Motorcycles with Mat Oxley: January 2018

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The 2017 season was Valentino Rossi’s worst with Yamaha. What was the problem, old age or bike trouble?

Books can be dangerous things, especially rulebooks. Just ask Valentino Rossi. In 2017 the Italian veteran endured his worst championship campaign in 18 years of MotoGP, barring his wilderness years with Ducati.

Rossi’s woes and Yamaha’s woes are a direct result of a tectonic shift in technical regulations, from tailor-made factory electronics to a control ECU and from Bridgestone tyres to Michelin.

In the two years since the new rules were introduced, Yamaha has won 10 MotoGP races, one fewer than the company won in 2015 alone. When Yamaha suffers, Rossi suffers. He finished 2017 a lowly fifth overall, with one race victory and five further podiums.

Despite Rossi’s gloom the new regulations have been great for MotoGP. They have drastically narrowed the window of optimum machine settings, making the racing much harder to predict for engineers and riders, as well as for fans. During the last two seasons the competition has become thrillingly uncertain: whoever gets it right on the day, wins the day.

Of the three major manufacturers, Yamaha has certainly suffered worse than Ducati and Honda. Rossi and team-mate Maverick Viñales each raced four different chassis across 2017’s 18 races, searching for a way out of their vicious circle. Both riders had their own grievances, but they suffered everywhere, all the way from corner entry to exit.

Rossi’s chief engineer Silvano Galbusera, a bright and smiling 60-year-old, chuckles while reviewing the slings and arrows of his rider’s fortunes. “It was a very terrible season because we found that the 2017 bike wasn’t 100 per cent for Valentino,” he says. “Yamaha changed the chassis a little bit, with different geometry and similar stiffness, but Valentino never had the feeling he had in 2016.”

The key with the Michelins and the lower-tech electronics is the middle phase of the corner. The rider needs to get the bike turned quickly at the apex, so he can lift it up onto the fatter part of the rear tyre before opening the throttle.

If he can’t do this, he will run wide, then he will have to apply throttle while on the edge of the tyre, which will most likely break traction. This may cost him only a hundredth of a second per corner, but that’s two tenths a lap or five seconds over race distance.

“In 2016 Valentino’s feeling with the bike was good, but we destroyed the rear tyre with four or five laps to go, depending on the track,” Galbusera continues. “The Japanese modified the chassis for 2017 to save the tyre, but Valentino lost the feeling he had in 2016, so he couldn’t go into corners quickly and keep his line. Then he couldn’t pick up the bike, so he was a bit delayed, so he had to open the throttle more to recover that time, which destroyed the tyre. It’s a vicious circle!

“We tried to save the tyre by reducing torque delivery, which was good, but then we lost acceleration. This was the critical moment: Valentino couldn’t use all the power from the engine because the tyre couldn’t handle the acceleration without spinning and thus being destroyed.”

Rossi believes that the problem is a combination of a lack of both mechanical grip and electronics grip. But while Yamaha focused most of its attention on improving mechanical grip, Galbusera believes a better solution could be found within the control software, supplied to all teams by Magneti Marelli.

Yamaha’s big rivals, Ducati and Honda, have a big advantage in this crucial area. Ducati has always run Magneti software, so knows the system inside out. Before last season Honda signed a former Ducati and Magneti electronics engineer, who knows all the system’s secrets. “This is the easier way to find the best setting – but I don’t think there’s anyone left at Magneti with that kind experience that we could hire,” grins Galbusera.

Then again, perhaps the problem isn’t all mechanics and electronics, perhaps it’s partly the riders. While Rossi and Viñales mostly bumbled their way through last season, MotoGP rookie Johann Zarco had some storming rides on a hand-me-down Yamaha 2016 YZR-M1. So Yamaha gave him a 2017 chassis to test after the Valencia season finale. The Frenchman was immediately superfast, finding none of the problems that had haunted his more illustrious rivals.

Rossi hopes Yamaha will finally solve the Michelin/Magneti conundrum before motorcycling’s 70th season of Grand Prix racing, which gets underway in Qatar on March 18. But the initial signs aren’t good. Even factory engineers have admitted they are confused by the number of different data feeds from all its different chassis.

“When I tried the 2016 chassis again at the end of the season I felt good, but we still have the same problem with rear tyre degradation,” said Rossi. “We know the 2017 chassis helps to fix the tyre problem, but we are trying to recreate the feeling of the 2016 chassis. I don’t know which direction Yamaha will follow. All we can do is give them our feelings and then they decide which way to go.”

Next season is the second and final year of Rossi’s current Yamaha contract. He will decide by mid-season whether to continue racing into 2019, by which time he will be 40 years old…

Mat Oxley has covered premier-class motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner