MotoMatters.com is delighted to feature the work of iconic MotoGP writer Mat Oxley. Oxley is a former racer, TT winner and highly respected author of biographies of world champions Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi, and currently writes for Motor Sport Magazine, where he is MotoGP correspondent. We are featuring sections from Oxley's blogs, which are posted in full on the Motor Sport Magazine website.
Rubber and robbery
Many of you probably already know something about bike racing’s greatest story of industrial espionage, when East German Ernst Degner defected through the Iron Curtain at the height of the Cold War, carrying with him MZ’s hard-won two-stroke secrets. Degner sold MZ’s knowhow to the struggling Suzuki factory, which went on to win its first GP victories and first World Championship the very next year.
For all we know, stuff like this happens all the time; we just don’t get to hear about it. But we did get to hear about something that happened 10 years ago in Ireland.
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."
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.
If you have enjoyed MotoMatters.com's coverage of the 2014 season, and are already looking ahead to the 2015 season, then you need the MotoMatters.com 2015 Motorcycle Racing Calendar. As ever, the calendar features the stunning photography of Scott Jones, and a monthly guide containing all of the MotoGP and World Superbike races for the 2015 season, as well as preseason tests for MotoGP, and the schedule for the Isle of Man TT. Scott Jones' photos and the handy race schedule is reason enough to own the calendar, but even more importantly, by buying the calendar, you are helping to keep MotoMatters.com running. The proceeds from the calendar go towards the running of the site, and help both Scott Jones and David Emmett travel to the races, take more great photos and provide even more great information.
What is the biggest problem in motorcycle racing today? Is it the predominant role electronics is playing, ruining the racing? Is it the ever more restrictive rules imposed, killing bike development and the spirit of Grand Prix racing? Is it the lack of competitive machinery, making it impossible for anyone but a factory rider to win a race? Or is it the dominance of the two top manufacturers, driving costs up and discouraging wider manufacturer participation?
You can point to all of those and more as being an issue, but they pale in comparison to the real problem the sport of motorcycle racing faces at the moment: Money. Specifically, the lack of it, and the inability of almost everyone involved in the sport to find ways of raising any. All of the ills of both MotoGP and World Superbikes can be traced back to this single failure.
The root of racing's problem is well-known. Once upon a time, when advertising tobacco products on TV and radio was banned, the cigarette companies needed some way of reaching potential customers. Spotting the loophole in the law, they immediately leaped on sports sponsorship as a means to promote their product. They went for sports which were glamorous, exciting, and had an edge of danger, exactly the image they want to project, and came up with motorsports.
Governments around the world saw the loophole they created, and started to close it down. After some clever negotiating by F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, motorsports were given an exemption until 2006, at which time all visible promotion of tobacco products in the sport's major markets was completely banned. The good times were over.
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