With the flyaways fast approaching, MotoGP's silly season for 2016 is reaching its climax. All of the factory seats are taken – including the seat at Aprilia vacated by Marco Melandri – and the top satellite rides are filled as well, either officially or unofficially. A few pieces of the puzzle remain, but fitting those together is more or less complex, depending on the team and the rider involved. Here's a look at where we stand so far.
The five factory teams will remain unchanged for 2016. Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi will stay with Movistar Yamaha, Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa at Repsol Honda, Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales at Suzuki ECSTAR, and Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl will continue at Gresini Aprilia. Though Bradl is yet to be confirmed, off the record comments from the team make it clear that the German is to stay with Aprilia for 2016, and possibly beyond. Sam Lowes has signed a three-year deal with Aprilia for 2016 onwards, but Lowes will first take his seat in the Gresini squad's Moto2 team in 2016, seizing the chance on the Kalex Moto2 machine to take a shot at the championship.
The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha and LCR Honda teams have also been confirmed for 2016, with Pol Espargaro, Bradley Smith, and Cal Crutchlow all staying put. It looks extremely likely that LCR will be back to a one-man team in 2016, after the misadventure with CWM, whose owner is under investigation on a number of charges, virtually ruling out any chance of further sponsorship for next year. LCR will return to its extremely successful formula of race-by-race sponsorship, which has worked for Lucio Cecchinello since he first started using it in 2006.
Racers are gamblers. The helmet designs featuring dice, cards and other gambling paraphernalia bear witness to that. They have to be gamblers, a willingness to take risks is a prerequisite to being fast on a motorcycle, running the odds through your mind and betting the house on your own ability to get the upper hand. Sometimes the gamble pays off, and when it does, the rewards are bountiful. Other times, however, you lose, leaving you a hard, hard row to hoe.
There are gambles to be taken at every MotoGP race, but Misano turned into the biggest casino the series has ever seen. Rain which came after the start then stopped again meant gambling on the right time to come in for tires – twice, once to go from slicks to wets, once to go from wets to slicks – left some riders reaping rich rewards, while others were left with empty hands. Come in too late for wets, and you could lose 10 seconds wobbling round on a wet track on slicks. Come in too late for slicks, and you could lose 10 seconds or more a lap trying to find grip on wet tires as they were tearing themselves apart. Be too cautious, as Cal Crutchlow did, and you could end up way down the finishing order. Push too hard too early, as Jorge Lorenzo did, and you could end up in the gravel.
That the rain came at all was a surprise. The forecast had been for hot and sunny weather on Sunday, as temperatures climbed through the weekend. It was only on Sunday morning that the first signs of trouble showed up, with rain and thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon. Moto3 and Moto2 went off without a hitch, but as the MotoGP bikes headed out on their sighting laps, it was already spotting with rain. That spawned panic in the pit lane, with teams checking set up, and sometimes radically changing it on the spot. Front springs were being rapidly swapped, and at Suzuki, a new shock went into Maverick Viñales' wet bike.
2015 Misano Saturday Round Up: The Prospect Of A Furious Fight, Mind Games Which Weren't, And Three Stop Strategies
Remember Brno? A scintillating qualifying left Jorge Lorenzo on pole, with Marc Márquez beside him and Valentino Rossi filling out the front row. Race pace for the three was very similar, and the fans were left with the mouthwatering prospect of a thrilling race on Sunday. They were disappointed. Jorge Lorenzo surged to the lead off the line, and shaking off Marc Márquez, disappeared into the distance, winning comfortably. The battle royal promised by free practice never materialized, and we were all left with a hollow feeling of disappointment, no matter how brilliant Lorenzo's victory was.
Hence my reluctance to play up the prospect of a good race at Misano. The ingredients are the same. The same three riders on the front row, in the same order. The same comparative strength in race pace, Lorenzo and Márquez very close – in this case, running several low 1'33s in FP4 – while Valentino Rossi a couple of tenths behind. The sort of gap he and his crew usually manage to find on Sunday morning, leading to the suspicion that what they find is Rossi's insatiable desire to race to win, a setting that has been known to be good for up to three quarters of a second a lap in the distant past. This has all the makings of a classic race, but that is no guarantee of that actually happening.
Valentino Rossi expressed the fears of everyone, except perhaps Jorge Lorenzo. "Usually at the beginning of the race Jorge is always very strong," he told the press conference. "Especially when he has this pace like in this weekend. For sure he will start and he will push from the first corner very strong. Usually also Marc is able to stay with him. So it’s crucial try to stay with them in the first laps. And after you can see what’s happen, if you are close. If you are already far it’s already finished." Dani Pedrosa, starting from fourth on the grid, saw something similar. "I think one of the keys is the beginning," he told us. "When [Lorenzo] puts his rhythm it is hard to do his style on the track, how he rides the bike is quite different. So when he has more free room to race, he is faster."
2015 Misano MotoGP Friday Round Up: Disappointingly Fast Times, And Tweaking The Nut Between The Handlebars
The trouble with raised expectations is that they are so often trumped by reality. After all the hype about Misano's new surface, there was much puzzlement among the MotoGP riders, and among the teams. Danny Kent's reaction after Moto3 practice was typical. "Having heard so many people say that it's two seconds a lap quicker than last year... I'd love to know where I can find two seconds!" So much had been expected that it could only ever end in disappointment.
That's not to say the surface was poor. Praise for the new track was universal, and the times were definitely quick. In Moto3, Danny Kent beat the race lap record. In Moto2, Tito Rabat was over a tenth quicker than the existing pole record. And Jorge Lorenzo managed the same feat in MotoGP, breaking the existing pole record by a few hundredths. To do so on a Friday, when the track is still relatively dusty, and fairly green (new and not yet worn in), means the track really is a lot quicker, and times will probably drop quickly on Saturday, once the riders start to turn up the wick.
But teams and riders had been caught off guard. Several teams tried something a bit different on Friday morning, partly with an eye to a much grippier surface. With temperatures much cooler than during the MotoGP tests here in July, the reasoning went, the track should be faster, and so bikes were set up to deal with that. Such experiments were quickly abandoned in favor of the base setting which worked at other circuits, and this provided an instant improvement. It turns out that a solid base setting is the best starting point for just about any circuit, no matter what you might hope to encounter.
There was a sense of eager anticipation at Misano on Thursday. For the past five years, the riders have complained more and more of the poor surface, of bumps, of a lack of grip, and of asphalt polished as smooth as pebbles on a beach. The new surface is a vast improvement, incredibly grippy, most of the bumps ironed out and fresh dark asphalt ready to welcome sticky rubber. Racing at Misano will be a much more rewarding experience than it has been in the past.
Just how much better is the new surface? Aleix Espargaro said that the Suzukis had lapped a second under the lap record, while Marc Márquez had been untouchable, lapping "nearly three seconds under the record." That seemed almost improbably fast, and a quick survey among the rest of the paddock suggested Márquez' time was not quite that quick, but at 1'31.9 impressive nonetheless. That is fully two seconds quicker than the race lap record, and a second under the pole record. On a scorching hot surface with track temperatures of over 60°, that is a very impressive time.
Track temperatures could be an issue, as Dani Pedrosa explained. "Because the asphalt is super black it got so hot, it started sweating," he said. The surface is so dark that it absorbs more heat than other, lighter-colored surfaces, meaning that track temperatures rise more quickly and get hotter overall. But with temperatures this weekend expected to be closer to normal, around 29° on Sunday, excessive heat should not be a problem.
The key to success in motorcycle racing is in finding advantage wherever you can, and exploiting it to the fullest. If you are stronger in acceleration than your rivals, then you make sure you get out of the corner first and leave them for dead down the straight. If you are stronger in braking, then you wait, not just until you see God, as the old racing adage has it, but until you have seen every deity imagined by humanity since the dawn of time before slamming on the anchors. If you can turn tighter, you grab the inside line and push the other guy wide. You take what is on the table, and seize it with both hands.
So what about when you are racing in front of your home crowd? Do the cheers of your home fans push you to even greater heights? Does being willed on by tens of thousands of adoring fans spur you into taking more risks, trying harder, riding faster? Going on the number of times that an Italian has won at Mugello or Misano, or a Spaniard at Jerez, Barcelona or Valencia, that is a tempting conclusion to draw. Until you look at the other races on the calendar, and see that Spaniards and Italians have won in Australia, Japan, Britain, Holland. And that Spaniards have won in Italy, and Italians in Spain.
Still, it must count for something. Last year, Valentino Rossi rocked up at Misano with an irrepressible will to win, and cheered on by an ecstatic crowd and the entire population of his home village Tavullia, a stone's throw away, took what was arguably his best victory since 2009. Everything finally clicked into place after his return to Yamaha, and Rossi passed Jorge Lorenzo for the lead, forced Marc Márquez into a fatal mistake, and stamped his authority all over the MotoGP class at Misano.
2016 heralds a new era for MotoGP. Two major changes take place to the technical regulations: Michelin replaces Bridgestone as the official tire supplier (for more background on that, see the interview we did at Brno with Michelin boss Piero Taramasso), and everyone will be forced to switch to the spec electronics package, managed by Dorna and developed by Magneti Marelli.
Much confusion surrounds the introduction of spec electronics. Firstly, because there are so very few people who actually understand the role of electronics in motorcycle racing, it being a dark and mysterious art for fans, media, even riders. Secondly, because the adoption of spec electronics has been a process of constant negotiation between manufacturers, Dorna and Magneti Marelli, as they try to reach a compromise which is acceptable to all parties. That has resulted in the rules being changed a number of times, with such changes not always being communicated directly or clearly to outside parties.
So where do we stand now, and what is the process? I spoke to Corrado Cecchinelli, Dorna's head of technology for MotoGP, on progress with the electronics, and especially the spec software package, ahead of the 2016 season.
The 2016 MotoGP Hardware Package
The 2015 MotoGP championship is one of the closest in years. Close championships are always fascinating, but this one has an extra edge to it: the two men fighting over the 2015 title are both teammates, and racing on the same bike. The differences between the Yamaha M1s of Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo are virtually non-existent, their results dependent entirely on the riders themselves, and how well their teams prepare the bikes and riders for the race.
With nothing to choose between the bikes, focus has turned to the tires. Jorge Lorenzo's constant references to his preference for the tire with the special edge treatment have made this focus much keener. Under the glaring spotlight of public scrutiny, the allocation of tires which Bridgestone brings to each race has taken on the appearance of being the decisive factor in every race. Before every race weekend in MotoGP, the one question I get asked most via Social Media (other than "who do you think will win?" of course), is whether Bridgestone will be bringing the tires with the edge treatment or not.
This focus on tires is becoming so intense that a number of misconceptions about Bridgestone's rear tires are starting to arise. Some fans are starting to believe that Bridgestone are manipulating the results by bringing the special tires to some races, but not to others. They are starting to believe that tire choice is the sole deciding factor in races. They are even starting to believe that Jorge Lorenzo is the only rider who likes the tires with the edge treatment, and that those tires are an actual disadvantage for most, if not all of the other riders on the grid.
That tires have been a factor is something I have been keeping an eye on for a while. I have had numerous discussions with Bridgestone staff throughout the year, questioning them on the circumstances and process behind the tires and tire choice. At Silverstone, I also questioned a number of riders on how they feel about the tires, and whether they prefer the tires with the edge treatment, or are hindered by them in some way. Given the stakes, I did not ask Jorge Lorenzo or Valentino Rossi about it, but instead got a range of riders with different manufacturers to give their opinions.
2015 Silverstone MotoGP Sunday Round Up: Controlling The Uncontrollable, And Championships Drawing Closer
The key to success in motorcycle racing is to control the variables which you can control, and adapt to the ones which you can't. The British round of MotoGP at Silverstone turned out to be all about those variables, the controllable and the uncontrollable, about right and wrong choices, and about adapting to the conditions.
The one variable over which those involved in motorcycle racing don't have any control is the weather. Especially at Silverstone, especially at the end of summer. That it should rain is utterly unsurprising. That it should rain during a MotoGP race even more so. The outcome of the MotoGP race – and in fact, the outcome of all three races at Silverstone – was entirely predictable: the rider who was both best prepared and best able to adapt to the conditions won. Behind the winners – Valentino Rossi, Johann Zarco and Danny Kent – came a mixture of those who adapted and those who didn't, those who had controlled the variables, and those who had overlooked some of the variables they could control.
Rain may have been predictable on Sunday, but the timing of the rain created an entirely unpredictable situation. The Moto2 race had started in the wet, the track drying after the rain eased off, wet tires getting chewed up as the laps reeled off. The MotoGP riders went to the grid on a track with a clear dry line, slick tires the right choice for the conditions, though there were a couple of corners where the riders had their doubts. Reports coming in to Race Direction from the marshal posts around the track said the track was dry, the fine drizzle falling not making an impact on the track. The driver of the safety car reported spotting on the windscreen during his lap of the circuit before the start of the warm up lap. Race Director Mike Webb declared a dry race with five minutes to go to the start, and with the keen sense of irony which the weather gods always seem to possess, that proved to be the signal for the rain to start getting heavier, especially around the southern end of the circuit.
Predicting how a MotoGP race will play out is hard. Scratch that, predicting how a MotoGP race will play out is downright impossible. We scour the sector and lap times, talk to as many riders as possible, try to make sense of what they tell us, and take our best guess based on all we have learned. And inevitably, we get it wrong. Because there was something we missed, or because some random factor intervened, or because we didn't pay enough attention to what the riders were telling us, or perhaps paid too much attention to it. Which is why you should probably take the following with a pinch of salt.
After qualifying and practice at Brno, we confidently predicted one of the best races of the year, with Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez setting almost identical pace during free practice. The chase lasted for five laps, before Lorenzo picked up his heels and disappeared, riding a perfect race to an unstoppable win, and killing any burgeoning excitement stone dead.
Silverstone looks like being very similar. There are two riders who are clearly a step ahead of the rest, and on the basis of practice times on Saturday, their pace is very similar indeed. Though you wouldn't say that just based on the headline numbers: in FP3, Jorge Lorenzo destroyed the rest of the field, beating Márquez by nearly half a second. In the afternoon, during FP4, Márquez returned the favor, laying down a withering pace to put over eight tenths on everyone else, and posting a string of ten laps, the slowest of which was faster than fastest lap set by any other rider on the field. The difference between Lorenzo's FP3 lap and Márquez' FP4 lap? Just 0.062 seconds, in Lorenzo's favor.