Rider insight with Freddie Spencer: Qatar preview

by Freddie Spencer on 17th March 2017

The first in a new series – three-time motorcycle world champion Freddie Spencer looks ahead to the Qatar race next weekend. 


This year Motor Sport is going to take you further behind the scenes of the sport than ever before. After each MotoGP round Freddie Spencer will review the race from a rider's perspective. Mat Oxley will be covering all aspects of the racing as before. 

Watch out for Karun Chandhok giving the driver's perspective on F1 and a soon-to-be-announced sports car star commenting on the World Endurance Championship.  

Got something to ask them? Then leave a comment below!


Transcript

“Hi. I’m Freddie Spencer and I’m really excited to be involved with Motor Sport Magazine’s 2017 MotoGP coverage.

“Let’s talk about winter testing. This winter has been very exciting – new bikes in the field from KTM, riders changing, different manufacturers and it’s been interesting to see all of the developments so far. This past weekend has been no different.

“Qatar is very unique because they race at night, so the testing is of course done in those conditions. Each night it can be a little bit different, depending on the humidity. The track can get a little bit damp and so it can be a bit tricky, especially when you’re trying to test, because you run a lot of laps and you’re trying to run a lot of hard laps, so there’s not much margin for error.

“The other thing about Qatar is the fact that it’s in the desert, so of course the race track can be pretty dirty. When there’s a limited amount of bikes on the track, as there was on each of these days, the track doesn’t get that clean. In act, we saw a lot of crashes, caused by the riders being caught out when they ran a bit off line, getting onto the dirty bit of the racetrack and crashing. So it certainly can be a track that really manifests itself in that way.

“Now let’s talk about the riders – first the British guys. Scott Redding this weekend really showed the potential that a lot of people expected from him. He was certainly more comfortable on the bike, which I think is attributed a little bit to the Ducatis, because there are different age bikes out there from the ’15, ’16, ’17 models, and so they seem to be pretty versatile with different riding styles. I think that is certainly of benefit to Scott, for example, going onto the Ducati.

“It’s great to see – a young rider, who struggled when he was on the Honda, with a lot of expectation and maybe this is the year that he is really going to show us his potential. That would be great to see.

“Now Cal Crutchlow, who has been doing a lot of testing with the Honda. Coming off last year and his two victories, he expects a lot. The LCR team has good support from Honda and with the new big-bang engine he seems to be adjusting to that. He is also running a slightly different chassis to the one that Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez are running. It would be great for him to get a good start to the season in Qatar.

“The rider that made the biggest change this year is Jorge Lorenzo. Going into Qatar, he’s been struggling a little bit in some of the tests. One of the reasons why that he’s talked about is the adjustment riding-style wise to the Ducati. There’s talk about two main areas – one is corner entry. The Ducati, like a lot of motorcycles at this level, is very stiff so it requires a pretty good amount of front brake pressure to get the motorcycle not only slowed down, but to transfer some weight forward, load that front tyre, and utilise it to slow down that front wheel on corner entry to be able to help it feed into the corner so you can carry good speed.

“Jorge has been used to running a lot of lean-angle, a lot of corner speed coming from 250s and the M1 kind of helped him in that respect. On this Ducati it’s a little bit different. It’s a different animal and a different difficulty in getting the bike to not only slow down but to be able to change direction on the entry to the corner.

“The second part of that is when he gets the bike on its side. Again like I said, he likes to run with a good amount of corner speed. It’s well documented that the Ducati struggles once you get off the brakes and before it really begins to accelerate at lean angle to be able to hold its line and even continue to change direction a little bit.

“It doesn’t seem that just making chassis changes and adjustments seem to help in that way. It’s been a fundamental issue with the design of the bike, so that would require – as Casey Stoner did such a great job before – really being able to use the rear of the motorcycle to add your approach to corners, helping to get it to rotate, so the front of the motorcycle doesn’t have to do as much work. Jorge is not in that position yet.

“We’ll see if he can make those adjustments. He showed this weekend with the softer tyre that he can run one good lap, but once they put on the harder tyre, which you need obviously for the race distance, it doesn’t give you quite as much edge grip and he’s struggling.

“For Dovizioso its the same thing. Going into Qatar, we know it’s a track that the Ducati seems to be pretty strong at and so if they struggle there it may not bode too well for the rest of the season as we get to other racetracks.

“Valentino Rossi – we know he’s a great racer and he has two main strengths. One has always been his race pace on Sunday afternoons. He has always been able to make adjustments with the motorcycle. But I’ve always noticed that one of his main strengths is corner entry. Heavy on the brakes, carrying a lot of entry speed is where he makes up a lot of time and is good at passing people.

“Michelin has changed this year to a softer carcass construction front tyre. The reason why is to give the riders, once they get in the corner on the brakes and get the bike in, better feedback from the fronts so they know what the grip level is. A stiffer construction tyre doesn’t really give that same amount of feedback or even warning when it gets close to losing grip. They were hoping – and there was good feedback from the riders – that a softer construction tyre would be better.

“Now that would hurt someone like Valentino, who needs that little stiffer construction because he is really heavy on the brakes on corner entry. They’re working on getting the bike set-up and making adjustments trying to help him with that and I’m sure they’ll get it figured out. He’s probably holding a little something back too until the first race gets here.

“His team-mate Maverick Viñales has really shown his ability to adapt to the new M1. If you have a look at the different racetracks from Valencia to Malaysia to Philip Island and now Qatar, they’re all a little bit different and he’s been quick at every single one.

“That doesn’t really surprise me that much as the Suzuki that he came from is a pretty good motorcycle, particularly its chassis which Suzuki is kind of known for. They did a great job with the chassis on their 500 with Kevin Schwantz in that era and after and they’re really good at getting the bike working well and really rider friendly. So making that jump to the M1 is not that bad, it’s not that big of a jump.

“But he certainly has all of the advantages now that he maybe didn’t have on the Suzuki – a little more power, a little more performance overall, a better package, and he’s utilising that. We’ll have to see now that the pressure is on him and the expectation is certainly higher than it was last year how he will show when battling for the championship.

“Now the Hondas – Dani Pedrosa, it’s great to see Dani get up there on the third and last day of testing this past weekend, jumping up into the top four. His team-mate Marc Márquez struggled a little bit and had quite a few crashes, but they both seemed to really like the new big-bang engine which should help some of their deficiencies. They were struggling getting off the corners.

“With the big-bang engine it should offer a little more traction at maximum lean angle, meaning they can run a little more power now and not have to kill it so much with the electronics to help with grip on the exit of corners and spinning issues.

“We’ll have to see how that balances out, but Marc crashed a lot. It’s not surprising – I kind of did the same thing because you push hard in testing. He wanted to find out exactly where the bike is weak and where it is strong and you have to be willing to push that hard in testing to be able to find those answers and to be able to get those things figured out. It will be interesting to see.

“I think it’s going to be a great championship this year with all of the diversity, with KTM involved, with Bradley Smith who I didn’t mention, with a lot of manufactures involved. It will be great to see if Bradley can get to terms with the new KTM and if he and his team-mate Pol Espargaró can get that bike worked out.

“We saw nine guys win last year and testing has shown that the times are pretty close, but I still think we’ll see the same guys at the very top and we’ll have to see if Jorge can be one of those and get the Ducati working better for him.

“I’m excited about the season, I hope you are. See you next time.”

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