What went wrong for Jorge Lorenzo in 2016? A lot of things. The Spaniard was quickest during the Sepang test, a full second faster than his teammate. He started the season strongly, with a win at Qatar, then a strong run of form from Austin to Mugello, finishing either first or second every race except in Argentina, where he crashed. That crash perhaps foreshadowed what was to come: unable to match the pace of the leaders, he pushed hard to manage the gap. He went slightly off line and hit a damp patch on the track, and lost the front.
The cause of that problem – Michelin's tires in poor grip conditions – would be a recurring pattern. At Barcelona, after the track layout was changed to make it safer in response to the tragic death of Luis Salom, Lorenzo was once again struggling, and was wiped out by an impatient Andrea Iannone. At Assen, the Sachsenring, Brno and Silverstone, Lorenzo had an awful time in the wet. At Phillip Island, it was the same, this time cold temperatures in the race causing problems after so much of practice was washed out by the rain.
Why was Lorenzo struggling? Was it really just a question of the Spaniard being afraid of the rain? Or is there something more to it than that? And how will Lorenzo cope with this on the Ducati next year?
The interface between bike and track
The answer to all of these questions revolve around tires, and grip. Jorge Lorenzo's riding style requires several key things: a bike that is stable in corners, a front tire with good, predictable grip, and a rear tire with a lot of edge grip. Because his riding style relies so heavily on corner speed, his bike is set up long and more softly sprung than other riders, making it more difficult to generate heat into the tires.
The extreme lean angles Lorenzo achieves cause problems in both the wet and the dry. When Cal Crutchlow was still riding a Yamaha M1 with the Tech 3 team, and could see Lorenzo's data for comparison, he told us repeatedly "the only time I get the same lean angle as Jorge is just before I crash."
Maintaining those lean angles requires intense concentration and physical control. It also requires a very stable bike. Any disturbance of the bike makes it much harder to control. The unified software had a detrimental effect in 2016, engine response at part throttle not quite as smooth as it was last year, when Yamaha could use their own software.
Rain, rain, go away
But it was in the wet that Lorenzo suffered most. That was because the rubber on Michelin's rain tires moved much more than the Spaniard was used to. In his first races on the tires, he felt he was constantly on the verge of crashing, and it wasn't until Brno that he really started to get his head around the tires. It did not help him much, however, Lorenzo suffering in the wet at Phillip Island, and to a lesser extent, Sepang.
Lorenzo has been here before, of course. At the start of the 2014 season, Lorenzo arrived at Sepang out of shape after off-season surgery. He arrived to find that Bridgestone had added a heat-resistant layer to all of their tires, aimed at preventing overheating problems which had caused tires to lose rubber at some races in 2012. In addition, the reduction in fuel capacity from 21 to 20 liters meant that throttle response was much rougher than he was used to. It took a software update mid-season and a compound change by Bridgestone (going a step softer on the edge of the tires) for Lorenzo to regain his confidence. With these changes, Lorenzo was winning races again.
So in some respects, 2016 felt like a repeat of 2014 for Jorge Lorenzo. After Scott Redding blew out a rear tire during practice in Argentina, Michelin immediately shipped a new batch of tires with a stiffer carcass to the next round at Austin. Worried by both Redding's blow out and that of Loris Baz, whose rear tire had exploded during the Sepang test, later diagnosed as having been caused by something on the track, Michelin started designing all their tires around this newer tire. The changed carcass made it much harder to get heat into the rear tire, and Lorenzo could no longer carry the corner speed he needed.
Words from Wilco
At Valencia, I spoke at some length with Wilco Zeelenberg about Lorenzo's problems with the Michelin tires through the 2016 season. It was a conversation I had had with the Yamaha team manager several times this year, but this time, I got him on the record, rather than in an informal chat.
I started off by asking if all Lorenzo's problems stemmed from a lack of grip on the edge of the tire. "That's when he can be beaten, that's right," Zeelenberg answered. "It's all related to his riding style. We all know he's not a very late braker, and that he enters the corner with a lot of speed and carries it through the corner. That combination means he exits the corner very fast too. But you need a lot of side grip for that, and edge grip. If you're missing that feeling, well..."
Is it more about the grip or feeling? "Both. What we are struggling with at the moment is getting heat into the tires with his riding style when it's cold." It was a problem Lorenzo had at both ends of the bike, Zeelenberg said, not just the front. "That's because the Michelins generate grip in a completely different way to the Bridgestones. They either had it or they didn't."
Relying on the rear
Zeelenberg referred back to the 2014 season. "We had a lot of problems with the heat treatment tires from Bridgestone." But the biggest change had come when Michelin had changed its tires in response to the incident with Redding. "The biggest difference is that they had really good rear tires at the start of the year, and they got rid of them. And that was a really bad combination for [Lorenzo], because he relies an awful lot on the rear tire, and asks a bit less from the front, because he brakes earlier than the rest."
The changes made from Argentina had affected Lorenzo more than other riders. "He is one of the riders who had a lot more problems with the tires than others. Especially Valentino, he can ride a bike which is spinning the rear. If it spins more, that's not such a big deal. But for Jorge, you see that the more he spins the rear, the more he loses his feeling from the tire at the end of the race. And that means his pace drops as well. Valentino didn't have so many problems with that."
Zeelenberg expanded on that question, when I asked if it meant that the tires were wearing in a particular pattern. "Yes, especially for his riding style. If you square the bike off more and lift the thing up, it spins more on the fatter part of the tire." Lorenzo's riding style is to carry the bike on the edge of the tire. Less rubber there meant that there was less rubber to manage a spinning tire.
Different tracks, different rubber
Zeelenberg gave Sepang and Phillip Island as tracks where Lorenzo had suffered as a result of the stiffer rear Michelins. "Malaysia and Phillip Island, they brought a really hard rear, a stiff carcass, because tire wear is so high there. He just can't get the best out of those tires, because they basically have less grip. Now we are here [at Valencia] again, and because this track is so different to the last two races, we are back to the carcass used at Brno, at Misano, and a couple more races. It uses different compounds, but the tire carcass suits him much better. So I expect a lot more of him."
Zeelenberg's expectations were more than rewarded. The Spaniard destroyed the pole record by six tenths of a second, and led the race from start to finish. Give Jorge Lorenzo the right tires, and he will get the job done.
What about the Ducati?
I also pushed Zeelenberg to opine on how Lorenzo would perform on board the Ducati Desmosedici. Despite being a keen observer, the Dutchman was not willing to venture an outright opinion. Would Lorenzo struggle more with the Ducati or the tires in 2017? "I can't answer that," Zeelenberg laughed. "It's hard to say. Obviously, if Michelin bring a rock hard tire, then his biggest problem will be that he hasn't got any grip. But it will probably be more a combination of things. But the rest of them are all going fast on the bike. I mean, Dovizioso is winning on the bike, Iannone is winning on it, so I can't see why he wouldn't be able to win on it."
Lorenzo's first outing on the Ducati at Valencia was promising. He was third quickest on the first day, and ended in eighth place on the second day, just a few hundredths behind his former teammate Valentino Rossi on the Yamaha. That, of course, was with the same rear tire as he had used in the race. The real test of Lorenzo's adaptation will be seeing how quick he is in Sepang, on the tires Michelin take there.