The 2016 MotoGP season hasn't even got underway yet, and there is already so much to talk about. New bikes, new tires, new electronics: viewed from this point in the season, the championship is both wide open and highly unpredictable. Testing has given us a guide, but it was clear from the three preseason tests that much will change throughout 2016, with the balance of power changing from track to track, and as Michelin bring different tires to different circuits.
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.
Farewell, MotoGP penalty point system, we barely knew you. In a press release issued today (and rather bizarrely, leaked to a Spanish journalist two days ago) the FIM announced that the Grand Prix Commission had decided to modify the penalty point system. From now on, the only penalty to be imposed will happen once a rider accrues a total of ten points, at which point they will be disqualified for one race. The penalties for four (starting from the back of the grid) and seven points (starting from pit lane) have been dropped. At a stroke, the penalty point system has been emasculated.
Qatar is a tough place to test. First, there's the timing. The track is open between 4pm and 11pm, giving a full seven hours of track time. In theory, that is. In practice, the first two hours are pretty much unusable, as track temperatures are much higher during daylight than after the sun sets. The final hour is a risky proposition, as the moisture in the air tends to settle at some point after 10pm, forming dew on the track. The dew is as good as invisible, yet it drastically reduces grip. Crashes start to happen without warning, and at high speed.
It's the last chance to get it right. On Wednesday, the wheels start turning for the final tests of the year, with Moto2 and Moto3 hitting the track at the official test in Jerez, while the MotoGP teams assemble at Qatar. At this stage of the preseason, the teams and factories should be running through their final tweaks ahead of the opening race in just under three weeks' time. There is not enough time to make any major changes of direction. If you haven't got it right for this test, you are in for a very long year indeed. Just ask Honda about 2015.
We are racing at last. The first round of World Superbikes at Phillip Island means we can all breathe a sigh of relief. The long, dark winter is over, and motorcycles are circulating in earnest once again.
What to make of the first weekend of World Superbikes in the new format? Those who worried that spreading the racing over two days would hurt attendance and ruin the series have not seen their fears realized. Attendance at Phillip Island was around 75% of the MotoGP attendance there, really strong figures for the track.
New rules, new bikes, new teams, new riders and a new weekend schedule, the World Superbike championship is very different for 2016.
With races on both Saturday and Sunday, adjusting to the new format could spring a few surprises. The 2006 MotoGP world champion Nicky Hayden joins the Ten Kate Honda team and current British Superbike champion Josh Brookes brings his Milwaukee team to the world stage with stunning looking BMWs. Yamaha returns at the hands of Paul Denning’s squad, fielding Alex Lowes and Sylvain Guintoli.
What did we learn from the Phillip Island MotoGP test? We learned that the rule changes for 2016, new electronics and Michelin tires, have made learning anything from testing very difficult. To borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, we learned that there are still plenty of known unknowns, and even more unknown unknowns. The most interesting thing to come out of the test is that a few of the unknown unknowns turned into known unknowns.
Faces dropped as teams headed into the paddock at Phillip Island on Thursday morning. Another day of rain? Surely not. Had they not suffered enough? What was needed was some dry track time, so that the teams could get on with the piles of work they still have to do getting ready for the 2016 season, and Michelin could start to get some proper feedback on their slicks.
"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.