Tue, 2022-05-24 00:34

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past month or so, you will have heard the criticism of MotoGP. Though the field is close, it has become harder and harder to overtake the riders in front. The Le Mans race was a case in point: the 27-lap race featured only a handful of overtakes, most of which were made possible only by a mistake by the rider ahead.

The problem was brought into stark relief by last weekend's WorldSBK races at Estoril. Alvaro Bautista, Jonathan Rea, and Toprak Razgatlioglu put on a dazzling display of passing in all three races on Saturday and Sunday, finding ways to jam their bikes ahead of each other into the first corner, the fourth corner, the Parabolica Interior, and the tight, awkward uphill chicane. They produced three glorious races.

The spectacle of Rea, Razgatlioglu, and Bautista knocking spots off one another reinforced that the problem is indeed down to the technological point at which MotoGP finds itself. With limited aerodynamics and no ride-height devices, the WorldSBK trio found no problem diving out of the slipstream and outbraking each other.

The reasons that isn't possible have been covered in some depth, by me and by others. You can find some of the background in the Le Mans subscriber notes posted last week, and also the wider context in a column I wrote for On Track Off Road.

Anti-wheelie is anti-passing

The short version is that MotoGP is caught in the middle of a two-pronged attack from technology. The increased use of aerodynamics on MotoGP bikes is reducing wheelie and disrupting the air behind them. Less wheelie means more load on the front tire which increases temperatures. Less air on the tire in the slipstream means tire temperatures rise further. And the increasing reliance of the bike on aero to keep the front wheel on the ground means that the bikes lose that in the slipstream, and can't brake as hard as the bike in front.

Then there's the ride-height devices. The rear device lowers the center of mass and reduces wheelie, again putting more load into the front tire. But these devices also alter the way that riders can brake for corners: with a lower center of mass, the bike pitches differently, allowing riders to brake much harder and putting yet more stress on the front tire.

Stress equals temperature, and Boyle's Law says temperature equals pressure, and raising the pressure of the front tire changes the behavior of the bike completely. Aleix Espargaro gave an example at Le Mans, referring back to being stuck behind Jack Miller and Marc Marquez for most of the race. Once he finally got past – again, only thanks to a mistake by Marquez and Miller – he got cool air on his front tire again, the pressure dropped, and he was immediately a lot faster.

Behind Marquez and Miller, Espargaro's front tire pressure had increased by nearly 0.2 bar, totally changing the way the bike felt. "I analyzes the race in Jerez a lot with the engineers, and you cannot imagine the difference between 2.08 to 1.91 pressure on the front tire," the Aprilia rider said. "The bike has unbelievable chattering, losing the front, no turning, and then everything is perfect." The difference? "It's half a second. It's crazy."

Energy sink

The change has been especially marked in the last couple of years, as aerodynamics has grown in importance and ride-height devices have become ubiquitous. Both official tire supplier Michelin and unofficial monopoly brake supplier Brembo have noticed the difference.

"We realized in the past two seasons, that bikes are changing, they are putting more and more weight on the front, with the winglets, and riders are braking very very hard. So the load is changing, so we had to also change the development to adapt to that," Michelin boss Piero Taramasso told me at the preseason test in Sepang.

At Portimão, Brembo engineer Andrea Bergami, spoke to Peter Bom and I, and the Brembo engineer backed up what Taramasso had said. "Piero described the situation very well," Bergami told us. "This situation involved us a lot because in the last years we saw an increase year by year of the braking power and the braking energy that has been massive compared to the old years. Then we saw some points, 1%, 2%, of increase, not an important increase in braking energy. In the last year, we saw +10%, +20% of increase of braking energy year by year."

More energy for the braking systems to absorb means the bikes are slowing faster, and that means more stress for the front tire, and more stress means more temperature, and therefore more pressure.

Fixing the impossible

That's the problem, but how do we solve it? Two approaches are needed, and neither is available in the short term. The technological solution has to come from Michelin, in the form of a revised design of front tire. The regulatory solution has to come from the Grand Prix Commission, MotoGP's rule-making body.

First, the front tire. Michelin have been working on a new, stronger front tire since 2019. The plan had been to test it extensively in 2020 and then roll it out in 2021. But the pandemic put paid to that plan, severely restricting testing in 2020 and 2021.

So 2022 is the first season the MotoGP riders have some space to test a new front tire, but the bikes have changed enormously since 2019, especially, as laid out above, in terms of aerodynamics and ride-height devices. So Michelin are having to revisit their 2019 plans and update them with data from the last couple of seasons. The new tire still needs some testing.

"Basically it's delayed, because we are working to improve the temperature and the pressure control," Taramasso told me. "Now when you have the slipstream, the tendency of the front tire is to overheat. So we are working on that, to try to better control that point."

Testing travails

Here, Michelin's plans fall foul of Dorna's expanded schedule. As part of the grand bargain with the teams, the number of official test days is to be reduced from next year, from 11 to 8. The reason for that is simple: the teams get money from Dorna to go racing, and they get nothing for testing.

The independent teams also have the least to gain from testing: the most important part of the development work is going on in the factory garages, with independent teams having only limited access to the shiny new 'preciouses' in the official boxes. For the most part, they are testing a few setup ideas, playing with bigger changes in suspension and weight balance which they don't have time to try on a race weekend. While that is interesting and productive, they don't need to spend 3 days at a track doing that.

Changing a front tire, however, is the biggest change you can make on a racing motorcycle. The front tire is the conduit through which the rider communes with the asphalt, the tool they use to try to understand what is going on with the bike and precisely where the limit is. You cannot simply take one tire construction out and put a new one in. It would be like suddenly telling them they can only explain their feelings on the bike to their crew chiefs in Welsh: not impossible, but not something that can be learned proficiently in the space of a few days.

"When you change the front end, you change the bike completely," Taramasso told us at Portimão. "You change the feeling for the rider, you change the confidence. You need to do a lot of tests in different tracks, different conditions, cold, hot. So it takes more time to validate than a rear tire."

The reduction in testing days was also a factor, Taramasso explained. "Eight days is not too much," the Michelin boss said. "We also need to test in other tracks, which are not on the schedule, so we have to see how to arrange that."

One option might be to add extra or longer free practice sessions at some race tracks, as happened at Phillip Island in 2016, Michelin's first year as official tire supplier. But here, too, the weather might play a role, rendering the extra track time a pointless exercise if conditions are not good enough to push the front to the limit.

"What we would like to do is next year [2023] try a new front tire and then we will see," Taramasso said. "If the tests go very fast and the results are positive, then we can introduce in 2024. If not, we may need 2024 to test and introduce it in 2025."

With two more years to develop before Michelin can introduce their new tire, the factories are likely to make further steps forward with their aerodynamics and ride-height devices. As both are still quite novel technologies, the data currently being gathered is extremely valuable and helping to propel development at high speed. As the technology matures, the rate at which progress is made slows. But we are still at the early, steep part of the curve.

Playing politics

Which brings us to the second option for slowing this development, an option which runs through the Grand Prix Commission. In theory, the GPC could both ban ride-height devices and severely clamp down on aerodynamics any time they wanted.

In practice, though, they won't, precisely because of who controls the technical regulations. As part of their grand bargain with the factories, Dorna promised the manufacturers two things: that major changes to the technical regulations would be introduced at the end of each five-year contract period, and the factories given plenty of warning to allow them to prepare. And the manufacturers, through their representative body, would be able to pass any changes to the technical rules they wanted, and veto any changes proposed by the GPC's other members, Dorna, IRTA, and the FIM.

With the MSMA holding a veto, the chances of any proposals to ban ride-height devices or aerodynamics are very close to zero. The factories have already invested too much time and resources into their development, and will be loath to throw all that investment away. The MSMA will not propose such a change, nor would they agree to a change if it were proposed by the other three GPC members.

The chances are close to zero, but that doesn't mean it is impossible. The other GPC members have one route to change, which they have already employed in the past. The GPC can impose changes to the technical rules by a majority vote of the four parties on safety grounds. In the past, this was used to change the shape of the wings to turn them into closed loop structures instead of the more usual flat planes and end plates seen in the first iterations of aerodynamics.

To do this, however, they would have to be able to make a persuasive case that ride-height devices and aerodynamics pose a safety risk. That is hard to argue, given that we have had two seasons of (relatively) safe racing while this technologies were permitted.

A tenuous argument might be constructed based on the fact that the ride-height devices and aerodynamics are making overtaking so difficult that riders are being forced to take more and more risk. They could also point to the stresses being placed on the human body while racing: the extra braking and acceleration these technologies are allowing are making it physically even more demanding to ride these bikes. The ever-increasing number of riders requiring arm pump surgery is an indication of the problem at hand.

Divide and conquer

The other opening for Dorna, IRTA, and the FIM is dissent within the ranks of the MSMA. The addition of Aprilia, Suzuki, and KTM to the previous triumvirate of Honda, Yamaha, and Ducati have complicated relationships within the MSMA, something the withdrawal of Suzuki will do little to change.

The "tire cooler" affair of 2019, when Ducati turned up with an aerodynamic attachment to the bottom of the swingarm, blew the MSMA apart. Five manufacturers felt it violated the spirit, and possibly the letter of the rules, one manufacturer did not. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to fill in the names there.

Eventually, the MotoGP Court of Appeal (part of the quasi-legal apparatus put in place to deal with disputes over the rulings of the FIM Stewards) ruled that Ducati's reading of the letter of the law was correct. But the other manufacturers were still very much hung up on the spirit of the rules.

The Covid-19 pandemic turned that situation around completely. In the face of a global health crisis, the MSMA worked smoothly together to put together a set of temporary restrictions on development to restrict costs during the pandemic.

Now, though, the pandemic has faded, and those restrictions have been lifted again. And with development back up to full speed, disputes over the spirit vs the letter of the rules are splitting the MSMA once again. Ducati's introduction of a front ride-height device saw the other factories accept Dorna's proposal of a ban. Tensions are rising, as each factory interprets the rules in its own way.

This could offer Dorna a route to a ban on either aerodynamics or ride-height devices. But it looks unlikely they could get enough support from at least some of the factories to push it through. That horse has already bolted, and is a long way down the lane.

One door closes, another door opens

Even if the GPC could impose a ban, history teaches us its effectiveness would be short lived. The best way to inspire innovation and new ideas is by closing off existing routes to performance, forcing engineers to use their creativity to think up new ways of achieving their goals.

This is how we got ride-height devices and aerodynamics in the first place. Before spec electronics, wheelie and acceleration was largely controlled electronics, with factories deploying armies of engineers to write clever algorithms for their proprietary software. Once Dorna succeeded in pushing through spec software, the factories explored and found other ways of managing acceleration and reducing wheelies. And those ways – aero and ride-height devices – have proven to be even more successful, as they also help to improve braking.

So the likely outcome of a ban on aero and ride-height devices would be a temporary reprieve. For a few short years – between 5 and 8, if history is a guide – the bikes would lose performance. But at some point, some big brain in Bologna, or Mattighofen, or Noale, or Asaka, or Iwata, will think up an ingenious way of accelerating harder, or braking harder, or reducing wheelie, or all three. And before you know it, we are back at square one again.

The point of racing is to try to go faster than anyone else on track. Riders, engineers, crew chiefs, every single member of a team will always be looking for a way to do that. You can't stop progress. You can only divert it onto an alternate path.

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Thu, 2022-05-19 22:05

It has been a pretty tough couple of weeks for Joan Mir. After a frustrating sixth place at the Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez, in which he complained of struggling with the front, on the day after, at the end of the Jerez test on Monday, he was called in to the office in the Suzuki Ecstar team truck to be told be Shinichi Sahara and Livio Suppo that Suzuki had decided to withdraw from MotoGP at the end of the 2022 season.

Two weeks later, after a difficult day on Saturday, where he found himself struggling in FP3 and having to go through Q1, Mir ended up crashing out of the French Grand Prix at Le Mans while chasing a possible podium. "It's been painful mentally," Mir said after the race on Sunday.

Can Joan Mir bounce back? At the Circuit of The Americas, I spoke to Mir about his past, and the road he took to MotoGP. It was a long, hard, and uncertain road, the possibility of failure lurking every step along the way. Mir had to bear a heavy burden of responsibility, one he shouldered largely through his own choice, rather than outside pressure. Along the way, he had to deal with plenty of setbacks, and turn them into something positive. That path helped him to win the 2020 MotoGP championship.

Q: Going back through your history, and some of the things you said on the Amazon Prime series and also in the championship press conference after you took the MotoGP title in 2020, I remember you talking about how difficult your path was. You didn't come from a rich family, with enough money to pay for everything, so you had to earn your way to each next step, achieve a log more to keep going.

Joan Mir: Yes. I remember that, that time with a lot of intensity, because yeah, it's not that we are poor at home, but but we are normal, you know? My dad worked a lot, he always woke up early, and then he was back at home at nine o'clock every day. And then it's difficult to start in this motorcycling world, just paying for the training sessions, because everything is so expensive. You have to buy a bike, and then I put in a lot of hours with that bike.

And then every six months more or less, we have to change that bike, and this means money, and tires and oil and petrol and crashes. Track time. And this doesn't look like it, but it's a lot of money. A lot of money. An extra of more or less €3000 Euro? And it's not easy to find that, no?

So for a period of time, I saw the sacrifices that my father was doing. Because my mother was always more focused on the school, and my father on the motorbikes, on my professional career. So he always was really stressed, I saw him really stressed trying to move forward from that difficult period, and trying to get the money to be able to train and everything.

And apart from that, normally people pay a team to ride with them. And this is impossible for us. This is something that we could not even think about, you know? So that was pressure for me, because the only way that I had to continue was being the best, because maybe the rider who finished second was already paying. So if I'm second, I cannot pay. I cannot be second, I need to win, no?

In the year in the Spanish PreGP championship, before the GP, you know, that time was difficult. Because yeah, I had no option, I only could win with probably not the best bike and probably not everything. I had to show something more to progress and to take like a scholarship in Spain to continue. To continue at that time was the Cuna de Campeones. That was that, like a scholarship, that if you win, you do the next category, then the next one, and the next one. And this was the way.

Then, when I was in the maximum category of the Cuna, the only way was the Rookies. So then I moved to the Rookies Cup. I was so small at that time, SO small, and and those bike were pretty big. I didn't have the experience of the other guys, who were doing the Rookies Cup, the Spanish championship, and all of these other series. I was only doing the Rookies, no? And to pay for the travel and the training, my father was a bit like this [puts thumb under his chin to show being at the limit]. That was pressure.

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Tue, 2022-05-17 02:00

The rain held off, despite a brief shower which caused mayhem during the Moto3 race and meant the first race of the day had to be severely shortened and restarted (TV is king, and only absolute disaster can be allowed to move the start of the MotoGP race from its sacred 2pm CET slot), and so we got the dry MotoGP race we deserved. No descent into chaos and confusion, no randomized results based on gambles, smart or otherwise, or appetite for risk.

In fact, chaos is fast becoming a thing of the past in MotoGP. The first few races seemed like an absolute lottery, for one reason or another. In the first three races of 2022, there were 9 different riders on the podium, with nobody seemingly capable of getting on the podium a second time. At round 4, in Austin, we saw the first podium repeats, with Enea Bastianini and Alex Rins on the box once again, and Jack Miller making it 10 different riders on the podium in 4 races.

Since returning to Europe, order has been restored to the MotoGP hierarchy. Or perhaps it is better to say, a new hierarchy has established itself at the top of MotoGP. In the last three races, only one new rider has made it to the podium, Pecco Bagnaia at Jerez. Since Austin, the podium has very much seen the same people on repeat: Aleix Espargaro making it three third places in a row, Fabio Quartararo doubling up at Portimão and Jerez, and Johann Zarco, Jack Miller, and Enea Bastianini making a return.

Taking charge

Fabio Quartararo continues to lead the championship, despite a slightly disappointing result at his home grand prix. Aleix Espargaro's star continues to rise, the only rider with four podiums so far this season, and showing precisely the kind of consistency that wins championship. There's a Ducati near the top of the championship standings, though not Bologna's favorite son Pecco Bagnaia, but Enea Bastianini instead. And there's a chasing pack in pursuit of the leading trio, containing the two Suzuki riders, the two factory Ducatis, Johann Zarco, Brad Binder and Marc Marquez.

But the fact that Bastianini dominated and has now won three of the seven races is starting to put pressure on Ducati. And the sudden availability of Alex Rins and Joan Mir due to Suzuki's withdrawal has blown the rider market wide open. In many ways, what we saw at Le Mans held a lot of significance for the future, both in terms of the 2022 championship and for who ends up where – and who is left out in the cold – for 2023.

So in these notes, a few questions arising from the Le Mans round of MotoGP. Some with an impact in the short term, some which will matter over the longer term. And a look at why the race turned out the way it did.

  • The meaning of Enea Bastianini's victory
  • Why the wrong Ducati winning is causing contract headaches
  • How Suzuki's withdrawal is shaking up the rider contract market
  • The need for a rider union in MotoGP, and why it won't happen
  • Aleix Espargaro is creeping closer to be the favorite for the title
  • Fabio Quartararo can't overtake, and it's not necessarily down to the front overheating
  • Why MotoGP riders can't overtake any longer, and why that is a really bad thing

Great leap forward

Before all that, let's start with just how fast this race was. And in fact, just how much faster MotoGP is compared to four years ago. On Friday, Enea Bastianini shaved 0.04 off Johann Zarco's record from 2018. On Saturday, that got taken to another level, with 10 riders getting under Zarco's previous lap record, and Pecco Bagnaia destroying it by nearly three quarters of a second.

A dry track meant this got carried into the race. Once again, 10 riders got under Maverick Viñales' race lap record from 2017, Pecco Bagnaia claiming the new record with a lap of 1'31.778, over half a second quicker than Viñales. And that wasn't just a one off. Enea Bastianini smashed Marc Marquez' record for race time by over 15 seconds over 27 laps. Five other riders finished faster than Marquez' time from 2018, including Marc Marquez himself.

Perhaps the fact that Marquez could only beat his own best race time by five thousandths of a second is a sign in itself of where the Honda stands currently.

The winner was not someone you might have expected on Saturday night. With Pecco Bagnaia on the front row, and Fabio Quartararo exhibiting fearsome pace, few had eyes for Enea Bastianini. His pace in FP4 was decent, but not exceptional, and there were plenty of riders who were obviously quicker than him.

The start of the race changed everything, though. Bastianini got an outstanding start, charging through to take second heading into the chicane, cleverly using the outside line and some superb braking to slot in behind Jack Miller. He messed that up at Turn 8 Garage Vert, running wide and losing two places to Pecco Bagnaia and Alex Rins.

He soon found his feet again though, and after Alex Rins crashed out – after a terrifying trip through the gravel at Turn 1, coming back onto the track almost directly in front of Miller and Bagnaia at Turn 4, sacrificing himself and the bike to ensure there were no collisions – he was soon hunting down the factory Ducatis.

What was most impressive about Bastianini was the way that he found to pass both Miller and Bagnaia, despite the difficulties of passing at Le Mans. He took a long time to line up both passes, sitting on the tails of the factory Ducatis and sizing up his options. He got past Miller by hanging onto the tail of the Australian through Musée and using the extra speed to force his way in front at Garage Vert.

Bastianini's pass on Bagnaia was even more inventive. Again, it took the Gresini rider a long time to line up, but on lap 21, he managed to close the gap to the factory Ducati enough to give him a fighting chance to outbrake Bagnaia into the Dunlop Chicane. Bagnaia responded superbly, seizing his chance when Bastianini went a fraction wide at La Chapelle to retake the lead, but Bastianini was not to be bested. He sat on Bagnaia's tail through Musée, preparing for a repeat of the pass on Jack Miller.

As it happened, he didn't need to try. Bagnaia was so focused on keeping Bastianini behind that he ran hot into Garage Vert and let Bastianini through. Half a lap later, Bagnaia made another mistake, pushing the front a little too hard into the first right at Raccordement and sliding into the gravel. It was game over for the factory Ducati rider.

That was part of the plan, Bastianini claimed afterward. "When I tried to overtake him, for me Pecco has a been a little bit nervous," the Italian told the website. "He overtook me again and after he has made an error."

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Sat, 2022-05-14 23:00

The MotoGP riders are hoping that Le Mans doesn't turn into another Portimão. In Portugal, they spent two days perfecting their wet setup, only to find themselves racing in the dry with next to no time on a dry track, outside of morning warm up. At Le Mans, it could well be the opposite. Two days of practice in near-perfect conditions, only for the race to be held in the rain. Or not, the forecast changes every time you look at it.

The weather isn't the only thing capable of surprising. All through FP3 and FP4, a very clear pattern emerged. The reigning world champion had come to his home grand prix with a plan, and vengeance in his heart. Still smarting from finishing second in Jerez, Fabio Quartararo is intent on stamping his authority on the French Grand Prix at Le Mans.

The Frenchman's rhythm in free practice was fearsome. 1'31.7s with used tires in FP3, 1'31.6s with used tires in FP4. Not single laps either, but effortlessly stringing together runs of lap after lap. The only riders who came close to that kind of pace were Alex Rins and Aleix Espargaro, but they didn't have the consistency which Quartararo was displaying.

Pole position seemed a foregone conclusion, but Pecco Bagnaia had other ideas. The factory Ducati rider had been struggling in the morning, but a small tweak to the setup gave him the confidence he needed. Bagnaia was quick out of the gate in the first run of Q2, but Quartararo demoted hm to second, getting down to a 1'30.688.

As the clock ticked down toward the end of qualifying, Bagnaia came into his own. The Italian took nearly a quarter of a second off the best lap of Quartararo, hammering in a 1'30.450. Jack Miller, following in his teammate's wake, took advantage to climb up to second, seven hundredths of a second behind Bagnaia.

"It was impressive," the Australian told the press conference. "We’re all pushing. I did a 30.5, but to watch his pole lap, in the best seat in the house, it was impressive. He went the whole way through Turn 6 with the black line coming off the front tire. Missed the line a little bit and was able to bring it back in."

That small tweak to Bagnaia's bike had made all the difference, especially in the warmer temperatures in the afternoon. "This morning I was happy, but when it’s cold it's easier to go fast in this track. This afternoon in FP4 I was not sure about the pole position because I was struggling a lot. My biggest problem was to stop the bike," Bagnaia explained.

The change before qualifying fixed all of that. "Then in qualifying, we make a bet with my crew chief and my technician because I was not feeling great, and then after this little modification I was starting to feel great again. The grip was better. I was able to stop better the bike. Finally the feeling was great. So, I’m very happy about the pole position. I’m more happy about find something has helped me a lot. I think we are ready for the race of tomorrow."

Quartararo was forced to admit defeat. "On the qualifying we are, I will not say we are missing something, all the time, not only in qualifying, but Ducati are able to really do something crazy, Ducati and the riders, I don't say only Ducati," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. It was harder for him to drop his lap times with a new tire. "We have basically all the same as in the race pace, so it's difficult to really make the difference. The difference you make is putting yourself on the limit, having a little bit less fuel and put yourself in the zone. But to do that for 27 laps it’s impossible."

His qualifying time was made but taking himself right to the limit, and leaving nothing out on track. "I am quite happy because I think 1'30.6 with our bike is… I feel on the limit, I have nothing more and compared to the other Yamahas I think the gap is quite big. So it's also a reference for me that we are doing a good job," Quartararo said. That explained the mixed feelings he had after qualifying. "I was disappointed, but two minutes later I was happy."

It is worth putting those times into perspective. Before arriving at Le Mans, the lap record at the French track was 1'31.185, set by Johann Zarco back in 2018 on the Tech3 Yamaha. On Friday, Enea Bastianini got down to a 1'31.148 on the Gresini Ducati. In FP3, Zarco shattered Bastianini's record by nearly six tenths of a second, hammering in a lap of 1'30.537 on the Pramac Ducati. Then in Q2, Bagnaia took almost a tenth of a second off of that to reach 1'30.450.

In the space of four years, Bagnaia has taken 0.735, or nearly three quarters of a second off the outright lap record at Le Mans. Sure, conditions were just so for Bagnaia to be that much faster, but it illustrates just how much faster MotoGP bikes have gotten. This wasn't the first time this year either. At Jerez, Pecco Bagnaia took four tenths off the previous pole record from 2020, then a tenth off the race lap record from 2021.

Both Michelin and Brembo have spoken of being surprised by the difference the past few years has made, pointing especially to the aerodynamics and the ride-height devices as key factors here. But those words gain much more impact once you see records being demolished in that way. If it stays dry, the chances of Maverick Viñales' race lap record from 2017, 1'32.309, is likely to be smashed. Do not be surprised to see Sunday's race run in the 1'31s, if it's dry.

The speed of the Ducatis put Fabio Quartararo back onto the second row, and having to chase Bagnaia, Miller, and Espargaro for the opening laps. At Jerez, that had turned into a disaster, as the temperature in his front tire quickly spiraled upward and took away his ability to brake and turn the bike.

Have front, can follow

At Le Mans, Quartararo was far less concerned. The front tire allocation was far more forgiving, he explained. "In Jerez I was already alone with the hard front and already alone I was on the limit. Here we are with the soft front, and the front tire is not overheating and doing high pressure." If he did find himself stuck behind a Ducati, he would be able to bide his time and seize an opportunity to pass once it arose. "I'm not so worried and I think that I have, I will not say a lot of overtaking points of course, because you know that with the Ducati in acceleration is always playing, but in the race you know that 27 laps is long and you have always the opportunity to try an attack."

Bagnaia acknowledged that it was Quartararo he would be watching out for in the race. "For sure Fabio is the man to beat," the Italian told the qualifying press conference. "But I think that after this modify that I did in qualifying, I’m more close now, but it’s difficult to say now." If it doesn't rain, the Ducati Lenovo rider fancies his chances. "If it’s dry and I can start well, I will try to push from the start and try to manage a gap."

If the race is wet, it's an entirely different kettle of fish, of course. "If it will be wet it will be another story because you can’t push like you want at the start," Bagnaia explained. "You have to control more the situation. We didn’t do any laps on wet, so it can be totally different."

Wet races are always very different affairs. Differences in lap times stop being counted in tenths or hundredths of a second, as they are in the dry, and turn into seconds. Solid leads can quickly become illusory, as chasing riders suddenly find a lot more grip than the riders ahead. Qualifying positions and starts are rendered irrelevant. Doubly so if the race becomes a flag-to-flag.

Most riders are hoping for a dry race. Not just for themselves, Pol Espargaro pointed out. "Also, for the people who comes to see the motorbikes. Rain is ****!" Given the massive crowds packing the grandstands and the circuit, you wouldn't wish rain on them.

Can Quartararo pull it off if the race stays dry? If he has no concerns with the front tire overheating, that certainly seems possible. If anything, front tires at Le Mans have the opposite problem: the soft is good enough to last the race, but the medium might offer a fraction more support. The medium, however, takes longer to warm up and is quicker to cool off. Push too early, and you risk losing the front before the tire is ready, especially in the left handers like Musée or Chemin aux Boeufs. And if the skies cloud over and the winds pick up, you can find yourself in similar predicament.

Obviously Pecco Bagnaia is going to be a factor starting from pole, especially if this setup change helps as much in race pace as it did in qualifying. But beyond Bagnaia, keep an eye on Aleix Espargaro and Alex Rins. Rins' pace was strong, and he is not afraid of trying a pass. He himself was unconcerned about starting from the third row. "I'm quite calm for tomorrow," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "It will be a long race, so starting from P8 we have enough options."

Aleix Espargaro, however, is the most intriguing challenger on Sunday. This is the third race in a row the Spaniard has started from the front row of the grid, and he finished on the podium in both of those. The Aprilia RS-GP is hugely improved in 2022, and competitive absolutely everywhere. Even Espargaro's teammate, Maverick Viñales, is showing that. Viñales is almost comically incapable of qualifying well, but in practice and in races, his pace has been very close to that of his teammate. That hasn't shown in the results, but it demonstrates that the RS-GP is a very competitive package right now.

The upgrades brought to the Jerez test two weeks ago may be the final piece in the puzzle for Aleix Espargaro. The carbon clutch is both lighter and more effective than the standard version used so far. If that allows Espargaro to get a better start with the Aprilia, it will put him in position to be truly competitive.

Espargaro's performance is also starting to answer the question of just how good the Spaniard himself is. I interviewed him for a story about the CRT bikes in 2013, and at the time, he said all he wanted was a chance to measure himself on an equal footing with the best riders in the world, to see if he could beat them if he was on comparable machinery, rather than an underpowered CRT machine. "The thing I would like to know is if I can or not," he told me back then. "Now it is impossible to know, because it is really impossible to have these bikes, so the chance to know if I can or not, this is what I want."

Nine years later, in 2022, it looks like Aleix Espargaro is getting that chance. And it looks like he is coming out of that comparison extraordinarily well. The Spaniard is as fast as anyone on the grid, capable of winning races and scoring podiums. We have all been wondering just how good Aleix Espargaro really is. The answer is, good enough to be a serious candidate for the 2022 MotoGP title.

If those are the winners at Le Mans, then KTM and Honda are clearly the losers. The KTM is in the biggest trouble at Le Mans, something which Brad Binder believes is in no small part down to the stop-and-go nature of the track. "To be honest, we are struggling a lot," the South African said. "We are not stopping as well as we want to. On angle, we don't turn as well as we want to, and obviously that also effects your drive. So there's a few points that are already hurting us, but this whole year it seems that the tighter corners are more difficult for us. The small tight corners."

Results speak louder than words for KTM at the moment, however. Miguel Oliveira is the best KTM at Le Mans, and will line up in 17th, just ahead of his teammate Brad Binder. The Tech3 teammates are even further back, Remy Gardner in 22nd and Raul Fernandez dead last in 24th. No amount PR "6th row of the grid" spin can hide the hole they find themselves in.

Honda doldrums

While prospects at Le Mans have been bleak from the outset, the French track has been far crueler to Honda. Pol Espargaro topped the first session of practice on Friday morning, but it's been all downhill from there. Thanks to fast times on Saturday morning, there were three Hondas through to Q2. But in the afternoon, they had nothing for the others, Marc Marquez, Pol Espargaro, and Takaaki Nakagami filling out the fourth row of the grid.

They were lucky to have been in Q2 in the first place. Ranking both qualifying sessions by times, Marc Marquez was 11th quickest rather than 10th, Pol Espargaro was 16th fastest instead of 11th, and Taka Nakagami was 18th fastest instead of 12th.

Pol Espargaro had two very simple explanations: A lack of progress through the weekend, and a warmer track in the afternoons. "It's like we arrive at a circuit and straight away on Friday, while everyone is still understanding the track and the bike and before everyone starts to put their motorbikes on the limit, I can be quick. I'm one of the quickest," the Repsol Honda rider said.

"But then we arrive to one moment where, then everyone starts to work, the bikes start to be faster, and then you reach your limit. And it's difficult to be faster. We are there. We do not improve and even the track in the afternoon. It's a little bit hotter and instead of improving we decrease our speed. We lose."

Progress stalled

That wasn't the case for the other manufacturers, Espargaro argued. "Ducati's, it doesn't matter if it's sunny, cold, they are fast all the time and also other manufacturers. But we struggle a little bit more with that and it's difficult. It’s difficult to keep improving."

The biggest issue seems to be the warmer conditions in the afternoon. Taka Nakagami explained that on a hot track, the first thing to go was edge grip, and that made it more difficult for them to turn the bike. "In cool conditions you had grip, but this afternoon from FP4 and qualifying were really tough sessions for us, all Hondas, because the main issue was a lack of rear grip. Huge drop and somehow we couldn't feel any rear grip."

That was costing turning, the LCR Honda rider said. "So losing a lot of the time for the second part of the turning. Not talking about the drive, just lack of the side grip and a lot of snapping and moving, and really unstable when I push."

Marc Marquez was very much in the same boat, finding himself in conditions that made no sense once the track got warmer. He rode on his own for a while in FP4, to try to figure out where the limit was, but ended up crashing at Chemin aux Boeufs.

Marquez put the difficulty down to the combination of warm conditions and the layout of Le Mans. With a lack of front end feel and more weight on the rear, he was no longer able to pivot the bike on its nose to get the bike turned quickly in the hairpins.

"You need to turn in a short time, and use the acceleration a lot," Marquez explained. When they could run sweeping lines and accelerate using corner speed, it was a little easier for them. "It's true that for example we were fast in Qatar we were fast in Mandalika, in Malaysia, but you can use a lot of the track to turn. But here, we need to brake hard, turn in a short time, and that's where we are struggling a bit more."

Numbers game

The one bit of news which emerged on Saturday was that at Mugello, Dorna is to retire Valentino Rossi's number, 46, to honor his legacy. That means that Rossi will actually be at Mugello, something which might help with flagging ticket sales at the venue.

The most curious thing about the retirement of Rossi's number is that it is something he has never asked for himself. When asked about it 2016, he was far from enthusiastic. "My first impression is that I don't like that the 46 is canceled," the Italian said. "I prefer that it remains and if some other rider wants to take that number they can."

He is not alone in that thought. The general consensus among the riders is that retiring numbers is not something they care very much about, though with the caveat in this case that if racing numbers are to be retired, the #46 is the most deserving number to be protected.

But there is little sense or reason behind the way that numbers are retired. Sure, Casey Stoner's #27 is retired, and the Australian's status in the championship is beyond question. But Loris Capirossi's #65 is also retired, and as great a rider as Capirossi was, he was no Casey Stoner. Barry Sheene's #7, on the other hand, continues to be available, despite the fact that Sheene was the last rider with a comparable media profile to Valentino Rossi.

If we are to pick MotoGP legends whose numbers ought to be retired based on their stellar record of success, perhaps someone ought to suggest to Dorna that they need to retire the number of 5-time 500cc champion Mick Doohan. After all, if Valentino Rossi's #46 is sacred, then surely, so is Doohan's #1...

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Fri, 2022-05-13 23:15

It's only Friday, as riders will repeat endlessly to you on, well, on a Friday after the first day of practice. Friday is a day for assessing tires, testing new parts, and at the end of the day, posting a quick lap in an attempt to avoid the limbo of Q1.

That proved not to be easy at Le Mans. A weird combination of circumstances (more of which later) meant that there were five crashes in the last ten minutes of FP2. It was almost impossible to put in a quick lap without it being canceled due to yellow flags in some sector or other. "In the time attack, it was a bit of a disaster on track, I just saw 4 laps of yellow flags," Pecco Bagnaia complained. "And like this it's more difficult, so I didn't have the possibility to do a free lap."

That didn't matter for Bagnaia – he set his fastest time at the end of his first run while working on race pace, and still ended as fifth fastest, a sign of just how quick he is at the moment - but there were others for whom it did not work out quite so well. "It was unfortunate not to be inside the top 10," Jack Miller said after missing out on Q2. "We were trying, but a lot of yellow flags at the end, a lot of guys crashing, so it wasn't easy to make a lap."

Joan Mir had made it through, getting lucky with his timing. "When I put the soft tire, I made the first lap, warming the tire and everything, then the second lap I had a lot of yellow flags, I think a lot of people had this problem today, because I think that I could only make one lap," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. It was something which he would have to take into account during qualifying, Mir added. "For tomorrow, we have to consider this in the qualifying session and in FP3."

This is not a trivial concern. There were 38 crashes on the first day of practice at Le Mans. For comparison, there were 41 crashes on the first day at Portimão. But the first day of the Portuguese GP was a complete washout, with heavy rain on and off all day. It was dry, bright, and sunny all day at Le Mans; not crashing weather, typically.

Most riders were at a loss to explain why they were crashing. Miguel Oliveira was unlucky in his first crash on Friday morning, a suspension linkage breaking and throwing him into the air. The second time he crashed on a hard rear, admitting it was simply a cold tire which had caught him out. But he noted that the grip of the Le Mans circuit had felt strange. "I cannot say for sure, it feels like you have a good grip and good temperature but all of a sudden you either lose the front or lose the rear. The track is a bit sensitive," the Red Bull KTM rider said.

Jack Miller was equally confounded. "No explanation" the Australian replied when he was asked if he had an explanation for the extraordinary number of crashes. "Like I said, the grip feels good until it doesn't. It feels not bad, and then all of a sudden, she's gone. So it's a strange situation. I don't know, because the medium tire felt pretty good, and the rear's lasting well, and the front feels alright on braking, no locking or anything like that. But then you try to force it a little bit more on the edge and it just seems to give out."

Miller had been surprised to crash at Turn 11, the first of the Garages Bleus esses. "Like I said, it felt good, I didn't really have any warning of crashing. Of course I knew I was pushing in there a few times in the lead up to it, but if you're talking about a corner where you should be able to push a bike and have a decent bit of margin, it's there. You've got a bit of banking, you're pretty central on the bike, it should be in all fairness a decent corner to have a good feeling. But like I said, it just let go really really really quickly, and it shocks you a bit."

Joan Mir at least had a working theory for the crashes, so characteristic of Le Mans. "Normally, the crashes, if we don't talk about the slow corners where you can save it where you are slow, but all the rest of the the corners, there is not a lot of warning with the front tire. A lot of crashes and all without warning," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "So it's typical here in Le Mans. Also here we know there's a lot of crashes, even today when the temperature was OK, but the wind was cold. So this is what made a bit of confusion sometimes."

There are some good reasons for the riders to be crashing. First of all, precisely because the weather was good, riders were able to push pretty hard. The good grip gave confidence, and the line between confidence and hubris is surprisingly thin. Riders got sucked in to pushing that little bit harder, and eventually, that little bit became a bit too much.

Secondly, when times are tight, there is more to be gained by pushing harder. A tenth of a second, or even a few hundredths can be the difference between Q1 and Q2. Jack Miller missed out on a provisional spot in Q2 by just two thousandths of a second. Marc Marquez, in 15th, was just a quarter of a second off the time of Jorge Martin in 10th.

(As an aside, Marc Marquez is the one rider whose times on Friday you can safely disregard. The Repsol Honda rider is now working to a completely different schedule because of his shoulder and arm, which are recovering very slowly. "The feeling is like always, for that reason I start calm on Friday. Just try to understand, try to put single laps and looks like it's working," he said. Just as in Jerez, he will start to push in FP4 and qualifying and save as much strength as possible for the race.)

But there is also something peculiar about Le Mans itself. Photographers complain about severe heat haze at a track where the heat is limited, even on a day like today. Heat haze – the shimmering caused by warm air rising from a hot surface – is usually a problem at tracks like Barcelona or Sepang, where the sun beats down on the tarmac. But track temperatures at Le Mans were 32°C, very good, but not particularly exceptional. Yet, photographers were saying, it was impossible to take a normal photo without it being ruined by heat haze. At other tracks with similar temperatures, heat haze is virtually unknown.

Is there a link between the heat haze and the particular conditions that are causing riders to crash without warning? Heat haze is caused by a temperature differential, so moderate track temperatures can still be an issue if the air above the track is relatively cool. If a cold wind is sucking warm air away, that would cause heat haze, but it would also suck the heat out of tires, cooling them just enough to suddenly lose grip without warning.

Le Mans is unique in many ways, and it might be that there is some kind of microclimate going on because of its location, down a hill from the town, near the woods and an airfield, beside an industrial estate on one side and a sports venue on the other. If tire technology is a form of alchemy, the way tires interact with unusual microclimates and track surfaces is veritable black magic.

Part of that equation is, of course, grip. And grip is a function of tire pressure, a corollary of tire temperature. The question of front tire pressures continues to have a hold on the imaginations of all involved in MotoGP, especially after it was revealed that the minimum pressures set out in the rules are being widely disregarded.

Boyle's Law

How important is front tire temperature and pressure. "Everything. Everything," Aleix Espargaro insisted, pointing to what happened once he had been able to get past Marc Marquez and Jack Miller in the race at Jerez. "The difference is huge. I'm sure that I had the pace to go with Fabio and Pecco at Jerez. I have no doubt about it. I could stay all race in 1'38.0, but the first 20 laps I was in 1'38 high, 1'38.5. I couldn't overtake, the bike was a disaster." Half a second was the difference between riding in clear air and being stuck behind another rider.

As I have written repeatedly, Michelin boss Piero Taramasso has pointed to the radical change in technology over the past couple of years as a key factor in stressing the front tire. The leaps forward in aerodynamics are leaving less and less cool air for following riders to use to cool the front tire.

And the rear ride-height devices are also having a massive effect. Not only, as commentator Simon Crafar explained during the broadcast today, because it is allowing the bikes to accelerate harder out of corners, and consequently arrive at the end of a straight at much higher speeds. But also because the way the bike pitches under braking allows the bikes to brake much harder. Both factors radically increasing the loads put into front tires, and subsequently increasing temperatures.

This is also having a deleterious effect on the racing. With it being more difficult to follow other riders, that makes passing even more difficult. And with margins getting smaller between riders, inventing ways to get past riders ahead is also getting harder.

On Thursday, Andrea Dovizioso had given a typically insightful exposition of why it is now so hard to overtake in MotoGP. "In my opinion the reason why we don't have a lot of overtaking is the development of the machine, the winglets, the device, the electronics. All these things make it more difficult to overtake. But it's very easy to understand this."

That technology was making the differences between riders smaller. And that, in turn, made it harder to overtake. "When you are braking, everybody is locking the front. Everybody," Dovizioso explained. "More or less everybody locks the front. If you are already on the limit because you are locking the front, this means you are not able to brake even 2 meters later."

Add in aerodynamics and ride-height devices, and passing became downright impossible. "If you have the slipstream on the braking of the downforce of the winglets, it doesn't give you any chance to brake on your limit, you have to brake early because of the slipstream from the other riders. And the winglets are doing the opposite things. The winglets give you downforce. If you have the slipstream, the downforce is the opposite way. So this means you are not able to brake even where you brake alone, you have to brake early. So this means it's more difficult to overtake."

Sitting behind a rider meant losing the aerodynamic downforce from your own wings, and that made it more difficult to manage your own braking. That restricted the options you have for overtaking, Dovizioso argued. "If you are able to exit faster, or you are able to overtake in the middle of the straight, you are already out of the slipstream. In this position, OK, you can play on the braking. But if you are behind, and you have to overtake, with the downforce, it's worse. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's worse. This is the reality."

Being unable to overtake threatened to recreate the kind of processional racing we saw during the 800 era. "That's not nice from a rider's side," Dovizioso argued. But there were major differences between the 800s of the late Oughts, and the 1000cc bikes of the early Twenties, the Italian said. "Now it changed because the tires are more consistent and you can push more during the race, so this means the speed you have at the beginning of the race, you can keep until the end. So this doesn't create a lot of overtaking, because it's more related to the speed you have, and the strategy. So this comes more from the tire, from the new casing."

Precision matters

Electronics and aerodynamics rewarded far more precise riding, and this brought the racing together, but paradoxically, made it harder to overtake. "Second is the electronics improved, the downforce increased, so everything is better for the rider to be precise," Dovizioso explained. "That's why we are so close from the first to the last. Because everybody is faster and it's difficult to make a mistake. So you are tighter."

That closeness was reflected in the race. "In the race it's the same. Similar. Not every race, but this is not so good for overtaking, but it can be normal. The evolution of the technology can be like that. And if you want to change something, you have to change the rules. But this is normal, this is motorsport. It has always been like that."

For Dovizioso, MotoGP faces a choice. "It depends on where the championship wants to go. The rules say you can use this and it's normal to push in this way, because you can be faster, you can be more precise, and it's better to have it. So it's normal to go in that way. But if you want to affect that, you have to change the rules. But this just depends where the championship wants to go."

For the engineers in MotoGP, they will always be looking for a way to go faster, no matter what obstacles you put in the rulebook for them. Just as with spec electronics, it takes the factories a few years to figure out a way to replicate the control they can gain with electronics, but eventually, they end up just as fast as they would have been. This is the point of racing, for engineers to innovate and find new ideas.

But that ends up clashing with the requirements of the series, of the promoter's need to sell the series as an entertainment product to TV companies, and to attract fans to the excitement of racing. When technology starts to interfere in racing, then the series has a problem.

Comparisons with the 800 era are unfair. The racing in MotoGP is much closer than it has ever been, the riders separated by the smallest fractions of a second. The problem MotoGP faces is that although the bikes are closer, they are finding it harder and harder to actually overtake. The racing may still be full of tension, but the release of excitement generated in a pass is becoming increasingly rare. And that has to be a worry.

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Thu, 2022-05-12 23:38

There is a MotoGP race at Le Mans this weekend, but to be honest, it is hard to concentrate on the race. A lot has happened in the past couple of weeks, which has shaken up MotoGP to a degree we hadn't expected even as late as two weeks ago. Suzuki's withdrawal blows the MotoGP silly season right open, with not just rider seats up in the air, but grid slots and bikes too. Then there's the controversy over tire pressures being routinely under the minimum allowed, and whether that is even an issue or not, given the MSMA have agreed not to do anything about it.

But first, to the track, perhaps. The Le Mans circuit lies just south of the charming eponymous town in the Sarthe region of France. For much of the year, when there isn't a race on, the town is quiet and rather lovely, the central square surrounded by 18th and 19th Century buildings a very pleasant place to be. The circuit, too, is rather charming, situated between the industrial outskirts of the town and the woods which frame the 24 hour car racing circuit.

When racing comes to town, the circuit loses much of its charm. The passionate and friendly enthusiasm of the fans during daylight turns grim when the sun goes down and the enthusiastic consumption of alcohol transforms the atmosphere from fun to carnival to a bike-racing version of Quentin Tarantino's From Dusk Till Dawn. Sleep, or indeed breathing, is for the weak.

Deceptively flowing

The track has a reputation for being something of a stop-and-go circuit, but that sells the Bugatti Circuit short. Sure, there are a bunch of hairpins and esses, but the way they flow add a charm and a difficulty to make it a challenge for all levels.

Turn 1, the Dunlop Curve, is the fastest and most challenging of the corners. It is a place where the brave line up their first attempt at a pass, Turn 3. That corner, the first part of the Dunlop Chicane put in to kill the insane speeds the bikes used to reach through Dunlop Curve, is a good place to try to pass, but also a good place to wash the front as you tip the bike onto its left side for the first time in well over a kilometer.

Make it through the Dunlop Chicane, and La Chapelle awaits, a sweeping right, off camber and downhill, entered over a crest. It is a wonderful corner, and a place which will eat the unwary and those who are just a little too enthusiastic in throwing it in without thinking about the way the track is rolling out from under you.

Through the Esses

After that, the track sweeps left through Musée, before the next passing place, Garage Vert. The double right hander has been frequently criticized, as the hard standing – and location of the Long Lap Penalty – allows riders to attempt a pass on the entry of the corner without risking too much.

Exiting Garage Vert, the bikes head down the short back straight and another point at which to attempt a pass, the braking zone for the Chemin aux Boeufs esses. Left-right and then another short straight takes you to the Garages Bleus esses, which lines you up for your final chance to attack. Raccordement, the double right before the finish line, offers sufficient space to try to dive under a rider a head, and not enough space for the rider to retaliate. But get it wrong, and you are out wide, and risk losing places to those behind.

Lacking a long straight, the track does not confer a particular advantage for bikes with a lot of top speed. What you need is braking stability, mechanical grip to get drive out of corners, and agility to change directions. Not usually a combination which MotoGP bikes have all three of. Which might explain why the last two editions have been won by Ducatis, and before that, by a Honda rider twice, a Yamaha three times, a couple of Hondas, a Yamaha, and another Honda. In other words, the track will suit pretty much most MotoGP machines.

All bikes at all tracks

And perhaps the days of circuits being a Ducati track, a Honda track, or a Yamaha track are behind us. "In my opinion, now every track is good for every bike." Luca Marini, Mooney VR46 Ducati rider said. "Because also in Jerez, Pecco [Bagnaia] won. Another time another Ducati won."

Tracks suiting bikes are a thing of the past, Marini said. "There is not this [situation] where a manufacturer has favorite tracks. Now everything is more similar in all the situations." The parity among the MotoGP machines, and the fact that they are all now pretty good and well-rounded also put pressure on the riders. You couldn't go into a weekend thinking you had an advantage because of the bike you are on, Marini pointed out. "So it's not easy to start a weekend with this in your mind, that maybe this time you are the favorite with your bike."

What does that mean for picking a winner? It means you might as well put the names of the championship leaders into a hat and pull one out at random. Fabio Quartararo should be strong on the Yamaha, especially as he comes in here on a roll of good results and leading the championship. Pecco Bagnaia's win proved the Ducati is working well now that the Borgo Panigale factory has had a chance to iron out the issues left after testing. The Aprilia has come good, and Aleix Espargaro has finished on the podium two races in a row.

The Suzukis are looking strong, and both Joan Mir and Alex Rins are highly motivated to prove Suzuki wrong (more of that in a minute). The Honda is still lacking front end confidence – and Le Mans is a track where that is vital – but the Monday test at Jerez gave the Honda riders a chance to improve some of the feel. And the KTM can use its strength on the brakes to get into corners ahead of other bikes, and its generous surplus of torque to get out of them again quickly.

With the weather set fair for most of the weekend, the teams should have plenty of time to hone the setup of their bikes. Which might all go for naught, given that the forecast is currently for rain around race time on Sunday. It's Le Mans, so there is a very real chance that the race will be wet. But also, it's Le Mans, so there is a very real chance that the weather forecast this far out is just plain wrong.

Walking away

Back to more weighty matters. Le Mans was the first time the media got to talk to anyone from Suzuki since the news leaked out about the Hamamatsu factory's planned withdrawal from MotoGP. Not that anyone from Suzuki's MotoGP team had much to say; they had been kept just as in the dark about Suzuki's plans as the MotoGP media. The fact that the press release with their plans – which stated Suzuki was "in discussions with Dorna regarding the possibility of ending its participation in MotoGP at the end of 2022" – only on Thursday morning felt like Suzuki Motor Corporation were adding insult to injury.

Why did it take so long for Suzuki to issue a press release? Perhaps because they were waiting until their financial results were published for Fiscal Year 2021, which happened on May 11th. But the statement itself was rather curt and not particularly informative. Attempting to read between the lines, Suzuki is more concerned about shaping its future, and especially the transition from internal combustion engines in its cars to fully electric vehicles, than it is about the plight of its motorcycle business in the short to medium term.

That is perhaps understandable: sales for Suzuki's automotive division (¥893.4 billion) is nearly 13 times the size of its motorcycle sales (¥69.8 billion). Building cars, and getting that part of the business right for the long term, is an existential question for Suzuki. Motorcycles, and especially motorcycle racing, are very much secondary to the overall success of the company.

Hard knocks

That does not excuse Suzuki HQ's leaving the team in the dark, however. And though both Alex Rins and Joan Mir were careful in their choice of words, they did not hide how upset they were. "On Monday, after the Jerez test, Livio [Suppo] and Sahara-san took me to the office and told me," Alex Rins explained how he found out. "And for sure it was super-hard. I was fully crying because I gave everything to this team, since 2017 trying to give a lot of info to have a competitive bike to have a winning bike."

Rins emphasized that he felt the decision had been extremely harsh. "Whether I understand or not it doesn’t matter but it is very hard for me, the decision. We are fighting for the world championship and in the standings we are first as a team so it is very difficult to understand but from the big bosses and Suzuki HQ they took the decision. We cannot change it."

The biggest thing for Joan Mir was that it had all been such a complete surprise "The word is 'unexpected'. That is the word," the 2020 world champion said. "We didn't suspect anything about it, because we were negotiating for the next seasons." His first thought when he was told was not so much for himself, but for the members of the team. "When I received the message, the information, the first thing in my mind was the people in Suzuki. Because we all know this team is special, but what made this team special is the people that work in this team. Without a lot of information, knowing that they have to part ways with Suzuki at the end of the season, like me, like everyone, we are not having a great time for sure. But you know, we will continue and let's see."

Prove them wrong

Ironically, Suzuki's decision has altered the motivation for the riders, and probably also the team. "Sincerely, this gives me an extra boost because you know, we have the bike and I think this bike is the best package we’ve ever had in Suzuki, so let’s show them they took the wrong decision." Alex Rins told journalists.

Joan Mir was a little less explicit, but his goals were the same. "Now the motivation is a different one," the 2020 world champion said. "Because before it was to continue scoring great results and good things for Suzuki, to try to continue in the best way. But now it's different. Now we have to finish this season in the best way. Let's see if we are able to fight for the championship until the last race, to give to the team a good result at the end of the year. Nothing would make me more happy."

How realistic is it to expect to be able to fight for the championship until the end? The bike is definitely competitive as it is. And Alex Rins said that the budget for 2022 was already set, so development would only stop at the end of the year, rather than halfway through. "What they say is that the budget for this year is closed so they will bring everything and make all their effort," Rins said.

The Spaniard was combative after the news of Suzuki's withdrawal, having seen the effect the news had on the team. "Trust me, the Japanese people and mechanics were destroyed; the Japanese even more," Rins said. "For sure the development …well, for Montmelo we are waiting for a new aerodynamic package so let’s see. Let’s get good results. We already have two podiums this season, let’s get a lot more and show them!"

No Hayate

What happens next for Suzuki? The answer to that is a long period of negotiation with Dorna over the terms of the contract. As I explained in detail earlier this week, the experience of 2008, Kawasaki's withdrawal and the threatened withdrawal of Honda, changed the way Dorna viewed the factories, and allowed them to restructure the contracts in their favor. Dorna have commercial contracts directly with each factory, for a period of five years from 2022 to 2026. Getting out of such a contract will be painful and expensive. And whether Dorna would be open to a return in the medium term is another question.

One thing we can almost certainly rule out is a situation similar to 2009, where Kawasaki stayed on for a year under the guise of Hayate, an independent team using Kawasaki's ZX-RR with Marco Melandri. In 2009, Dorna needed the bikes on the grid, so the offer of equipment for a one-rider team with Hayate was sufficient for Dorna to let the matter pass.

In 2022, there are five other manufacturers on the grid, and, if Dorna's press release is to be believed, more eager to come in. There is no shortage of bikes – KTM could easily expand their presence in MotoGP by giving one its subsidiary brands such as GasGas or Husqvarna a slot on the grid – and even without Suzuki's two machines, that would still leave 22 bikes on the grid, rather than 24. Losing two bikes would make little difference to the spectacle, and might allow Dorna to save a bit of cash in subsidies for the team, and tire and transport costs.

Reevaluate everything

Suzuki's withdrawal does have a major impact on the rest of the grid, however. The loss of Suzuki is compounding the shift of Aprilia pushing to expand its presence by equipping a satellite team. That could be by supplying whoever comes in to replace Suzuki, or by taking over the supply of bikes to an already existing team.

What does that mean? It is no secret that Aprilia have been hawking their wares, and it is also no secret that the RNF WithU team feel they are underperforming their potential. A switch from Yamaha to Aprilia might offer Razlan Razali the chance to become a junior team, along the lines of Pramac Ducati and Tech3 KTM, aligning more closely with the Italian factory, rather than just being a client team to Yamaha.

If RNF does drop Yamaha, the Japanese factory could find itself with just two bikes on the grid. Under normal circumstances, the VR46 team would be the natural heir apparent to any Yamaha M1s going spare, particularly given the eponymous owner of the team being so closely linked to Yamaha throughout his career. But so far, Luca Marini and Marco Bezzecchi are doing rather well on Ducatis, giving Valentino Rossi's squad little reason to swap. And seeing the VR46 stable's Franco Morbidelli struggle to ride the M1, as does anyone not named Fabio Quartararo, might make VR46 think twice about a switch.

Once, the Yamaha M1 was the most desirable package on the grid. A little underpowered, but easy to master and easy to go fast on. Now, the M1 resembles the Honda RC213V in the hands of Marc Marquez, or the Casey Stoner era Ducati Desmosedici: very fast, but only in the hands of one rider. No Fabio Quartararo, no championship party.

Riders up for grabs

Having two quality riders on the market shake things up too. Both Rins and Mir were close to signing new contracts with Suzuki before the news broke. (As an aside, the fact that the managers of both riders were in the final stage of negotiations with the team show how little information the team had from Suzuki HQ.) Now, though, they are both free agents. Joan Mir is already being linked to the second seat at Repsol Honda, Pol Espargaro widely believed to be unwanted by HRC, and especially by team boss Alberto Puig. But being linked somewhere and actually ending up there are two different things.

As a former world champion, Mir is the hottest property of the two, but Alex Rins has made a huge step forward in his consistency and ability to stay on the bike during races. The Spaniard has already had two podiums this year, and is sitting fourth in the championship. His style would be natural fit with a Yamaha or an Aprilia, his ability to be smooth and carry a terrifying amount of corner speed exactly the skills needed for both those bikes.

Putting Mir and Rins on the market means that teams have the pick of a great deal of talent. If Pol Espargaro is out at Repsol Honda, then he could be an interesting target for KTM should they put two more bikes on the grid. Though Franco Morbidelli has a contract for 2023, in a radically shaken up market, Yamaha might take a look at performance clauses which are in most MotoGP contracts. Then there's the question of whether Aleix Espargaro stays at Aprilia, and whether Aprilia feel Maverick Viñales is living up to the expectations the team had when they signed him.

And there's Jack Miller, who will be moved out of the factory Ducati team to make room for Jorge Martin, most likely, or else possibly Enea Bastianini. Does Miller go back to Pramac, or does he switch to LCR, the team he moved up to MotoGP with back in 2015. What happens to Andrea Dovizioso if RNF drop Yamaha? And what of Darryn Binder?

Team managers have a lot to think about, and a lot of options. At the start of the season, it looked like the 2023 grid could look very similar to this year, despite almost everyone's contract being up at the end of the season. Right now, you would have to say there could be an awful lot of movement before the year is over.

Under pressure

Which brings us to MotoGP's very own deflategate. Earlier this week, veteran journalist Mat Oxley revealed that teams have been running below the minimum pressure throughout the 2022 season. This was a subject I had spoken to Michelin's Piero Taramasso about at Portimão, in which he explained that although the rules made it clear that the teams had to run at least half the race with tire pressures at or above the required minimum, of 1.9 bar front and 1.7 bar in the rear tire, there as an agreement not to penalize any infractions while the MSMA negotiated a more permanent solution for 2023, consisting of a spec tire pressure sensor and a clear set of rules for how much of a race a tire should be at or above the minimum.

That article was picked up by the international MotoGP media, and generated sufficient controversy to force MotoGP Technical Director Danny Aldridge to issue a clarification. ""In cooperation with the MSMA and following a request from the MSMA, the Technical Direction of the Championship is currently in the process of evaluating a new tire pressure monitoring protocol," the statement explained. "This procedure must include the introduction of a unified sensor and receiver system, because it is the only way to have reliable data for scrutineering. In addition, a detailed protocol of how the new regulations will be enforced has been discussed with the MSMA and it has been unanimously agreed that it will not be implemented before the start of the 2023 season."

"This protocol has preliminary been agreed within the MSMA on the condition that it would be evaluated by all manufacturers during the 2022 season," the statement went on. "To aid in this evaluation, all manufacturers have unanimously agreed to freely share their riders' tire data after each event with all other manufacturers; as this data is supplied voluntarily and the sensors are calibrated individually by each sensor manufacturer, it cannot currently be verified for its accuracy."

"As agreed between Michelin, FIM, IRTA, MSMA and Dorna, the tire regulations will continue to be enforced as they have been for many years, under the control of the Technical Director and Michelin, until such time that the proposed new procedure is ready to be introduced."

Rules are rules?

That statement, that tire regulations would be enforced as they have been before, raised a few eyebrows. After all, the agreement among the MSMA members was that any transgression of the tire regulations would be noted, but not punished. Andrea Dovizioso put it rather pithily, when asked about it. "I think to say there are rules is wrong. Because if you don't have a penalty, there are no rules."

There was neither surprise nor a great deal of concern among the many riders who were asked about the role tire pressures played. Modern MotoGP bikes are very sensitive to front tire pressure, and the increase in aerodynamics and the use of ride-height devices loaded the front differently and made them far more sensitive to pressure and temperature.

"I am not surprised about what everybody can see about the pressure of every race of some riders, because it changes every race, it's not always the same riders who have that," the Italian told journalists. "Because it's very difficult to manage, because it depends on how many laps you are doing in front and how many you are doing behind. And it depends how many riders you are behind. So I know how difficult it is, but if you don't have a penalty, the rules don't exist."

Knife edge

Tire pressures and temperatures were extremely sensitive to being behind other riders, Jack Miller said. "The tire pressure can be that much on a knife edge that, OK, if you go and lead the whole race, you’re not going to get to the target point. But if you get behind somebody for a lap, you're on the target point," the Australian said.

That had a very noticeable and negative effect. "If you get behind somebody at one point the tire pressure is instantly through the roof and you can't stop the bike or turn the bike. So it is a tough one. And that's what can happen sometimes, especially if you go out and you lead a race the whole way through. You don't get any hot air on it, and I mean they've obviously prepared the bike for that so it's kind of a tough one because if he had dropped back behind, pressure would have gone up."

This is something which the Covid-19 pandemic has had a very negative effect on. In 2019, Michelin had been planning to test a new construction front tire, which is less sensitive to temperature changes, throughout the 2020 season. But the pandemic meant there was no testing during 2020, and then limited testing during 2021.

In the meantime, the bikes had changed massively as well, with more aero and the ride-height devices putting more stress on the front tire. That has forced Michelin to reevaluate its tires, and start the testing process over again, French tire boss Piero Taramasso told me at the Sepang test.

Future fix

"We are still working on the front," Taramasso said. "We will make some adjustments, and the tests will be done in 2023, to be introduced for 2024. So basically it's delayed, because we are working to improve the temperature and the pressure control. Now when you have the slipstream, the tendency of the front tire is to overheat. So we are working on that, to try to better control that point."

The development in aerodynamics had made for problems, he explained. "We realized in the past two seasons that bikes are changing, they are putting more and more weight on the front, with the winglets, and riders are braking very very hard. So the load is changing, so we had to also change the development to adapt to that."

What happens next for tire pressures? There are paddock rumors that there will be more spot checks on the grid, with scrutineers and Michelin techs walking around and checking tires using a manual tire pressure gauge. But that will still not be entirely accurate, as the tire pressures on the grid are lower than the minimum, as they rise during the race, and can vary enormously based on whether a rider is alone or in a group. But it might perhaps discourage the most egregious of rule violations, if the teams know pressures will be more closely controlled.

In the end, though, this, and the change in 2023, are just temporary fixes. The longer term fix comes when the new front Michelin is introduced, hopefully in 2024, and gives a more stable temperature and pressure profile both in the slipstream and on its own. That, at least is the hope. Until then, the MotoGP grid just has to grin and bear it.

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Wed, 2022-05-11 22:53

The Monday after Jerez was the first chance that the teams and factories got to work on their bikes since the entire design was homologated ahead of the MotoGP season opener at Qatar. Given the oft-discussed weird start to the 2022 season, where the teams never seemed to have more than 5 minutes of normal or consistent conditions, having a whole day with a dry track allowed everyone some badly-needed time to work on some very basic stuff.

Of course, not everything was perfect. The weather was significantly cooler than it had been on Sunday, and the wind picked up considerably. There was also a nice thick layer of Michelin rubber, laid down in Sunday's race, the with the MotoE class, also Michelin-shod, adding yet more to the track surface. If anyone had hoped to work on low grip conditions, they would have to create them themselves by running very, very old tires.

Starting first with satellite riders – real satellite riders, that is, not the factory-backed riders in junior teams like Pramac – and rookies. When you have no new parts to test, then what you work on is setup, and especially the kind of setup changes that you don't have time to try during a race weekend.

Setup first

Take, for example, Marco Bezzecchi. "We tried something on the setting that we didn't have time to try during the race weekend, because in the race weekend you have to go too fast to try!" the Mooney VR46 Ducati rider said. "So we made some big changes on the bike. Just to understand…. I was working on the difference that I couldn't feel on the riding. Just the settings and something on the electronics."

Or RNF WithU Yamaha's Darryn Binder. "The plan was to try just a couple different setups to see if we can try and find something that makes me feel a bit more comfortable, to help me improve," the South African rookie said. "I feel like as the tire got more used we've started to find a good setup that really helped me maintain good speed with a used tire."

The point of trying setup changes is to see what happens when you change a given variable, and that was something Binder discovered to his detriment. "When I put in the new tire I didn't feel the same advantage with that setup. So I was a little bit disappointed. I was hoping that if I was faster with the used tires when I put in the new, I expected to make a nice big step and I wasn't able to. So that was a little bit disappointing, but at least now we know that definitely helps create more grip and works better with the used tire."

Early updates

Though Enea Bastianini is what you might regard as a "true" satellite rider, equipped with a one-year-old Ducati Desmosedici GP21 in the Gresini squad, the fact that he has won two races already and led the championship for the first part of the season means he is in Gigi Dall'Igna's good graces, and that means he gets access to upgrades.

On Monday at Jerez, Bastianini got a chance to try the 2022-spec fairing, a slimmer affair and with less side resistance, making it easier to fling the bike from side to side. "The new one is more slim," the Italian noted. "At the start, it was strange for me, in the change of direction it’s really fast, but it's a little bit more unstable. But it depends, in this track was okay. In another track, I don’t know. But if the race was starting now I’d use the new fairing."

While the satellite riders were working on setup, the factories had a surprisingly large number of parts to test, in addition to working on setup of their own. A look at the number of laps posted gives you an idea of who had the most work to do. The lap leaderboard? Pol Espargaro, Repsol Honda, 85 laps; Franco Morbidelli, Monster Energy Yamaha, 83 laps; Alex Marquez, LCR Honda, 80 laps; Fabio Quartararo, Monster Energy Yamaha, 78 laps.

Yamaha's swingarm

At Yamaha, Quartararo and Morbidelli had a couple of major things to try. The first was a new swingarm, to help with rear grip, and the other was a new front fender, aimed at reducing drag and improving the cooling of the bike.

First, the swingarm. Below is the standard swingarm fitted to the 2022 Yamaha, as spotted by contributor and photographer Niki Kovács.

Compare this with the new swingarm being tested by the factory Yamaha riders.

The rear section, where the chain disappears toward the rear wheel, has obviously been beefed up. There is more material, and the interior section is more rounded. On the old version, the gap for the chain extends further back and is much more elliptical.

The objective is fairly self-evident. Yamaha are searching for more edge grip, and one of the main ways of doing that is by changing the shape and stiffness of the swingarm, to change the way the tire is kept in contact with the asphalt when the bike is close to full lean angle.

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Tue, 2022-05-10 17:10

The role of tire pressures, and especially for the front tire, has grown in importance in recent years, as aerodynamics and ride-height devices have made the front ever more sensitive to pressure and temperature changes. It is common to hear riders complain of temperatures and pressures skyrocketing after getting stuck behind other bikes, and kept out of the cooling air.

It is therefore not surprising that factories and teams try to manage tire pressures as carefully as possible. By lowering the pressure, they can keep tire temperatures lower and allow the riders to better manage the front tires over the duration of the race.

They have to be careful not to go too low with tire pressures, however: like all motorsports series with a spec tire, MotoGP has a minimum pressure for both front and rear tires: 1.9 bar front, 1.7 bar rear. Tire pressures are monitored by sensors and recorded by the spec datalogger, and pressures have to be over the minimum for at least half of the race.

Bending the rules

It will also not come as a surprise that some teams and factories have been playing fast and loose with the permitted tire pressures. Factories are always looking for an advantage, and willing to exploit them when they find them.

What may be more surprising is that the factories and teams all know about the minimum pressure rules being disregarded, and that they all accept this when it happens, allowing those who transgress the rules to go unpunished.

This was revealed by veteran MotoGP journalist Mat Oxley in his latest blog for Motor Sport Magazine. Oxley was leaked the official tire pressure sheet issued by Michelin to all of the teams after the race at Jerez, which showed that four riders had been riding with pressures that were too low.

How low can you go?

The rear tire of Andrea Dovizioso's RNF WithU Yamaha was under the minimum pressure for one lap short of the twelve required, as was the front of Alex Rins' Suzuki GSX-RR. But the front tires of two Ducati riders were most striking: Jorge Martin's front tire was only at minimum pressure for a single lap, though the Pramac Ducati rider crashed out at the final corner on the first lap, and spent the rest of the race trying to catch up.

Race winner Pecco Bagnaia's front tire pressure was below the minimum pressure for the entire race, however. There was not one lap on which his front tire pressure was within the permitted pressures. And yet Bagnaia went unpunished, and his victory was allowed to stand.

Angered by the current state of affairs, senior members of rival factories sent Oxley the relevant data. Despite the rules stating quite clearly that tire pressures must be below a certain minimum, the MSMA – the association representing the six factories in MotoGP – have a so-called "gentlemen's agreement" not to punish any infractions of the tire pressure rules.

Closing loopholes

That, however, will change for next year. As it happens, I spoke to Michelin's head of two-wheeled motorsports, Piero Taramasso at Portimão, together with Peter Bom. We spoke to him at length about a number of issues, and one which came up was the issue of tire pressures.

The minimum tire pressures were in the rulebook, Taramasso told us, but penalties would not start to be applied until 2023. "This is in the regulations, it's written in all the documents, in the rule book," the Michelin boss said. "So this procedure is in place, but starting next season, we will still apply the procedure, but we will apply penalties for teams and riders who do not respect that."

At the moment, there are no penalties, only a system of warnings, Taramasso told us. "For the moment there's not a penalty, there's just a warning, like a yellow card and red card." The fact that all of the data is published and distributed to all the teams after every race is meant to encourage teams and factories to respect the rules. "Everybody is aware of what happens, this is what is good. We share all the results with all of the teams, all of the riders, so everybody knows who is respecting or not. So it's very open. We work with trust and with confidence with everybody. But starting next season there will be penalties for people who are not respecting it."

Transgressions are rare

Falling below the minimum pressure was not common, Taramasso told us. "I will say it's very rare." There was relatively little to be gained by dropping below the minimum on the rear tire. "For the rear pressure this season, everybody respected. In the front, it happened twice, one rider and another rider, different manufacturers. But it was just by a very very little bit," Taramasso said.

This statement was made before the first MotoGP race back in Europe, at Portimão, after riding at tracks where stable conditions have barely prevailed. But two races later, four more names had been added to those two initial transgressors.

Taramasso explained in some detail how they monitored tire pressures. The data from the sensors is written to the dataloggers, and tire pressures monitored and recorded by Michelin techs before and after each session and each race. Usually, the pressure was taken wirelessly from the sensor using a handheld unit, but when the sensors were not returning data, Michelin techs would use traditional manual pressure gauges.

Based on that data, Michelin could determine whether the pressures had been legal throughout the race. "For the moment, we measure pressures over all the race distance, and for the moment – but we are discussing whether to change or not – at least half of the race has to be at the minimum pressure," Taramasso told us. "It's exactly the same rule that they use for Moto2. It's the one we use also in MotoE."

Because tire pressures rise as the riders work the tires during the first laps of a race, it was normal for riders to start the race below the permitted pressures, he explained. "The way the tire works, you start lower and after four or five laps it goes up to the target and then it stays stable until the end." That pressure, and the temperature of the tire, could be affected by all sorts of factors, including whether a rider was following other bikes. "The rear pressure is quite stable, but then the front can do up and down, depending on the track, on the position, etc."

Fairness and reliability

The aim, as Taramasso explained, was to have an enforceable rule which all of the manufacturers agreed to and were willing to abide by. Discussions were underway about exactly how much of the race the pressures needed to be above the minimum for, but the other part of that equation was switching to a single supplier for tire pressure sensors.

"In order to have a reliable measure, we need everybody with the same sensor, and today we have three different manufacturers, so we needed to pick one for this. So that everyone has the same, because the tolerances are different," Taramasso said. Different sensors with different precision tolerances meant it was hard to compare the values recorded between the different bikes. This is particularly tricky, given the infractions being noted were so close to the permitted values.

More functions, more problems

Reliability would be key. As sensors have become more capable and had more functions added, they have also become more prone to malfunction. Pressure sensors have temperature sensors built in, but some also have infrared temperature sensors embedded as well, to measure the temperature on the inside of the carcass, a more accurate measure of the temperature of the actual tire rubber than simple air temperature sensor commonly used.

Those sensors are commonly more fragile, however. One major manufacturer has already switched from the more sophisticated sensors such as produced by McLaren to the utterly reliable and proven 2D sensors. For those who closely follow tire usage, the frailty of the sensors used is reflected in the tire data. At the moment, the sensor data is automatically recorded each time the riders enter or exit pit lane, and is shown on screen using the telemetry collected by Dorna. But sometimes that tire data is missing, and has to be added by hand to the results after a race or session is over.

Even if that data is not logged, the manual measurements can still provide enough information, Taramasso explained. "We have data because we check in the box when they go out and go in, so you can deduct how much it was."

All change in 2023

The new rules, including penalties, to be introduced from 2023 would extend beyond just the race, as the rules are currently enforced. "Next year, it will also be for practice and qualifying," Taramasso explained. Whether that data would also be shared with the teams was yet to be decided. At the moment, the only data that was shared with all of the teams was the data collected during the race.

In response to accusations made by rival teams, Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna spoke to a small group of mostly Italian journalists. His response was largely just a repeat of what we were told by Michelin's Piero Taramasso at Portimão. You can read a transcript in Italian over on the website.

Whether any of this will lead to change in the short term is unlikely. But the wheels have already been set in motion to institute changes for the 2023 season. Riders may be racing with pressures below the permitted minimum in 2022, and going unpunished. But that will not be the case from next year.

Here to stay

Despite all of the controversy which inevitably comes with being the official supplier of arguably the most important component on a racing motorcycle, Michelin were in for the long haul, Taramasso told us at Portimão. "This is for sure," the Michelin motorsport boss told us.

Racing offered unique opportunities to develop their product, Taramasso said. "This is one of the reasons we are in MotoGP, it's to develop, to be able to do some tests, try different things, different tires, different profiles, different casings. This is what we want to do. And thanks to the teams, thanks to Dorna, we are able to do it."

The global pandemic had had a negative impact on their plans, he said, but there were big plans for the future. "The Covid-19 situation slowed down a lot, because we have a lot of ideas, but for the future we will be able to do that. One thing we want to do also is to develop the sustainable materials, the one we use in MotoE for example. We use regenerated, recycled material." That is precisely the sort of technology which will trickle down to road tires very quickly.

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Fri, 2022-05-06 22:41

Two years after starting the blog which would eventual morph into, I felt it was time to quit my job and do this full time. It seemed like the perfect moment to pursue my dream of writing about MotoGP for a living, so I handed in my notice to my erstwhile employer and prepared to strike out on my own. That was late August, 2008.

Two weeks later, on September 15th, Lehman Brothers collapsed, kicking off the Global Financial Crisis which would plunge the world into recession. My timing turned out to be absolutely terrible.

Why am I looking back to 2008? Because the financial crisis sparked by the collapse of the US housing market and the worldwide banking system would have a profound effect on motorcycle racing, and would go on to shape MotoGP as it is today. It would create the conditions where there were six manufacturers racing in MotoGP. It would also reshape the politics of MotoGP to put Dorna in a much stronger position to cope with Suzuki's decision to withdraw from the series.

What will Dorna do and how will they handle Suzuki's withdrawal? To understand their current position, you need to go back to 2008, and the aftermath of that terrible September.

Lessons from history

MotoGP had already been struggling. After the triumph of the fire-breathing 990cc four strokes, culminating in perhaps the most memorable season in the history of grand prix racing when Nicky Hayden pipped Valentino Rossi to the 2006 championship against seemingly impossible odds, the switch to 800cc MotoGP machines had been a disaster.

Ducati had realized that speed would be at a premium, and the factories were engaged in a war of electronics to manage the incredibly peaky engines being built in pursuit of rapidly increasing levels of horsepower. The simultaneous change to tire regulations – tires to be selected before the weekend, playing into Bridgestone's hands by removing Michelin's ability to produce tires tailor-made for the conditions based on Friday practice – had made the racing processional. Costs were spiraling out of control, and interest in the series was waning.

In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, MotoGP manufacturers examined their priorities. At the end of 2008, Kawasaki announced they would be pulling out of MotoGP. With the global economy in the state it was at the end of 2008, that was not a surprise. The Japanese factory was spending over €60 million a year for extremely modest results, John Hopkins finishing the year in 16th overall, his teammate Ant West two places behind him.

The Kawasaki withdrawal was a bombshell. But MotoGP came very close to sustaining what would have been a fatal blow at the time. Honda Motor Co held board meetings at the very highest level to discuss its future in motor sports. At that meeting, they decided to pull out of F1. It is said there was a strong push to pull out of MotoGP as well, but, according to rumor at the time, they felt that they needed to be racing motorcycles, as that was in line with the company founder Soichiro Honda's legacy.

Turning point

That winter proved to be a defining moment in the history of motorcycle racing. MotoGP continued, though in severely diminished form, the field down to 17 bikes in 2011, Suzuki cutting back to a single bike that year, before withdrawing completely the following season. But it also sparked a series of changes which would revolutionize grand prix motorcycling, and create the incredibly healthy grid we have in 2022. It would see the return of 1000cc bikes in the premier class, and the replacing of the 125 and 250cc classes by Moto3 and Moto2.

In many ways, the timing of my decision to quit my safe job was risky. But the advantage was that I got to be in the paddock in one of the most interesting periods of its history, and talk to a lot of the people involved in the changes to the series, to understand their motivations and how and why certain decisions were made. That gives me some perspective on the current state of the series, and how the shock news that Suzuki will be withdrawing from MotoGP at the end of the year.

(As an aside, it is curious that there has still been no official announcement from Suzuki corporate headquarters, neither to confirm nor to deny they are pulling out. Golden Week, the week of holidays in Japan, ended on Wednesday, but Suzuki are yet to issue any kind of official statement at all.)

The withdrawal of Kawasaki and the talks held with the Japanese manufacturers accelerated a series of processes inside Dorna and within MotoGP. Carmelo Ezpeleta had flown to Japan with senior Dorna staff to meet with Kawasaki, and found themselves to be relatively powerless to change the Japanese factory's mind. Threatening them with breach of contract, Dorna extracted a promise by Kawasaki to support a one-rider team for the 2009 season.

That resulted in the birth of the Hayate team, as the remnants of the Kawasaki program put together a one-rider campaign with Marco Melandri, with Andrea Dosoli and Ichiro Yoda leading the team. It proved to be successful, Melandri outperforming the results of the factory Kawasaki team from 2008, but the Hayate team came to an end at Valencia in 2009.

Why had Dorna been unable to prevent Kawasaki from leaving? Since 2002, Dorna had signed five-year contracts with the manufacturers racing in MotoGP, but it was the manufacturers who held the upper hand in negotiations. The contracts were signed with the MSMA as a body, rather than with individual factories. That meant that Dorna could put pressure on the MSMA, but could not deal with factories directly.

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Thu, 2022-05-05 15:43

Three days ago, the bombshell news came out about Suzuki’s decision to leave MotoGP at the end of 2022. So far no official confirmation (nor denial) has been forthcoming from the Hamamatsu factory. Yes, we are all aware of the Golden Week national holiday in Japan, but we cannot forget that lot of careers are hanging on this decision.

We are not just talking about the mechanics and other team members, but the riders themselves too. Because believe it or not, apart from that confidential meeting (that hasn’t remained confidential...) there has been no contact between the team/factory and the riders’ managers. Not with Joan Mir’s manager, for sure, as we have learned.

Anyway this is a crucial year on the rider market, with almost all the current contracts ending at the end of this year. So you all can imagine how upset Paco Sanchez (manager of Joan Mir) is with the current situation.

’This is a really unprofessional attitude’ says the Spaniard's manager, who is coincidentally also a lawyer. ’Nobody from the team or Japan has contacted me to say anything. I understand that Suzuki Motor Corporation obliged the senior team staff not to say anything to anybody. But this is really unfair, unprofessional and an irresponsible way to manage this crisis.’

Sanchez tried to reach Livio Suppo many times from the first moment the news reached him, but his calls were never answered. And if you think that Sanchez (who had left Jerez by Monday) was informed by his rider, you are wrong. He learned it when the journalist who broke the news asked him for a comment.

The Spaniard manager was waiting all Tuesday, before moving into action and starting to reach out to all the team managers who had showed interest in his rider in the past. ’I had waited long enough’ he said Tuesday evening, ’we don’t have any commitment to Suzuki anymore’.

He also emphasized that the rumors about them having a contract with HRC are far from being true. ’From last October our intention was to stay with Suzuki and they also assured me that Joan was their first choice. ’

Sanchez was at Portimão and Jerez as well, and he had several meetings with Suzuki team manager Livio Suppo and MotoGP project leader Shinichi Sahara. They have been finalizing the last couple of details before getting ready to sign a new contract, that as it stands now, will never happen.

Now Sanchez has only one goal: find the best seat for the 2020 World Champion. Maybe it’s still not too late, as apart from Pecco Bagnaia extending with the factory Ducati Team, no other deal has been closed so far this year. Besides Bagnaia, the only seats already filled in factory teams are Marc Marquez with Honda and Brad Binder with KTM through 2024, and Franco Morbidelli with Yamaha for 2023.

It will be interesting to see how the whole situation evolves, how Dorna and the team sponsors will react (the sponsors who also haven’t been informed yet about anything...) and how much will it cost to Suzuki to really leave MotoGP for the second time in a little more than a decade.

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