before the action was due to kick off, a few drops of rain started falling, threatening to at least delay proceedings should it continue. But the wind dropped and the rain stopped, and the 2015 MotoGP season got underway as planned.
Fears about the track were unfounded, lap times quickly heading towards something resembling race pace. Danny Kent's fastest lap in Moto3 was seven tenths off the lap record in the first session of the day, and when Moto2 hit the track, Sam Lowes set about destroying the existing pole record, becoming the first ever Moto2 rider to break the two minute barrier at the circuit. In MotoGP, Marc Márquez was lapping a few tenths off lap record pace, a record still held by Casey Stoner from 2008.
The prospect of a new MotoGP season always leaves fans giddy with anticipation. Their appetites keenly whetted by winter testing, and speculation over the times set at those tests, they boldly predict that this season is going to be the best MotoGP season ever. Though the racing is often good, all too often, it never quite lives up to the preseason hype.
There is every reason to believe that this year, it will be different. The bikes, the riders, the teams, the motivation, it all points to 2015 being an exceptionally exciting season in MotoGP. At the last day of winter testing at Qatar just over a week ago, less than a second covered the top fourteen riders, and two seconds covered all but four of the MotoGP field. A similar pattern emerged at Sepang: with the exception of the occasional hot lap by Marc Márquez, there were ten or more riders within a second of each other. Things haven't been this close for a while.
The Fantastic Four
It has been a very long time – Estoril in 2006, to be precise – since a satellite rider has won a race in MotoGP. That is unlikely to change in 2015. The reasons for this are manifold, but perhaps the most important is the emergence of a group of exceptionally talented riders pushing each other on to greater heights. The arrival of Dani Pedrosa, Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo posed a real threat to Valentino Rossi, and forced him to up his game to stay with them, and to beat them. When Stoner retired at the end of 2012, Marc Márquez took his place, keeping the squad of so-called Aliens at full strength.
This group – call them the Aliens, the Fantastic Four, the Factory Four, whatever moniker takes your fancy – will be hard to beat again in 2015. Márquez, Rossi, Lorenzo and Pedrosa have the best bikes on the grid, in the best teams, with the best crew chiefs. They are the most talented, and the most dedicated. They train hardest, and have the best support in terms of physical training and mental preparation. They all know that victory is won by the narrowest of margins, and attention to detail must be complete. These four are indeed fearsome, and favorites to boot.
Once upon a time, Grand Prix racing rules were fairly simple: bikes had to have two wheels, weigh 130kg, have a maximum capacity of 500cc and a maximum of four cylinders. The switch to four strokes in 2002 added a lot of complexity to the rules, and things have been getting slowly worse since then. MotoGP now has two different categories with three different rule sets covering a single class, depending on entry type and results in recent years. With Suzuki and Aprilia entering the series in 2015, and another rule change on the horizon for 2016, it's time to take a quick look at the rules for this season, and see what has changed since last year.
The basic formula for MotoGP is unchanged. A MotoGP bike is limited to a maximum of 4 cylinders, a maximum capacity of 1000cc, and a maximum bore of 81mm.
For 2015, the minimum weight has been reduced by 2kg to 158kg. That limit is likely to be reduced again for 2016. Bikes are weighed in race trim, including coolant, onboard cameras and electronics, but with an empty fuel tank.
Factory vs Open
As in 2014, MotoGP is divided into two categories: Factory Option and Open class. Factory Option is meant for motorcycle manufacturers, the Open class for private entries and smaller teams. However, just as in 2014, the threat of Ducati's defection to the Open class means that the concessions they were granted in 2014 stay in place, and will be extended to the new factories entering the class, Suzuki and Aprilia.
There are some worried faces in the MotoGP paddock after the second day of the Qatar test. That the Ducati GP15s are fast should come as no surprise, after all, they were fastest on the first day as well. The trouble is that everyone assumed that the speed of Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone was down to the fact that they can use the soft tire, which is not available to Honda and Yamaha. Despite the protestations of the two Ducati riders, who had said they spent all day on the medium tire, the same tire which the Hondas and Yamahas had used, Valentino Rossi, among others, had cast aspersions on their claims, suggesting that their fastest laps had been set on the soft tire.
They weren't. Ducati's official press release stated explicitly that the two Andreas had not gone anywhere near the soft tire so far, concentrating on improving the GP15 on the medium tire, the tire they will race. Ducati's press officer confirmed this explicitly to the Bikesportnews website. And just to check, I trawled through all the photos I could find of the factory Ducati team: through the official Ducati press website, through the official MotoGP.com website, and through a couple of other media sites. Not a single photo did I find of a tire with a white stripe, the sign of the soft tire. They really did use the medium tire.
What this means? It means that the times set by Andrea Iannone yesterday, and by Andrea Dovizioso today – a time under Casey Stoner's race lap record, set here back in 2008 – are a true illustration of what the GP15 is actually capable of, and not an artifact of having an artificial advantage. Gigi Dall'Igna and the team of engineers at Ducati have actually solved the problem. The Ducati Desmosedici GP15 is a competitive motorcycle. Both Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez conceded that they now believed the GP15 is capable of winning.
Did they or didn't they? That was the question after Ducati dominated the first day of the test at Sepang. Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso spent all day swapping places at the top of the timesheets, Iannone coming out on top at the end. It was an impressive showing, but MotoGP watchers and Ducati's rivals were quick to pass judgment: of course the Ducatis were fast, after all, they were allowed to use the soft rear tire, a concession for the Open class teams and factories who have yet to win three races in the dry. That tire is worth six or seven tenths a lap, said Valentino Rossi.
Only they didn't use the soft tire. At least, that is what Andrea Dovizioso told reporters. He spent all day working on race set up, first on the GP14.3 to set a baseline, and then on the GP15 to work on braking set up and electronics. There was no point using a super soft tire, and he had ridden all day on the harder of the two options, which is the soft tire used by the factory Honda and Yamaha riders. Valentino Rossi was skeptical. "They said they didn't use the soft? I have some doubts," Rossi told Italian reporters. He may be partially right: only Dovizioso denied outright using the softer tire, Andrea Iannone skirted round the question, speaking only of being fast on both new and used tires.
Super soft or no, the fact remains that the Ducatis are quick. The GP15 is clearly competitive, something which Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez were all keen to emphasize. On the same tire, the Ducatis were as quick as the Yamahas and Hondas, Rossi said. That, in itself, is cause for concern. At least for the factory Honda and Yamaha men.
Who starts the 2015 MotoGP season as favorite for the championship? The final test at Qatar will give us a much clearer picture of where the factories and riders stand than the last two tests in Sepang. That is in part due to the fact that the factories have had time between the Sepang tests and now to work on further refining their bikes ready for the start of 2015.
But the Qatar test is also a little more representative for the rest of the season than Sepang is. The Malaysian circuit may have a good mix of fast and slow corners, but the tropical heat makes it tough on riders, tough on tires, and the track can lose a lot of grip as the temperatures rise. Qatar may not have the fast corners which Sepang does, but much lower track temps make the circuit a lot less greasy than Sepang.
It helps if if the track is clean, though. Sat on the edge of a desert peninsula, dust and sand all too often blows across the circuit, playing havoc with grip levels. Reports from the recent Kawasaki H2 launch at the circuit suggest the track is not too dusty, and having hordes of journalists circulating on a bike with a nice fat rear tire should have swept most of the dust from the circuit.
The other danger is the chance of dew forming on the track, a problem as the night draws on. The problem is that the dew on the track is impossible to see, meaning riders find themselves tumbling through the gravel wondering what just happened. Testing at least offers some way of avoiding the track once the dew settles, but the trick is not to get caught out in the first place.
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.