Phillip Island is arguably the greatest race track for motorcycles in the world. It is a circuit where every racer wants to race, where every trackday rider wants to cut some laps, where every race fan wants to visit. There are a million reasons to visit Phillip Island, all of them good.
Testing in preparation for a MotoGP season is not one of them, however. Phillip Island has a long history of riders winning based on bravery and ability, rather than equipment. In October, Maverick Viñales finished in sixth on the massively underpowered Suzuki GSX-RR, just a second behind Dani Pedrosa, who had won a week previously at Motegi and would win a week later at Sepang. Between the two of them, Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi have won twelve of the last fourteen races on a variety of Hondas, Yamahas and Ducatis.
Testing at Phillip Island does not teach you as much about the motorcycle underneath the rider as it does about the rider on top of the motorcycle, and the testicular fortitude they are able to display at the circuit. Viñales described testing at the track as being about checking to see if he had "the cojones" around the circuit. With a new, more powerful GSX-RR at his disposal, there was one useful aspect of testing at the Island: "I need to use more cojones if I have more power," he quipped.
There is one really good reason to go testing at Phillip Island, however. With the possible exception of the Termas de Rio Hondo track in Argentina, Phillip Island is the most demanding track for tires which MotoGP visits. That is the entire reason this test is being convened: it is an opportunity for Michelin to gather more data from the fastest riders in the world at a track which positively punishes tires, especially on the left hand side. The debacle of 2013 is still fresh in MotoGP memory, when Bridgestone found their tires unable to withstand the added loads which a freshly resurfaced track place upon them. Michelin will not want anything like that to happen to them in the first year back.
Coming after the embarrassment of Loris Baz' exploding rear tire at Sepang – the causes of that are still officially being investigated, though Michelin are implicitly accepting the problem was underinflation – it will be crucial to see how their latest iteration of tires hold up at Phillip Island. There will be a softer option tire at the circuit, but it will be a different compound to the one which let go in Malaysia.
The biggest obstacle to a successful test at Phillip Island could come from the weather. It is currently raining at the circuit, and cool, wet and windy conditions are forecast to persist throughout the three-day test. At the moment, Thursday looks like it could be largely dry, but the Bass Strait is as fearsome and fickle as ever, and will not be ignored.
Gambling in the wet?
Wet conditions could be good for Michelin to give their wet tires a run out, and if the track starts to dry, perhaps the intermediates, which are back for this year. But with just over a month to go to the first race of the season, riders are cautious about pushing too hard in the wet. Riding in the wet is very much about managing both risk and the available grip, and at the moment, riders are more likely to err on the side of caution. There is little bike set up work which can be done in the wet, though there is still plenty of work to be done on the common (or spec) software. Riders could go out to get a feel for how the bike reacts in the wet with the new software, but again, caution will be their watchword.
Apart from tires, and of course the continuing work of getting to grips with the common software, who will be testing what at Phillip Island? To start with an absentee, Aprilia will not be testing anything, preferring to skip the IRTA test for a private session at Qatar, where the brand new prototype MotoGP machine is to get its first run out in the hands of Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista. The other four manufacturers will be present, and will have varying amounts of work to do.
Yamaha – choosing a chassis
The Movistar Yamaha team have perhaps the least amount of work ahead of them. Jorge Lorenzo dominated the Sepang test at the start of the month, while his teammate Valentino Rossi comfortably led the rest of the pack. The M1 is as good a bike as it was last year, and Yamaha's engineers have done a solid job getting the common software to work. What remains is for a permanent choice to be made between the two chassis variations, with the tank further to the rear, or under the seat. (In reality, the differences are much smaller than that, but this is how to identify the two types). At Sepang, both Rossi and Lorenzo favored the bike with the underseat tank. As that bike is much closer to the 2015 machine, Yamaha would be happy with that too.
Ducati – working on the rider
At Ducati, the two Andreas (Dovizioso and Iannone) continue to work on refining the GP16, or D16 GP as we are supposed to call it. It is Dovizioso who has the most work, though that lies more with him and his riding style than anything else. Dovizioso was the last of the late brakers with the Bridgestone tires, but the Michelins require an entirely different approach. Braking stability was always an issue for Dovizioso with the GP15, and at least the GP16 is a step forward here. But it is the tires which need the most attention.
Suzuki – new seamless, and more power
Suzuki have perhaps the most to test, giving their new engine another run out at a different track. They should also have a new seamless gearbox to test, with clutchless gear changes both up and down the gearbox. The first version tested at Sepang was already a big step forward, and if the fully seamless box is another step forward, the Suzuki GSX-RR will start to look like a genuinely competitive proposition. With Maverick Viñales believed to be one of the biggest targets for other manufacturers in the free-for-all which the MotoGP rider market is likely to become, Suzuki's best hope of keeping the Spaniard is to give him something he believes he can win on. The Australian test should be confirmation of that.
Honda – make or break time with the new engine
For Honda, Phillip Island could be the moment of truth. HRC brought a new engine to Sepang, modified to make the power delivery less aggressive. It was an improvement, Repsol Honda riders, Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa said, but it was only a minor improvement. It was not the big step forward the bike really needs to make it easier to ride, as Shuhei Nakamoto promised it would be way back in 2014.
The two tests at Sepang were what Honda blamed for catching them out last year. The intense heat at the Malaysian track robbed the bike of horsepower, making the engine seem less ferocious than it actually was. Cooler conditions at Phillip Island should reveal the 2016 engine's true character. If it is as vicious as Márquez and Pedrosa feared at Sepang, then Honda will have to do something more drastic than they have undertaken so far. If it proves manageable, then HRC will turn their focus to the electronics, and controlling the bike with the common software. So far, Honda have had the most problems with the electronics, yet Shuhei Nakamoto and Livio Suppo have both told the media they believe the worst of the problems can be solved with the electronics, once Honda's engineers have them fully dialed in.
The work for the satellite riders (of all colors and creeds) is always less during testing than for the factory riders. They have fewer parts to test, and can focus on set up and adapting to the tires. At Sepang, it was the Pramac Ducati team who did best, though Bradley Smith put up a solid showing while focusing on race set up. Cal Crutchlow, too, proved himself capable of posting a quick lap, though at considerable risk, he said. At Sepang, Crutchlow was roped in to testing the engine tried by the Repsol Hondas at Valencia, and he could be assigned to do something similar at Phillip Island.
Last but not least, the Phillip Island test sees the return of Jack Miller. The Marc VDS Racing rider broke bones in his right ankle before Sepang, but his injury should be strong enough for him to ride at his home track. The weather will not be kind to him, however. The last thing Miller needs is to crash in difficult conditions.
Difficult conditions await everyone, and all must deal with them in their own way. In three days time, we should have a better idea of the season that awaits us.
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