Rather perversely, a lot of the talk at the World Superbike test at Jerez has not been about World Superbikes at all. Which is a shame, as the 2015 World Superbike championship promises to be particularly fascinating, with testing times very close indeed.
Instead, there was a real kerfuffle about the slowest bike on the track, the one being ridden by Kenny Noyes and Dominique Aegerter. The cause of the fuss? The fact that it was a Kawasaki, a further development of the Open class bike raced by the Avintia Racing team in MotoGP last year, has generated a mountain of speculation that Team Green is preparing a comeback to MotoGP, bringing all four major Japanese factories back into the premier class.
The truth was a good deal more prosaic. As Gilles Bigot, the crew chief working on the project, told Spanish website Motocuatro, this was a private project of engine tuner Akira, who has been involved in engine preparation for Kawasaki's previous MotoGP effort and their World Superbike engines. The company were also behind the development of the Open class bikes used by the Avintia MotoGP team in 2014, and the engines for the FTR bikes which preceded them in 2013. Not wanting to allow two years' work to go to waste, Akira is continuing to develop the bike, looking to learn where there is room for development.
What is the difference between winning in Moto3 and finishing at the back? The glib answer is "about 50 seconds", but there must be an explanation for that gap. It is a question which many have pondered, and to which there are few easy answers. Clearly, there is a difference in equipment, level of ability, and the ability of the team to get the set up right. But is there anything we can identify directly?
The one factor which we might be able to see in the lap times is the effect of hard work. Motorcycle racing is (paradoxically) a physically demanding sport, and physical fitness is one factor which a rider has in their own hands. Training, and dedication to training, could be a factor which makes a difference. It may not be the difference between first and last, but it could well be the difference between finishing in the points and finishing at the very tail end of the field.
If fitness is a significant factor, then it should be visible in the lap times. As the race goes on, the less fit riders should get slower, while the fitter riders manage to maintain the same pace. That should be most clearly visible between the riders who finish at the front, and the riders who finish at the back. (For a fuller explanation of this hypothesis, see below.)
This is not an idea I came up with on my own. Motorcycle racers are obsessed with fitness and hard work, though some work harder than others. In various conversations with riders and team staff, especially in Moto2 and Moto3, the issue of fitness was one which cropped up surprisingly often. Managers and engineers would frequently criticize riders who they felt were not doing enough to work on their fitness. Clearly, they believe it is a factor.
In the fifth part of our season review of 2014, we turn to the Espargaro brothers. Both Pol and Aleix had excellent seasons, impressing many with their speed. If you would like to read the four previous parts of our season review, they are here: Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, and Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso.
6th - 136 points - Pol Espargaro
Being a MotoGP rookie got a lot tougher after 2013. Marc Márquez raised the bar to an almost unattainable level by winning his second ever MotoGP race, the title in his debut season, and smash a metric cartload of records. Anyone entering the class after Márquez inevitably ends up standing in his shadow.
Which is a shame, as it means that Pol Espargaro's rookie season has not received the acclaim it deserves. The 2013 Moto2 champion started off the season on the back foot, breaking his collarbone at the final test, just a couple of weeks before the first race at Qatar. He crashed again during that opening race, but quickly found his feet. He came up just short of his first podium at Le Mans, nudged back to fourth place by Alvaro Bautista.
It would be his best result of the season, but the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider was to be consistently found in and around the top six. Espargaro would go on to bag a couple of fifth places and six sixth spots. That is where he would end the year, sixth in the championship behind the factory Hondas and Yamahas, and the factory Ducati of Andrea Dovizioso. Ignoring the exception that is Marc Márquez, it was the best start to a season by a rookie since Ben Spies joined the premier class in 2010. The Texan did secure two podiums that year, and fairly comprehensively outscored Pol Espargaro in comparison.
After looking at the top three finishers in MotoGP, our review of 2014 turns to the riders who didn't make it onto the podium. After Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, we turn our attention to the men who finished behind them. Today, we review the seasons of Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso.
4th - 246 points - Dani Pedrosa
Dani Pedrosa is easily the best rider never to win a MotoGP title, and if anything, 2014 merely reinforced that reputation. By almost anyone's standards, ten podiums, including a victory, and a total of 246 points – his fourth best since joining the premier class – is an outstanding year. But for a rider with aspirations of becoming world champion, it is simply not good enough.
Looked at another way, this was the worst season Pedrosa has had in MotoGP. The Repsol Honda rider has always managed to score multiple victories each year, even during his debut in 2006. This year, he never really looked a threat, except at Brno. Throughout the year, Pedrosa was consistently behind the front runners, never capable of making a push to dominate.
What was Pedrosa's biggest problem in 2014? Quite simply, the team's approach to fixing the shortcomings of the preceding season. In 2013, Pedrosa had found himself coming up short in the second half of races, getting overhauled by either Marc Márquez or Jorge Lorenzo. Over the winter, his crew, under chief mechanic Mike Leitner, had worked on a strategy to counter this situation, adjusting the balance of the bike to make it faster during the second half of the race.
The third part of our review of the 2014 season, in which we take a look at the top 10 finishers in MotoGP, sees us turn to Jorge Lorenzo, the man who took the final spot on the 2014 MotoGP podium:
3rd - 263 points - Jorge Lorenzo
If Marc Márquez' season was one of two halves, then Jorge Lorenzo's 2014 was doubly so. The 2010 and 2012 world champion ended the first half of the season in fifth place overall, 128 points down on the leader Marc Márquez. By season's end, Lorenzo was third, having outscored Márquez by 29 points. If Lorenzo hadn't gambled on a tire change at the last race at Valencia, the difference would have been even greater: in the eight races before Valencia, Lorenzo had outscored Márquez by 54 points in total.
It all went wrong for Jorge Lorenzo during the winter. The Movistar Yamaha rider was under the surgeon's knife three times during the winter break to fix some minor problems and remove old metalwork, most notably from the collarbone he broke in 2013. That made putting together a training schedule more difficult than usual, and Lorenzo's fitness, usually his strong point, took a nosedive.
He arrived at the Sepang tests so badly out of shape that he did not fit into his leathers. Not only did he have to contend with being four or five kilograms overweight, he also had to deal with new tires from Bridgestone and a Yamaha M1 which was struggling with a liter less fuel. The tires – identical to 2013, but now using the heat-resistant layer which had previously only been used at a couple of rounds – lacked the same feel on the edge of the tire, making it more difficult for Lorenzo to maintain his high corner speed style. This was made worse by the nervous throttle response of the Yamaha with less fuel, making it even harder to control the bike. Lorenzo's style requires a massive amount of energy at the best of times. With two factors making it even worse, there was no way an out-of-shape Lorenzo was going to be competitive for any longer than a single lap.
For the next part of our review of the 2014 season, we continue our count down of the top 10 finishers in MotoGP. After yesterday's look at Marc Marquez, today we turn our attention to the runner up in the 2014 MotoGP championship, Valentino Rossi:
2nd - 295 points - Valentino Rossi
Six races. That was the deadline Valentino Rossi had given himself. After the first six races, he would make a decision on whether he was still fast enough, or it was time to hang up his leathers. The goal was to be fighting for podiums and wins. If he could not do that, he felt he did not want to be racing. The fact that the sixth race of the season was at Mugello was ominous. If you had to choose a place for Valentino Rossi to announce his retirement, that would be it.
The season started off well, with a second place at Qatar, but with Marc Márquez just back from a broken leg, Jorge Lorenzo crashing out, and Dani Pedrosa struggling for grip, that didn't quite feel like a true measure of his ability. Texas was a disaster, with severe tire wear, then at Argentina, Rossi came home in fourth, just as he had done so often last year. His string of fourth places in 2013 were what had prompted Rossi's doubts about carrying on, so many journalists and fans feared his mind was made up.
As 2014 draws to a close and 2015 approaches, it is time to take a look back at the 2014 season. Over the next few days, we'll be reviewing the performances of the top 10 riders in the 2014 MotoGP championship, commenting on notable riders outside the top 10, and discussing the cream of Moto2 and Moto3. First, the top 10 MotoGP men, starting with with the 2014 champion:
1st - 362 points - Marc Márquez
By the end of 2013, Marc Márquez had convinced just about everyone that he was the real deal. The doubters who remained held on to a single argument: first, let's see if he can repeat. Winning a championship may be incredibly hard, defending it is doubly so. In the past twenty years, only Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi have done so.
Things started inauspiciously, Márquez breaking a leg while training at the dirt track oval in Rufea, near where he lives. With five weeks to recover before the first race at Qatar, and forced to miss testing at Sepang and Phillip Island, this was far from ideal preparation. It did not matter, though: Márquez held off a resurgent Valentino Rossi while others crashed out, and won an exciting first race of the season. As his injured leg recovered, so Márquez got better, winning by comfortable margins at Austin, Argentina, Jerez and Le Mans. The fans and media talked of records, by Doohan and Agostini, and the prospect of a perfect season – winning all eighteen races – started to be discussed.
The very first signs of weakness appeared at Mugello. After making it six poles from six races, Márquez fought a tough battle to hold off Jorge Lorenzo for the win. Another tough race followed at Barcelona, while Márquez took advantage of the conditions to win at Assen and the Sachsenring. But missing out on pole position at Barcelona and Assen started to stifle talk of a perfect season, despite Márquez still having a 100% win record.
When the minutes of the latest meeting of MotoGP's ruling body, the Grand Prix Commission, were unveiled, there was one passage which confused many who read it. The press release included a paragraph on the spec software which is to be adopted for all MotoGP bikes from the start of the 2016 season. The passage read as follows:
It was already announced that Factory teams in the MotoGP class must move to using unified software with effect from 01 July 2015. It has now been confirmed that different teams, using machines from the same Factory, may use different versions of the unified software.
The wording seemed to suggest that from 2016, factory teams would still be allowed to use a different version of the ECU software to that used by satellite and private teams. Given that the point of the spec software - called the Unified Software in the regulations - is to create a level playing field, it seemed odd that such a situation could be allowed to rise.
With so many MotoGP regulars either racing in or attending the Superprestigio in Barcelona, it was inevitable that a fair amount of gossip and rumor would end up circulating. It was the first chance for some of the media to talk to riders who had been testing down in Southern Spain, while the presence of Ducati's MotoGP bosses Paolo Ciabatti and Davide Tardozzi, attending as guests of Troy Bayliss, added real weight to the debate.
I spoke briefly to Ciabatti on Saturday, asking about progress with the Ducati Desmosedici GP15 and how Michelin testing had gone. Ciabatti was optimistic about the GP15, but confirmed that it was still not certain exactly when the bike would make its first appearance on track. It may not be ready for the first Sepang test in February, with the second Sepang a more likely place for the bike to be rolled out. "We think it's important for the bike to be completely ready," Ciabatti said. It was better for Ducati to roll out a bike ready to take on testing, than rush to try to get a bike going at Sepang 1, and find problems that would have been easier to deal with if discovered on the dyno.
Many years ago, when American riders first burst onto the roadracing scene, and immediately dominated Grand Prix racing, dirt track racing was seen as a key part of their success. Training on the hardpacked dirt, where pushrod twins have far more power than they can ever transfer directly into drive, translated very well into racing 500cc two strokes, which had the same excess of power over grip. As tire technology advanced, and as the number of racers coming out of the US to race on the world stage declined, dirt track fell out of favor. Styles changed back towards keeping the wheels in line and carrying as much corner speed as possible, a skill learned in 125s and 250s, and taken up to 500s and MotoGP. The advent of the 800cc bikes, which caused a quantum leap forward in electronic control, emphasized this even further.