On the day after the Italian Grand Prix, the MotoGP riders were back testing at Mugello. This time, however, it was only the factory riders who remained, to give the Michelin tires another run out. The last time they took to the track on the Michelins was at Sepang, and Michelin had brought the latest iteration of their tires to test.
Due to the commercial sensitivities involved, there was no official timing, and the riders were not allowed to speak to the media about the test. Unsurprisingly: Bridgestone hold the single tire contract for the 2015 season, having spent a lot of money for the privilege, so they do not want Michelin stealing their PR thunder. Nor do Michelin really want to be subject the intense scrutiny which official timing would impose while they are still in the middle of their development program.
That does not mean that the small band of journalists who stayed at the test did not learn anything, however. Michelin had brought four front tires to the test, and the factory men spent the morning and the early afternoon selecting their favorite from the four. The plan was for the riders to then try that tire in a full race simulation, to see how the tire stood up to a race distance of 23 laps.
That plan was quickly canceled. There had been no falls during the morning and early afternoon, but on the first laps of his long run, Jorge Lorenzo crashed out at Materassi. Once the track was cleared, it was the turn of Marc Márquez to go out, but on the second lap of his run, he too crashed, this time at Arrabbiata 1. With the debris of the Repsol Honda out of the way, Valentino Rossi followed, the Italian falling at Correntaio. At that point, the plan was abandoned.
All three crashes appear to follow the same pattern, and a similar pattern to the crashes at Sepang. When the riders start pushing hard, the extra drive and grip from the Michelin rear causes the front to wash out, dumping them on the floor. The Michelins seem to have retained some fundamental characteristics, despite being radically different from the tires which Michelin raced back in 2008. Though riders and teams are forbidden from speaking, some sources suggest off the record that the Michelin rear is fantastic, with a lot more grip than the Bridgestone, while the front is not quite where the Bridgestone front is. The new spec front is believed to be better, to give more support and have more edge grip, but clearly, it is not quite ready for prime time.
The picture is complicated by the fact that the bikes are set up for an entirely different tire. The Michelins are all 17-inch tires, though the tire outer circumference is rather similar to the Bridgestone 16.5-inch rubber. The 2015 bikes are all designed based on years of data with the Bridgestones, and so suspension settings and chassis geometry and stiffness are not quite right for the Michelins. There is a lot of work to do with both the tires and the bikes ahead of 2016.
That is also apparent from the feedback. A member of one team told me that a rider from another team – pinch of salt required – was far less happy with the Michelins at Mugello than he had been at Sepang. In Malaysia, he was faster on the Michelins than the Bridgestones. At Mugello, it was the other way round. There is no doubt that in terms of overall performance, the Michelins are already very close. One insider told me they expected lap records to fall at some tracks, but to be slower at others. It makes for an interesting prospect.
It may have been a factory rider test, but not all factory riders were present. Suzuki were absent altogether, as Aleix Espargaro still has the thumb injury, and as a rookie, Maverick Viñales does not have the experience of the tires to provide useful insight. Andrea Iannone was missing from the Ducati garage, the Italian back at home, and scheduled to have a check up on Wednesday on his injured shoulder. The real mystery, though, was the absence of Marco Melandri. The Italian was missing from the Aprilia garage, and rumors circulating suggested this could be Melandri's last race. According to GPOne.com, Melandri is due to have a meeting with Aprilia staff later this week to discuss his future. Given Melandri's miserable results so far this year, a split looks like the better option. Who would replace him in that case is as yet undecided. Alex De Angelis may move over from the cash-strapped IODA team, or they could bring in a test rider. That decision will only come once Melandri's future has been decided.