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.
It has been a tough day for sponsorship news in the MotoGP paddock. After news earlier of LCR Honda's title sponsor CWM being subject of a fraud investigation, the Aspar Honda team have lost their title sponsor, Drive M7. The Malaysian energy drink firm have withdrawn their sponsorship of the team on the day before the 2015 season was due to start.
According to German language publication Speedweek, the Drive M7 management told team owner Jorge Martinez about the decision on Tuesday night. The decision was a surprise, as it had been expected that the deal would continue in 2015, with both Nicky Hayden and Eugene Laverty riding in Drive M7 testing colors during preseason testing.
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.
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.
Press releases at the end of the second test at Sepang:
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 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.
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?
To help fill the long void during the winter break, the Aspar team has been occasionally issuing press release interviews with its riders. Today's press release contains an interview with Nicky Hayden, now back at home working on building strength in his wrist and preparing for the 2015 MotoGP season. In the press release, Hayden briefly runs through subjects as diverse as his wrist recovery, the changes to his crew in 2015, and the potential of the Honda RC213V-RS, the replacement for the RCV1000R Hayden rode in 2014.
The interview appears below:
“My main objective for 2015 is to enjoy riding again”
Nicky Hayden is currently enjoying a hard-earned rest at home following a long and difficult season. The DRIVE M7 Aspar rider is one of the most experienced men in MotoGP and a throwback to the old-school hard men that inspired him. After what he has been through over the past twelve months, the 'Kentucky Kid' could be forgiven for turning his back on the sport for good but racing is in the Hayden family's blood and nothing can stop Nicky from enjoying his one true passion, which also happens to be his job. As he spends the Christmas period relaxing with his family and allowing his wrist more crucial time to recover, Nicky Hayden's mind remains very much on the job at hand in 2015.