‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ — the bare, lone MotoGP paddock
In just a few months the global Covid pandemic has taken grand prix racing back to where it was half a century ago. Now the paddock is what it used…
Mat Oxley unpicks the talking points from Aragón: Lorenzo vs Dovizioso; Suzuki’s big turnaround; Yamaha’s issue; the size of Petrucci’s problem and more
Photo: Red Bull
When Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso meet on track, the Spaniard usually rides it like he stole it, while the Italian rides it like he rented it. Dovizioso’s more reserved approach does work, as it did in Qatar earlier this year and in Austria and Japan last year, when on each occasion he neutralised Márquez’s mad stabs at the final corner with some clever thinking. But not this time.
Márquez was in no mood to be denied at Aragón. Many riders in his position – 67 points ahead in the championship with six results remaining – would’ve prioritised reward over risk. As Ducati seems to grow stronger at every race, why would you let it all hang out and gamble on presenting them with a 25-point gift, leaving you 42 points in front with five races remaining?
But that’s not how Márquez’s brain works. “I woke up this morning and said I want to take a risk,” he said after the race. Which somehow reminded me of Jim Morrison’s famous line in The Doors’ Roadhouse Blues, “I woke up this morning and got myself a beer”.
The fact that track temperature nudged 50deg C at 2pm didn’t prevent Márquez from choosing Michelin’s softest option rear, even though he hadn’t even tried the tyre in an afternoon session. He knew he would need the extra grip of the soft tyre, not so much for acceleration, but for braking, because riders now need the rear tyre to stop the bike very nearly as much as they need the front tyre.
Márquez also chose the medium front, instead of the hard front his RC213V usually prefers. Meanwhile Dovizioso went hard/hard, a combination he had only used once before this year.
Dovizioso did his best to break Márquez’s resolve. By half distance he had eked a seven-tenth advantage over the Honda, but that was as good as it got. Márquez was coming for him…
Twice Márquez used his favourite corner of the championship – the fast, downhill Turn 10, which last Thursday was named in his honour – to build attacks into Turn 12. During the final few laps the pair got very busy over the mountain, Dovizioso summoning up the aggression he keeps tucked away for such occasions.
“I’m aggressive when I can be aggressive and when I need to be aggressive,” he said, which is exactly how he rides: always brain before brawn, but sometimes both together
Dovizioso’s attacks were always well executed. Nothing nasty. But, in the end, when Márquez wants to win that much…
Aragón was especially interesting because it highlighted the strengths of Honda’s RC213V and Ducati’s GP18. This year Honda has made a huge step forward on horsepower – the bike was very, very nearly as fast as the GP18 on Aragón’s one-kilometre straight, where bikes accelerate from 50mph in first gear to 210mph in sixth gear. There are few better tests of brute power.
Márquez had a slight advantage in the tight corners and changes of direction, but it was noticeable that Ducati has fixed most of the issues that once slowed its Desmosedici in longer corners. Where the GP18 had an obvious advantage was exiting the final corner. While Márquez was knees and elbows on the asphalt, turning his bike on the edge of the tyres, Dovizioso was using perhaps five degrees less lean, so he had the bike on the fatter part of the rear tyre, so he was able to put more torque to the ground sooner than his eventual nemesis.
After the race, Márquez admitted he had risked everything. First, he doesn’t like losing and he had lost every race since the summer break. Second, Aragón is a left-hand circuit, so the track kind of belongs to him. Plus it’s in Spain, so his fan club was out in force and he didn’t want to disappoint them. No surprise that this was his fourth MotoGP win at the track in six attempts. Third, he had obviously decided he was quite relaxed about throwing 25 points into the gravel, then defending his diminished advantage at the last five races.
“I wasn’t feeling comfortable entering the corners, I was using the front too much,” he said. “The Ducati works in a different way – they don’t lean the bike, they just use the drive. It’s another style of motorcycle – this is why our battles are nice to see.”
Dovizioso could have been disappointed about losing out at the end of such an epic duel. But he wasn’t because he’s a philosophical, cerebral racer.
“We came here without confidence,” said the 32-year-old, who finished seven seconds behind Márquez in 2017 and 32 seconds behind the previous year. “I’m so happy with how much we improved our weak points here. We’ve made a huge step. What happened is more important than what happened at Misano, because it confirms our improvement and it’s good for the future.”
Márquez took another step towards a fifth MotoGP world title (a record at his age) and Ducati proved once again that its Desmosedici is as good as any bike out there, but Suzuki had the biggest reason to celebrate at Aragón.
Andrea Iannone and Alex Rins made history when they finished 1.2 seconds and 2.6 seconds behind the winner, because, incredibly, the last time Suzuki had two riders finish so close to the winner in a dry race was June 1979, when Virginio Ferrari won at Assen, beating fellow factory RG500 rider Barry Sheene by a tenth of a second.
Iannone, having fixed his tyre-life problems, even put his GSX-RR into the briefest of leads at one point of the race, when Márquez and Dovizioso got tangled up at the bus-stop chicane. In the end, his race-time performance was just 0.1 per cent less than the Honda’s and 0.02 less than the Ducati’s.
Aragón may not turn out to be a breakthrough race for MotoGP’s smallest Japanese factory, but it was certainly a historic race for a brand that has spent the last few decades dipping in and out of Grand Prix racing, according to the whim of its board of directors.
There were a few reasons Suzuki did so well at Aragón. From turns one to 15 the hillside track is all corners – uphill corners, downhill corners, fast corners, slow corners. The GSX-RR’s strength has always been its fine-handling, quick-steering chassis. The bike is especially good on corner entry. Where other machines struggle to turn when the rider releases the front brake, the GSX-RR does exactly what the riders wants it to do.
“We have a really good chassis,” said Iannone. “In the corners our bike is unbelievable, and we have very good front and rear grip. In the entry of the fast corners we can recover a lot because we can enter very deep with a lot of speed compared to the others. The negative point is that we use a lot of corner speed, so we use the edge of the tyres a lot, which can overuse them. This weekend we worked a lot on the set-up and electronics to allow us to use the soft tyre, but it was still difficult to pick up the bike and open the throttle because we are right on the edge of the tyre.”
Like Márquez, Iannone understood that the soft rear would last better than the medium, because it grips better, spins less and therefore degrades less.
The GSX-RR isn’t the most powerful MotoGP bike, but it’s getting closer all the time. Last year at Aragón the bike was 3.2mph slower than Dovizioso’s Ducati, this year the gap had shrunk to 2.4mph.
It’s a no-brainer: the more riders, the more feedback
Suzuki worked hard during its earlier tests at Aragón to compensate its slight top-speed handicap by improving braking stability, so its riders could brake later than rivals on faster bikes.
“During our Aragón tests we focused a lot on braking,” explained Rins. “We changed the set-up, the geometry, we lifted the bike a bit, lowered it a bit and moved the front tyre closer to the bike. Now it feels easier to stop the bike and we have more stability when I lean the bike into the corner.”
Of course, Suzuki’s rise coincides with Yamaha’s fall, which is part of the results equation. The factory’s fifth podium result of the year, after Argentina, America, Spain and Assen (while Yamaha haven’t had a single top-three since Germany) removes its engines concessions for 2019, so Rins and new team-mate Joan Mir will get seven engines each, all sealed at the first race, just like all Ducati, Honda and Yamaha. This will leave only Aprilia and KTM to benefit from nine engines per rider, with engine development allowed throughout the season.
“I’m very happy that we’ve lost our concessions, because this means we are at the same kind of level as our top competitors,” said Suzuki’s MotoGP technical manager Ken Kawauchi.
All that Kawauchi needs do now is return to Hamamatsu and somehow convince Suzuki’s directors that if the company really wants to win MotoGP, rather than just take part, it must enter a second team. While most factories put numerous bikes on the grid – even KTM will have two teams from next season, because Pit Beirer knows that four riders is twice as good as two – Suzuki has stubbornly refused to expand its presence, ever since it began its RGV500 two-stroke project in the late 1980s.
Even back then Kevin Schwantz regularly berated his bosses for limiting its Grand Prix effort to two riders. The 1993 500cc champ is still convinced he would have enjoyed more success if he hadn’t had just one team-mate to bounce ideas off. Whenever he got lost with set-up – which was quite often – he only had one other rider’s set-up to consider. It’s a no-brainer: the more riders, the more feedback. And the more feedback, the faster you will go and the more quickly you will get there.
Now is the perfect moment, because MotoGP has two spaces available on the grid and they won’t remain vacant forever.
Another great upshot of the GSX-RR’s ability to run with the fastest Honda and Ducati at Aragón is that it should end that currently popular and daft opinion that only V4s can go fast in MotoGP.
Valentino Rossi has always had a way with words. It’s one reason so many love him – his intelligence, his sense of humour and his ability to communicate with everyone, from company directors to the humblest fans.
On Saturday, after the 39-year-old had achieved his worst grid position since 2006, a journalist asked the Italian if he considered 2018 to be a wasted season
“I’ve been around the world and seen a lot of great cities, so it’s fun,” Rossi grinned. “And I get to speak to you, so it’s not completely lost!”
Aragón was a grim weekend for Yamaha – its 23rd consecutive defeat. To put the factory’s worst-ever losing streak into perspective, a little racing history…
Yamaha was the last of the four major Japanese manufacturers to attack the premier class. Honda was first, with its full-factory RC181 four-stroke in 1966. Honda won the constructors title at its first attempt, beating MV Agusta.
Then came Suzuki and Kawasaki in 1971, entering tuned versions of their two-stroke 500cc road bikes. Suzuki was the first to win a 500 GP with a two-stroke, when Aussie Jack Findlay won that year’s Ulster GP. The following month Briton Dave Simmonds won Kawasaki’s first 500 GP, at Barcelona. It definitely helped that MV Agusta didn’t attend either of those races, because Giacomo Agostini had already won the title and was no doubt sunning himself on a beach somewhere.
Yamaha took its first tentative steps into the class of king the following year, supplying over-bored cylinders to its factory-supported TZ350 riders. Chas Mortimer used a 351cc TZ350 to win Yamaha’s first 500cc GP, at Barcelona in September 1972. But he wasn’t sure his engine was legal because he had seized his last 351cc cylinder in practice, so he fitted a stock 347cc cylinder for the race. In other words, his engine may have been under the minimum 351cc minimum.
There were no such doubts when Yamaha commenced its first full 500 season the following April, when Jarno Saarinen cleared off to win the French GP, 16 seconds ahead of Phil Read’s MV. Saarinen and the piston-ported OW19 two-stroke won again next time out, this time by 25 seconds. There was no doubt that he was going to make history by becoming the first two-stroke 500cc world champion. But two weeks later he was dead, the victim of a mass pile-up at Monza.
Yamaha doesn’t need to build a V4; it needs to analyse how the Ducati and Honda make their lap time
Yamaha withdrew its factory team as a mark of respect, but returned with Ago in 1974 and started winning again. Until now the brand’s longest losing streak had spanned 22 races, between Loris Capirossi’s victory at the 1996 Australian GP and Simon Crafar’s at the 1998 British GP.
In 2016 MotoGP underwent its biggest technical change since the four-strokes arrived in 2002. The unified software and Michelin tyres changed everything: machine balance, riding style and so on. Even then, it was soon obvious that Yamaha was falling behind.
The YZR-M1 won four of the first nine races of 2016 and only one of the last nine, as Ducati and Honda worked out how to make the most of the new tyres and unified software. After Maverick Viñales’ three victories early in 2017, using Michelin’s softer construction front slick, Yamaha’s results collapsed. Rossi won in the damp at Assen and that was it.
“This season is very similar to last season – it’s not a big difference,” said Rossi at Aragón. “Last season I was able to win just one race, and apart from the first three races, we were already suffering like this year.”
“We are in big trouble with the marriage between the bike and the tyres, especially the rear tyre. This is what I try to explain to the engineers. We must work in many areas: electronics, engine character and so on. We are more at the limit with grip, so when the track has less grip we suffer more than the other bikes.”
The Yamaha still has good corner speed, but Ducati and Honda have adapted their machines to do the lap time in a different way.
“We have good braking, acceleration and tyre management,” said Jorge Lorenzo at Aragón.
And this is the key: you focus on stopping the bike in a straight line, so you don’t overuse the front tyre, then you get the bike to turn the corner without so much lean angle, so you can accelerate on the shoulder of the tyre, not on the edge of the tyre, and therefore keep the tyre in better shape for longer.
Yamaha doesn’t need to build a V4; it merely needs to analyse how the Ducati and Honda make their lap times and race times, then re-imagine the YZR-M1 accordingly. Because this is how racing works, especially with control tyres – the bike must be made to work with the tyres. It’s entirely possible to build the best, cleverest motorcycle on the grid, but it will never win a race unless it can generate grip from the tyres.
Next year Danilo Petrucci takes Lorenzo’s seat in the factory Ducati squad. This will be the former Superstock rider’s first full-factory ride, so he needs to get it right –which is why he’s already preparing for 2019, even though the 2018 season isn’t yet three-quarters finished.
Danilo has the opposite problem to Dani Pedrosa. He weighs 79 kilos, compared to Márquez and Lorenzo at 65 kilos, Dovizioso at 67 and Rossi at 69. This is a serious issue now, because MotoGP is all about making the Michelins last.
“My tyre consumption is very, very high,” said the 27-year-old at Aragón. “After Misano we understood that we have to change something in the weight balance. My problem is always overheating the rear tyre, so we are trying to move my weight towards the front of the bike, but it’s not easy to change the set-up so much and be faster. Most of all, I’m working for next year.”
In fact Petrucci’s crew have been working to counteract this problem for much of this season.
“Danilo’s body weight makes the bike heavier and also moves the centre of mass higher,” explains his crew chief Daniele Romagnoli. “This makes the bike transfer load too much, so he’s in trouble on the brakes, because the front dives too much and the rear wheel lifts into the air, then when he accelerates the bike wheelies too much and bike isn’t so stable.”
For the past few months Romagnoli has been gradually lowering the ride height – front and rear – of Petrucci’s GP18. The bike is now about 10mm lower the standard setting; a huge difference.
“You have to think more about the total mass of the bike and rider; plus the fact that the mass moving is moving, because although we know where Danilo sits when the bike is static, we don’t know exactly where he is when he’s riding,” adds Romagnoli. “There are no real negative points to lowering the bike, but we are now getting to a point where we don’t have enough weight transfer, so it’s difficult to create enough grip, so we are at a point where we cannot find a better solution for him. Dynamically, the bike is okay, but we still heat the tyres too much, because even if we make the centre of mass the same as Jorge Lorenzo’s, Danilo is still heavier, so there is more load and more stress on the tyres.”
Petrucci and Romagnoli will stay together when they join the factory team in a few months. Hopefully they will have found a way out of their problem by March 2019.
The sad fact, however, is that the most successful Grand Prix riders have always been of a certain height and weight. And this trend is only exacerbated by technical regulations that require all riders to use the same tyres, which leads to homogenisation of bike design, which makes it even more difficult for the little guys and the big guys to succeed.
Pramac and Petrucci did have one technical update at Aragón – aerodynamic outers to the front forks of his GP18. The oval shaped devices are designed to reduce drag and turbulence. The team didn’t notice any night-and-day difference, but expect to see them continue with the add-ons at the next races.
Aprilia scored its best result of a miserable season at Aragón, with Aleix Espargaro and his RS-GP finishing sixth, less than 10 seconds behind the winner. The factory’s previous best had been the Spaniard’s ninth place at Le Mans, a massive 26 seconds down on the winner.
So how did that happen? Aprilia tested at Misano during the summer break, changing bike balance, but Espargaro was still faster on the 2017 RS-GP, so he asked Aprilia Racing boss Romano Albesiano to use that bike for the remainder of 2018. Albesiano refused, because he wanted to keep working on the latest RS-GP and because making such a dramatic change before four flyway races could be problematic.
“That was one of the best races of my career,” said Espargaro on Sunday. “We have struggled a lot this year, so it’s been difficult to maintain my happiness to stay motivated. This weekend we worked with a full fuel tank every session, working with the electronics and always thinking about the race. This is one of the best tracks for me and the Aprilia. I got a very, very good start, stayed very focused and made no mistakes, with a pace that was close to podium pace. But I was too much over the limit and risking a lot, a lot. The next tracks will be more difficult.
“During the tests at Misano we moved the weight around, trying to find better tyre temperatures because that’s been a problem. Also, we put more weight on the front of the bike to make the front tyre work more and make the bike turn a bit better.”
MotoGP’s Grand Prix Commission moved swiftly to end the Misano Christophe Ponsson furore, by writing new rules to ensure substitute and replacement riders are of a better quality.
Subs will now have to undergo the same approval process undertaken by MotoGP’s selection committee, which all full-time riders already undergo. The selection committee consists of delegates from Dorna, IRTA and FIM.
Ponsson’s place at Reale Avintia was taken by MV Agusta WSB rider Jordi Torres, winner of the 2013 German Moto2 race. The 31-year-old impressed throughout the weekend, with a best race lap 2.7 seconds off the fastest and just three tenths slower than team-mate Xavier Simeon, who is using Tito Rabat’s machines.
“The riding style is the complete opposite style to what I’m used to,” said Torres. “The most difficult thing is the tyres, because you don’t have too much feedback, especially in the fast corners and when turning with so much lean angle. In superbikes we have a much softer tyre carcass, so we get much more feel.”
There is still no word on Rabat’s return.
British Superbikes star Jake Dixon was at Aragón to announce his full-time move to Moto2 next season, riding a Triumph-powered Kalex for the Angel Nieto team, owned by former 80cc and 125cc world champion Jorge Martinez.
Dixon, who is in with a chance of winning this year’s BSB crown, made his Grand Prix debut at Silverstone last year, riding a Kalex for the Dynavolt Intact team. He finished the race in 25th position.
The 22-year-old, who has a two-year deal with the Nieto team, comes with world championship-winning pedigree. Father Darren won the sidecar world championship in 1995 and 1996. He was also very fast on two wheels, winning the British TT F1 championship in 1989 and making two 500 GP appearances, at Donington in 1988 and at Hockenheim in 1993.
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