Sat, 2021-02-13 15:26

Never change a winning formula. Red Bull KTM 2021 is virtually indistinguishable from Red Bull KTM 2020

Funnily enough, the Tech3 satellite colors look more like they should be the factory livery

Biggest change? Brad Binder's number is yellow, rather than white. And Miguel Oliveira doubles Pol Espargaro's 44 to 88

Advantage of signing a rider from your junior satellite team? You can do the factory photoshoot at the end of the previous season

Miguel Oliveira looks ahead to 2021

*insert vrooming noises*

Brad Binder shows Miguel Oliveira where the factory "Go Faster" button is located. Oliveira is not sure he needs it, after winning two races

That new number for Binder

Electronic throttle, Brembo brakes

KTM are the only manufacturer to use WP suspension in the premier class. So far...

Carbon swingarm was a big deal for KTM when it was introduced in 2019. Made tuning stiffness much easier

Ubiquitous Akrapovic on the RC16

KTM's mustache wings

The part of the bike you want your rivals to see as frequently as possible

No funky thumb/scooter brake caliper here. One hydraulic line means foot operated rear brake

The steel frame remains

The office: kill switch and neutral lever on the right, engine brake/mapping/TC switches on the left

Launch photos artfully designed to display sponsor logos rather than bike parts. Pankl build engine internals for KTM

Clutch, brake adjuster, but not rear brake lever

Serrations on the fairing edge to reduce drag from the edges

Tech3's new boy, Danilo Petrucci, back in a factory-supported satellite squad

Snake by Akrapovic

Back for another shot. Iker Lecuona had his ups and downs in 2020. Hoping for ups in 2021

The hot seat

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Thu, 2021-02-11 21:58

In the last weeks of December, Japan's leading MotoGP journalist Akira Nishimura spoke to two of the key players in Honda's MotoGP project: Honda Racing Corporation General Manager Tetsuhiro Kuwata, and 2020 RC213V development leader Takehiro Koyasu. As a native Japanese speaker, Nishimura-san got more out of the HRC bosses than an English-speaking journalist would. The conversation covered Honda's MotoGP riders, an analysis of their thoroughly mediocre 2020 season, and their expectations for 2021.

In 2020, Honda had to endure a tough season, in contrast to previous years. Needless to say, one of the biggest reasons for that was the absence of Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team). His right humerus fracture at the opening round in Jerez sidelined the eight-time world champion for all the races of the 2020 season, a costly loss for HRC.

Meanwhile, Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda IEMITSU) made a significant improvement in both riding skills and race results. Also, MotoGP rookie Alex Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) did a fantastic job with two second-place finishes despite it being his debut year in the premier class. On the other hand, the Brit Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda Castrol) decided to draw his racing career to a close at the end of the year. With these abundant topics for the review of the 2020 season and the preview for the forthcoming 2021 season, we interviewed Honda Racing Corporation General Manager Tetsuhiro Kuwata and 2020 RC213V development leader Takehiro Koyasu.

First of all, we asked them for a comprehensive review and the preview, then moved on to the detailed Q&A with them.

Kuwata: "It is quite simple. We lost entirely throughout the 2020 season. However, we also learned a lot from these defeats, and we believe these hardships will make us even stronger.

After we had finished the preseason tests, we were still struggling to find an optimal setup for Michelin’s 2020 rear tire. Then, the first race was canceled and postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Although it was a very tough situation for us, we didn’t give up and continued development. When the season resumed at Jerez for the Spanish GP in July, Marc demonstrated very strong riding from the start of the weekend. Unfortunately, he suffered from an injury in Sunday’s race. After that, we always tried to find the best way to have our riders exploit the bike's potential until the end of the season.

It is true that we had to change our plan more or less due to Marc’s injury. Nevertheless, Taka did very good races to fight for the podium, so we supported him as much as we could and provided updated parts to get good results. In the meantime, Alex finished second in the French GP and the Aragon GP. In terms of the tire issues that we had had to struggle with at the beginning, we started understanding how to adjust in the second half of the season, and when the season finished, we had confidence that we were at a new starting point for the 2021 season."

About the difference between the 2020 RC213V and the 2019 spec, Koyasu-san explained it as follows.

Koyasu: "As always, we reviewed everything about the engine and chassis. Specifically, we focused on the improvement of power and driveability. In the chassis area, our main focus was the stability in acceleration/deceleration, cornering, and traction. We reviewed not only large components such as the frame and swingarm but also tiny parts and their placement. Also, regarding the electronics, we think we made a good step forward in terms of deceleration stability."

As Kuwata mentioned above, the setup adjustment for the 2020 Michelin tire required a huge effort for Honda. Koyasu reviewed the process of their searching and finding a good compromise.

Koyasu: "The question was how to understand the 2020 tire and how to exploit its ‘feel.’ We repeated a process of trial and error many times, then started close observation for the rear suspension stroke to deal with the issue we had. It worked well to some extent, which brought Nakagami’s good results and Alex’s podium in the second half of the season, I suppose."

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Tue, 2021-02-09 17:10

Lenovo arrives as title sponsor for Ducati

The long tail

Launch bikes are always from the previous year, but even so, the bulbous tail of the Ducati is clear

Any doubt that this is last year's bike can be removed by zooming in on the frame number

New Brembo brakes, narrow front aero below the wheel axle. Ducati occasionally use a much wider version

Front and rear: 2020 aero looks better in red

Black carbon fiber weave on the inside of the wings is gorgeous sponsoring the MotoGP team as well as the WorldSBK team

Cockpit details: neutral selection lever on the right hand side (note the date stamped on the bracket). But no thumb brake for Jack Miller

Big thumb brake paddle on the left for Pecco Bagnaia. Missing: the shapeshifter lever. Unless the neutral lever has been moved

Side view


The role which Michele Pirro has played in Ducati's success simply cannot be overstated

Jack Miller

Pecco Bagnaia


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Fri, 2021-02-05 22:20

For the first time since 2014, a rider prepares to defend the MotoGP title for the first time in their career. But the circumstances in which Joan Mir is preparing for the 2021 season are very different to who Marc Márquez prepared after he won his first MotoGP title back in 2013. The Covid-19 pandemic means no mass celebrations, no jetting around the world to have his photo taken with sponsors, to fulfill the requirements in his contract. No going directly from the previous season into testing, with barely a break in between.

Joan Mir has had plenty of time at home, with media engagements few and far between, a necessary consequence of the pandemic. He has been in his home in Andorra, training, working to get ready for the coming season. Earlier this week, he spoke to a group of journalists about the year ahead. And here, too, he reaped the benefits of the pandemic: he participated in a large-scale media event from comfort of his home. No time wasted traveling, just change into a team shirt, sit down behind a laptop, and fire up the webcam.

He was as professional in the zoom debrief as he has been in every aspect of his career. And the zoom debrief was as well-organized and smoothly-run as we have come to expect from the Suzuki Ecstar team. It's hardly a surprise that Joan Mir won the 2020 MotoGP title.

Mir started off telling us about how he had been spending the winter.

JM: I feel great. Honestly, I'm quite happy about the preseason we are doing. I'm trying to do as much moto as I can. Also training here in the gym, also doing the skimo, it's something that benefits me a lot. And I almost didn't stop since the championship finished because I was always training, I was one week out on holidays with my girlfriend and then just training. A little bit boring but it's like this, sorry!

Q: How has your life changed since becoming champion? Do people recognize you more often when you go out?

JM: Yes, this is the main difference. When I go to a restaurant probably at least one or two people recognize me, and before it was not like this. And in Andorra even more. Normally in Andorra they recognize you but they don’t ask for photos. The people are like this here. And I can't imagine in Majorca! I haven't been to Majorca, but for sure there life would change completely I think! But the rest is the same. I train the same. When I make a three minute moto with the motocross I still have arm pump! It's always like this!

Q: With the Covid-19 pandemic still ongoing, and the racing uncertain, it looks like we will have another strange start to season, with races canceled and back-to-back races at some circuits. Will the experience from last year make it easier to prepare? Will you prepare any different now you are champion?

JM: No, the way to prepare for the championship is always the same. I normally do a preparation preseason based on the moto training and with the gym and cardio. This is always the same. If the championship is short, long or whatever.

It's true that now I will have more experience, if we do the calendar like last year. But it's also true that it's the same for all my rivals!

So we will have more experience to do a championship like last year. I hope it's a more normal championship, but it will be what Covid will want. So let's see what championship awaits us and let's give 100% and try to defend the title.

Q: When Marc won the championship, we would automatically say he was the favorite for next year. Are you the favorite for 2021, now that you are champion?

JM: It’s true that when Marc won the title, he was the favorite for the next year. This year, inside of me, I'm the man to beat, but probably I'm not the favorite. But I feel like this, no? I think that I have to show much more to be the favorite. It's true that last year we won the championship not by speed, we won by consistency and by being clever.

I think that the margin I have to improve the speed is probably not the same as other people with more experience. So we have on paper good tools to defend, but I don't feel I will be the favorite. I will be the man to beat but not the favorite. Let's see. If I won this year then I will be the favorite anyway.

I'm looking forward for this year and to try to show more, to enjoy more and to be a better rider. That is my goal for this season. If I'm able to repeat the title I will be super happy because at the end it's what everyone wants. The goal is that one, but inside of me I want to be better. I don’t care about the championship, okay at end it's the important thing, but I want to be better. I want to start to make pole positions, I want to start to win more races, and then if I'm able to do that, I'm already constant. So let's try to improve in that area.

Q: Who do you see as the favorite?

JM: For me the favorite if he comes back at 100% is Marc. He is the favorite. He has more experience than me. More titles. More speed, and he's the man to beat. If you remove Marc, I don’t see any favorite. Probably it's me, in that case. But with Marc on track, it will be Marc.

Q: Did you make any changes in your team? Do you have a spotter or riding coach?

JM: I would like to hear everything that needs improving, it’s something I'm always interested to do. But I think that inside our team we have a little bit what we can call a coach. We don’t have the name, but we have something that helps us to improve our skills.

Also we have the data. I have a super strong teammate who I'm able to compare with, and if I'm watching at the barriers, even if I'm world champion or whatever, it's difficult for me to find the difference between one rider and another riding three tenths slower than the other. It's a little bit difficult! For sure if you have the experience you can see different type of riding styles, of the Ducati, Suzuki, different bikes. But it's really difficult to see from the outside.

Q: Your teammate, Alex Rins, was a big rival last season, finishing third in the championship even though he was injured in the first race. Will he be a bigger threat this season?

JM: No, I think he will be as strong as last season. He was injured in the first part of the season, but then it's true that he was more and more competitive. We were fighting with each other in every Grand Prix. He finished third in the end, I think that everybody made mistakes. And we will see what happens next season, probably it's not easy to make all the season without making mistakes. The injuries, the crashes, this is always a part of our job, and we have to manage in the best way that we can. And I think that Alex made a good job in this way. He will be competitive for sure, but not more competitive, he was already really strong.

Q: [Team Director] Shinichi Sahara and [Technical Manager] Ken Kawauchi in Japan said the target for 2021 is winning the triple crown, fighting for the podium in every race, and finishing 1-2 in championship…

JM: I'm super happy to hear about Suzuki, that the goal is that, because it means they are beating hard. They are pushing to make this team even better than we had. So this is super great to hear.

Always it's really difficult and they know more than everyone that it's really difficult to win every year and really difficult to make super good results every year. But for sure if we continue with that mentality, working mentality with high status, then we will be able to do it if not this year we will be able to repeat it I'm 100% sure.

Q: What was your reaction to team boss Davide Brivio leaving the team for Formula 1? Will that be a problem for this season?

JM: I hope not. Inside of me, I think also it won't be. Because I think that of course I won't lie to you if I say I was in shock the first time that I heard the news. But then, when I realized about that, I think that inside Suzuki we have very competitive people that are able to manage the situation in the best way. That's why I'm calm. I think that Sahara-san, and inside of Suzuki, they will do what is the best way for Suzuki, and if it's the best way for Suzuki, it's the best chance for me also. So I'm not worried.

Q: Suzuki was very consistent last year, will that be an advantage this year too with the development freeze?

JM: Well, I think that last year we saw a lot of equality of different bikes. The lap times were really close together, and I think this will not change. Of course the package that we had is good, we were competitive in every track, and I think we won't lose this. So I hope it will be like this, and let's cross the fingers.

Q: Will the engine development freeze be an advantage for Suzuki, given how competitive the GSX-RR was at every track?

JM: Well, I think we have margin to improve our engine. It's not the fastest but it's not the slowest. So I think there are other manufacturers that are in a worse position than us, for sure.

We have a balanced bike, a good package, and if we are able to improve a little bit more what we can improve – which is not the engine, the other things – and have something more, we will be even more dangerous for this year.

Q: We haven't seen you training with a Suzuki GSX-R production bike like Alex Rins. Do you have a similar bike to train with? Do you want to train on a track with a production bike?

JM: Well, if you check my Instagram or my Social Media, I don't like to show my training a lot. I show what I want. I have the GSX-R, it's also really beautiful, you can trust me! [Laughs] For sure I make a couple of laps. Not a lot, because I think that probably it's not the best training that you can do, because it's a completely different bike, but for sure I make a couple of hours with that bike, at least a couple of times before the season. So it's like this.

Q: You admitted you had some pressure at the end of last year, what do you expect this year? Did you learn something?

JM: The same. I think that I will have the pressure straight away. Last year, I was feeling the pressure, but for me, it didn't affect me. It was affecting me, but not in a negative way. This is something that we have to do this season. If I have this pressure from the first race, it means that we will be at 100% at the first race. So I think it will be really important and the key for the season to take that pressure in a positive way.

Q: You were very strict last year on managing Covid, isolating yourself, making sure you took no risks, including with your girlfriend. How are you handling it now?

JM: Well, now we took all the measures, the legal measures, but I'm more relaxed. I go to restaurants a couple of times when I can go, and it's a different story. I'm 100% conscious that when the season starts the nightmare will come back! [Laughs]. So it will be like this for everyone, and we will be really strict because we cannot lose any points for this reason, and we have to start the first race doing the same protocol as last year.

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Tue, 2021-02-02 18:17

The 2021 MotoGP season continues to be a fluid affair. With the Argentina and Austin rounds already canceled (technically postponed, but with no real chance of them actually taking place), it is now clear that Brno will not host a MotoGP round in 2021. And there are more signs of a shake up coming.

The biggest, and saddest news is that the Automotodrom Brno circuit today announced that they would not be hosting any world championship motorcycle racing for the foreseeable future. The cancellation had been expected, but still comes as a blow to MotoGP.

The issue is simply one of funding. During the 2020 Czech Grand Prix at the Brno circuit, the riders made it very clear that the track simply wasn't safe for MotoGP unless it was resurfaced. Aleix Espargaro was among the most outspoken of the track's critics. "I'm just a rider, but for me it’s unacceptable to race here," the Aprilia rider said. "It’s very far from being at the level of MotoGP. It’s a disaster this tarmac."

The problem is the number of bumps on the track. "It's kind of more easy to explain where the bumps aren't," Jack Miller told us that weekend. "We've been complaining about the bumps since I came here in MotoGP and yeah, they're just getting worse and worse year by year."

Dorna boss Carmelo Ezpeleta told the MotoGP Safety Commission in Brno that he would ask the circuit to resurface the track before MotoGP returned, but even last year, it was understood that the circuit was unwilling to commit to new asphalt. "The situation in the last few years in Brno has been difficult, and you understand that to resurface everything you need a lot of money, so we speak about millions of Euros," Valentino Rossi said on the Grand Prix weekend. "And I understand because now there are no fans, the circuit does not work a lot so, I don't know if they will resurface."

The problem with resurfacing was who would be paying for new asphalt. Though the Automotodrom Brno circuit hosts the event, the promoter of the Grand Prix is a separate organization, Spolek pro GP ČR Brno, an association incorporated with support and funding from both the city of Brno and the South Moravia region.

Spolek rents the track from Automotodrom Brno management for a fee of around €1 million, according to a press release published on the Spolek paid around €6 million for the MotoGP contract in previous years, with Dorna looking to raise the fee to €9 million a year from 2022, according to statements made by the mayor of Brno, Markéta Vaňková.

The dispute came down to who would pay for the circuit to be resurfaced. The circuit claimed that as the promoter, Spolek agreed to cover all costs related to the the MotoGP event, and consequently, Spolek should pay for the resurfacing. Spolek claimed that they leased the circuit from Automotodrom Brno, and so the circuit management should pay. Resurfacing a long track like Brno is an expensive affair: the 2019 resurfacing work at Silverstone, a 5.9km long track, as compared to Brno's 5.5km, cost £5 million. Resurfacing Brno was estimated to cost in the region of €4 million.

With one of the highest spectator attendances, raising the necessary funds should not have been impossible. Despite the high attendance, however, there were always underlying tensions between the circuit and the promoters. Those disputes between the circuit and the promoter were apparent in the claims of spectator numbers. Between 2007 and 2015, before Spolek took over the running of the event, the circuit claimed an attendance of between 130,000 and 150,000 on race day. After Spolek took over, the official tally fell to between 82,000 and 87,000.

To a journalist attending those events, it was hard to tell the difference in numbers. The circuit was always packed, one of the busiest of the season, the years with 87,000 fans looking just as busy as the years with 140,000. But as a journalist spending most of their time in the paddock, it was hard to make an accurate assessment of numbers in such a vast and sprawling complex, with trees and woods surrounding the track.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought the issues to a head. Last year, even without fans, the promoter paid €1 million for the right to host the race. Facing another season without fans, the cost of hosting the event and resurfacing the track made it extremely difficult to recoup any investment made in the short term.

This is an issue for other circuits as well. There are circuits which are heavily subsidized and sponsored by local and regional governments, such as Jerez or Aragon. But tracks which must survive off ticket sales, such as Assen and Silverstone, would find it difficult to justify the expense of hosting a MotoGP round without income from fans.

Whatever the underlying issues with funding, the loss of MotoGP at Brno is a huge blow for all concerned. Even last year, the riders were sad at the possibility of losing the track. "I know it's a massive track, and it's a big big undertaking to resurface a track like this, but it's such a magical track," Jack Miller told us last August. "I mean, it's one of the favorites of everybody so it's a shame to see it like this."

Brno is what you might describe as a "real" MotoGP track. It is wide, fast, and challenging for a MotoGP machine, bikes able to use all of the horsepower they possess. It is a track which challenges both machine and rider, offering many ways to go fast, which is why there have been so many exciting races at the circuit. Losing Brno is akin to losing Mugello or Phillip Island from the calendar. The Automotodrom Brno circuit has been on the calendar since it was built in 1987, with only a brief hiatus in 1992, the year before the former Czechoslovakia split into two separate states.

With Brno out, that leaves a five-week gap in the middle of the season. There had been plans to hold a MotoGP round in Russia, at the Igora Drive circuit near St Petersburg. That idea has been dropped, however.

The 2021 MotoGP season is due to start at Qatar, but there are already signs that may not be possible. Dorna are doing all that they can to ensure it does happen, including move the planned Moto2 test from Jerez to Qatar, now set for March 19th to 21st.

MotoGP will be in Qatar for almost a month. Starting with the shakedown test on March 5th, followed by two days of MotoGP testing on March 6th and 7th. Three days of testing follows a few days later, from March 10th to 12th. The Moto2 and Moto3 classes follow a week later, from March 19th to 21st. The first races of the season happen the Sunday after that, on March 28th, with a second round of MotoGP at the Losail International Circuit the following weekend on April 4th.

Despite Qatar's good record on Covid-19, with case numbers relatively low, the second wave is also starting to hit the country. Case numbers have nearly tripled since the start of the year, and though officially reported deaths are very low, hospitalizations are up by 85%, albeit from a low base.

There have been several discussions on how to manage the influx of 1300 people from around the world – some from countries with very high rates of Covid-19 infection – including isolating everyone in a restricted number of hotels with no contact with the outside world. Procedures have been put in place to manage the situation, but even that is subject to change if the Qatari authorities decide it is too big a risk at the current time.

The Gulf state is due to hold the FIFA Club World Cup this week, with the Qatar Open tennis tournament at the start of March. Though those events will take place in front of spectators, they will still involve a smaller number of people than the 1300 riders, mechanics, team members, and Dorna staff needed to stage a MotoGP event.

There are doubts in the paddock that this will happen. Speaking to journalists last night, Suzuki Ecstar rider Alex Rins let slip that he believed the season would start in Europe, in Jerez. "We don't know exactly where we are going to start, looks like in Jerez, but let's see," he said. He later walked that back a little. "If we don't make Qatar I think we will start in Portimao, no? It's the next one after Qatar."

Rumors of Qatar being skipped have been circulating for a while among paddock insiders. But that has been foreseeable, given the fast-developing situation with the Covid-19 pandemic. There are multiple factors at play, including new, more infectious variants of the coronavirus, and steady progress being made on vaccination, with different countries going at very different rates.

Like the situation at the beginning of the 2020 season, the coronavirus is in control of the MotoGP calendar, and much of human life. But with a year of experience, Dorna are better placed to manage the organization of MotoGP races. And thanks to some remarkable scientific breakthroughs, humanity is slowly winning the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic. The virus may be in control, but we at least have a finger on the wheel.

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Sat, 2021-01-16 09:00

In the last weeks of December, Japan's leading MotoGP journalist Akira Nishimura spoke to the two Japanese leaders of Suzuki Ecstar's championship winning team. In the interview, Team Director Shinichi Sahara and Technical Manager Ken Kawauchi gave their view of what Suzuki did to win the 2020 MotoGP title with Joan Mir, and the MotoGP team title for the Suzuki Ecstar team.

Interviewing Kawauchi-san and Sahara-san in their native language means they are more open and able to express themselves a little more freely than they would when speaking English, a second language for both of them. Thanks to Akira-san's excellent English, he is able to convey much more of what they have to say.

Though the interview was recorded before the shock announcement that Davide Brivio would be leaving Suzuki, Kawauchi-san and Sahara-san lay out how they saw the 2020 season, where the Suzuki GSX-RR was strongest and its rather glaring weakness, and what they will be working on for the 2021 season. And they set out their objectives for the coming season, and how they hope to achieve them.

Q: In the 2020 season, many things were different from the ‘normal’ seasons, including the race calendar, hygiene protocols, and so on. What was the toughest thing for you?

Kawauchi: In terms of performance, both Alex [Rins] and Joan [Mir] seemed very good at the pre-season tests. However, when the season started, Alex crashed on Saturday of the Spanish GP weekend and fractured his shoulder, and Joan crashed and retired in the race. As a result, we did not score any championship points. Although I told my team crew that “it was just the opening round. We can fight back from the next race,” deep down, I thought such results for the start of the season would be very tough, to be honest.

Also, we had to manage PCR testing, safe travel, and many things to keep our staff safe from Covid-19 that we haven’t had to worry about before. As the season proceeded, some people in the paddock tested positive, so did some riders. We always had to race with the concern that “what if our riders test positive…?” In that sense, I have to say the 2020 season was an unprecedentedly difficult season.

Q: Did this pandemic affect your logistics for supplying the latest parts?

Kawauchi: Fortunately, we were not affected so that we didn’t have any problems with that. On the other hand, there were some restrictions on the personnel side. Usually, we have extra engineers from Japan at some races and exchange information, but it was impossible in the 2020 season.

Q: Sahara-san, how many races did you go to the paddock in 2020?

Sahara: Only Portimao. After the Qatar testing, I was ready to go there for the season opener, and it was when the race was canceled, so I have been in Japan until the Portuguese GP.

Q: Were you able to manage the race from Japan as usual?

Sahara: After the season resumed in July, Kawauchi managed the team on-site while I did what I had to do in Japan, then we communicated remotely and exchanged information. In that sense, it was quite different from the past years. Finally, I could go to the racetrack for Portimao to take care of what I could do there.

Q: As you said, you didn’t get any championship points at Jerez 1. Which was the race where you felt the confidence that “maybe we can do it…”? Was it Red Bull Ring?

Sahara: Watching the race from Japan, I gradually became aware of it little by little around those races. I thought it wasn’t a good idea for us to start talking about the championship so I didn't say anything about it myself, but everyone in the company and the media encouraged me, saying, "it’s getting closer to us winning the title," almost every time they saw me! So, I started calculating the championship points and to be aware of the possibility more or less from Aragon.

Kawauchi: When we took a podium in Red Bull Ring 1, I felt things were coming into a better position. But, honestly speaking, it was Valencia that I thought about winning the championship. When Joan won the race at Valencia 1 and the "possibility" could become the "reality" the next weekend, I started to be conscious of it. Before that, my priority was doing a good race just ahead of us, so I was concentrating on getting good results as much as we could.

Q: I am sorry to say this, but you haven’t experienced fighting for the championship for almost twenty years. Did you feel pressure to be in that situation?

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Thu, 2021-01-14 15:48

Radio Ocotillo, the podcast from the Cinta Americana website featuring the Spanish-language work of Dennis Noyes, spoke to Ramon Forcada, crew chief to Franco Morbidelli of the Petronas Yamaha team. Veteran journalist Noyes was joined by Teledeporte commentator Judit Florensa and journalist Cristian Ramón Marín Sanchi, and spoke to Forcada for some 90 minutes. Noyes translated that fascinating conversation into English for readers, and split it into three parts.

In part one of Radio Ocotillo's interview with Ramon Forcada, he explained how he and Yamaha had managed almost an entire season on just two engines. In the second part, Forcada talked about all of the bikes he has worked on over the years compare, and what he thinks of MotoGP's current set of technical rules.

In the final part, Forcada talks about some of the riders he has worked with over the past thirty one years. From Casey Stoner to John Kocinski, from Alex Barros and Carlos Checa to Franco Morbidelli, Forcada explains how each of them were different and how he learned to understand them and collaborate. And he talks at length about what sets Franco Morbidelli apart from the rest.

Franco Morbidelli after qualifying for the Portimao MotoGP 2020 Grand Prix

Radio Ocotillo: After so many years in the paddock, you have worked with so many riders with such different personalities, if you had to choose the three riders whose company and character you must enjoyed, who would they be?

Ramon Forcada: Normally you'd choose the most recent, the ones you are either working with or have just been working with. If we are talking about affinity of character…and affinity of character doesn't mean that we had the best results together…but I'd say Franky, [Carlos] Checa and [Alex] Barros…they were the riders that I had the best understanding with.

You have good memories of all your riders and the only truly bad memories are from the crashes when the rider is injured. The results are anecdotal, but you remember what went well, what went badly, but from all your riders you learn something, from the fastest and from the slowest.

RO: You worked with a couple of riders that seemed to have great natural talent, one more successful than the other, but both seemed complicated and very talented. John Kocinski and Casey Stoner. Was there a common denominator?

RF: What they most have in common is that I worked with each only one year. Both were riders with innate ability…things came easily, especially to Casey who gave the impression that riding a motorcycle came naturally to him. I've got a thousand anecdotes of things Casey said or did. Casey would say, "Yeah, that's something other guys do but I don't need to do that."

I remember the first year we all went to Laguna Seca. It was Dani Pedrosa's first year too and Carmelo called us together on the first day when there was no practice and said that he'd take the new guys around the track and give them an idea what to expect with the Corkscrew and all that, blind corners, angles, etc.. But Casey said no. He said he'd see the track from the bike the next day. We all said, but maybe it would be useful…and he said, "I'll see it from the bike. Tomorrow you'll see." The next day on lap five he was under the track record. But he pushed himself to show us, me, Carmelo, Lucio, that he didn't need a ride in a car to go fast.

Casey Stoner at the 2009 Qatar MotoGP Round

John, for me, was more complicated. Casey was more open, easier to know as long as you didn't try and tell him something he didn't want to hear. To change one of his sacred ideas about how something should be was complicated. John was a thinker. His problem, at least the year he was with me, was that he had come from winning in SBK and the Honda engineer who worked with him told him one day when he was going badly in SBK, "If you win the SBK title next year you will have an NSR500." As soon as he heard that, he started winning races, because he had a clear objective. He started winning and won the title.

This wasn't in Honda's plans. Honda had no room for him. So, they put him on an NSR in Sito's team in 500cc where I was working. That was a case of a misunderstanding, voluntary or involuntary, you decide, but he decided to understand that he was entitled to a place in HRC and HRC said, "No, we promised you an NSR 500 Honda not a place in Honda HRC."

When you start out with an underground war where one says you said this and the other says you understood this but I never said it, it gets complicated and this kind of thing affected John. He was a perfectionist and if something got out of his control he was not comfortable. John had to control everything and this business of a Pons Honda or an HRC Honda was completely out of his hands.

RO: We have one question for you that Kevin Cameron sent. The question is basically…When will the factories realize that there are basically two types of riders… hard-braking, point-and-shoot, rough riders and corner-speed, long-trajectory smooth riders and whether the manufacturers consult the crew chiefs before they sign a rider?

RF: Fortunately, the selection of riders and all the politics and commercial considerations are not the concern of the technical staff. Maybe they mention a name and listen to our comments. The problem is that within the factories and within the teams everything is so separated. There are the managers, directors, sponsors and above all the sponsors have opinions.

If you, a sponsor, are paying so much to the team and the team wants to sign someone you don't like…for any reason, for his performance, for something in the past, for any reason…then there is a mess. In the factory teams no, but in the satellite teams the sponsors have to approve the signings. The sponsor is going to dress a rider in the colors of the product so the sponsor looks at the image of the rider and decides if he is suitable.

But the factories are completely independent, too independent to my way of thinking, and there are times they will sign a rider that makes no sense to the team, but sometimes they win, but there are times when the team looks at a signing and wonders why…was it because of the last race of the last season or for some other reason? But, as I said, fortunately, they don't consult us, the technical team. That would be all I needed…to be in the middle of all that!

I agree with Cameron that there are riders who are, let's say, corner-speed riders, but that is usually because they are coming from teams with bikes that need that style. If you are in Yamaha and you sign a rider from Suzuki, you know that he will not have trouble adapting, but if he comes from another kind of bike then there is doubt whether he will be able to make the change.

What is happening now is that with the riders coming up from Moto2, you don't have that kind of information. In Moto2 the bikes are more homogenous…so when a rider comes from Moto2 he is a bit of an unknown.

The two most famous failures of riders who could not adapt to a change of machine are Valentino [Rossi] in Ducati and Troy Bayliss in Honda. I worked in that Honda team and Troy was a great guy, easy to work with. He said, "I'd never say this bike is bad but I am completely incapable of riding it." And the truth is he went back to Ducati and SBK and then came to Valencia and won in MotoGP with the Ducati, but with the Honda V5 he was a disaster.

We got to such a point of desperation within the team…it was Troy and Alex Barros…that we did things you just don't do. We all didn't know what to do, Troy, Santi [Mulero], Sito [Pons], me, the Honda engineers…there was this rider who was so good on a Ducati and he was just so bad on the Honda that we changed bikes, we put him on Barros' bike. We thought maybe Troy's team was missing the setup and maybe he'd go well with Alex's bike…because Alex was winning races…but, no, he said, "The bike goes well but I am incapable of riding it". But when you sign a rider, even a rider as good as Troy, you can't know that. There are riders who adapt and riders who don't.

Now we have riders coming from Moto2 that we have no data on. Look at Fabio. This is the classic rider who surprised everyone. With the years I have in the paddock, if someone comes to me and says "I knew it," I just wouldn't believe that. Fabio didn't come up a winner from Moto2. He was a very good rider, but with very modest results, a rider who surprised everybody, starting with himself in MotoGP. And the opposite can happen. You have a rider like Valentino who is winning, who was winning championships, and you put him on the bike that Casey was winning races with and it just doesn't work, absolutely not at all.

RO: How does next year look? The engine problem, the plans to solve this year's problems.

RF: To the questions you just asked, I haven't got the slightest idea about any of it. The problem is that the motors are frozen. We can only work outside the engine.

You'll remember Yamaha brought a long exhaust pipe. The philosophy of Yamaha has always been the same and it will continue to the same. Yamaha will look for power but not at the cost of rideability. It is important for the factory that the bike continues to be a smooth motorcycle, a "sweet" and comfortable bike, not too aggressive…that is the DNA of Yamaha and that is what they want to conserve. They will not sacrifice handling and rideability for power.

The long exhaust pipe Yamaha experimented with at the Misano test in 2020

Circuits are generally a long straight and about fifteen corners. You can take a lot in the straight or in the fifteen turns. You have to choose. If you are fast on the straight but you are losing out in fifteen corners, you end up losing. That is different from Ducati and Honda…fast bikes on the straight but they must work to get them to turn. The Yamaha is a rider-friendly bike, not a bike that you have to fight with.

With respect to next year's bikes, we have the engines frozen and I don't know if they have consulted with IRTA or Dorna, the FIM or the MSMA. I don't know if changing an engine mount or any external piece without altering the aerodynamics is considered evolution or not, and then there is the political-economic question in Yamaha of deciding that if one bikes costs more, someone has to decide who gets which bike.

RO: Remembering the wall that stood in the garage between Jorge and Valentino and the tension between those two riders, it would seem the Petronas team next year would be a team made in heaven with two riders, Valentino and Franky who are the best of friend, To what extent is the Petronas garage one single team…will there be direct interchange of information? We remember that in the days of the wall the atmosphere was more like the KGB and the CIA.

RF: When there was the wall there was a passing of information, but it was all in one direction because the status of the riders was different. Yamaha had no problem telling Jorge and I that we weren't getting any data from Valentino and that we should figure it out by ourselves, but Yamaha had a harder time saying that to Jerry and Valentino. The first year of the wall was logical because of the difference in tires and with different tires the data wouldn't have meant much anyway.

For me the fact we have two friends in the team….well, for me that's well and good, but when they get on the bikes and go out on the track they need to forget about being friends. We will have shared information, sharing of data, consultation…I've already been talking to David [Muñoz, Rossi's crew chief, also Spanish] about how he solved problems that he and Valentino had, but they are different riders…if David tells me Valentino had a problem that was solved with a 10 Newton spring, but that might not work at all for Franky.

And I'd like to add something about Franky that is very important. He always wants to understand why things were done, why he got the results that he did, and that's why he doesn't panic. He is the rider who is the most sure of himself that I have ever worked with until now, in thirty years. You know there are aluminum and carbon swingarms that come and go. Now we try this one and then the other one. Franky is the only one who said, after trying them both in a couple of circuits, "put the aluminum one in the crusher, in the trash. I don't ever want to see it again." This, for a technician, is wonderful.

Talking about the Yamaha 2019 and the 2020…yes, we run a different swing warm, but it is because he chose to. They can have the one we have and we can have the one they have, but the good thing about Franky is that when things weren't working he never had the temptation to say that because we were using a different swingarm, the problem must be the swingarm, He just said, this is my swingarm, the one I like, the one I chose, and he forgot completely about the other swingarm. He erased it from his mind.

This is wonderful because I have worked with lots of riders who are happy with everything and then when they have a problem they want to go back to a component that they were using before they had the problem. That is when you have problems, when you get lost.

There was also the matter of the new Ohlins shock this year. We didn't have it at first because of a decision by Yamaha. We asked for it because we understood how it was made, and we thought it could work for us. We tried it. It didn't work because it was a new component…not an adjustment to an old component.

We knew we had to work with it. It had good and bad qualities at first. We saw it had this and this and this that was good and this and this and this that was bad, so we said we'd work hard with it and if we found, on the whole, that the bad outweighed the good, we would forget it. But we found that its good points exceeded the bad, so we made the decision to throw away the old shock and work only with the new one and Franky never used the other again. Even in the rain, when we were short of extra shocks and we could have mounted the old shock on the rain bike, he said that the new shock was his shock, for dry, for rain, for snow, and he didn't want to see the old one.

This mentality for me, for the technician, makes things so much better. Maybe the day he makes a mistake he will stick to his mistake, but, up until now, he hasn't made any mistakes. Yes, our bike is different, but many of the parts that are different from the other Yamahas are only on our bike because we chose them.

RO: We could go on for at least another half hour but the Barcelona game is about to start…

RF: A half hour only? We jumped from 1990 to 2002 all in one go, and there must be at least two hours in those twelve years. But it has been a real pleasure to talk about bikes with you. A pleasure. Hasta pronto!

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Mon, 2021-01-11 18:31

Ramon Forcada comes from the motorcycle racing heartland of Catalunya. He hails from the small town of Moià, capital of "comarca" of Moianès, located almost equidistant from the homes of two of Spain's best-known roadracers: Spain's first 500cc champion, Alex Crivillé, is from Seva, about 14 miles east of Moià, and Spain's first and only World Superbike Champion, Carlos Checa is from Sant Fruitós de Bages, about the same distance in the other way. Both Crivillé, in 125cc and 250cc, and Checa, in MotoGP, raced and won with machines fettled by Ramon.

In the most recent episode of Radio Ocotillo, a series of Spanish-language podcasts dedicated to MotoGP and WorldSBK from the Cinta Americana website of Dennis Noyes, Forcada, currently crew chief for Franco Morbidelli in the Petronas Yamaha MotoGP team, talked about the 2020 season that saw Morbidelli, on a 2019 Petronas Yamaha, win three GPs and take second to Joan Mir in the championship.

Morbidelli's break-out season is the most recent success in Forcada's 31-year career in GP racing that began when he ran the test bed program during Crivillé's championship-winning season on a Rotax-powered 125cc JJ-Cobas in 1989. Over the years, Forcada was crew chief for five riders who have won premier class Grands Prix (Alex Barros, Carlos Checa, Jorge Lorenzo, Maverick Viñales and Franco Morbidelli) and, more famously, he headed the technical crew the took Jorge Lorenzo to Yamaha's last three MotoGP titles.

We concentrate here on Forcada's MotoGP accomplishments, but, as background, we should note that in 1989 Ramon was earning his living transporting hazardous materials across Europe. Motorcycles were a passion and a hobby and he rode and worked on all manner of two-stroke off-road machines in the mid to late eighties. It was during this time he met the OSSA engineer Eduard Giró who mentored Forcada when he undertook to prepare two-stroke roadracers for the Solo Moto Criterium racing series. He was later contacted by Giró and legendary Spanish engineer and chassis designer Antonio Cobas to take over test bed operations with the 125cc Rotax engine that powered Alex Crivillé, at age 19, to the 125cc world title, defeating strong and well-funded teams from Honda, Derbi and Aprilia.

Ramon has done it all…raced offroad, worked as a flag marshal at the 24 Hours of Montjuic and learned his trade working with some of the best…like Eduard Giró, Antonio Cobas, Erv Kanemoto, etc.. Ramon makes no bones about the fact that he still prefers two-strokes to four-strokes and that he misses they days when he was rebuilding and even modifying factory engines, but he has evolved with MotoGP and combines his experience as a suspension technician and engine builder with an ability understand and interpret riders and to make and stick to an orderly working plan over a race weekend, always keeping focus on that two o'clock start time on Sunday.

The duration of our podcast was just over 90 minutes. We might have gone on longer but there was a Barcelona match on TV that evening and nothing but a Grand Prix can keep Ramon from following his beloved "Barça."

To make this into a form more easily digestible when reading on the internet, the interview has been chopped into three parts. Part 1 covers how Franco Morbidelli adapted to the Yamaha, how Forcada managed two engines to last for almost an entire fourteen-race season, and how to use electronics to control the power delivery of a MotoGP machine. Part 2 discusses the differences between the 2020 and 2019 Yamahas, and looks at the various machines Forcada has worked with throughout his career, and Part 3 sees Forcada talk about some of the very famous riders he has worked with in the past.

Radio Ocotillo: When you raced two consecutive weekends at the same circuit this season, did you make any radical changes from one race to another or only small changes working from the same base settings?

Ramon Forcada: No. I think our secret is that we haven't made a single radical change all season long. For me, the great difference between our season this year and last year, apart from the tight schedule and the problems from Covid-19, has been the mentality of our rider. If you will recall, Franky came into the team as the number 2 rider. The original #1, when all this was first discussed at the end of 2018, was to have been Jorge Lorenzo and then the new #1 was to have been Dani Pedrosa…in fact I was talking to Dani at the time and it was all nearly, nearly done until he decided not to continue racing. In all these preseason talks Franky was the second rider. When Dani decided not to race there was a change of roles and Franky became the number 1 rider and they signed Fabio Quartararo who became the number 2.

In 2019 both our bikes were equal but with a different plan for evolution during the season. This was according to the contracts, the budgets and the expectations. It was decided that Franky would have a full factory 2019 bike in 2019 and that Fabio would get the same bike but without updates during the season. So, what happened? Franky came from a season with a client-level Honda with very significant "vices." He was accustomed to a bike that was completely different from the Yamaha. Fabio came with no experience in MotoGP, a MotoGP virgin with no acquired "vices" from another MotoGP bike, and he went really well. His season last year was incredible and Franky was, we could say, in the shadow of Fabio.

Franco Morbidelli leads the 2020 Barcelona MotoGP race

There were two ways to take this: one was to say that here was this guy, new to the class, who was faster and better, or to look at the positive side of things, and this is what Franky did. So, over the winter, he said to himself, what I have been doing is not enough to even beat my own team mate, because Fabio has shown that with this bike you can fight for wins. If everyone who has the same bike that you have is running outside the top ten, then you have a shield…you can say, this is not a top-ten bike, but when the guy in your team with the same bike, a bike that in theory is inferior…although very quickly Yamaha brought evolution to Fabio's side of the garage…is fighting for podiums, then you have to say to yourself, I can do the same.

RO: All season long we have Heard Yamaha riders, especially Fabio and Maverick, complain of lack of grip in the Yamaha. What was happening with the M1?

RF: That was not happening just with the M1, it was happening with all the bikes. When there is grip the bikes go well and when there is not the bikes go badly. The grip comes from the track. When there is no grip there is a change in priorities. The rider becomes more important because the electronics aren't capable of solving the problem with the variations in grip and that means the rider has to play with the throttle in his hand and lately riders are not so accustomed to this. When the grip goes away you have to go to different settings.

It's clear that when you have a bike that is working and it starts to rain you have to go to different settings. The change from dry to wet is a very exaggerated change but you have got to make changes to use what grip remains to be able to corner, to accelerate and to brake so the rider can ride, so he can control it, so that he can play with it…and he has to play with it a lot more with little grip than with lots of grip. You have to change the bike so that the rider is capable of riding it, feeling it and this is all in the hands of the rider.

And here I think there is an important factor in Franky…a mental factor…he worked all winter to convince himself, to believe that he could do it, so that when hard times came he could remain convinced, because if you build your confidence during seven months, telling yourself "I can do it, I can do it," and then with the first problem that comes up you deflate, all you did over those off-season months is useless.

This year it has been much easier to work with him because he had it very clear in his mind that the races are on Sunday, that the bikes are never perfect and that you have to work and work knowing that we, the team, has a plan, that we know what we are doing. That is very important, because at times you find that you are working with riders who, after you and the team and the rider have made a plan and everyone agrees on the plan…like, you decide in a free practice not to put on a new tire or not to use a soft tire and you know this can mean you are outside the Q2, that you may be twelfth or thirteenth or fourteenth, but that you are following a testing plan…and the rider agrees, and then he comes in during the session and sees where he is and he wants to change the plan.

With Franky, he doesn't like being twelfth…no rider does…but he has understood all along why he's twelfth or thirteenth and what we are doing and why and so he never panics and says "I'm stuck in thirteenth." Franky sees he is thirteenth because the others put in a new soft tire, but that we had followed our plan of making a long run on a used tire while the rider on the other side of the garage has been in and out on a soft, a medium and then made a time attack on a new soft and he's on the pole…there aren't many riders who are capable of accepting their situation and staying on the work path.

Franco Morbidelli at the 2020 Emilia-Romagna MotoGP round at Misano

If we are thirteenth because we can't go faster, that is a complete disaster, but if we are thirteenth because we have gathered information and completed the plan, then we know we are going to improve and there is no panic and we all know what we can do in the next session. The technical difference between what riders have is very small. The fact is when you have a good base and the rider is comfortable with this base and when the rider feels that this is my bike, my bike and we can adjust it and play with little things and there is no reason to make big changes, no need to construct a new motorcycle from one session to another, this is a great advantage because we can look at little things…this made it better, this didn't, we can tweak this or that, but not build a complete new bike…because this is his bike, our bike, and we can fix it to suit him.

RO: One of the things that journalists have discussed this year is how your team managed all the races after Jerez, twelve races, with just two engines. All sorts of calculations were made over the year and many journalists predicted that you would have to drop in a sixth engine. Since the third race of the season, you had to work with a rotation of two motors, didn't you?

RF: I didn't have enough motors to rotate. Easier for me (laughs). Less work. When you have three motors you have a rotation. When there are only two you don't have to do anything except take care of them so they don't break. No, I'm joking. Yes, there were just two motors after Jerez and after what happened with our third engine…a situation that was out of our hands and that worked against us after the engines breakages in the first race and we went to different engines for the second race, engines that were different, and we broke one of those motors, one of those that you could say, in theory, were the "new" ones.

And after that there was a bit of panic as we were looking at the rest of the season with just two engines and they had to last all season. The mechanics had more work to do because we had to treat the engines like babies…we had to control everything. There are many systems to control the motor without opening them, without disturbing the seals, and obviously Yamaha didn't break a seal because then we would have had problems, but Jordi Perez (who works with Technical Director Danny Aldridge) was always there to make sure that didn't happen. (Laughs.)

So, to be on top of everything without opening a motor you have to work with optic devices, introducing mini-cameras via the exhaust, via the plug holes, etc, and work hard to keep everything perfect. Change oil a lot. That ended up costing Petronas a lot of oil! We used almost more oil than gasoline! Since we had to make these engines last we were changing oil every ten minutes. It was more work for the mechanics, but we knew we could manage it.

There are a couple of factors. That was one. The other was controlling performance. When you have checked, decarbonized and babied the engine as much as possible and you see the output remains stable, that's a good sign. If the performance begins to suffer then you know you've got a problem coming, but we had no decrease in performance through the final race of the season.

It was extra work, staying on top of everything, but we had no choice. We had no more motors in the truck. The journalists were all making calculations on when we'd need to go to another motor. I said to the crew, jokingly, we've got to make these motors last because there are seven million people out there worried sick about them. (Laughs.) Nobody worried about our engines more than the press."

RO: And many observers theorized that you had cut revs. Some thought you were turning down revs for free practice and turning them up for Q2.

RF: All this about RPM is an amusing story. You have to understand how the motor is constructed. We don't have infinite RPM…if your engine revs, say, 20,000, you can't turn it up to 25,000. You have the maximum power at certain revs and the maximum torque at certain revs. You can't change that but you can play with the rev limiters. But the truth is that we never lowered the rev limit in any practice session or in any race. All that has been said about our rev limits is not true. We never cut revs.

But I'll tell you what we did do and how we did it. The motors have an RPM limiter that we call an ignition cut. That high and no higher. At this RPM, the ignition ceases. This is what you hear when the fans in the camp grounds of Jerez go wild at night revving their engines in neutral. Gas flat out and you hear pa-pa-pa-pa! That is the hard ignition cut. But before you arrive at the hard cut, there is a soft limiter that serves to prevent you from reaching that hard cut.

The cut is a disaster for everything and first of all for the tires. It is a disaster for the tires, it is a disaster for the motor because it causes oscillations of power and revs that are terrible, and it is a disaster for the rider because, no matter how good the ignition cut is, it creates vibrations throughout the motor that cause movement because you have a sudden loss of power. This is bad in every way, except to avoid, let's say, breaking a rod or crossing valves, but you don't avoid anything else.

So, the soft limiter warns you and prevents arriving at the abrupt ignition cut. What this does is back off the power right before maximum RPM, lowering the power just before the limit. The only thing we did was manage, via the gearing, was that we never went beyond the soft limiter and avoided that the soft limiter came into play often. The soft limiter is not so bad, but it's not good for the engine either and since we found ourselves in a critical situation we decided to avoid it. That was a matter of studying where we were in revs in all gears in each session…if we were getting into the soft limiter here in this gear then we would lengthen the gearing so we would give us another 50 RPM before reaching the soft limiter. But we never lowered the overall rev limit all season long.

RO: Were these strategies dictated by the factory, by Yamaha? Were these strategies worked out among the team or did the factory devise them?

RF: No, no! This was all done by us. This is all done when we set up the gearbox and gearing. When you decide on the gearing, after you see where you are short or long on gearing and after hearing what the rider says. If there is a straight where in fourth gear you are getting into the soft limiter then next time out you lengthen the gearing in that place 2 or 3 km/h and that takes you right up to the point where the soft limiter starts to act.

All you get from Yamaha is the basic numbers…this motor works up to 20,000 or this motor works up to 17,000*…that is where the absolute engine cut comes in, but there are a thousand strategies because it is not always good to work at maximum power or maximum torque.

Let me give you an example from 125cc racing. What we did was let all the gears wind out to 13,000 RPM but in sixth we geared for 12,500 because at 13,000 in sixth gear with the 125 you were in the zone where power was starting to drop away so you hold your top speed but there is no more acceleration…no more torque, no more push, so you run up to 12,500 where you still have push, torque, but not to the point where you lose all power.

Franco Morbidelli climbs the hill and slides through Turn 13 at Valencia

This is with the two stroke but it is also true with the four stroke. There are corners like turn 13 in Valencia, the left-hander before the last corner onto the home straight, where everybody in MotoGP used fourth, but if you look at it from a strictly technical point of view you are doing it badly in fourth. Depending on the rider, Turn 12 is in second or third and it doesn't matter which, but you come to Turn 13 you take it in fourth even though on the computer screen it is a third-gear corner.

But because of the configuration of the corner, the banking, the elevation change, the available grip, if you take it in at the peak torque of the engine, you'll never get around the corner because it will be spinning, sliding, twisting, moving all over, with terrible pumping while you are banked way over with high power. So the solution is you take the corner in the wrong gear, the gear that is not ideal, so instead of having the motor at 15,000 you are coming out with 12,000…less torque, but softer power, so you don't always go to maximum RPM, you go to what the tire, the bike and the rider can manage.

Look, those curves you take in first and second and even third, you can't use full power. If you are running a second gear that reaches 240 km/h with the power you have, if the rider were really to open up all the power the bike could not take it, the tires couldn't handle it. So you are always lowering the power almost everywhere. Always. This is evident. No tire at low speed could handle such a brutal power delivery in second or third.

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Tue, 2021-01-05 00:38

Miguel Oliveira on the Tech3 KTM at Portimao 2020

The final podium of the Covid-19 compressed 2020 MotoGP season neatly encapsulated so many parts of this strange and fascinating year. On the top step stood Miguel Oliveira, his second victory in a breakthrough year for both him and KTM. Beside him stood Jack Miller, the Ducati rider taking his second podium in a row. And on the third step stood Franco Morbidelli, arguably the strongest rider of 2020, outperforming the 2020 Yamahas on a 2019 M1.

The podium was emblematic in another way, too. All three riders were racing for satellite teams: Oliveira for the Red Bull KTM Tech3 team, Miller for Pramac Ducati, and Morbidelli for the Petronas Yamaha SRT squad. Furthermore, Morbidelli's third place finish wrapped up second spot in the MotoGP team championship for Petronas Yamaha, behind the factory Suzuki Ecstar squad and ahead of the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team.

It was the first time since Qatar in 2004 that the podium had consisted solely of riders in satellite teams. The 2004 race was won by Sete Gibernau, who finished ahead of his Gresini Honda teammate Colin Edwards. Ruben Xaus was third across the line, nearly 24 seconds back, riding a D'Antin Ducati. Xaus finished ahead of the two factory Repsol Hondas, Alex Barros crossing the line 6 seconds before Nicky Hayden.

(Parenthetically, the Qatar 2004 race marked the high point of the feud between Valentino Rossi and Sete Gibernau, after Gibernau's Gresini team informed Race Direction that Rossi and Max Biaggi had been cleaning their grid spots on the sandy Losail International Circuit the evening after qualifying. After the race, Rossi vowed that Gibernau would never win another MotoGP race again. The curse worked: the Spaniard never finished better than second, retiring from MotoGP due to injury after the 2006 season, with only an abortive return for six races in 2009.)

Franco Morbidelli on the Petronas Yamaha at Aragon 2020

An all-satellite podium at Portimão reinforced just how strong satellite teams were in 2020. In 14 races, satellite riders finished on the podium 16 times, including 8 victories. That is a win rate for satellite teams of 57.1%, the highest rate in the MotoGP era (that is, starting in 2002 when four stroke machines started to replace the 500cc two strokes which had dominated the Grand Prix racing premier class since 1976).

The 2020 satellite podium rate of 38.1% has only been bettered twice before in the MotoGP era: in 2003, when satellite bikes took 43.8% of the available podium positions, and in 2004, when they took 56.3% of podiums, both from seasons of 16 races. In terms of raw numbers, too, only 2004 and 2003 were better for satellite teams, with satellite riders finishing on the podium 27 times in 2004, and 21 times in 2003. But in neither year did satellite riders take as many victories, 7 in 2004 and 6 in 2003 compared to 8 in 2020.

Before we put this into a wider historical perspective, we should really address the elephant in the room. One reason that there were so many podiums for satellite riders is because notorious podium hog Marc Márquez was absent all year. Through the 19 races of the 2019 season, Marc Márquez was on the podium in all but one race. Márquez finished either first or second everywhere except Austin, where he crashed out of the lead.

Marc Marquez at the Jerez MotoGP round in 2020

But even if we assume Márquez would have been able to repeat this incredible achievement in 2020, it would not have made that much difference to the number of podiums for satellite riders. If we gave Márquez a first or a second place for all 14 races, satellite riders only finished in third on three separate occasions this year – Johann Zarco at Brno, Jack Miller at Austria 1, and Franco Morbidelli at Portimão. So putting Marc Márquez on the podium in all of this year's races would still leave satellite riders with 13 podiums out of a possible total of 42, a podium rate of 31%. That is still the third highest podium rate for satellite riders in the MotoGP era, behind 2004 and 2003, though in raw numbers, it pushes 2020 down into fifth place, behind 2004 (27), 2003 (21), 2019 (15), and 2005 (14). All those season had far more races, however.

So how does 2020 compare to the rest of the MotoGP era? Here is an overview of podiums for satellite riders since the beginning of the MotoGP era in 2002:

Satellite podiums by year

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Sat, 2020-12-19 11:40

Jonathan Rea on the WorldSBK Kawasaki ZX10-RR

Why don’t Kawasaki race in MotoGP? It’s a question asked almost as frequently as why doesn’t Jonathan Rea switch to MotoGP? The simple answer is money. For a fraction of the money Kawasaki spent to finish at the back of a MotoGP field they’ve been able to dominate the Superbike World Championship for the best part of ten years.

Six titles in a row and 123 victories since 2011 versus five podiums in six years. The cost of investment in their Superbike project is a fraction of what they spent in MotoGP but their results are enough for them to sell the ZX10-RR as the all conquering Superbike on the planet. It’s a marketing dream compared to the nightmare of trying to sell being a MotoGP backmarker.

Since Rea signed for Kawasaki in 2015 he has won 81 races and six titles as a Kawasaki rider. Aprilia started their MotoGP programme the same year. Who’s had better value for money? There’s only one winner in that discussion.

Teamwork makes the dream work

For a generation Kawasaki has found a partner team. At one point Paul Bird’s squad ran the Kawasaki programme in WorldSBK, with limited success, but since 2012 it has been the Provec Racing operation run by Guim Roda, and the results speak for themselves. First Tom Sykes and presently Rea have dominated to such a degree that the role of Provec is undervalued.

The team has faded into the background and morphed into Kawasaki in most people's eyes. That’s deceiving however. The success of Kawasaki in WorldSBK owes much to the team behind the scenes. The Roda brothers have developed a close knit squad that has been together for over ten years, with all roles within the team being decided by the team rather than a manufacturer. Even riders looking to bring people into the squad can be a challenge. A trusted mechanic might get the nod, but we’ve rarely seen that happen.

Provec value consistency above all else. They want the same faces in the box and the results have been remarkable. No stone is left unturned and this team truly is remarkable. Their professionalism was light years ahead of other WorldSBK teams for a long time and was above most MotoGP outfits too.

Parallels with Pramac

If you look for a comparison in the Grand Prix ranks Pramac Racing is an apt one. The Italian squad has developed a close relationship with Ducati over the years and flourished into a leading team. Provec would have been able to achieve the exact same success if they had been a MotoGP team rather than a Superbike squad.

Provec run their operation to a budget that comes from a variety of loyal sponsors as well as from Japan. Kawasaki provide resources and support, but the Spanish arm of the operation is what makes it tick. It’s what makes it successful.

Want a clear example? Look no further than the Suzuka 8 Hours. The Japanese race is unique on the calendar and a “must win” event for all the Japanese manufacturers. Kawasaki brought Rea and Leon Haslam to the event in 2018 as part of Team Green. There was some support from Provec, Pere Riba was the project leader, but success wasn’t attained. Mistakes in the race dogged the team and for 2019 Provec ran the entire operation.

Taking their usual WorldSBK squad to Japan they won the most prestigious race on the calendar at the first attempt. It was a remarkable achievement but the success went beyond simply having factory riders and mechanics; they brought their WorldSBK press officer to Japan and a host of other staff. The close-knit nature of the team has fostered loyalty from both sides.

Would Kawasaki ever move to MotoGP? Not a chance in the near future. The bigger question should be whether Provec would cast an eye over at the Grand Prix paddock instead...

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