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An Unexpected MotoGP Silly Season - Who Goes Where In 2018?

With all twelve factory riders on two-year contracts, there wasn't supposed to be a MotoGP Silly Season in 2017, or at least, not much of one. That impression was further reinforced when the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha squad quickly tied up both Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger for an extra year, until the end of 2018.

As usual, reality intervened, of course. Though the factory seats were supposedly taken, there was plenty of interest in the satellite seats once the season got underway. All eyes turned to the Moto2 class, and especially to the remarkable performances by Franco Morbidelli and Pecco Bagnaia. Alex Márquez, too, raised eyebrows. And so speculation started.

Then there were those factory seats. Yes, all twelve factory riders have two-year contracts, but all contracts have clauses that allow for either side to make an early escape. Great managers make sure the escape clause benefits their rider. Great factory lawyers make sure the contract is in their favor. The measure of a rider manager is where they end up on that side of the equation.

Trouble in paradise?

And so already, there are rumblings at two factories. The stories of Andrea Iannone and Sam Lowes are very different, but possibly related. It is an open secret that both riders have fallen far short of expectations. Iannone has struggled to get his head around the way the Suzuki needs to be ridden, especially the way braking needs to be done. The bike is built to carry corner speed, which means braking as hard as possible in a straight line, then releasing the brakes and carrying corner speed. On the Ducati, Iannone learned to brake later, and keep the brakes on into the corner all the way to the apex. His failure to adapt has seen a string of poor results and growing frustration.

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Pirelli To Bring Stiffer Rear Tire To Laguna Seca To Stem Tire Issues

The Misano round of WorldSBK was dominated by talk of tires. As such, following a weekend fraught with failures, Pirelli will revert to an older specification of tire for the Laguna Seca round. The move sees Pirelli at a crossroads, after a series of high profile incidents during the scorching weekend in Italy.

This includes Michael van der Mark's crash from the lead of Saturday's race, after a tire failure saw the Dutch rider robbed of his chance to claim his first podium for Yamaha. One has to remember too, Jonathan Rea also crashed out of the lead at the previous round in Donington Park, as it was a shock to see the previously robust Pirelli fail once again.

"Johnny was using the V0602 tire, which is a development SC0, but Van der Mark was a standard SC0 tire," said Pirelli's Communication Manager, Matteo Giusti.

"The standard has been available for more than one year and has been used many times. They were two different tires and two different problems with different damage to them.Johnny had a tear in his tire that was about 10cm along the side of the tire whereas Michael had a small hole in the surface. With Mickey's tire you can put your finger through the tire but we are not sure what happened to cause this on the tire."

Pirelli separates its tires by their family of compound. In the case of the tires that suffered the issues, they were the SC0 compound. Within those tires, things get divided further, as there are 'standard' and 'development' tires within the family.

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2017 Barcelona MotoGP Test Notes: Yamaha Chassis, Honda Tires, And The First Signs of Silly Season

Why go testing on Monday after a race? Even though riders are pretty drained after a full race weekend, riding on Monday provides really useful feedback. First of all, the track is clean and already rubbered in. Weather conditions are usually close enough to race day to provide good comparison. But above all, the riders are already up to speed, so no time is wasted. Johann Zarco put it very nicely: "I enjoy it so much, because you don't lose half day to find the feeling, you already have the feeling," the Frenchman said. "You just wake up, warm the bike up and you are ready, and you can start to work. We did the same today. It's good anyway. Even if you are tired from Sunday, you go on the bike, going over 300 km/h and that's just a nice life!"

What did the factories have to test? Ducati had nothing at all, the factory, Aspar and Avintia teams all packing up and leaving without turning a wheel. Ducati tested here before Mugello, and had tested at Mugello before Le Mans, so they need more time before they have something worth testing again. The earliest the new aerodynamics package can be ready is at the Brno test in August, so that will be their next focus.

Of the teams which did test, all eyes were on Yamaha. The factory Movistar Yamaha team had two new chassis to test, though they only tried the one on Monday. The team is staying on for an extra day on Tuesday, after canceling and moving a previously planned test at Aragon.

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2017 Barcelona MotoGP Post-Race Round Up: Triumph Of Experience, And Yamaha's Woes Addressed

Are Michelin deciding the 2017 MotoGP championship? That would be an easy conclusion to draw after the war of attrition which the Gran Premi de Catalunya at Barcelona turned into. It would also be inaccurate. This race, like the race at Jerez, was about managing tires in poor grip conditions, with the added complication in Barcelona of extremely high tire wear. The riders and bikes which managed that best ended up at the top of the results sheet. The bikes and riders which struggled with that went backwards, and lost out.

And yet Michelin undeniably has a role in all this. After the race, Honda boss Livio Suppo pointed out that we were seeing different manufacturers do well at each different race. The pendulum swings between one and another, as a particular team or a particular factory hits the performance sweet spot for the tires, and gets the most out of them. At the next race, it's a different rider, a different bike, a different team.

The criticism Suppo had was that the sweet spot for the tires could be hard to find. "The tires seem to have a very narrow operating window. If you get it right, you can be competitive," he told me. If you didn't get it right, if you couldn't find that operating window, you are in deep trouble. "Maybe it would be better if that window was bigger."

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2017 Barcelona MotoGP Saturday Notes: A Primer On Asphalt, And A War Of Attrition

Sunday at Barcelona is going to be a war of attrition. Everything is conspiring against the riders, and most especially the tires. Temperatures are expected to rise even higher than they were on Saturday, when air temperatures hit over 32°C, and track temperatures climbed to 55°C and above. Those are punishing temperatures in which to race a MotoGP bike, especially at Montmelo, where the heat gets trapped in the bowl of hills which holds the circuit.

Then there's the tires. There is much complaining about the lack of grip and the fact that grip drops off a cliff after seven or eight laps. It would be more accurate to blame that on the track, though: the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya has not been resurfaced in twelve or thirteen years, and is very heavily used, both by bikes and by cars. That has created a surface which is both too smooth to provide grip, while simultaneously being incredibly abrasive.

That sounds contradictory, so when Michelin boss Nicolas Goubert spoke to a group of journalists on Friday night, I asked him to explain. The Frenchman explained that grip and abrasiveness came from two different parts of the surface. Asphalt (or rather, a road or racing surface) consists two parts: binder and aggregate. Aggregate is basically small stones, specially selected for size and shape. Binder is usually a special formulation of bitumen, often containing other ingredients.

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2017 Barcelona MotoGP Friday Round Up: The Last Waltz For Barcelona?

There are a lot of reasons to visit Barcelona. It is one of the greatest cities in the world, a triumph of the architectural movement known as Modernisme, a vibrant center of culture, a place where you can eat, drink, and sleep well, after a day spent gazing mouth agape at some of the most remarkable buildings created by human hands, and human minds. Once upon a time, the Montmelo circuit was also a good reason to visit the city. A track full of fast, sweeping corners challenging riders and bikes in equal measure.

That was before the aging asphalt turned the track greasy in the summer heat, and the repeated abuse from fat F1 tires left the surface rippled and bumpy, cracked and patched. Tragedy struck with the death of Luis Salom – probably the victim of a wayward bump sending him flying towards a patch of gravel-free run off – and the Safety Commission (consisting of MotoGP riders, Dorna, and the FIM) decided to neuter the second half of the track, removing one of the fastest and most furious final sections on the calendar. There is little left to love about Montmelo.

I asked several riders whether it would be possible to race in Montmelo next year if the track had not been resurfaced. The response was unanimous. "No." Worse than that, Bradley Smith explained how the Safety Commission had grown impatient with the circuit, which has been singularly unresponsive to their requests to adapt the track to make it safer. Hopefully, MotoGP would not return, Smith told us bluntly. "That's finally what it comes down to. This is the only track on the calendar that's not actually reacting to Safety Commission / rider / organizer's requests. So at some point, you have to give them an ultimatum, and I think that this is the last year that they'll be in that situation. We have enough people that want us to go race there, we don't have to come here."

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2017 Barcelona MotoGP Thursday Round Up: First Shots Sounded In Satellite Silly Season

Last year, at Jerez or thereabouts, I had a chat with Livio Suppo about the insanely early start to MotoGP's Silly Season that year. Suppo bemoaned the fact that so many riders were switching factories so early, with contracts signed as early as Qatar (in the case of Bradley Smith and Valentino Rossi), and the ensuing hullabaloo surrounding Jorge Lorenzo, and whence he was bound. "Normally, we start talking after a few races, in Mugello or so," Suppo said. "You want a few races to see how strong a rider is."

While last year's Silly Season was nearing its close at Mugello last year, it seems that 2017 is taking a slightly more normal trajectory. This year, Mugello may have seen the early conversations which kick off the period where riders discuss their future options. And Barcelona was the first race where they started to discuss – or more accurately, hint at – those options publicly.

Why is this year's Silly Season so much later (or so much more normal) than last year's? Put simply, it's because last year, every single factory rider was out of contract, and every factory seat was up for grabs. This year, all the factory seats are still taken for 2018 (or at least, unless a factory boss decides that one of their riders is grossly underperforming), and there are only the satellite bikes at stake. Fewer seats are available, and those which are available have less money attached, and less chance of competing for podiums and victories. All that combined leads to a lower sense of urgency when it comes to negotiations.

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2017 Barcelona MotoGP Preview - A Track Of Two Halves

From Mugello to Barcelona, with, in most cases, nary a chance in between to head home and wash your smalls. It used to be that the trip from Mugello to Barcelona was a chance to see MotoGP race back-to-back at two of the great motorcycle racing circuits. Now, it's one and a half great circuits, with a nadgery little section tagged on at the end to slow everything down. Or as Marc Márquez described it in Mugello, "You arrive [at Montmelo] and you know that it's kind of two different tracks: the first part is really fast and wide, the last part tight and slow."

What was a temporary fix to solve the immediate issues exposed by the tragic death of Luis Salom last year – one year on, the paddock will doubtless be full of memorials to the bright young Spaniard – has been turned into a rather horrible bodge job. The fast sweeper of Turn 12, where Salom fell and found himself on an unexpected trajectory across asphalt, and not gravel which would have slowed him down, is replaced by an even tighter and shorter chicane than last year, made so because of the proximity of the walls on the inside of the F1 chicane used last year.

It is a tragedy – I use that word advisedly, as it cannot compare with the loss of a young man's life – to sacrifice one of the great sections of a motorcycling track. But it is also an inevitable consequence of Grand Prix motorcycles getting ever faster, being able to brake later, carry more corner speed. The progress in motorcycle development is pushing their performance beyond the capacity of race tracks to safely host that performance.

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