Is this the weirdest MotoGP season ever?
Surely, this is the weirdest MotoGP season ever. I’ve been in the paddock for roughly half the 72 seasons since the world championships were born and I can’t remember a…
What happened at COTA, and how and why
Why booing doesn’t work // Dovizioso’s corner entry secret // COTA: MotoGP’s ultimate performance test // Ducati: aero is an important safety feature // Same rules, more penalties // Miller/Lorenzo clash, but no contact // Dani does it again // Suzuki makes big steps forward // ‘MotoGP tyres are very sensitive’ // Moveable bumps?! // Mamola becomes legend // Not much more argie bargie
Yamaha had two bikes in the top four for the first time since last October’s Phillip Island race, so the company believes its long-running problems may finally be over. As Maverick Viñales said after finishing second, “we are coming!”
So what’s the secret? Two things: the reversion to a slightly modified 2016 chassis and a new philosophy with the unified software.
“Last year the big problem was that in the second half of the season Honda and Ducati made huge steps with the electronics,” said Rossi. “The idea of the control ECU was to lower performance, but Ducati and Honda understood better than Yamaha how to improve. Ducati and Honda spent a lot of money and used a lot of people to work on the electronics. Yamaha didn’t do enough, so we were in delay, but now we can work harder in the area.”
Kouichi Tsuji, the boss of Yamaha’s motor sport development division, confirmed that his electronics staff has changed its approach to the M1’s traction control, wheelie control and other programmes.
“Maybe the direction we took was always to make the bike character not so aggressive, so the riders could ride smoothly,” he said. “We wanted to make the bike as smooth as possible, but it was too much, which affected acceleration.”
Viñales’ rider coach Wilco Zeelenberg revealed that Yamaha has put more power back in the hands of its riders, which is what they did a decade or more ago when they created the best electronics on the MotoGP grid.
“We controlled the power too much, now it’s more free,” said the former 250 GP winner. “Maverick and Valentino can now spin more or less, as they want, so they can adjust the situation themselves. Also the 2018 chassis [essentially a 2016 item) has better balance, so they need fewer electronics, so they can play with the bike more.”
Viñales seems much happier with the new set-up, which gave him his best result since Silverstone last August. “I can now ride a little more aggressively, like I did early last year, so I am pushing the bike more,” he said
One reason Yamaha had suffered so badly was that it failed to hire top staff from Magneti Marelli, as Ducati and Honda did.
“If we had recognised this in advance, we would have done the same,” added Tsuji. “Unfortunately we missed the opportunity! But although the software is made by Magneti we are not sure they have the knowledge to make our bike faster, because bike development and software development must always be in parallel.”
Magneti did offer help last winter, but Yamaha didn’t respond. The factory presumably wanted to learn and improve in-house. While Ducati and Honda signed Magneti staff, other factories like Suzuki and KTM make do with sending their electronics staff to the Magneti HQ near Milan for tutorials.
On COTA, Rossi found the medium front slick to be too soft, but he had to race the medium because he couldn’t get the hard to work. After a few front-end slides he gave up chasing Andrea Iannone and settled for fourth.
Márquez’s 12th consecutive Grand Prix win on American asphalt was greeted by the usual bovine boos. Not that it worried him. The chaos of Argentina had convinced him to checkout from the start, comfortably building an eight-second lap by the last-but-one lap, well out of the way of any controversy.
“After what happened in Argentina I changed my strategy, pushed hard in the first laps and opened a gap,” he said.
So what effect does the booing have on his performance? “It’s another motivation,” he grinned. In other words, the people booing the world champion because they don’t like him winning are going to make him win even more. Which perfectly sums up the quality of their thinking.
MotoGP is still as unpredictable as ever: Andrea Dovizioso now leads the title chase with a win, a sixth place and a fifth place, which puts him one point ahead of Márquez.
Dovizioso seems relaxed, however, because he knows that the last two tracks weren’t good for the Ducati. Although all Desmosedici riders use the rear brake to help them get turned through corners, only Dovizioso uses a more radical rear-brake technique to help get his bike steered. He likes to get the bike slightly crossed up on the brakes, stepping the rear out, away from the corner, to help the bike tip in and turn.
“The problem for us at COTA is that the bike doesn’t turn when you’re off the brakes and there are many changes of direction here without brakes,” he said.
Dovizioso perfected this technique early last season, when his crew chief Alberto Giribuola created a setting that allows him to consistently skip the rear wheel sideways to aid corner entry.
Will Jerez be good for Ducati? Possibly not, because it’s another track with long corners, a bit like Phillip Island, where Dovizioso had a disastrous race last year: you can’t skip out the rear entering high-speed corners.
“I expect Jerez to be like last year because the bike is not so different, but the track does have new asphalt, which may help us,” he said.
Some paddock people say that the final uphill straight at Brno is MotoGP’s best dyno. Nearly, but not quite: the COTA back straight is uphill, the longest in the championship and follows a first-gear corner. In other words, it’s the best-possible test of engine horsepower, power delivery, electronics and aero.
Fastest riders of the weekend were Danilo Petrucci (Ducati) and Cal Crutchlow (Honda) who both hit 216.1mph (347.9kmh). Top Suzuki was Alex Rins at 213.1mph (343.1 kmh). Fastest Yamaha was Rossi at 212.7mph (342.4 kmh). Pol Espargaró had the best KTM at 212.5mph (342.3 kmh). Quickest Aprilia was Aleix Espargaró, with 211.8mph (341.0 kmh). Interestingly, Márquez’s best top speed was 212.2mph (341.6 kmh).
Brad Binder’s KTM was the fastest Moto2 bike at 176.9mph (284.8kmh), just ahead of Romano Fenati’s Kalex at 176.7mph (284.5 kmh). in Moto3, Tony Arbolino’s Honda led the way at 148.3mph (238.7kmh), with Livio Loi the best KTM at 148.0mph (238.3 kmh).
The MSMA may be thinking about banning MotoGP’s fancy aero add-ons, but work goes on in the factory race departments.
Ducati Corse has always led the way on aero, so it’s no surprise that Riccardo Savin, the company’s MotoGP vehicles dynamics and design manager, believes that reducing aero would make MotoGP more dangerous.
“If we consider a corner like Turn 10 at COTA [the superfast lefthander that takes riders over a brow], the camber goes from positive to negative,” said Savin. “In that phase stability is very important and we can add up to ten kilos of load on the front tyre. When the front tyre is just touching the asphalt, then lifts off the asphalt, then touches the asphalt again, the lifts again, the bike becomes unstable and difficult to manage.
“The aero also helps a lot on braking, because they make the bike more stable, the increased drag helps stop the bike and although they increase the load on the front they don’t reduce the load on the rear, so they help all braking problems.”
Ducati may be the aero leader, but the company is still in the very early stages of understanding the way forward. At the start of this year its latest aero fairing didn’t work with the GP18, possibly because the latest design creates more downforce, so perhaps it was ‘stalling’ in corners and overloading the front tyre. Which is why Jorge Lorenzo reverted to conventional Ducati bodywork during preseason testing.
“When we tested at Buriram I had a problem with the front closing,” said Lorenzo, revealing why he ended that test 16th fastest, almost a second off the pace. “We had kept the 2017 base setting with the new fairing which gave the issue in the middle of corners, which is why we removed the fairing. Once we changed the setting this feeling disappeared, so I can take full potential of new fairing. I’m a rider who needs to feel contact between the front tyre and the track, so the fairing gives me more benefit than most other riders. But we still have work to do – the 2018 bike is more nervous on bumps and wheelies more. But it turns better, so we think the bike has more potential.”
You can guess that Lorenzo will be fighting very hard to retain his aero bodywork.
Savin and his fellow engineers do most of their development using computational fluid dynamics software and some full-size wind-tunnel testing.
“At the moment we are still understanding straight-line behaviour. Once we understand 80 percent of that then we can think about cornering. Everything changes from when the rider brakes and sits up, then puts out his knee to help the bike stop and turn. We do not know yet if the positive aspect of our aero might become a negative in corners, because we do not understand this concept so deeply. What we do know is that speeds in the corners are slower than on the straights, so the aerodynamic effect in the corners is very low.”
Perhaps significantly, both Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso raced with the 2018 aero for the first time at COTA. Last year Dovizioso only raced the aero fairing twice and he won both those races, but that was more to do with track layout than anything else: the Red Bull Ring and Motegi feature many slow corners followed by longish straights, so anti-wheelie aero is vital at those tracks. Mostly Dovizioso prefers to race without.
“It’s always a compromise,” added Savin. “We show Andrea our data and the advantages of the aero, but bike may feel heavier when cornering. The rider had to ride so he must choose.”
Inevitably, Friday’s safety commission meeting got a little heated, with Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez exchanging words following their clash at Termas.
But perhaps it was thanks to Jack Miller that things didn’t get any worse than that. The young Aussie and self-styled Jackass turned out to be the voice of reason at COTA. On Thursday he reminded everyone what’s at stake.
“I want to refresh people’s memories of Marco Simoncelli [killed at Sepang in 2011] and Dani Pedrosa [who broke a wrist after a lap-one incident with Johann Zarco at Termas],” said Miller. “We are all here racing and risking our lives, and all these fans are picking sides and fighting each other, and also the riders are fighting each other. I think it’s quite silly and immature. These riders are quite old, they need to remember that life is short and that we are risking our lives.”
Race director Mike Webb said that MotoGP’s rules won’t change but that punishments will be issued more frequently in response to requests to control over-aggressive riding.
“Every single incident on track is different to every other incident, so they all need to be investigating individually and forensically,” said Webb, a former New Zealand 250cc champion who has been race director since 2012. “We now have an instruction from the permanent bureau that the stewards should raise the level of penalties. In the past we would call in a rider and say, look, you did wrong, but this is a first offence, so you’re getting a warning and don’t do it again, because a second offence will get you a proper penalty. Now the bar is raised, so a first offence may get a penalty.
“We have spoken with Marc to remind him of the fact that repeat offences can expect a higher penalty. The grid penalty he got here [for slowing Viñales during qualifying] wasn’t related to what happened at the last race. It’s all irresponsible riding but it’s a separate offence – causing contact and causing a crash is very different from disturbing another rider’s lap in qualifying. In the last few years, disturbing a rider in qualifying would almost always be dealt with by a warning, but now a warning isn’t good enough, so the rider gets a penalty.”
The hullabaloo of recent weeks might change the composition of the FIM stewards panel, the people who issue punishments. Currently the panel consists of race director Mike Webb and two FIM stewards, but more may be added in future.
“I like consistency,” added Webb. “If the way to achieve that is by having permanent stewards, then we’ll do that. We already have one permanent FIM steward in Bill Cumbow, then we have a tight group of a few more stewards, more or less the same people at every race, but if you have a rotating panel of different people turning up at different races then you don’t get consistency. Having more help with penalties would be sensible.”
No surprise that Webb takes no notice of MotoGP’s social media furores. “I refuse to let uninformed chatter get in my head, so I listen to informed people who know what’s going on,” he said.
The COTA MotoGP race was very uneventful, which, after the chaos of Argentina, was exactly what much of the paddock wanted. The only incident of any note came late in the race, as Jorge Lorenzo’s factory Ducati ran out of grip and came under attack from the indie Ducati of Jack Miller.
Milled sliced inside Lorenzo at Turn 1, forcing the Spaniard to pick up his GP18 to avoid contact. Lorenzo was deeply unamused, shaking his head angrily as Miller disappeared into the distance. But in fact Miller only made the pass there because he was in big trouble.
“As I hit the bottom of the hill before Turn 1 the front started locking, then coming up the rise the front end was bouncing off the bump stops, then when I got to top the front really started locking,” explained the Aussie. “I was dealing with the situation as best as I could. It was either go wide, but then he was so wide I thought I’ll give it a go up the inside. It was a late move, but his pace was dropping. I went to say sorry after the race, but he didn’t want to acknowledge me.”
After the race Miller revealed that he had ridden the entire weekend with a cracked right collarbone, sustained in a mountain-bike crash. “It wasn’t ideal,” he said.
Miller wasn’t the only man riding injured. Dani Pedrosa broke his right wrist at Termas, underwent surgery at home and was expected to miss COTA, with an HRC test rider taking his place. The 32-year-old made a last-minute decision to travel to Texas, still unsure of racing. But he did race, and he finished seventh, just fives second behind Dovizioso and Johann Zarco. It was a remarkable performance from a man accustomed to battling through the pain barrier, especially at a track with 20 corners per lap and numerous direction changes.
“I felt very bad in warm-up,” said Pedrosa, who took painkillers and wore a support over the injury. “In the race I dealt with the pain as much as I could, then tried to keep my pace. This track is very tough physically, so it was very difficult behind Dovi and Zarco because it was difficult to approach and attack them. And when you are hurt you are a lot less precise, so people can attack and pass you.”
Honda has built its best RC213V in years, but perhaps Suzuki is the biggest improver of 2018, with Alex Rins and Andrea Iannone climbing the podium at the first two races, following a dismal 2017. A revised chassis, better braking stability, a refined engine spec and slightly less crankshaft mass are the most likely reasons for the improvement.
“For 2017 we changed the engine a lot for more acceleration – at some places it was good and at others bad,” said Suzuki technical manager Ken Kawauchi. “This year we changed our direction on engine character, which has helped a lot. Always we try to make the engine gentle, also the handling. We tried many things last year and now these things are coming together. Basically the chassis is the chassis we tested at Aragón last year. Also, we made a very, very sensitive change to crankshaft mass. Finally we found a better compromise!”
And Kawauchi may follow the lead of Ducati and Honda in hiring staff from Magneti Marelli. “We understand the importance of the development of the unified software, so we send our Japanese and European staff to visit Magneti. At the moment we haven’t hired anyone from Magneti, but maybe we will in the future.”
Part of the fun of reporting on MotoGP is getting into trouble with people. Sometimes I make mistakes and get reprimanded by a rider, team manager or official. Some years ago an older journalist taught me the perfect repost to such criticism: so, tell me, so when did you complete an entire race weekend without making a single mistake?
A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about Michelin’s MotoGP roulette wheel, which related the tales of several riders who have found inconsistencies in the performance of different tyres of the same spec. At Austin I spoke with Piero Taramasso, Michelin’s MotoGP manager.
“MotoGP tyres are very sensitive,” said Taramasso. “A difference of just two tenths of a second in lap times can make a difference of 15 degrees in tyre tread temperature! So lap times are very important – a two minute 10 second lap is very different to a two minute 11 second lap for the tyre. Also, a one or two-degree change in track temperature can have an effect. It’s the same with tyre pressure: the difference between 2.15 bar and 2.17 bar is a big difference.”
There is a very critical science involved in getting the best out of the tyres – the way a rider undertakes a warm-up lap is a very important part of preparing a tyre to perform at its best.
The way tyres are transported and stored also makes a huge difference. “Each MotoGP tyre we make has a unique serial number,” added Taramasso. “Also, we control the temperature while the tyres are transported by truck, plane and boat, always between 20 and 22 degrees. At the track we follow each tyre, when it’s fitted, how long it spends in its tyre blanket and how many heat cycles it goes through. From experience we know that a tyre is okay to go through five heat cycles, no problem, but after that the tyre won’t be used again.”
Taramasso believes that the problems found by some riders during the Qatar GP weekend might have been due to those tyres having remained in Qatar following the final preseason test. “We realised we had made a mistake. Normally we don’t leave tyres like that for a long time.”
Michelin’s MotoGP tyres are part-manufactured and part-handmade, to allow faster adjustments to the production process. All tyres are checked for weight and balance and all compounds are checked in the company’s laboratory. Once tyres are fitted to rims at the track they are checked on a five-point laser rig to check for any imbalances. If a tyre is more than 0.08mm out it is rejected. Normal tyre temperatures are 120 degrees Celsius for the rear and up to 100 degrees for the front.
Michelin refuses to discuss its MotoGP budget. But a bit of paddock research suggests each rear tyre costs around £900 and each front about £450. At most races at least 200 tyres are used by MotoGP’s 24 riders, which makes a race cost of around £300,000, which adds up to a season total of £5.7 million, which doesn’t include tyres used during preseason and midseason testing. Once staff and travel costs (around £2.5 million) sea/air freight costs, R&D costs and everything else is included it’s likely that Michelin’s total MotoGP budget is between £10 and 15 million. They get zero financial support from Dorna.
COTA was bumpier than ever this year, despite a possibly ill-judged attempt to shave the worst bumps off the asphalt. The scariest bump came immediately after the brow at the rapid Turn 10, which caused plenty of scares; most notably with Jack Miller. His wobble over the bumps pushed his brake pads to the back of the callipers, so he had no brakes when he arrived at the Turn 11 hairpin.
“It’s difficult to ride like this because the limit is earlier, so you can’t push so much, you cannot slide and you can’t turn like you want,” said winner Marc Márquez. Not that you would’ve noticed.
The Spaniard had one interesting theory about the bumps. “It’s like something is moving under the ground, like the track is moving. It’s not normal because it seems like something is moving under bumps – every time we come here the bumps are different and the banking of the corners is different.”
Recent floods might be the cause. Or could the moveable bumps have something to do with seismic activity in the local area, some of which is caused by mining and fracking, which involves pumping huge amounts of wastewater deep underground. One oil facility – the Elroy Oil Field – is situated less than two miles from the track.
Four-times 500cc world championship runner-up Randy Mamola was named a MotoGP Legend at COTA. The Spanish-based Californian won 13 GPs, scored podium finishes in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and rode for the Cagiva, Honda and Suzuki factories. “It’s a great honour to be appreciated by the sport,” said Mamola, who is also renowned for his charity work.
The Grand Prix of Americas got underway on Thursday like a dog returning to its own vomit, with livestreaming of the Márquez and Rossi media debriefs.
Both debriefs were packed with press and TV, but inevitably there were no revelations. Márquez discussed the glitch that had caused his engine to stop on; an electronics issue that had had already happened in practice.
“The first time I thought I’d made a mistake, so I thought nothing more of it,” he said. “On the grid I know you must put your hand up if your engine stops, but I didn’t see anybody coming, so I ran as quickly as possible to pit lane, but then I tried to start the engine and it started. Then it was a big confusion for everyone.”
Rossi stood by his outspoken words at Termas, but he also wanted to move. “I think exactly what I said after the race, but it’s better to look forward,” he said.
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