Mat Oxley

New rules… and a familiar face

Major regulation rewrites usually upset the status quo in motor sports. Invariably one team correctly calculates the new way of the world and dominates as a result. It happens all the time in F1 and it happened the last time MotoGP underwent a major shake-up in 2007, when engine capacity and fuel allowances were reduced. Ducati got it right and made rivals look a little stupid – at the opening round its GP9 was a whole 9mph faster than Valentino Rossi’s Yamaha.

This year’s rule changes are MotoGP’s biggest since the sport switched to four-strokes in 2002. Most significantly Michelin has replaced Bridgestone as the official tyre supplier and the factories have been forced to shelve their painstakingly developed tailor-made electronics and use same-for-all software provided by Magneti Marelli.

So far the changes have made little difference at the top. Last year’s Yamaha YZR-M1 was the best bike on the grid – which is why Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi fought so bitterly for the title. This year it seems the M1 will still be the bike to beat.

The M1 has long been the easiest-going, most neutral bike, allowing its riders to access the limit in all conditions and at all tracks.

Honda’s RC213V is a very different kind of machine. Over the past three seasons the RCV has been developed for star rider Marc Márquez, whose winning secret was to charge into corners, frighteningly late on the brakes, then scrub off speed with the front tyre and use its squirming profile to help turn him round the apex. As Márquez’s compatriot and Suzuki rider Aleix Espargaro put it, “With the Bridgestones you could enter the corner with your knee on the ground and the front tyre completely locked.” The Michelin front doesn’t forgive such extreme antics, so riders must entirely relearn their technique, shifting their emphasis away from corner entry.

Lorenzo is already happy. The three-time champ has a buttery-smooth riding style (hence his self-styled nickname mantequilla) with a devastating mid-corner speed, which he can only use when he has the racetrack all to himself. That’s why all his 2015 victories were start-to-finish affairs.

“Now it is more difficult to ride the bike,” he says. “So this will be good for the more technical riders because you have to play with the throttle and be more sensitive. I think the more technical riders will have fewer problems than the aggressive, less sensitive riders.”

Team-mate Rossi might not be as glassy smooth as his team-mate, but he’s pretty much as fast. “This year the cornering lines will be more natural, more like a normal bike; the Bridgestone lines were very particular,” he says. “Now we need to learn a different way for braking and entry and we will use less angle, with less elbow on the ground. What we really need is to understand what the Michelins need from the bike to allow us to load the front correctly. With the Bridgestone setting it’s impossible.”

Honda finds itself struggling to make the best of the Michelins. The RCV is a short, tall motorcycle, designed to transfer load rapidly from one tyre to the other, to make the most of the stiffer Bridgestones. Márquez – unlike Rossi and Lorenzo – commenced his MotoGP career on Bridgestones and used them like no one else, so now has to start all over again.

“With the Bridgestones I could brake really late and find the lap time,” says the 2013/2014 champion. “So now I try to change my style to brake late with the Michelins, but I cannot brake late like I did with the Bridgestones.”

At least the 23-year-old isn’t entirely adrift in a new world. “When I was in Moto2 the front tyre was critical but the rear had good grip, so the Michelins are closer to the Dunlops than the Bridgestones. I must try to use some of the technique I learned in Moto2.”

It should also be remembered that Márquez learns fast: in his very first rain-affected MotoGP race it took him just eight laps to be the quickest man on track.

Perhaps his biggest worry will be Rossi’s refusal to let bygones be bygones. The 37-year-old has refused to forgive his young rival for allegedly costing him the 2015 title. He seems determined to seek revenge and hasn’t even bothered to chastise those ‘fans’ who call for Márquez’s head.

Honda has another problem. There’s little doubt its electronics were the best, so the unified electronics are giving them a headache.

“The Dorna software is like what we were using 10 years ago,” spits HRC vice-president Shuhei Nakamoto. HRC’s biggest job before the season-opening Qatar GP on March 20 is to get the Magneti kit working.

Until then, the other factories may also get closer to the front, which of course was one of the prime factors behind the introduction of the unified software. Ducati was very competitive during pre-season tests, with their best rider up there with Lorenzo, Rossi and Márquez. Only one problem: that rider was Casey Stoner, the factory’s enigmatic 2007 champion who retired at the end of 2012 and now occasionally resurfaces as a test rider.

It seems the Australian gets a buzz from turning up and reminding old rivals that he’s still got it. However, the 30-year-old continues to deny the possibility of a comeback. “I have no intention of racing,” he says.

Which is a shame, because many fans yearn to see Márquez and Stoner do battle. Who knows? Despite the endless denials, it might yet happen.