MotoGP mutterings: Sachsenringby Mat Oxley on 18th July 2018
The how, what, and why from the German MotoGP round at the Sachsenring
Yamaha's glimmer of a grin // Márquez: king of the 'ring // Puig: 'no easy life here' // Zarco: 'it makes me sad' // The strange science of MotoGP tyre choice // MotoE: is it safe? // Redding tested by WSB and testing // Who is Quartararo // Smith for Kallio? //
There were sighs of relief in the factory Yamaha garage on Sunday afternoon. The team’s victory drought – now 19 races, the longest since 1998 – continues, but at least there were two Movistar riders on the podium for the first time this season.
After the race, second-placed Valentino Rossi was happy – "this is not only my best result, but also my best ride this year" – but he wasn’t so happy during practice when he once again lamented Yamaha’s lack of progress with its rider-control electronics.
"We have had this problem from August 2017 and more or less we are where we were last year," said the 39-year-old. "To me, the problem is very clear and I have said this many times to Yamaha."
Some pitlane electronics engineers believe that Yamaha’s main problem revolves around speeding up the reaction times of its electronics. Currently, the data filters, which clean up the data flowing from the sensors into the ECU, take too long, hence the traction control reacts too late to prevent wheelspin. Might this have something to do with the M1’s IMU?
With Yamaha apparently unable to unlock the secrets of Magneti Marelli’s traction control software, the team has focused instead on increasing mechanical grip via adjustments to geometry and suspension.
"This year, our 'bike is much faster through the corners than the Ducatis," added Rossi who rode with the GP18s of Danilo Petrucci and Jorge Lorenzo during Sunday’s race. "Of course they have an important advantage in acceleration, but at a track like this it’s not enough."
Meanwhile, Maverick Viñales has taken it upon himself to find more speed by compensating for below-bar traction control with improved wrist action. "I am trying to improve myself to get the 'bike to where I want it to be," he said. "I am being much smoother with the gas, to do what the electronics can’t do. I’m focusing on riding style and nothing else. Track by track we are improving."
On Sunday, Viñales once again got faster as the race went on. "I feel a bit better when the rear tyre drops because it takes the stress off the front tyre, so the 'bike works better," he added.
This isn’t uncommon with Michelin slicks – all the way back to the days of 500cc two-strokes. It’s because the Michelin rear slick can have so much grip at high lean angles that it encourages riders to get on the gas early and hard. In theory, this should deliver a rocker-fast corner exit. But it doesn’t always work like that. When the rear slick grips and the load shifts rearwards, load vanishes from the front tyre, which shrinks the contact patch and reduces grip, sometimes sending the rider clattering into the gravel trap.
On the other hand, Rossi found the opposite on Sunday because he needs rear grip to stop his 'bike into corners. "I can stop the 'bike when the rear tyre is new, but once the tyre goes then I can’t," he added.
MotoGP winner Marc Márquez will be praying that last-ditch efforts to save the Sachsenring MotoGP round will prove successful. Local politicians visited the event on Sunday in the hope of thrashing out a new race-promotion deal after years of financial losses.
Perhaps if they end up needing a million Euros to make the event financially viable the Spaniard will chip in to help keep his favourite track in the championship. After all, how much is a dead-cert 25 points worth in MotoGP?
The last time Márquez didn’t win at the Sachsenring was in July 2009, when he was 16 years old and crashed on the penultimate lap while battling for the second 125cc podium finish of his career.
However, maybe Márquez won’t have it so easy in next year’s German GP if the race does stay at the Saxony venue, because Lorenzo will be his team-mate. It’s not only Márquez who’s fast at the Sachsenring, it’s also Honda’s RCV, which has won the last nine races at the track: three with Dani Pedrosa, then six with Márquez. The RC213V turns well and turns fast, which is probably the most important aspect of machine performance at a track where 'bikes are upright for only a few seconds each lap.
On Friday at the Sachsenring, Repsol Honda team manager Alberto Puig spoke in detail about his new Márquez/Lorenzo super team.
"A top team wants to have the best riders, this is the principal," said Puig. "The opportunity to sign Jorge was there, so we took it. I don’t know what the other teams were doing, maybe they aren’t doing [the same principle]. For Honda it’s important to prepare the best bikes we can and give them to the fastest riders."
But how will Puig cope, having the two fastest riders on the planet in the same garage?
"Of course it’s not going to be easy," he added. "Racing is complicated and it’s a difficult environment, but if we wanted things to be easy we probably wouldn’t be running a team at this level. It’s complicated but it’s a challenge, and at Honda we are always looking for challenges.
"We expect Jorge to be fast, but we don’t know how fast he will be and we don’t know when he will be fast. But we believe he’s not coming to Honda just to ride around."
Puig doesn’t expect it to be too technically challenging to provide an RC213V that works for Lorenzo. "Dani [Pedrosa] and Jorge are both smooth riders, but they are different because Jorge carries more corner speed and Dani is very good for turning and picking up the bike. But at the end of the day both are very smooth. Having different riders is very interesting because you can learn more and try to see different ways of working. The engineers learn from the riders, so let’s see what Jorge brings to Honda."
Johann Zarco had another weekend to forget, his fourth successive finish outside the top six, after scoring podium results in two of the first four races. So what’s going on?
"What can I say?" said the Frenchman after failing to make the Q2 qualifying cut for the first time this year. "Things were better at the start of the season, but maybe the others are better than us now, or maybe it’s us. I really don’t know – if I did know I would not be in this situation.
"On Friday I was quite happy, but today I don’t understand and it’s really difficult to accept. I try my best, I try to improve where I’m weak and I try to understand where I must do better. But I can’t find the answer. It makes me sad."
Although Zarco regularly had the beating of the factory Movistar Yamahas earlier this season he is now complaining of the same problems that haunt Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales. "We seem to be the same," he added. "Even with the soft rear I go out in qualifying and on my first lap I am already sliding. And when you are sliding on your out-lap you wonder how you can push more to beat your opponents. I don’t understand what’s happened. This is a difficult moment to go through, but we will keep fighting. I cannot stop fighting, it’s not in my mind."
On Saturday Zarco seemed to point the finger at his suspension engineer. The mystery continues…
MotoGP tyres are as black and round as they ever were but are almost certainly weirder and more wonderful (at least for the fans) than they’ve ever been.
Consider Sunday’s race, at a circuit that can destroy the left side of the rear tyre. And yet Márquez chose the softest rear available and ran away with the race, setting his fastest lap on lap 22 of 30.
And then there was Lorenzo, who chose the medium rear. He led almost half the race, then went backwards to sixth place, as the tyre wore away.
Many onlookers assumed that Lorenzo’s mistake had been choosing the softest front, which he had already used to win at Mugello and Barcelona, but in fact it was the rear that caused him to repeatedly lose grip in the corners and run wide.
So, how come Lorenzo’s medium Michelin rear wore faster than Márquez’s soft rear, even though Lorenzo is the master at looking after his tyres? And why did Márquez choose the soft rear at a track like the Sachsenring?
"Because I felt the medium rear to be softer than the soft rear," said Márquez. "It’s strange to say, but in some areas the medium tyre was softer than the soft tyre, so for that reason I chose the soft." Weird, eh?
Lorenzo’s new braking style, which he’s been able to perfect with the Ducati and especially with its revised ergonomics, allows him to choose the softest, grippiest front tyre.
"I can use the soft front because the Ducati doesn’t damage the tyre as much as other bikes," he said after the race. "The front was perfect all the way to the end. My problem was the rear tyre… The problem was that the medium was our only choice, so we used a different setting and I tried to be very smooth with the throttle, but from the middle of the race it was impossible to have normal acceleration. Even if I was smooth with the throttle in the pick-up area the rear of the bike was shaking, with no traction."
Team-mate Andrea Dovizioso highlighted the problem of attempting to preserve edge grip at a track where riders spend most of the lap leaning through corners. "You can’t pick up the bike to save the tyre because here you are always turning," said the Italian.
Lorenzo was also losing the rear into corners, which pushed him wide even before he could get on the throttle. That’s a bad situation in the Michelin era, because some riders use the rear tyre during braking much more than they did with Bridgestones. That’s why you now see a lot of rubber smears into corners as well as out of corners.
Lorenzo had yet more ergonomic add-ons in Germany. From Friday his GP18 had the rear of its fuel tank extended yet further back with another rubber pad. Then on Sunday morning further pads arrived – rushed overnight from Bologna – which widen the fuel tank to give him better support through the corners. "We needed these parts because when I don’t have rear grip there’s some kind of energy from the bike that stops me relaxing my arms during braking and in the middle of the corners."
MotoGP’s first electric race series will commence next May, once the European segment of the world championship gets underway. MotoE is still very much in development, with testing of Energica’s 270kg motorcycle continuing.
The biggest mystery surrounding the series is the safety procedure that will follow a crash. Marshals tending the Isle of Man’s Zero TT electric race are equipped with special rubber gloves, tested before each event, which they must wear when handling MotoE machines damaged in an accident. The Japanese Mugen machine – which has dominated the last five electric TTs – produces around 370 volts. If a Zero TT 'bike catches fire, marshals are told to stand well clear and call the Isle of Man Fire & Rescue Service, so the race is red-flagged.
Rumours doing the rounds in the paddock suggest that any MotoE crashes will result in the race being red-flagged.
Dorna currently plans to run MotoE races – which will last seven or eight laps – on Sunday mornings, before Moto3 gets the hydrocarbon action underway. However, perhaps it would make better sense to run the races on Saturday afternoons, away from the Sunday spotlight, at least until the series is fully up to speed.
Scott Redding could have a dual role at Aprilia next season, contesting the World Superbike championship aboard an RSV4 and testing the factory’s RS-GP MotoGP 'bike.
The role of test riders in MotoGP increases in importance each year as Dorna expands the racing season and reduces testing to compensate.
"Aprilia have offered me to be their test rider but it’s not my first choice," said Redding, who has raced Honda, Ducati and Aprilia MotoGP motorbikes over the past five years. "I’m 25, I’ve got the fire to want to win and I’m not going to get that riding around a test track on my own. But if that’s my last option then I need to take it and see if I can find something else after that.
"Maybe I could race superbikes with Aprilia and be their MotoGP test rider, that could be interesting. But the Aprilia isn’t the best superbike out there and they’ve not really got a factory team. I want to have something competitive to fight for victory, that’s my target. It’s going to be difficult, but maybe it’ll take two years and then maybe the third year I can take another step forward."
The former Moto2 title challenger has no interest in returning to the intermediate class. "If I go back there, there’s a possibility I could win the championship but there’s all these young guys coming up with the same talent and the same fire to win and they’re all ten or 15 kilos lighter than me. It was the same last time I was there. In 2013 Pol [Espargaró] beat me to the line many times because he’s lighter. And if I won the championship I wouldn’t get asked to go back to MotoGP because nobody would take someone who’s already been there."
Next year Fabio Quartararo looks set to be the only teenager in MotoGP, riding alongside Franco Morbidelli in the new Petronas Yamaha squad, which is quite something for a rider who only won his first Grand Prix last month.
It’s taken a while for Quartararo to fire on all cylinders. In 2015 he was the Next Big Thing. So big in fact that Dorna changed the rules to allow him into the world championship before his 16th birthday. Aged 14, he won the 2013 CEV Repsol Moto3 series with Emilio Alzamora’s Estrella Honda team and retained the title the following year. No surprise that Alzamora wanted him in Grands Prix in 2015, but Quartararo wouldn’t be 16 in time, so Dorna rewrote the rules to allow CEV title winners into Moto3, regardless of age.
Huge things were expected of the kid and he immediately delivered. He was in the hunt to win his debut GP in Qatar until a collision dropped him out of the fight. At round two he scored his first podium and at the next two races he started from pole. But then things went awry. He had a few crashes, got injured and his confidence evaporated.
In 2016 Quartararo switched to KTM and had a disastrous year, without a single podium finish. Last season he moved to Moto2, riding a Kalex for Sito Pons’ team. He never made the top-five and finished the year 13th. It seemed like Quartararo was one of those talents who had lost the ability to use his talent.
This year the unfancied Speed Up team signed him and Danny Kent, another talent who seemed to have mislaid his mojo. Kent has continued to struggle, with just one 12th-place finish from the first nine races, while Quartararo scored his first points at round three and his first win at Mugello last month, following a crucial test session and 'bike adjustments that gave him the confidence to once again push to the limit. He immediately followed his Mugello victory with a hard-charging second-place finish at Barcelona. And that was enough to convince Yamaha’s new satellite team that he’s a talent worth signing.
Quartararo’s father raced in the 1980s and put his son on the track at the age of four. When the youngster started racing in Spain – winning multiple junior titles – he gained the support of a Spanish businessman and mentor, who paid for his racing and hired a tutor to help him learn English and other languages.
Mika Kallio had a huge tumble during German MotoGP practice that could prevent him riding for many months. The KTM test rider badly damaged his right knee, which will need major corrective surgery.
"Mika needs to get the best surgery or this could be a real problem for him," said KTM motor sport director Pit Beirer. "Not having him as a test rider is a big problem for us, because we have a huge testing programme coming. All the parts are ready and we have a new 'bike on the way, so we want the 'bike to be ready for our MotoGP riders to start testing in November."
Kallio’s misfortune could be Bradley Smith’s good fortune. The British rider was due to leave KTM at the end of the season, when his place will be taken by Zarco, but Kallio’s lengthy absence may convince Beirer to retain the Briton for testing duties.