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The biggest talking points from the final round of the 2018 MotoGP season at Valencia
Here is your MotoGP winter development checklist, in about 30 words: Honda wants better front-end corner-entry performance, Ducati wants faster mid-corner turning, Yamaha wants more rear-end corner-entry/exit grip, Suzuki wants extra top-end horsepower and KTM and Aprilia need a little bit of everything.
Although 2019 testing doesn’t start until February and the racing doesn’t start until March, this week’s post-race tests at Valencia and next week’s final 2018 outing at Jerez are critical moments in each factory’s preparation for next season.
This is because factories really need to decide their 2019 engine specs at these two tests, because engine parts have to be ordered and manufactured and engines built in time for next year’s testing and racing.
In recent years three of the top factories have chosen the wrong engine spec. Most recently it was Yamaha, in 2017 it was Suzuki and in 2015 it was Honda. Because in-season engine updates are banned for everyone apart from Aprilia and KTM, riders will have to live with any mistakes made this winter throughout next year’s 19 races. Factories can build engines later, of course, but the pressure is on to get things right now.
This autumn the job of factory engineers is even tougher, due to the latest-ever end to a GP season. The weather wasn’t great at Valencia and even if it’s dry at Jerez next week, track temperatures will only be usefully warm for a few hours in the middle of each day, so getting useful feedback and data won’t be easy. And the factories are already working with the unified IMU, introduced to stop rule bending.
Yamaha’s MotoGP engineers are under the most pressure, because they have to turn around a slump in performance that began three seasons ago with the introduction of unified electronics and Michelin tyres
At Valencia, Yamaha’s MotoGP managing director Lin Jarvis finally admitted what we’ve been saying here for ages: that “our problems started two years ago”, in 2016.
On Tuesday and Wednesday Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales tried two new engines, designed to deliver better acceleration and deceleration traction. The need for more corner-exit performance from the rear tyre is obvious, the need for more corner-entry performance less so.
Michelin’s rear slick has such good grip that riders need to use that grip to help stop the bike, which also destresses the easily overloaded front tyre. But the 2018 M1 engine had too little crankshaft inertia, so it dropped revs too quickly and locked the rear tyre, destroying the rider’s flow into corners.
And that’s exactly what one of the new engines gives to Viñales, who was fastest at the end of the two days at Valencia.
“I felt better with the engine-braking,” he said. “I’m concentrating a lot on corner entry, because when we lose grip there – that is where we lose time.
“So it’s important and today I felt strong going into the corners. But there is a lot to do to the top power to make it smoother, because it’s still aggressive and I’m losing a lot of traction. At Jerez it will be very important to choose the engine.”
Rossi gave similar feedback.
“The engine changes corner entry a lot – it makes the bike easier to ride and you can be more consistent,” he said. “In acceleration it’s more or less same. Yamaha are trying to give us a softer engine character so we have less spin, but still we suffer too much with rear-tyre degradation.
“These two tests this month will give Yamaha a good indication in which way to work and we still have time to change things for February,” said Rossi.
Perhaps Viñales feels best with the new engine because he radically changed the balance of his bike at the last few races, shifting load backwards, to improve rear grip in the braking and corner-entry phases.
Honda is also testing two new engine specs which were first evaluated by HRC test rider Stefan Bradl at Misano a few weeks previously. Most likely, the goal this time is smoother low-down torque, because before the RC213V gained a major overall horsepower boost at the start of 2018.
“The positive thing is that the starting point with the new ‘black bike’ is already slightly better than with the 2018 bike,” said Marc Márquez, referring to HRC’s two un-liveried development machines next to his two Repsol 2018 bikes. “We are trying to improve everything, but more torque is really good, because it’s like free time!”
Márquez’s biggest concern is making the RC213V’s front end more user-friendly. “We are trying to understand the front of the bike and why we always need to use the hard-option tyre,” he added.
Bradl helped with this process on the first day at Valencia. “HRC wanted me to test some new parts for the front part of the bike and Öhlins wanted me to try some new parts for the forks,” said the 2011 Moto2 champ.
New Repsol Honda rider Jorge Lorenzo lapped steadily at Valencia as his new crew – led by Ramon Aurin – worked to get him comfortable on an RC213V, after two years on a Ducati and nine years on a Yamaha. And he did look comfy and confident. He ended the tests 0.827sec behind Viñales, despite his left-wrist injury, whereas he ended his first test with Ducati 0.769sec off the pace while fully fit.
Lorenzo isn’t allowed to talk about his new ride until his Ducati contract expires at the end of December. This is common procedure with top MotoGP riders – a factory allows an outgoing rider to commence testing with his rival manufacturer before his contract is finished, so long as the rider undertakes no promo work for his new employers, which includes talking to the media. But Lorenzo did say a few words at Valencia… “I’m very happy!” Which sounds ominous for his rivals.
Honda has a lot of injury woes at the moment. Lorenzo needs more time for his Buriram wrist injury to heal and Márquez needs surgery to fix his wobbly left shoulder. And Cal Crutchlow can’t ride again until Sepang next February.
There was much talk at Valencia about an apparently new steering-damper fitted to the HRC development bikes. In fact, this is just the latest version of Honda’s electronically assisted rotary damper, first used on the RC211V in 2003.
Ducati’s 2019 goal is the same it’s had for years. Ever since Ducati engineers solved their corner-entry grip and feel problems (which haunted Rossi and many others) their main issue has been mid-corner turning.
During the past few seasons and most notably last season, Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall’Igna gradually reduced this problem, but the Desmosedici is now at that stage where it’s difficult to make the bike any faster in the middle of the corner without damaging its impressive corner-entry/exit stability, which are the cornerstones of its current success: 13 race wins in the past two seasons compared to two victories in the previous six.
But perhaps Dall’Igna has made important progress in another area. Maintaining rear-tyre temperature at a reasonable level is one of the most important performance factors in the Michelin era, because the better you look after the tyre the faster you will be at the end of the race.
Andrea Dovizioso is arguably MotoGP’s master of tyre management, but keeping the rear tyre from overheating is a major concern for everyone in MotoGP, especially his new factory team-mate Danilo Petrucci. The former Superstock racer is the biggest rider on the grid, at 78kg. The result is sky-high rear-tyre temperature and shorter tyre life. But Petrucci’s GP19 might help fix this problem.
“The bike is more stable, which helps me keep the tyre temperature a bit cooler, which helps me a lot to be faster lap by lap,” said Petrucci.
Ducati has the most powerful bike on the grid, so how has Dall’Igna managed to reduce tyre temperature? Possibly through Ducati’s super-slick-shift gearbox, introduced last season. At Valencia, Jack Miller also got to try this gearbox for the first time on his Pramac GP19.
“The way the gearbox works is very smooth,” said the Aussie, who raced a GP17 last season. “It gives the load to the rear tyre nice and gently, plus the power out of the corner is very linear, so it’s very easy to control and you don’t upset the bike too much.”
Miller was blown away by his first two days on a GP19. “It’s hard to believe that this bike is only two years more advanced than my GP17, because the amount of changes is crazy. The GP19 does everything better: it brakes, stops, turns and accelerates better. There’s a lot to take in and I’m trying to get used to everything, but I’m really happy with the way it’s unfolding.
“The bike feels very light and very easy, especially through fast changes of direction. It really picks its lines well and I feel better mid-corner too. I’m really excited!”
Petrucci’s promotion to Ducati’s factory squad completes a rollercoaster few years for the Italian.
Petrucci came to MotoGP via an unusual route: straight from the European Superstock series to MotoGP, riding a CRT bike for Giampiero Sacchi’s somewhat skint IodaRacing team. His bike was powered by an Aprilia RSV4 engine that was so standard that he was racing against factory MotoGP bikes while using stock streetbike electronics.
At Mugello in 2014 the Ioda Aprilia did 198mph, 19mph slower than the fastest bike Andrea Iannone’s Ducati.
No wonder Petrucci came close to giving up and quitting. “During that period I didn’t know the tracks, the tyres or the carbon brakes, plus our bike was incredibly slow,” he said. “I was very angry with everyone because I was usually last on the grid and last in the race.”
No wonder that his first day as a factory rider was a special experience for the 28-year-old. “Today was a very, very emotional day for me – like the first day at big school! It’s a dream come true to wear these colours.”
However, 2019 won’t be easy for Petrucci. First, he has his size handicap. Second, he only has a one-year factory contract, with Dovizioso already signed up for another two years and 23-year-old Miller expected to graduate to the factory team sooner rather than later.
Yamaha isn’t the only factory focusing heavily on rear-end stopping performance, using the rear tyre to help the front tyre.
Aprilia had a mostly disastrous 2018 but turned things around when it introduced a so-called lab bike for the last three races, which is a hybrid of 2017, ’18 and ‘19 parts.
During the tests Aleix Espargaró and new team-mate Andrea Iannone both tried new engines and chassis.
“The biggest reason to use a new engine is to have stronger engine braking,” explained Espargaró. “At every track last season we tried to increase the value of the engine-braking electronics but then we locked the rear tyre.
“This is one of the key points for 2019: to increase engine-braking without locking the rear tyre. It’s a combination of everything: engine, electronics and chassis geometry, because even if you can have better engine-braking with the engine and electronics, you will lock the tyre immediately if the tyre isn’t pushing into the track.
“It’s about how we stop the rear tyre and how we load the rear tyre.”
Espargaró has a very different crew for 2019, including a new electronics engineer and a new crew chief – Antonio Jimenez, who has worked in Moto2 since his last MotoGP job with Álvaro Bautista in 2014.
Last week we looked into the negative effect of high rider weight on tyre performance. But there’s another important factor affected by rider size: horsepower.
MotoGP bikes get 22 litres of fuel per race, which is a problem for bigger riders, because they can’t run their bikes at full power without the risk of running dry.
Therefore, these riders are hit by a double whammy: they are taller and heavier, so the bike is slower; plus they have to use softer engine maps, so they have less power and torque than their smaller rivals.
Last season Aprilia had Aleix Espargaró and Scott Redding, who was 14kg heavier than his Spanish team-mate.
“At tracks where fuel consumption is critical you have to use leaner maps for your heavier riders, so engine performance is reduced,” said Aprilia’s chief engineer Romano Albesiano. “It’s only a few per cent, but it’s clearly a disadvantage for the heavier riders, which is why the manufacturers are interested in hiring lighter riders; let’s say around 65 kilos is good. But I’m not sure about changing the rules, because every time we discuss rules, we open a new can of worms!”
Considering that the average winner-to-second-place gap during 2018 was 0.8 per cent, a difference of a few per cent in engine performance seems to be quite a big deal.
The winner of this year’s MotoGP walk-of-shame prize is Moto2 charger Stefano Manzi, who crashed his Suter and limped out of gravel traps on 31 occasions last season, even though he missed the last three races through injury.
Manzi was lucky he didn’t have 32 crashes – he was the victim of Romano Fenati’s notorious attack during September’s San Marino GP.
Runner-up was fellow Moto2 rider Sam Lowes, who crashed his KTM on 27 occasions. Next were Moto3 title-challenger Marco Bezzecchi on 24 and MotoGP champ Marc Márquez on 23.
Last season Márquez fell fewer times than he did in 2017, but he still crashed more than anyone else in MotoGP and he still won the championship.
Most MotoGP riders ride to the limit of their machine, they go as fast as they can go without pushing too deep into the danger zone.
Márquez isn’t like that, he rushes in where angels fear to tread, but he’s no fool.
He had 23 crashes across the 19 rounds and only two race crashes – at Mugello and Valencia – which means he crashed 21 times during practice and qualifying. Often, these crashes weren’t so much accidents as grip tests. And, often, they happened when he was using the hard front, which the RC213V nearly always demands for the race, hence HRC’s focus on sweetening the bike’s front end for 2019.
Hard tyres tend to give less warning of an impending crash, but Márquez needs to find the tyre’s limit, so he knows exactly how far he can push the tyre in the race and also how the tyre feels as it starts to let go, so he can fine-tune his save technique to suit the feeling. This obviously gives him a vital advantage over his rivals, especially with the tyres changing so much from race to race.
Behind Márquez in the MotoGP crash league are: Álvaro Bautista, 21; Xavier Siméon, 18; Cal Crutchlow, 17; Jack Miller 17; Karel Abraham, 15; Takaaki Nakagami, 15; Tom Luthi, 13; Aleix Espargaró, 12; Pol Espargaró, 12; Álex Rins, 12; Andrea Iannone, 11; Franco Morbidelli, 11; Scott Redding, 11; Bradley Smith, 11; Tito Rabat, 10; Dani Pedrosa, 9; Hafizh Syahrin, 9; Johann Zarco, 9; Valentino Rossi, 8; Jorge Lorenzo, 6; Andrea Dovizioso, 5; Danilo Petrucci, 4 and Maverick Viñales, 4.
The Moto2 crashing podium was Manzi, 31; Lowes, 27 and Jorge Navarro, 24. Moto3 was Bezzecchi, 24; Gabriel Rodrigo, 22 and Tatsuki Suzuki, 21.
Dovizioso’s fourth win of the season was Ducati’s 46th MotoGP success and took the Bologna factory to an historic half century of Grand Prix wins.
Ducati won its first premier-class race in 2003, 44 years after its fourth and final 125cc GP victory at Dundrod, Ulster, in 1959.
Ducati’s first foray into GPs was significant because the marque’s fabled engineer Fabio Taglioni built his first desmodromic-valve engine to contest the 125 world championship. Taglioni was encouraged to use the desmo system by his friend Enzo Ferrari.
Taglioni’s first desmo engine – a twin-plug 125 single producing 22.5 horsepower – came close to winning the 1958 world title. The great man was in a rich vein of creativity at the time, because he also had a desmo 125 twin and a non-desmo 125 four under development. The gear-driven DOHC four was never raced, because Ducati’s race department was one of many that fell victim to a bike-market decline in the late 1950s, but its existence belies the myth that the Japanese pioneered cylinder miniaturisation and multiplication in the smaller classes.
Ducati did briefly enter 500 GPs in the early 1970s with a v-twin, but riders Phil Read and Bruno Spaggiari only scored a few points.
At Valencia, Dall’Igna once again hinted that Ducati will return to the smallest class, with a Moto3 bike. “It’s important to join Moto3,” he said. “But first we have to complete the job in MotoGP.”
Next year’s Michelin front and rear MotoGP tyres will remain the same, despite a plan to introduce a new front slick.
“We have taken the decision to stay with the same carcass/profile front and rear,” said Michelin’s Piero Taramasso.
“We tried a new front profile at the Barcelona tests, in June, with good results. Then we mixed this new profile with a new casing for the Brno tests. The results of that test told us we had gone too far, so we took one step backwards with another new carcass and profile, which gave good results during tests at Misano and Aragon, but we need more time to complete this tyre, so now our plan is to change the front and rear for 2020.”
The factories will be happy to have another year with no big changes to the tyres, because any change in profile or carcass can require major chassis redesigns.
Michelin will only make some changes to rear compounds for 2019, to reduce wear at the tracks where tyre life was a problem.
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