"Go to Phillip Island to test," they said. "It will be summer, conditions will be perfect." What they didn't say was that this was summer in Phillip Island, a season which can include all four of the other seasons of the year. Sure, it was warmer than in October but rain kept blowing in off the Bass Strait, drenching the track, then the winds drying the track out, before another shower drenched the track.
"Honestly, it was a waste of a day for everyone," was Cal Crutchlow's assessment of the day. "The last two corners were dry at the end but the first four corners were soaking wet and the rest were somewhere in between." Dani Pedrosa was in broad agreement. "I think it's quite rare to have full wet conditions in this track, because it dries up so quick. We had most of the day, half the track dry, half the track wet, and spraying all the time, and drying again all the time."
Going by the number of laps posted by each rider – between twenty and thirty, where eighty or ninety might be more normal – the first day of the second MotoGP test at Phillip Island could indeed be regarded as wasted. Yet the riders and teams still found enough to occupy themselves with, not least testing the various tires Michelin had brought to the test. There were wets on offer, slick tires, with two different profiles on the front to choose from, as well as intermediates, all of which needed to be tried out.
Intermediates are no panacea
Riders were reluctant to test the intermediates, however, despite what might be regarded as ideal conditions. Though the intermediates offer great grip on a half-wet, half-dry track, to get the best out of them requires pushing hard. The risk that entails in unpredictable conditions with patches varying between wet and dry is not something the riders are willing to take at this stage in the season. Should such a similar situation occur during an actual race weekend, they might actually use the intermediates, Pol Espargaro's crew chief Nicolas Goyon explained to MotoGP.com. But with nothing at stake, and the risk of injury ahead of what is going to be a crucial year for everyone on the grid, nobody wanted to take the chance. "It’s difficult to understand where with the intermediate tire when you can use, in the wet part," Marc Márquez said.
Fortunately – if that is the right word under the circumstances – there were periods where it was raining hard enough that the track actually remained wet, and riders could actually test the Michelin wet tires. Overall, they were well received, with a few caveats. The rear provided plenty of grip, just as the rear Michelin slick does, and the front is comparable too. "The character is similar to the slick tire. There is a lot of grip on the rear. The front tire was also stable. It looks like you have to brake a little bit less compared to the Bridgestone tires but with the rear tire the grip is really good," said Marc Márquez.
Cal Crutchlow was less enthusiastic. "I was pleasantly surprised with how much grip you had but there was no warning with it. When it moved it was a very fast movement whereas with the Bridgestone, you could slide it more and feel what was underneath you more." Valentino Rossi disagreed. "Sincerely in the rain the difference between the Michelin and the Bridgestone is quite small. It’s bigger in the dry."
The one area where there was more of a problem was with standing water, where Scott Redding encountered some aquaplaning. "Grip straight out of the box was OK, just a bit of aquaplaning. There was a bit of standing water, I didn’t even think about it and braaaap," he explained onomatopoeically. What the differing feedback demonstrates is that tires remain an intensely personal experience, and feeling varies from rider to rider. So far, the balance is positive.
Some dry time too
Towards the end of the day, the track started to dry out, and a few riders got some laps on slicks. Feedback from those tires was again positive, with the interesting exception of Jorge Lorenzo. He had a "strange feeling" with the slicks, posting only a very slow lap, before returning to the pits. Scott Redding had issues too, though his came from what he described as "mis-molded" tires, forcing him to dump two softer tires and go back out on a hard tire.
Others took full advantage, Danilo Petrucci ending the session on top of the timesheets, getting his timing just right to get the best out of the tire and the available grip. Rain in the final few minutes of the session brought it to a premature end. The weather is due to improve on Thursday, the hope being it remains dry for most of the day. That would allow everyone to get on with the actual job of testing they came to do at the Island.
There was still plenty to do for the various teams. While the factory Repsol Honda team are focused on the new engine they first tested at Sepang, Cal Crutchlow and Tito Rabat were handed the engine used by the Repsol men at Valencia. Crutchlow did not use the new engine, preferring to use the 2015 engine as a known quantity while they worked on set up and most especially the electronics.
Electrickery can happen fast
Electronics is the main focus for all of the Honda riders, the Japanese factory still left with a lot of catching up to do. Clear progress has been made since Sepang, Marc Márquez saying that the feeling had been good. He had not pushed hard enough to take the electronics to their limit, but they had responded well. "I didn’t push a lot but it looks better than what I expect," he said.
His teammate explained just how much work they have left to do, especially in the wet. With the common software offering less control, they were having to compromise more between various places on the track, balancing power delivery against the use of traction control. "We have to work a few things strategy-wise to see how we balance, if we use more the torque, if we use more the electronics to cut the engine or not," Dani Pedrosa said.
At the Movistar Yamaha team, the main objective is still the choice between the two different chassis, one with the tank at the rear (which the riders refer to as the 2016 bike) and a modified version of the 2015 bike. The consensus is moving ever closer to the 2015 bike, with Jorge Lorenzo having already virtually abandoned the new bike, and Rossi having declared his preference for the same machine. The changes to the Michelin tires made over the winter made the more extreme changes made for the 2016 bike unnecessary, but those are the risks of trying to hit a moving target. Until the Michelin tires are completely settled – which will probably take the best part of the 2016 season – developing a bike to suit them as perfectly as possible is very difficult indeed.
Old dog, new tricks
A new figure popped up in Valentino Rossi's garage in Australia, raising a few eyebrows. Former 125 and 250 champion Luca Cadalora is at Phillip Island, working with Rossi as a rider coach, to help him perfect his riding style. Such assistance is common among other riders (Wilco Zeelenberg does it for Jorge Lorenzo, Emilio Alzamora for Marc Márquez) but so far, Rossi has not had anyone explicitly helping him at the track.
Rossi explained that he started working with Cadalora last year, when the pair of them had started riding together at Misano on the Yamaha YZF-R1. Cadalora has also spent time at Rossi's dirt track ranch, riding and offering coaching. "From that moment the idea was born," Rossi explained, and he had invited Cadalora to come to the test. "First of all Luca have a great passion for motorcycles," Rossi said, "but he’s also a very technical rider. When he raced, he was like this. He was very good for the setting and everything."
There was no fixed program as yet for Rossi to work with Cadalora, but the objective was to "try to understand if he can give to me some advice," said Rossi. It is yet another wrinkle in Rossi's career, and a key to his strength as a rider. The Italian enters his seventeenth season in the premier class, and has only remained as competitive as he is by constantly adapting and reinventing himself. Rossi has changed riding style, training regimes and training techniques, and has done everything imaginable to try to remain at the front. His openness to new ideas and willingness to learn is a mark of the intensity of his desire to win. The humility required to always strive to improve is a mark of Rossi's greatness as a rider, and a key reason for his longevity.
There is plenty more work to be done at Phillip Island, but for anything meaningful to happen, the weather must clear up. That is not a given: skies remain overcast, and rain was falling on Thursday morning. That must surely change at some point. So much for a Phillip Island summer...
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