Testing is over. If the teams had anything more they wanted to test before the season starts in just under two weeks, they will have to do it during practice for the first race in Qatar. They start the first race of the 2016 MotoGP season with what they left the test with on Friday.
So what have we learned over the past three days, and especially on Friday? Most of all, that the season is still very much in state of flux. Things change from day to day, from hour to hour, as teams, factories and riders find new solutions, make smaller and larger adjustments, figure out the finer details of the 2016 bikes, common software, and most especially the new Michelin tires.
The French rubber played a major role on Friday, with lots of crashes throughout the evening. This was down in part to riders picking up the pace and starting to push to set a quick lap. (Riders will tell you it's only testing, and they weren't really pushing, and they don't pay much attention to where they are on the timesheets, because it doesn't really matter. But they are lying. It matters, most of all psychologically.)
Seeking the front end Goldilocks
It was also in part due to the front tire allocation Michelin had brought to the test. There was a soft front and a hard front for the main contracted riders, with a big step in between. The soft was a little too soft, the front tire causing problems under hard braking in a straight line, especially for the Hondas, and lacked any feedback. The hard was better, but was a little too hard to be used at Qatar, because of the low track temperatures and the dew which forms on the track after 10pm.
The test riders had a medium option, between the two tires, which was, by all reports, very much the Goldilocks option. Stiff enough to give support and provide feedback, but not too hard that it becomes temperature critical. That tire will be available at the race, and will solve most of the problems for most of the riders. But it is still very early in the new era of Michelin tires, and the French manufacturer is still right in the middle of the learning process. Considering how much the bikes have changes in the seven years since Michelin left the series, they have done a surprisingly good job. But they will be getting it not quite perfect with their tire selection for most of the first year. It is unfortunate that riders will pay the price of the transition period with bumps, bruises, and in some cases, broken bones.
The efforts of the riders did not go unrewarded. Times tumbled, especially in the period between 9pm and 10:30pm, before the dew made the track too treacherous to risk pushing hard. That Jorge Lorenzo should finish on top of the timesheets is no surprise, the reigning world champion gelling well with the new tires and the new electronics. The Yamaha is still an outstanding motorcycle, a fact reinforced by Valentino Rossi's fifth spot on the timesheets, just a tenth behind Scott Redding, the man in second. The factory Yamaha men are helped by the fact that they have a small army of electronics engineers helping to optimize the Magneti Marelli common software. The Tech 3 team have just a single electronics guy between the two riders, and their lack of resources is reflected by their place on the timesheet: Pol Espargaro is in tenth, Bradley Smith is in twelfth.
Diving into the timesheets
Lorenzo's lead looked overwhelming, the Movistar Yamaha rider finishing over half a second ahead of the rest. That is the same gap that covers Scott Redding, in an impressive second place on the Pramac Ducati, to Pol Espargaro down in tenth. The gaps from second to tenth are small: just seven thousandths from Redding to Suzuki revelation Maverick Viñales, seven hundredths from Viñales to Marc Márquez in fourth, and three hundredths from Márquez to Valentino Rossi in fifth.
The headline times are misleading, however. The final day of the Qatar test saw a lot of riders running race simulations, or at least putting in longer runs of ten laps or more. Unfortunately for them, the crashes were both a distraction and an interruption, red flags coming out a couple of times to allow debris to be removed from the track. But the times set by the top ten are still instructive.
Jorge Lorenzo did a full race run, putting in full race distance of 22 laps. He completed it in a time of 42:46.091, some ten seconds slower than Valentino Rossi's race-winning pace in 2015. Comparisons are hard, of course, with so many different factors: new tires, new electronics, different track conditions, and above all, a very different motivation. Lorenzo's first lap, for example, was over four seconds slower than Rossi's initial lap during the race. Adrenaline and focus plays a big factor there.
All is not necessarily as it seems
Yet Lorenzo's race simulation was hardly as dominant as his single fast lap. Marc Márquez managed to stay with Lorenzo while he did his long run, the Repsol Honda rider happy to have made a big step forward and found some solutions to the problems he had on the first couple of days. Comparing the pace of the fastest thirteen laps of those runs, Lorenzo's average lap time was 1:56.026, while Márquez' was 1:56.064. The difference is less than four hundredths, rather than half a second. By comparison, the average pace of Valentino Rossi's best thirteen laps of his long run was 1:56.202, nearly two tenths slower than his teammate. But two tenths is not the six tenths which separate the two Movistar Yamaha riders on their outright fastest laps. The crash Rossi had early in the session, which disrupted his testing plan, may also have had an effect on his pace.
A similar pattern is visible when you look at the best laps set by each rider throughout Friday. Taking the 22 fastest laps of the top ten riders sees a different pattern emerge. Of the riders who had consistently fast times in long runs, Marc Márquez was the fastest man. The Repsol Honda rider's best 22 laps are fractionally faster than Lorenzo's. If you treat them as a race of 22 consecutive laps – a precarious and statistically flawed view, but it's the best we have at the moment – then Márquez would have beaten Lorenzo by 0.351 seconds.
Even more surprising are the riders behind Márquez and Lorenzo. In the hypothetical race situation, Scott Redding would have finished in third, just under 1.4 seconds behind Márquez, just over six hundredths a lap slower than the Repsol Honda rider. Valentino Rossi would have finished fourth, four seconds behind Márquez, while the two factory Ducatis had very similar pace, six seconds off the theoretical 22 lap race of Márquez. Suzuki's Maverick Viñales, whose times looks so impressive on a single fast lap, is nearly ten seconds slower than Márquez over the best 22 laps of each rider. That is half a second slower than the Repsol Honda rider, broadly comparable to the difference over a fast lap.
The table below shows the aggregate times, based on the best 22 laps of each rider:
|Average||Total||Total laps||Laps of 1:55|
Steps forward, and treading water
Where has Marc Márquez' burst of speed come from? The Spaniard and his team found some solutions from Thursday, and started making set up changes that Márquez could feel and start to exploit. The Spaniard is working on his riding style too, still adapting to the different requirements of the Michelins. But they had made a big step forward, he told the media.
Márquez was the only rider to be quite so happy. Dani Pedrosa was very terse when he spoke to the media. Had he made any progress with the bike? "No." He was, by all accounts, not a happy man at all. Cal Crutchlow was a little more positive, despite crashing and having his rear tire land squarely and very painfully between his legs. But he was still having electronics problems, the traction control kicking in along the straights. Those problems would be fixed, Crutchlow affirmed, but they will take some time.
Electronics will matter
Electronics are going to be a factor, and not just in terms of initial set up. Valentino Rossi confirmed what Jorge Lorenzo had already said about how the common software will affect riders, especially in the second half of the race. "You don't feel a difference if you do four or five laps," Rossi said. "But after, you do. The races will become more difficult for the rider, you have to work more, you have to play more with the bike compared to last year." The bike needs a lot more work to control it as the race goes on, tires go off, and the electronics struggle to cope with tire wear. They no longer automatically adapt, it is up to the rider.
That could be a factor for Honda. The RC213V is still a physically very demanding bike to ride, Cal Crutchlow affirmed, much as it had been last year. That was something they had asked Honda to address, but so far, HRC had not managed to solve the conundrum. Honda riders will need more fitness than the rest to last the distance.
For Jack Miller, that was a problem. Not so much in terms of physical fitness, but due to the ankle injury he suffered at the start of the year. Still barely able to walk, Miller had been able to handle the pain at Phillip Island, because it consisted mostly of left handers. At Qatar, the reverse is true, and it is causing Miller a lot of grief.
At Suzuki, work continued on the seamless gearbox, with some changes made overnight to the version two, or fully seamless gearbox which both Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales had at their disposal. Espargaro had tried the seamless box yesterday, and his team had made a big step forward with the set up of the box overnight. It was a lot less aggressive, Espargaro said, a big improvement.
With the start of the season now just twelve days away, there is time to look back at testing and forward to the 2016 MotoGP season in more depth in the coming days. It looks to be one of the most intriguing championships in many years.
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