In part 3 of our review of the 2015 season, we look a little further down the MotoGP grid, at places five to eight. Though much of the focus was on the Movistar Yamaha riders (covered in part 1) and Repsol Honda riders (covered in part 2), there was much to admire behind them. An impressive Andrea Iannone, who grew stronger throughout the season. A transformed Bradley Smith, who had a genuine shot at fourth in the championship for much of the season. Andrea Dovizioso, who did not benefit from the Ducati Desmosedici GP15 as his teammate. And Cal Crutchlow, how found the Honda RC213V a much harder bike to ride than he expected.
A reminder: we review the performance of each rider below, giving them a mark out of ten for their ability to live up to or exceed expectations. As every year, we cover the riders in the order they finished in the championship.
Andrea Iannone, Factory Ducati, 5th, 188 points
Crazy Joe, they used to call him. That was a particularly unsuitable moniker for Andrea Iannone in 2015. If anything, this was the year that Iannone turned out to be calm, measured, and calculating. Iannone had earned his earlier nickname through his propensity to make wildly optimistic moves, which, given his prodigious talent, he pulled off more often than not. When he didn't pull them off, he would crash out.
The 2015 version of the Maniac Joe – a nickname adopted a couple of years back – was very different. He reined himself in, and reaped the benefits. The difference was borne out by number of race crashes between last season and this season. In 2014, Iannone crashed out of four races. In 2015, he only crashed out of a single race, the last one at Valencia, when he had very little left to lose. Even Iannone's madness was calculated.
His change in approach paid off handsomely. The Italian ended the season in fifth, not that far off Dani Pedrosa, though Pedrosa had missed three races due to injury. He also got on the podium three times, and took his first ever MotoGP pole. All this despite carrying a shoulder injury for most of the season, picked up during testing at Mugello after the Jerez round.
Perhaps it was thanks to, rather than despite. A bit of pain and weakness in the shoulder may have been enough for Iannone to have to think just a fraction more carefully about his riding, backing it down from 100.5% to 99.5%. It meant Iannone could run consistently closer to the front, putting himself in contention for the podium more and more often. At Phillip Island, Iannone showed just what he was capable of, dicing with Marc Márquez, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi all race long. He put in perhaps the pass of the season at that race, diving under both Rossi and Márquez with clinical precision, and went on to hold his friend and revered mentor Rossi off for third place on the final lap.
In some ways, Iannone benefited from the change to the GP15 more than his factory Ducati teammate Andrea Dovizioso. Dovizioso relies too much on hard braking, the one are where the GP15 was weaker. Iannone could exploit the ability of the bike to turn better, and the corner speed it allowed. Iannone completely outclassed Dovizioso throughout 2015, justifying the faith Ducati had shown in him by moving him into the factory team.
Iannone looks set to continue on the same trajectory for 2016. So far, Iannone has complained least about the new Michelin tires, not being troubled too much by the lack of feeling at the front. He has also got on with the new electronics well. Andrea Iannone made a huge step forward in 2015, and made himself a candidate to join MotoGP's elite corps of aliens. Next year, we will see if his alien status is confirmed or revoked.
Bradley Smith, Monster Tech 3 Yamaha, 6th, 181 points
When it comes to changes of approach, Bradley Smith is the poster boy. Two things happened in the winter of 2014/2015. Firstly, Smith sat down and took the advice of his mentor Randy Mamola, learning to count to ten in the garage, and think before he spoke. Secondly, he injured himself riding motocross, so when he arrived at the first test in Sepang, he was not fit enough to be able to chase times or attempt a race simulation. Instead, he worked through an extensive testing program, where he and his crew went through almost every possible set up permutation in an attempt to figure out what worked best.
Together, the two changes allowed Smith to take a giant step forward. The time spent on a base set up meant that he knew he always had something to fall back on, a set up that would work. The change in approach meant that he and his team worked much better as a unit, all striving for the same goal. Smith's communication with the team was much clearer, and because his approach was more constructive, the team was more highly motivated.
It resulted in a virtuous circle for Smith. The whole of his Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team were more confident in him, and he was more confident in himself, and that made it easier to get results. When the results came, the confidence grew, and he got better still. Smith stopped being the rider about whom fans asked why Herve Poncharal kept giving him a job; instead, they were asking why it was that his teammate Pol Espargaro had the factory Yamaha contract, and not him. His results helped him a lot at contract renewal time, Smith getting guarantees from Yamaha of the same equipment as Espargaro.
The highlight of Smith's season came at Misano, when a missed pit board saw him stay out for an extra lap on slicks after it had started to rain. The rain eased off a lap later, and Smith gambled on the track drying, so he stayed out. His reward was a second place, well deserved for a display of racecraft and courage.
Though luck played a part in his podium, the rest of his season was strong. Smith spent a lot of the year chasing Andrea Iannone, usually finishing close behind. Smith's problem was a limit to the geometry of the Yamaha M1 – basically a 2014 factory bike with a few minor updates – beyond which they could not adjust the bike. The arrival of a 2015 factory-spec M1 for 2016 should help Smith make the next step, to challenging more frequently for podiums, which that bike has proven to be capable of. Then, the success of Smith's change of approach will be truly tested.
Andrea Dovizioso, Factory Ducati, 7th, 162 points
Much was expected by and of Andrea Dovizioso after his very strong showing in 2014. The Italian had posted excellent results on the Ducati Desmosedici GP14.2, including a pole position and a couple of podiums. Surely, we all thought, once he gets on the GP15, he will be contending for podiums and wins?
It didn't quite work out that way. He was delighted when he first took the GP15 out at the second Sepang test, tipping the bike into the corner as he had done the GP14.2, and finding himself cutting across the dirt on the inside of the corner at Turn 1. Clearly, the understeer which had dogged the two previous versions of the bike he had ridden was gone.
The season opener seemed to confirm that Dovizioso could be a contender: the Italian started from pole, and was only just beaten to victory on the last lap by Valentino Rossi. At the next race in Austin, he kept Marc Márquez, who had dominated previous editions of the race, at close range.
After that, however, Dovizioso's season started to go downhill. The added agility had come at the cost of braking stability, always the Italian's strongest point. He found it hard to work his way around the problem, and though Ducati were working hard, they had a lot of areas where they had to improve the brand new GP15, and braking stability was not the highest item on the list.
After finishing second in the first three races, Dovizioso struggled. Technical issues dogged him, but a lack of confidence and a general feeling that Ducati were favoring teammate Andrea Iannone over him (ironically, exactly the same experience his 2014 teammate Cal Crutchlow had suffered) meant he never really recovered his early form. Early in the season, you always felt Dovizioso would be a threat. In the second half of the year, it was easy to overlook him.
With a lot of young talent on the way up, Andrea Dovizioso faces a tough challenge for 2016. He turns 30 the week after the season begins, and there are already plenty of names being bandied about as a possible substitute. At the test, Dovizioso was among the riders least happy with the Michelins and the new electronics. He has his work cut out for him next year.
Cal Crutchlow, LCR Honda, 8th, 125 points
If there is one phrase which sums up Cal Crutchlow's last two seasons, it is the old cliché that you should be careful what you wish for. His move to Ducati in 2014 terminated a year ahead of schedule, despite a string of good results at the end of the season. Then, his first ride on the Honda surprised him with the amount of effort needed to ride the bike. "This is the most physically demanding bike I have ever ridden," was his initial judgment on the Honda RC213V. His opinion had not changed by the end of the year. "It takes 30% more physical effort to ride this bike than the other brands," he said.
The difficulties he faced – a complete lack of rear grip, an overly aggressive engine, and a tendency for the bike to wheelie – made 2015 his toughest season in MotoGP since his rookie year. There were a lot of crashes, and a lot of mediocre results. There were high points too. A podium in Argentina, beating Andrea Iannone, the man who replaced him at Ducati, was particularly satisfying. But mostly Crutchlow had it tough.
To his credit, he never gave up, and understood that he had to radically change his style. Braking was always Crutchlow's weakness, but as it was the only thing that Honda RC213V did well, he had no choice but to adapt, and focus on that. By the end of 2015, he was able to exploit that much more consistently, and gain places where before he was losing out. The gap between himself and the factory Hondas, Crutchlow kept pointing out, was pretty much the same as the difference between Bradley Smith and the factory Yamahas at the front.
Crutchlow, like Andrea Dovizioso, is not getting any younger. He will be hoping for an easier Honda to ride, but testing has so far revealed the 2016 bike to be pretty much as aggressive as the 2015 RC213V, albeit in a slightly different way. Honda is struggling more with the spec electronics than Ducati and Yamaha, though they also have the resources to throw at the problem. Crutchlow must put his faith in HRC, and hope that next year's bike is just a little easier to ride. He has shown in the past he can succeed if the bike is right, but he needs to find that form again for 2016.
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