Just before his 2018 season went pear-shaped we talked to the three-time MotoGP king about how he transformed his riding technique from 2015 to 2018
Image courtesy of Ducati
How much did things change for you in 2016, when MotoGP switched to unified software and Michelin tyres?
A lot, a lot. When we started testing the new electronics and tyres at the end of 2015 and at the beginning of 2016 it was a huge change, because the first few times I tried the new electronics the engine-braking was always locking the rear wheel, because the software was very old-fashioned and not so sophisticated. It was difficult to ride the bike – you wasted a lot of energy and you were almost two seconds slower. Then little by little, it got better.
The other thing was the Michelins. At the beginning the rear tyre had so much grip and there was nothing at the front, so every time you started to push, on the second or third lap you crashed. Every rider: crash, crash, crash, crash; always mid-corner with throttle. Then Michelin reduced rear grip and improved the front tyre, so little by little the situation was compensated.
At the same time all the teams worked on the unified electronics to make their systems as good as possible. Also, the bikes themselves improved – the engines and chassis. In terms of tyres it depends on the track, but the electronics are still not at the same level as before.
You went from seven victories in 2015 to four in 2016, so did the Yamaha suffer a lot?
Honda suffered more in the first part of 2016, especially in acceleration [due to poor electronics set-up]. We were strong, but our problem was more a problem of tyres than electronics, because I couldn’t feel the front tyre.
Things were difficult, then we had more problems when Michelin went to a harder rear carcass [after Scott Redding delaminated a rear slick at Termas in April 2016]. In preseason testing I had been very quick, but when they brought these new harder tyres it made me weaker, let’s say. We were okay with the electronics, but then Honda improved their electronics so much, while Ducati was already good with the unified software and then they improved in other areas, like the chassis.
How did your riding technique change to suit the new tech?
When I was at Yamaha, not so much. The problem with the Michelin front is that you have to brake in a straight line, then release the front brake, if you don’t want to lose the front going into the corner. The Bridgestone front gave you the possibility to push harder in braking and keep braking to the last moment, almost at full lean. With the Michelins you cannot do that – you need to slow the bike more with the brakes, use a little more mid-corner speed, then prepare the exit of the corner with the rear tyre.
And what about your technique on the Ducati?
We still suffer in the middle of the corner because the rear always has more grip than the front and the front is always pushing, so to make the corner we need to slow down a lot. With the Ducati this problem is even bigger and also the bike isn’t easy for my style. The Ducati is very special because you cannot lean the bike – if you go more than a certain lean angle then the bike turns less. With every other bike, the more you lean, the more the bike turns, but with the Ducati there’s a certain limit you cannot go past.
I needed to understand all these little tricks in a very short time and when I understood, my performances improved
Why is this?
I don’t know.
So you try and make the corner as short as possible?
With the Ducati you need to make the lap time by taking profit of the bike’s stability: enter very soon to the apex, then stay as little time as possible with any lean angle, then take profit of all the acceleration.
That must be a huge thing for you, because it’s the opposite of your usual riding style?
Yes, I spent more than one year trying to learn. I was leaning, more and more, but the more I leaned the slower I was in middle of the corner!
When did you fix that?
I don’t know, but I compared my data with [Andrea] Dovizioso and [Danilo] Petrucci and they were faster than me in the middle of the corner with less lean angle. Why? I didn’t understand. How is this possible? But it’s just like that.
How do you use the rear brake? More in corner entry or to help turn the bike in the middle of the corner?
With the Ducati you have to use a lot of rear brake, especially in corner entry, because if both wheels are in line and not sliding, the bike wants to go straight to the gravel. You need to steer the bike like a boat, with the rear, to get the right direction into the corner.
That was quite obvious during the race at Brno – you were sideways into a lot of corners – which we had never seen on the Yamaha.
When did everyone start thinking about being more gentle to help the front and rear tyres?
You have to be smooth, but only to a certain point, because if you’re too smooth you won’t stop the bike and you can’t turn the bike, so you’re slow. It’s a compromise. The Michelins are good for me in some areas. For example, in the acceleration phase, because I’m very smooth with the throttle in the [bike] pick-up area.
On the other hand, the Bridgestones were a bit better for my strategy and for my focus because the tyres gave you the possibility to push from the first turn to the last corner at the same pace. I am very good at focusing and concentrating – I don’t often make mistakes – so it was difficult for my rivals to catch me and pass me. Now all the riders need to save the tyres and ride at 80 per cent of full speed during the first three-quarters of the race, then attack. So for this reason, the current tyres are probably a bit worse for me.
You said recently that you want to improve the Ducati’s corner speed, but why would you want this, when you are about to go to Honda?
Because if we can improve our corner speed so that we have the same corner speed as the Honda, while keeping our acceleration and braking performance, then we will win every race! If we can do all this and I don’t make a mistake, then Ducati will win the championship, for sure.
You say the Michelins don’t suit your natural strategy – how long did it take you to work that out, because you led some races in 2017, then faded?
During 2017 I wasn’t able to change my strategy to improve my results because I didn’t have the pace and I didn’t have the knowledge that I have this season. In 2017 I didn’t know how to ride the Ducati in certain corners and I didn’t know how to save the tyres, so my only possibility was to be as fast as possible in the beginning, because I had a good feeling with the tyres in the first laps, better than the other guys, so I tried to build as big a gap as possible.
You had ergonomic problems during braking with the GP18; what about with the GP17?
During 2017 I didn’t have the fuel tank problem, it was just a factor of the Ducati being more physical to ride. It’s when we started preseason testing with the GP18 that I started complaining about lack of support from the fuel tank.
What are the main differences between the GP17 and GP18?
Everything: the chassis is different and the engine is different. They made the engine smoother and they tried to make the bike turn more. It does turn a bit better, but normally when you try something new the bike isn’t 100 per cent better; maybe you improve seven or eight points out of ten, but two or three points are worse. This is what happened with the Ducati and this is why at some tracks the guys on the GP17s are very fast. At some tracks the old bike can be better.
We underestimated the difficulty of jumping onto such a different bike this year. The final part that allowed me to manage the bike over full-race distance was the modified fuel tank we got at Mugello. Before Mugello and after Mugello have been like two different championships for me.
As for why I won’t be with Ducati next year: people underestimated my capacity because of my results. They were thinking too short-term and they forgot what I did in the past.
It’s sad, because I know we could have achieved better things together. The legacy I will leave Ducati is that they now know more ways to improve the bike. The legacy for me is that I know I can change my riding style to ride a different bike completely differently and be competitive. I hope to take this with me to my next team.