The problem that could spoil Márquez’s MotoGP title hopes
The main reason KTM, Suzuki and Honda are struggling this season is Michelin’s 2021 front-tyre allocation
Ducati’s winning lump of plastic // Slip, sliding away // Marquez: “It was impossible” // Rossi: “I’m not fast enough to be champion” // Viñales: “The same but completely different” // How dangerous is too dangerous? // How Kalex regained the Moto2 advantage // Aprilia: carbon swingarm saves one kilo // MotoGP’s MotoE bike will weigh 270 kilos
Valentino Rossi’s crew chief Jeremy Burgess once opined that bike racing is all about keeping the rider happy, because a happy rider is a fast rider. “If he wants gold handlebars,” he said. “Give him gold handlebars.”
Ducati’s winning solution to Jorge Lorenzo’s ongoing struggles was a lot less costly than that: a large lump of grey plastic attached to the rear of his GP18’s fuel tank. This was the latest of a series of modifications designed to give him better support in straight-line braking. It was also the biggest upgrade, shifting him several inches backwards to better position his arms and allow him to maintain maximum pace all the way to the finish for the first time on the Desmosedici.
“I feel better than ever with this bike,” he said after his victory, achieved in his usual grand style: lead into Turn 1 and then leave the rest behind. “Physically I have more energy to keep a more constant pace through more laps. With this modification I had the energy to keep pushing to the end.
“The ergonomics of last year’s bike were different: the fuel tank was higher and a different shape. To make the GP18 chassis Ducati had to modify the ergonomics and the shape of the fuel tank. From the Buriram tests in February I said I have less support and get more tired during braking. We had some new parts at Jerez, then tried a slightly different shape fuel tank at the Barcelona tests before we came here and finally something bigger arrived here.”
Lorenzo’s win wasn’t all plastic fantastic. Also crucial was his chameleon-like ability to radically adjust his riding technique to reduce corner-entry stress on the front tyre, which was a huge problem for all his rivals, even though they mostly used harder front tyres than he did.
“The trick today was that I completely changed my riding style,” he added. “This was a new experience which should help me to take the maximum with this bike in the future.”
Understandably, Lorenzo didn’t want to reveal the details of his trick. “I cannot explain more,” he grinned.
The biggest problem at Mugello on Sunday was front-tyre grip: track temperature exceeded 50deg C, the asphalt was made particularly slippery by Moto2 rubber and Michelin’s tyre allocation was too soft for some riders and bikes.
Most riders were slip-sliding around because they had to race the hard front tyre, because they couldn’t make the medium last the race. Except Lorenzo, of course, who was the only one of the top seven finishers to use the medium.
“I lost the front too many times,” said Andrea Dovizioso, who finished six seconds behind his team-mate. “After Marc’s crash, after my Le Mans crash and especially after you lose the front too many times you start to think…”
Dovizioso knew he should have chosen the same medium front that Lorenzo used. “Normally I’m one of best at saving the front tyre with my riding style, but I didn’t want to take the risk because in the heat the hard was worse. In the race I saw Valentino lose the front too many times and he had same tyre as me.”
Rossi was indeed skating on thin ice. “Every time I tried to go faster I lost the front and was very close to crashing,” he said.
Cal Crutchlow spent much of the race at the back of the same group, chasing Rossi, Andrea Iannone, Alex Rins and Danilo Petrucci, which gave him even more problems.
“The problem I had was that the heat from the bikes in front of me was melting my front tyre,” said the LCR Honda rider, who was still coughing up blood following his huge Le Mans shunt. “Jorge did it perfect – he would’ve been in more trouble if he had been in a group. Dovizioso was good too, he also managed to get ahead of the group.”
Although Lorenzo wouldn’t reveal his winning secret, Dovizioso watched his team-mate closely. “I tried to catch Jorge, but I was slower in the last part of braking, in the middle of the corners,” he said. “I tried to change my lines but I didn’t have enough rear grip, so I couldn’t change enough to catch him. He rode a very good race. It was a very particular race because the grip was low. You have to adapt to the conditions and he managed the medium front in a really good way. To keep his pace to the end with his tyres was very difficult.”
Rossi agreed. “Jorge was able to be fast with the softer front,” he said.
Who can beat Márquez to his fifth MotoGP title in six seasons? No one, is the usual reply, except himself.
That may be true, but there’s something else that can beat him: the tyre allocation. Michelin’s Mugello allocation wasn’t right for Honda and especially for its fastest rider because the RC213V was designed for hammering into corners, so it needs a hard front tyre.
“This was a race to take points and I knew that before the start,” said Márquez. “It’s been one year since I crashed in a race [at Le Mans 2017]… The podium was the goal but I nearly crashed 10 times. This race is one to forget because the tyre allocation was so special for us; and that is not an excuse, because the allocation was the same for everybody, but we stress the front even more than the others, with the Honda and my riding style.
“This weekend we changed the bike a lot to work with the front tyre and then I tried to manage it. With the medium front it was impossible to finish the race, so I was trying to manage with the hard front. I tried to save the crash and to be quite powerful to pick up the bike but it was impossible because it was a downhill corner and the grip was low.”
Rossi had his best Mugello Grand Prix since his last win at the circuit, way back in 2008. Not only did he stand on its podium for only the third time in the past 10 years, he also started from pole position for only the second time in 10 years.
Mugello erupted when he grabbed pole from Andrea Iannone on his final run – his fastest-ever lap around his spiritual home followed immediately by his slowest lap.
“I rode the cooldown lap very, very slowly,” he smiled. “I wanted to enjoy the moment because I don’t know how many more poles I can get in my career, especially at Mugello, so I had to say ciao to everybody. It’s a great feeling, a great emotion and it made me feel 10 years younger.”
The 39-year-old’s 55th premier-class pole made history because he was the oldest rider to top qualifying since 39-year-old Aussie Jack Findlay was fastest during practice for the 1974 Isle of Man Senior TT, riding Suzuki’s first RG500 square-four two-stroke.
Sunday was even better for Rossi. “Ten minutes on the podium at Mugello in front of the crowd repays all the effort you make with training, travel and riding,” he beamed.
And the nine-time world champion very nearly went one better than third place. On the 17th lap of the 23-lap race he was almost six seconds behind Dovizioso. He took the flag less than three tenths behind, after a do-or-die battle with Iannone for the last place in the podium party.
“We suffered because we had to race with the hard front and I never had a good feeling in practice with the hard,” Rossi added. “It was one of my toughest races recently because the bike was very difficult to ride with low grip at the front. At one moment I was quite desperate – I was fifth and I thought maybe the podium is not possible. Then my big opponent was Iannone. In the last laps you forget your strategy and it’s all heart. You enter the corners, thinking, maybe I will crash, but I must try. You trust in the tyre and in the bike and it was OK.”
Rossi now stands second in the championship, 23 points behind Márquez and a few points ahead of team-mate Viñales and Dovizioso. Does he think he can win his much-sought-after tenth world title?
“Not really, because to fight for the championship we need to be faster. Twenty-three points isn’t a lot, but at the moment I’m not fast enough for the championship.
“We have improved the bike, especially in hot [qualifying] laps, but over race distance we are not so strong. We have improved the mechanical balance of with some different parts. The good thing with the Yamaha is qualifying and the first laps of the race, when you have good grip.
“In the second part of the race we suffer more than Honda and Ducati, so we need to work in different areas to improve this. For me the problem is very clear. I try to explain it to Yamaha, who must work and try to improve, but it’s not easy. You need a lot of people that do this work and it’s a long job.”
If Rossi and his Movistar Yamaha crew have glimpsed some light at the end of the tunnel, the other side of the garage seems to fall deeper into the abyss with each weekend.
Viñales was upbeat throughout Mugello practice and qualifying, when he achieved his second front row of the year, thanks to progress made during post-French GP tests at Barcelona.
“The set-up is now totally different – the bike is a bit shorter, which makes the tyres work in a better way for me,” he said. “I feel really good, much better, more confident.”
Then came the race, when he dropped like a stone in the early laps, from third to 10th. He ended up eighth, 11sec, nearly half a second a lap, behind Lorenzo. Afterwards he seemed floored.
“I honestly cannot believe it,” he said. “I cannot push, I’m riding 50 per cent, I’m not even sweating; I can only do what the bike wants to do. In the race everything was wrong, everything. The bike was the same but completely different. Maybe it was all the Moto2 rubber, but I had no grip, especially from the front.
“On the first lap I lost a lot of positions because I lost the front in Arrabbiata 2 and I don’t know why I didn’t crash because the Yamaha doesn’t give you any warning. When it goes, it goes. During all the race I felt really bad, like I was crashing in every corner. Maybe the problem is the way we heat the tyres or something.”
Last week a spectator at the Isle of Man TT was thrown in jail for four weeks, after he wandered onto the course during a practice session, which had to be red-flagged. The island’s chief constable said the sentence was justified because “motorcycle racing is both spectacular and spectacularly dangerous.”
He’s certainly correct, especially when it comes to the TT, which on Wednesday claimed the life of local-star Dan Kneen, whose fatal accident led to another horrific crash between a course car and Steve Mercer, leaving the Kent rider in a critical condition. We arrived at Mugello with our thoughts with these people and their families.
Mugello is the jewel in the crown in the MotoGP world championship: a fast, technically challenging racetrack that runs through an impossibly picturesque Tuscan valley. The circuit is hugely popular with riders, most of whom much prefer old-school rock-and-roll tracks to new-school, glorified go-kart tracks. Mugello. But there’s a price to be paid for these thrills – Mugello includes the most dangerous corner of the championship, which doesn’t even have a name, because it wasn’t even a corner when the track was built in the 1970s.
In fact, this ultra-fast left kink that takes riders over a brow before they hit the brakes for the San Donato right-hander still wasn’t a corner in the final days of the 500s. In 2001 Valentino Rossi was fastest through the speed trap there at 196mph. Last weekend Dovizioso topped 221mph, an increase of 25mph.
The corner without a name that precedes isn’t a good place to crash, hence the worried faces up and down pit lane on Friday afternoon after Ducati’s MotoGP test rider and Mugello wildcard Michele Pirro lost control as he came through the kink and crashed, at around 170mph.
The cause of the crash isn’t uncommon: when a bike gets into a violent tank-slapper the brake pads in the calipers are forced away from the discs, so when the rider grabs the brake lever the caliper pistons push the pads towards the discs without actually making contact. The rider panics (understandably) and immediately grabs a bigger handful of brake, which pushes the pads onto the disc much more aggressively than during normal braking. Pirro’s GP18 therefore stood on its nose and threw him over the top.
Pirro suffered concussion, a dislocated right shoulder, abdominal trauma, two black eyes.
Therefore this is the question: is the kink too dangerous for MotoGP?
“At maybe 360km/h it’s scary, unbelievable, too fast,” said Aprilia rider Aleix Espargaro. “You make one mistake with your fingers [while braking] and ciao! It’s the trickiest place in the championship and the wall is so close, so it’s like a bomb!
“Over the last three years we have pushed the Safety Commission to change three corners: Turn 12 at Barcelona [where Luis Salom lost his life in 2016], Turn 3 in Austria and ‘corner’ one at Mugello. The other changes have been made but Mugello is still the same. They say they cannot change it. Pirro was very lucky he didn’t hit the wall because otherwise it would’ve been the end.”
Márquez crashed at 209mph at the same place in 2013. The reigning MotoGP king also missed the wall and wasn’t thrown as high as Pirro, so he was even luckier and was able to race.
“It is one of the most difficult and most dangerous points of the championship,” said Márquez after Pirro’s accident. “The risk is there and the rider decides the level of the risk, because if you close the gas the bike shakes less. I try to manage the risk. During a fast lap, when I want to push, I use full throttle, but most of the weekend I play with the gas through there, because it’s safer. You know if you crash there you can lose two races, so it’s better to play a little bit.
“We’ve already spoken about it in the Safety Commission. Of course if they made the asphalt flat there it would be easier, but anyway every year we arrive there faster and faster and with the wings we have more downforce, so we can push even more, so then the rear is shaking more. Everyone finds the risk and tries to manage the risk.”
Crutchlow shared Márquez’s opinion. “I’m a massive fan of the TT, so I’m not going to complain because we’re riding so fast on a dangerous little jump because it’s not that dangerous,” he said. “The difference in MotoGP is that the bikes and tyres are so stiff and how absolutely at to the limit we are. I watch the TT as a fan every year. This week we lost Dan Kneen and we’re very sad about that, but we want to see the TT continue, so we can’t really complain about the jump at the end of this straight. This is one of the best places in the world to ride a motorcycle, so we can’t complain about it, or we wouldn’t be here.”
MotoGP boasts more safety features than any other bike-racing series, but Pirro lacked two of them when he crashed. He wasn’t wearing an airbag leather suit, because these are not compulsory for wildcard riders, who might not be able to afford an all-new suit for a one-off ride. And his GP18 wasn’t equipped with Brembo’s system that’s designed to keep the pads against the disc, even during a tank-slapper.
“The data told us that the force in Michele’s wobble was four times greater than a normal wobble, so we think the crash would’ve happened anyway,” said Ducati’s Paolo Ciabatti. “We’ve been testing here with Pirro for years and this always happens, but never like this: four times more than a normal wobble.”
Mugello – usually the noisiest place on earth during the first weekend of June – fell eerily quiet when FP2 was red-flagged so that medics could attend to Pirro. When the commentator finally announced that Pirro was conscious and moving, the crowd cheered and clapped and the practice session continued.
Minutes later Márquez crashed. Some of the same crowd that had been worried for Pirro started cheering, just as they did two days later when Márquez slid out of the race.
“To celebrate the crash of a rider is sad, because we are all taking risks,” said the Spaniard, who was often booed when he appeared on the big TV screens around the track. “For me it says it all when we saw a rider in the gravel on Friday and we didn’t know whether he was dead or alive and some of the fans were only focussed on taunting whoever they saw on TV. This says it all.”
German chassis manufacturer Kalex won the past five Moto2 riders’ and constructors’ titles and currently leads this year’s series, with eight riders in the top 10.
However, the end of last season was a bit different. Franco Morbidelli secured the title for Kalex at the penultimate round but Miguel Oliveira won the last three races on his KTM-framed CBR600. Oliveira’s greatest strength was in the later stages of races, when the KTM had more grip than his Kalex rivals. KTM’s success was enough to convince Keifer Racing and CGBM Evolution (Sam Lowes’ team) to buy KTM frames for this season.
But the start of 2018 was the opposite to the end of 2017: Kalex won the opening five races, before Oliveira took KTM’s first victory at Mugello, closely followed over the line by three Kalex bikes. So, how did Kalex turn things around?
“Our problem at the end of last season was tyre performance in the last third of the races, especially at tracks with long corners where you have a lot of lean angle and lot of throttle,” explained Kalex engineer Alex Baumgartel. “For 2018 we made a new chassis and swingarm combo which helped. Also, we went into deep development with Öhlins.”
Previously, Kalex had chassis customers who used either Öhlins or WP suspension. Öhlins was concerned that some of its knowhow was finding its way to WP (owned by KTM), hence Baumgartel’s recent decision to work exclusively with Öhlins, which is allowing the Swedish company to work more closely with the German company.
“Our 2018 chassis has different front/rear stiffness balance to increase the self-turning effect, so now the bike turns better, so the rider doesn’t need to stress the front tyre when braking into the corner or spin the rear tyre to finish the corner,” added Baumgartel.
Baumgartel calls this self-turning effect the “banana effect”. He designs lateral flex into the chassis not only to do the work of the suspension at high lean angles but also to allow the chassis to bend, so its wheelbase is curved, which makes the bike go around corners more naturally. It’s likely that all MotoGP chassis designers use lateral flex to do the same job.
Aprilia didn’t use its new carbon-fibre swingarm at Mugello. Instead the unit remained in the team truck looking like an art exhibit at an art gallery.
Aleix Espargaro is keen to continue development of the new swingarm, which saves a very significant one kilo in unspring weight.
“I’m really pushing our engineers to keep working on it, because if we can lose close to one kilo it’s unbelievable,” said the Spaniard. “We tested the bike at Mugello and it was OK, but when we tested it at Barcelona I didn’t like it when the tyres dropped and we lost grip. When we have pure grip it’s good, but when the tyres slide they slide more, which is logical, because the swingarm is lighter. It’s interesting…”
Aprilia’s racing manager and chief engineer Romano Albesiano isn’t sure that Espargaro’s theory is correct. “The reason isn’t fully clear,” he said. “Our target with the carbon swingarm is the normal target – to keep the same torsional rigidity, with less lateral rigidity. At the moment the torsional rigidity is not the same as our alloy swingarm.”
Aprilia first used carbon-fibre swingarms on its 250 GP bikes, Ducati has used them for many years on its MotoGP bikes, while Márquez won all three of his 2018 victories with HRC’s new carbon swingarm.
Mugello was the home race of Energica the Italian company which is supplying the machinery for next year’s inaugural MotoE championship.
Energica, based in Modena, is busy transforming its Ego road bike into the MotoE race bike, with former 125 GP rider Alessandro Brannetti doing most of the test riding.
“The bike now has racing forks, suspension and steel racing brakes,” said MotoE director Nicolas Goubert. “We are having special rear springs made, because there is nothing in stock that suits the bike; we have to come up by another one or two kilos in spring rate. The biggest difference to the road bike is the 10kWh battery, which is about the same size as the road bike battery but with much more energy.”
The race bikes are expected to weigh around 270 kilos. The first MotoE races will cover less than 10 laps.
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