Miguel Oliveira: MotoGP’s coming man
The KTM rider has outscored everyone at the last three races, so what makes him so special? His crew chief Paul Trevathan reveals all
The latest MotoGP mutterings from the Austrian round, at the Red Bull Ring
Dare to believe, Cal Crutchlow could do the big one next week: British MotoGP victory. The 32-year-old Briton goes into Silverstone with his best points-scoring streak since his double wins in 2016 and with two great British results behind him. In 2016 he started from pole and finished second after duffing up Marc Márquez in the closing laps and last year he finished fourth, less than a second off the podium.
The big difference this time is that Honda has built its best RC213V engine yet, designed to work better with the unified software and Michelin tyres.
“The engine is stronger all the way through – I feel a lot better this year with the acceleration,” says Crutchlow. “The engine is 10 per cent better than last year, so it allows you to make a little mistake in the corner but not lose so much on the exit. It’s stronger and the electronics work better with this engine. And HRC are still working to give us more acceleration.”
“I have one aim at Silverstone and that’s to win. Why not? I’m not worried about the championship, so why not win some more races? We will try to do a good job at Silverstone and I will be one of the favourites.
The last time the British round of the premier-class world championships was won by a Briton was more than 40 years ago
Crutchlow has already won a race this year – in Argentina – and believes he is working better than ever with his LRC Honda crew.
“As a team we are working better and the morale in the team is better than ever,” he adds. “I am riding better, our engine is stronger, the team are working well and Honda are working well, but we still need something more to be competitive with the Ducatis week in, week out. Their bike turns better, is less physical than ours and the engine is strong.”
It’s worth mentioning that home Grands Prix aren’t always good for top racers. They are both a joy and a curse for the stars who love racing at home, spurred on by the crowd, but the extra pressure of fans, sponsors and the media can burn their brains – so they fail to perform at their maximum or try too hard and end up on the floor.
The last time the British round of the premier-class world championships was won by a Briton was more than 40 years ago. In June 1976 County Antrim rider Tom Herron won the Senior TT, the last time the Isle of Man race was part of the championship.
In 1977, the British round moved to the mainland for the first time, to Silverstone.
Reigning world champion Barry Sheene wanted a home win more than anything but never managed it, due to crashes, bike problems and ‘King’ Kenny Roberts. The closest any Briton has come to winning the British GP is Sheene, who finished 0.03 seconds behind Roberts at Silverstone in August 1979.
Marc Márquez may have widened his championship lead over second-placed Valentino Rossi at the last two races, but he has lost points to the riders that are likely to be his greatest rivals for the remainder of the season. So does the reigning champion have enough points and performance to keep Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso at bay until the end of the season?
The Ducati’s greatest strong points are braking performance, tyre conservation and acceleration, especially in higher gears, so, at the weekend, Márquez and his crew focused on trying to bridge the gap in other areas.
“We know Ducati will be faster in some parts of the track, so we will work to be faster in other parts,” he said during practice. “We have better acceleration this year, but the key to better acceleration isn’t always more torque, the key is controlling wheelies.
“When we manage wheelies in a good way our acceleration is much better. We have a little more power this year, so I don’t feel a big difference against the Ducatis, until we use fourth, fifth and sixth. They have such a powerful engine in that area.
“This year we have tried to improve our bike to be competitive on all track layouts, so we are stronger in what were our weak points, but also we suffer a bit more in what were our strong points.”
Márquez has several favoured tracks coming up – including anti-clockwise Aragon, Phillip Island and Valencia – but there are tracks where the Ducati’s top speed and acceleration could play a vital role: Aragon, Buriram, Motegi and Sepang.
Lorenzo may have won Sunday’s race while sitting in his motorhome. During practice he knew his weak point was the Red Bull Ring’s third sector, the two left-handers, so he spent a lot of time watching videos of practice, examining the lines, technique and body position of his fastest rivals through those two corners. He looked, learned and won the race.
Suzuki had the latest iteration of its carbon-fibre reinforced frame in Austria, which Alex Rins raced after trying it for the first time in the post-Czech GP tests at Brno. The frame was due to be used only by test rider Sylvain Guintoli, to gather data for 2019, but Rins liked it, so he was allowed to race it.
Bonding carbon-fibre sections to a frame adjusts the flex characteristics by changing the amount of flex or moving the area of flex. Engineers do this to improve agility, turning, traction, bump absorption and so on. It’s nothing new; HRC, Suter and others have raced similar frames.
The aim of the Suzuki update is to improve turning towards the exit of corners. This is now the most crucial part of the corner in MotoGP because during the Bridgestone era riders turned the bike with the front tyre. In the Michelin era the riders use the rear tyre to do that job, so the bike/tyre combination needs to provide a kind of kinetic traction, with enough wheelspin to turn the bike, combined with enough grip to drive out of the corner. This allows the rider to get the bike pointed straight sooner, so he can use more throttle sooner.
Suzuki raced its first carbon-fibre-strengthened frame (left, above) earlier this year and it was a help. “It gave us less movement in the exit of the corner,” says Rins’ team-mate Andrea Iannone. “Before that, the tyre used to lose grip, recover grip, lose grip, recover grip… The frame helped a little bit in this area.”
This is one of the biggest problems currently facing chassis engineers: the Michelins don’t provide the same kind of grip over many laps
Factory engineers refused to reveal what’s different about the latest frame (right, above), which looks identical to its predecessor, but it does give another improvement.
“I felt some difference,” said Rins after Sunday’s race. “When I was fighting with [Danilo] Petrucci the frame gave me more speed on the corner exit, but once the rear tyre dropped we lost traction, the bike started moving a lot and I couldn’t follow his rhythm. We hope all this information will help for next year.”
Ducati, of course, has been using carbon-fibre as an integral part of the GP18’s frame since Michele Pirro tested a special frame during the winter, but Andrea Dovizioso, Jorge Lorenzo and Petrucci continue to switch between this frame and their conventional aluminium frame.
“We have made the comparison between both frames at three different tracks and it’s difficult to understand the exact difference,” said Dovizioso at the Red Bull Ring. “During the Brno tests we tried both frames with new tyres and the old frame seemed to move less on the exit.” On Sunday both Dovizioso and Lorenzo used the conventional frame.
“Both frames offer a different character and transit different feelings to the rider,” explains Ducati team-manager Davide Tardozzi. “It’s a matter of feeling for each rider and it depends what they want from each track. Changing frames all the time is a bit more work for the team, but whatever it takes for the riders to feel more comfortable!”
Meanwhile, Petrucci believes the carbon-reinforced frame improves agility. “It’s a bit better going from side to side,” he said. “We felt the difference more at Brno, because there are more changes of direction there, but it’s difficult to compare because of the high tyre consumption.”
This is one of the biggest problems currently facing chassis engineers: the Michelins don’t provide the same kind of grip over many laps, so engineers must make back-to-back comparisons with tyres that have done the same number of laps in the same conditions.
Moto2’s top chassis designer says that next year’s revamped Moto2 championship will be a better school for MotoGP riders.
Throughout its first nine seasons, the low-cost intermediate series has been powered by mildly tuned Honda CBR600 street bike engines with zero electronic rider controls. From 2019 Moto2 will be powered by Triumph engines, taken from the company’s new 765 Speed Triple street bike, aided by Magneti Marelli traction control and engine-braking control.
Although Triumph’s 765cc triple won’t make much more peak power than Honda’s 599cc four – about 131 horsepower against 128 horsepower – the 27 per cent increase in engine capacity produces around 30 per cent more torque.
Alex Baumgartel of Kalex – which has won a clean sweep of ten Moto2 riders and constructors titles over the past five years – believes the extra torque will change Moto2 riding technique.
“There will be a big change in riding style,” he says. “There will be more torque at lower rpm and therefore more acceleration, so the riders won’t need to carry all that speed through the corners, living on the edge of the tyres. Instead, they will use less corner speed so that they can better prepare the exit to use the extra acceleration, so in this way, the riding style will be more like MotoGP.”
Dorna is introducing electronic rider controls for 2019 because young riders have been graduating from Moto2 to MotoGP with zero knowledge of working with electronics, which are now a hugely important part of MotoGP set-up work.
However, Moto2’s new unified software is quite basic. There are no maps that can be played with, but instead a straightforward TC with 16 different settings.
The engine-braking control system is similar, but there is no wheelie control and no launch control, just an adjustable rev-limiter for starts, so riders can set the revs at their desired level because it’s impossible to hear your own engine when you’re on the grid and the lights are about to go out.
Next year’s Moto2 chassis are unlikely to look night-and-day different from the current units, but Kalex, KTM, Speed Up and others will have to work on frame stiffness because the three-cylinder engine is taller, so the engine hangers will be shorter. Chassis designers like to use engine hangers to create lateral flex for improved cornering performance.
They are in a sorry state, rather like Rossi’s dismal days at Ducati when the broken record made a different sound: “no front feeling… no front grip… too much understeer… whenever I push some more I crash…”
At least the Italian veteran is coping with the situation better than his young team-mate, most likely due to the 16-year-age difference.
“It’s a question of experience because I have passed through many bad periods – more than Maverick, who is much younger than me,” said Rossi after finishing a distant sixth on Sunday, his worst proper result of the season. “But it’s also character. But I’m sure that if the bike makes another step then Maverick can win the next race. He hasn’t lost his talent, he just needs a better bike.”
Viñales has had the toughest two weekends of his MotoGP career: at Brno he announced his controversial split with crew chief Ramon Forcada and at the Red Bull Ring he finished 12th, equalling his worst result since his rookie season in the premier class.
Yamaha doesn’t seem to have helped Viñales
The 23-year-old Spaniard seems psychologically destroyed and perhaps he needs some help to dig him out of his hole.
First, it isn’t easy being Rossi’s team-mate. The nine-time world champion casts a mighty shadow at Yamaha. He is probably the most intelligent racer in the history of the sport and he doesn’t start racing when the lights go out on Sunday afternoon. By the middle of last season, it was already obvious that he had got the better of his new team-mate. The confusion over chassis updates and revisions put Viñales in a spin from which he’s yet to recover. And Rossi’s more diplomatic, more confident technical input gathered the Yamaha engineers around him, just like the old days, before Jorge Lorenzo turned up. This, no doubt, has compounded Viñales’ woes.
Second, Viñales doesn’t seem to operate well in the media spotlight, at least when things are going badly for him. During his Brno media debriefs journalists were told they must not ask him questions about his split with Forcada. Depending on who you talk to, this was either Yamaha’s idea or Viñales’ idea. Either way, it was stupid.
Love it or hate it, the media is an integral part of MotoGP. If there was no TV, no newspapers and no internet coverage there would be no sponsorship and no huge salaries. Racers would still race, but they’d turn up in Transit vans, not private jets.
Viñales needs to understand that when he’s winning the media will praise him to the heavens, while the better journalists will ask around, trying to find out exactly why he’s winning. And when he’s losing the media will most likely give him a hard time, while the serious journalists try to work out why he’s losing. This is how it works and the rider has to take the rough with the smooth, answering questions about anything and everything, whether he’s soaked in champagne or in blood, sweat and tears. Of course, there is an easy way to make sure the media leaves you alone: just keep finishing last.
Yamaha doesn’t seem to have helped Viñales. First, it needs to advise him how to prosper in Rossi’s shadow, second, it needs to teach him how to deal with the media, just like Rossi, Marc Márquez and some others do.
There was a lot of talk about test riders in the Red Bull Ring paddock, with good reason. As Dorna pushes towards its maximum of 20 races per season – the limit agreed with teams association IRTA – it is reducing the number of official MotoGP tests.
The reason is simple. Teams are at breaking point, and the same goes for many marriages, with mechanics and team personnel away from home for longer and longer, so the obvious solution is to reduce testing to compensate for the extra races.
Inevitably this increases the importance of test teams, who can go testing when MotoGP’s full-time riders and teams can’t. Most factories already have European-based test teams, because they saw how much Ducati’s test team helped the Italian factory make super-rapid development progress.
Ducati has Michele Pirro and Casey Stoner (though maybe Stoner won’t be around for much longer), while Suzuki started working with former WSB champ Sylvain Guintoli and Honda recently signed 2011 Moto2 champ Stefan Bradl. KTM’s test team has been vital to the factory’s new MotoGP programme, with race boss Pit Beirer attributing much of KTM’s progress to the work done by 125cc and 250cc GP winner Mika Kallio.
Kallio’s nasty knee injury has KTM considering three replacements: Bradley Smith, who will lose his full-time ride to Johann Zarco at the end of this season, Jonas Folger and soon-to-be-retired Dani Pedrosa who has already been offered a very generous deal for 2019.
But KTM isn’t the only factory chasing fast test riders. Yamaha is especially keen to sign the right man because Yamaha management are wondering if their current crisis is due to a lack of good testing feedback. The factory currently uses Japanese superbike riders in Japan, so its riders are both off the pace and riding at circuits that mean little to MotoGP.
Expect news on who goes where soon…
Who would be best test rider out of Smith, Pedrosa and Folger?
Smith is plenty fast enough, lapping just a couple of tenths of a second off the fastest MotoGP riders. He’s also clever and very analytical. He would be ideal for KTM because he knows the bike, the team, and the factory.
Folger mysteriously quit racing last year, but recently reappeared, testing Kalex’s 2019 Moto2 bike. There have been many rumours concerning Folger’s reasons for quitting, but those close to him suggest he simply got fed up with being in the limelight, just like Casey Stoner. Like Stoner, Folger loves racing but can’t handle the BS that surrounds the action. This should make him a perfect test rider: he can get his kicks on a MotoGP bike far away from the spotlight. Also, he’s still super-fast and very good with feedback. Yamaha would be foolish not to offer its former Tech 3 rider a MotoGP testing deal.
Then there’s Pedrosa. The 32-year-old Spaniard would be a great prize for KTM because he brings 13 years of HRC MotoGP knowhow with him. On the other hand, Pedrosa is of a unique size and riding technique and uses settings that no one else uses, so what kind of development direction would he provide?
KTM announced at Red Bull Ring that it wouldn’t give its test riders wildcard rides at MotoGP rounds. This came as a surprise because only racing keeps racers sharp. Also, the offer of a few wildcard rides is a huge incentive to a man like Smith who doesn’t want to spend all year just riding around in circles.
Racing also keeps riders sharp, so they will push closer to the limit, which is the best way to learn. Ducati has the perfect deal with Pirro – he does a lot of testing, does a few MotoGP wildcards and rides in the Italian Superbike Championship.
Expect news on who goes where soon…
The KTM rider has outscored everyone at the last three races, so what makes him so special? His crew chief Paul Trevathan reveals all
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