With Ducati refining the already competitive GP15 into the Desmo16, and Suzuki bringing a seamless gearbox and new, more powerful engine for the GSX-RR, the battle among the manufacturers in MotoGP is getting closer. The one exception so far has been Aprilia, who soldiered on through 2015 with an uprated version of the ART machine, which was still based on the RSV4 production bike, while they worked on a brand new prototype.
That prototype has at last made its debut at the track. On Wednesday, Aprilia test rider Mike Di Meglio took the 2016 Aprilia RS-GP out for its first official spin. Di Meglio was performing a basic shakedown test, making sure that everything worked and there were no unexpected problems with the bike, giving Aprilia time to address them before factory Aprilia riders Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl get their first chance to ride the bike at a private test at Qatar, two weeks before the official IRTA test at the circuit.
Press releases from the MotoGP teams after the final day of testing at Sepang:
What did we learn from the first proper MotoGP test of the new era of Michelin tires and spec electronics? More than we hoped, yet less than we think. A quick run down on the state of play after Sepang, with more to come over the following days.
The riders approached the Sepang test with some trepidation, fearing that Michelin had not fixed its wayward front that caused so many crashes at Valencia and Jerez. Their fears were unfounded, the new front tires which Michelin brought – a total of five different types, of varying construction and compound – were all a massive step forward. They were not as stable as the Bridgestones they replaced, but they had gained a lot of predictability and feedback. There were very few crashes which the riders said they had not seen coming.
That does not mean that all of the problems have been solved. A couple of people went down at Turn five on Tuesday, in crashes they described as strange. Casey Stoner (more on him later) had a typically concise and thoughtful analysis. "There's a little point after probably 45°, that [the tire profile] goes down just a little bit more, that it doesn't seem to match with the rear with some of the profiles that we've tested," Stoner explained. "That gives everybody a little bit a nervous feeling, and essentially why people are struggling into Turn 5, a big fast open corner, going in, when the bike goes light, it doesn't like that feeling. It makes the bike a little nervous, and I think that's when the front wants to break away."
If being the official supplier to a racing series is a double-edged sword, then being the sole supplier of equipment as essential as tires is doubly so. Leaving aside the complexities of exactly what a four-edged sword would actually look like, being official tire supplier to MotoGP is a role which offers massive opportunities for raising the role of a brand, and having it associated with the most famous names in motorcycle racing. It gets your brand name and logo in front of many tens of millions of race fans and motorcycle enthusiasts every weekend. It also sees your logo plastered all over just about every photo which appears in magazines and newspapers about MotoGP, as well as filling thousands of column inches on websites and in magazines. If you had to pay for the same exposure – a concept known as equivalent advertising value – it would cost you many, many times the €25 million Bridgestone were rumored to have paid for the contract.
There is a downside, of course. It is extremely uncommon to hear riders heap praise upon your tires spontaneously. Bridgestone had to announce they were pulling out of the role of official supplier to receive the praise they deserved, riders immediately paying tribute to just how good their racing tires actually are. By contrast, criticism from riders about the spec tire is both instantaneous and highly vocal. Allow a rider to speak about your tires, and they will expound in great detail on all of the failings, real and perceived of the product you have so lovingly produced. Should you suffer some form of catastrophic failure, or get something horribly wrong, then you face a barrage of coverage, all of it negative. As a tire manufacturer, you leave your PR people fighting fires for weeks, and sometimes months to come.
That is precisely the situation which Michelin finds themselves in this evening. At 10:40 on Tuesday morning, Loris Baz accelerated down the front straight at Sepang, and around two thirds of the way along, the rear tire of his Avintia Ducati GP14.2 exploded. As Dorna only has a couple of cameras at the Sepang Test, the video coverage is mainly from the HD CCTV cameras around the circuit, one of which is permanently trained down the main straight.
Press releases from the teams after the second day of testing at Sepang:
Press releases after the first day of testing at Sepang:
The hour of truth is at hand. On Monday morning, MotoGP fans will get their very first look at how the 2016 season is really going to look like. We got a glimpse at Valencia, but it was not a uniform picture. Though the 2016 electronics and Michelin tires made their debut at the two-day test after the final race of 2015, there were still too many variables. Everyone was on the Michelins, but some riders were on the spec electronics, others were on the old proprietary software they had been using for the 2015 season, and the factory teams were using a mixture of both.
It was also the first time the teams had to focus solely on the new tires and electronics, without the pressure of an ongoing championship. Though for both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, the intensity of the season finale had left them drained, making it difficult to generate the necessary enthusiasm for testing. There was a lot of work to do, for everyone concerned, and nobody did anything but scratch the surface.
Since Valencia, there have been a couple more tests. At Jerez in November, Ducati, Honda and Aprilia continued the work they had left off at Valencia. At Sepang, Maverick Viñales took Suzuki's new seamless gearbox out for the first time, Aleix Espargaro forced to miss the test through injury. Michele Pirro for Ducati and Mike Di Meglio for Aprilia have continued their solid work as test riders, testing new parts, working on the spec electronics, getting data from the Michelin tires.
Aprilia's MotoGP project has suffered a setback. The 2016 version of their RS-GP MotoGP machine will not be ready in time for the first official IRTA test at Sepang, according to a report by Crash.net's Neil Morrison. Instead, it will make its debut in a private test at Qatar, ahead of the third preseason test of 2016, with its first public outing coming in that third and final test, two weeks before the start of the 2016 season.
The delay is a sign that the project is at least a couple of weeks behind schedule. At Valencia, Aprilia spokespersons said that the original plan was to hold a shakedown test at a private Italian racetrack, with the bike making its public debut in Sepang. Designing a radically new bike is taking longer than expected, however: the 2016 machine will be a brand new prototype, designed from the ground up, at least 10kg lighter than the current RS-GP, and is rumored to have a different angle between the cylinders. That is an incredibly complex and time-consuming process, so delays are not entirely unexpected.
The Massive 2016 MotoGP Rule Update: A Single Class With Concessions, Back Protectors Now Compulsory
With major changes to the technical regulations for MotoGP in 2016, it has taken some time for the FIM to produce a new and revised version of the rulebook. The first provisional version was made available today, the new rules bringing together all of the new rules agreed over the past few years into a single set of regulations. Most of the new rules have already been written about during the year, but putting them into a single rulebook helped clarify them greatly.
The biggest changes are to the technical regulations. The abolition of the Open class means everyone is back on a single set of rules. Or rather, nearly everyone. There are still two types of manufacturers: manufacturers subject to the standard rules, and manufacturers who have not yet had sufficient success, and therefore have been granted a number of concessions. Those concessions are more limited than the Open class, though, and relate now only to testing and to engine development. Everyone will have the same amount of fuel, the same tire allocation, and everyone will use the same electronics, the spec hardware and the unified software.
Though many fans are disappointed that there isn't just a single set of rules, the concessions which remain are absolutely vital to the long-term health of the series. With Honda, Yamaha, and since last year, Ducati, all subject to a freeze on engine development and limited testing, Suzuki and Aprilia (and KTM, when they join the series in 2017) stand a chance of cutting the gap to the more successful factories. Without concessions, the smaller factories wouldn't stand a chance of catching the others, especially not a factory with almost limitless resources like Honda. Indeed, without the concessions granted to Ducati, there is a very good chance the Italian factory would have left MotoGP in 2014, after three long years without results. The previous era, when the factories all competed under a single set of rules, ended up with just 17 bikes on the grid, and manufacturers showing more interest in leaving MotoGP than in joining. That situation has been completely reversed.
A new year is upon us, and with it, a new season of motorcycle racing, full of hope, opportunity and optimism. What will 2016 hold for motorcycle racing fans? With testing still weeks away for World Superbikes, and a month away for MotoGP, it is far, far too early to be making any predictions. But why let common sense stand in the way? Here are some wildly inaccurate predictions for 2016.
1. Doubling down: Honda falls into the horsepower trap again
2015 was a tough year for Honda. Despite proclaiming at the end of 2014 that their goal for the coming year was to build a more user-friendly engine, HRC found it impossible to resist the siren call of more horsepower. They built an engine that was even more aggressive than their already-difficult 2014 machine, and all the Honda riders struggled. By the end of the season, they just about had the situation under control, but it was far from ideal.
Surely, after a season like 2015, Honda will have learned their lesson? Apparently not. The latest version of the engine Honda tested at both Valencia and Jerez was still way too aggressive, though the engine was now aggressive in a different way, with more power off the bottom.
Making things worse was Honda's inability to get to grips with the new unified software. HRC technicians were finding it hard to control the RC213V engine using the new software, or create a predictable and comprehensible throttle response. Given that neither Yamaha nor Ducati had suffered the same problems, the issue was not with the software, but the way it was being used.
The final part of our review of the 2015 season, takes a look at the riders at the bottom end of the championship. Though they finished well behind the leaders, the list still contains some big names and interesting stories. Near the top are the Aprilias of Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl, as well as the surprising Loris Baz. There is the tough times faced by the Open class Honda riders, including Nicky Hayden and Jack Miller. And at the bottom, the men gritting their teeth through injury, including Alex De Angelis and Karel Abraham.
If you missed the first four parts of our season review, you can catch up with part 1, on the Movistar Yamaha men, part 2, on two Repsol Hondas, part 3, covering Andrea Iannone to Cal Crutchlow, and part 4, from Pol Espargaro to Hector Barbera.
A reminder: we review the performance of each rider below, giving them a mark out of ten for their ability to live up to or exceed expectations. As every year, we cover the riders in the order they finished in the championship.
Alvaro Bautista, Gresini Aprilia, 16th, 31 points
Alvaro Bautista started the 2015 season full of hope. Finally back as a factory rider, he hoped to help steer the development of the factory's RS-GP bike ahead of the new prototype to be rolled out in 2016. Bautista had expected a tough season, but he hadn't expected it to be this tough. There was little sign of progress throughout 2015, with new developments rolled out only slowly, and the Aprilia still losing out in too many areas to be competitive. Still very closely related to the Aprilia RSV4R from which it stems, the bike is heavy, underpowered, doesn't turn well, and suffers both in top speed and acceleration.
Michelin is stepping up preparations for 2016 by scheduling an extra tire test in December. The French tire maker has invited the MotoGP factories to spend two days at Jerez before Christmas, testing new front tires in cold conditions, according to GPOne.com.
Three manufacturers have accepted, Ducati, Honda and Aprilia preparing to send their test riders to put in some laps on the latest iteration of tires at the Spanish circuit on 21st and 22nd of December. As the test falls in the middle of the winter test ban period, contracted riders - that is, riders who will be permanent MotoGP entries for 2016 - are forbidden from riding, and only the official test riders can take part. As a result, Michele Pirro will be attending for Ducati, Mike Di Meglio for Aprilia, and Honda will send both Hiroshi Aoyama and Takumi Takahashi.
The main objective of the test is to try out new tires in cold conditions, the situation in which the Michelins are struggling most at the moment. Michelin are keen to collect as much data as possible ahead of the winter break, in order to have tires ready to test at Sepang, and more importantly, at Qatar, where track and ambient temperatures are always relatively low due to it being a night race.
So, testing is over and the winter test ban can start. Riders who intend to race in 2016 are banned from testing between 1st December 2015 and 31st January 2016. Engineers now have a long winter ahead of them to try to make sense of the data gathered at the test at Valencia and Jerez, or else send their test riders out in the chill of winter, as Aprilia intend to do at Jerez in a few weeks. Those engineers have an awful lot of work ahead of them.
The men and women at Ducati will be getting the most time off over the holiday period. It is clear from the first two tests that the Italian factory has hit the ground running with the new unified software, and have the systems working relatively well. One Ducati engineer reckoned that they were already at about 50% of the potential of the software, far more than the 10% MotoGP's Director of Technology Corrado Cecchinelli had estimated at Valencia. The fact that Scott Redding topped the final day of testing at Jerez on the Pramac Ducati GP15, a couple of tenths faster than Marc Márquez and the only rider to crack into the 1'38s, is proof enough that Ducati have the situation under control. (For a full list of unofficial times, see below).
Redding has been impressive throughout the test, and was a very happy rider after Friday. "The good thing for me is that I feel comfortable on the bike," Redding said. "I know what's going to happen. Today I nearly crashed at the last corner because I tried to force the front a bit but it didn’t want to. The bike was talking to me. When you have a good feeling like this you also have a bit of confidence. You know what’s going to happen." Last year on the Honda, the RC213V did anything but talk to him. Whenever he tried to go faster, he would go slower. Now, on the GP15, he was fast, knew he could go faster if he pushed harder.
Press releases from the MotoGP and World Superbike teams after the final day of testing at Jerez:
Have HRC made the same mistake again? In 2015, the Honda RC213V was a nasty beast to tame, suffering with an excessively aggressive engine. The engine was probably the single most important reason Marc Márquez could not mount a realistic defense of his second title, forcing him to try to make up in braking what he was losing in acceleration, and crashing out as a result. At the Valencia test, all eyes were on Honda's new engine, to see if they had finally fixed the problem.
Valencia turned out to be a little too complex to make a real judgment. The switch to spec electronics and Michelin tires introduced way too many variables to be able to filter out a single factor, Honda engineers taking a long time to extract some kind of consistency from the new unified software all MotoGP bikes must now use. The 2016 RC213V engine seemed a little less aggressive, but the new software made it hard to tell. The current test at Jerez was supposed to give a clearer indication, with HRC's engineers having a better handle on the unified software.
Though the verdict is not yet in, it is not looking good for the 2016 engine Honda brought for the tests in Spain. Both Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez have reported the engine as still being too aggressive, and difficult to manage, though the engine character has changed. "Last year's engine was aggressive in the top," Márquez told reporters after the second day of testing at Jerez. "Now we have more power in the bottom, but still we don't understand the way to deliver this torque. It looks like aggressive in the bottom, but then smoother in the top compared with last year." The key will be finding the right balance between the top and bottom end.