Viñales’ ascent, Rossi’s descent. More from the MotoGP German Grand Prix

by Mat Oxley on 10th July 2019

The ex-world champ helping to remake Viñales; confusion in Rossi’s garage; why riders read front-tyre data during races; what’s up at Ducati and Triumph’s first half-season of Moto2

Maverick Viñales celebrates after the Sachsenring race

Maverick Viñales celebrates after the Sachsenring race Photo: Motorsport Images

 

The remaking of Maverick Viñales

Whisper it, just in case we break the spell: Maverick Viñales has finally found his way onto the right road again. If the 24-year-old Spaniard manages to maintain his current attitude and finish in the top three at Brno next month it will be the first time he’s climbed the podium at three consecutive MotoGP rounds.

And after a win and a second place at the last two races he now has more points than team-mate Valentino Rossi for the first time since France 2018. So what’s changed? As usual, it’s a mix of things, but most of all it’s mentality and mindset.

Maverick has a great talent. I am his rider coach but my job is also to help him with his mentality and with stability

“It’s a consequence of everyone, because I’m not alone, I’m in a team,” he said in Germany. “We changed the mentality in the team. Also we changed the bike’s geometry a bit. Now I can ride in my normal way. I feel much more comfortable, especially with our race set-up. Now we’ve got consistency at tracks with grip and at tracks without grip. We’ve made that step; now we need to keep going that way.”

Viñales has had an up-and-down rollercoaster ride since he joined Yamaha in 2017. Sometimes he seems easily confused and too quick to lose his temper. At other times he’s suffered in Rossi’s shadow. These factors have probably affected his results more than his motorcycle.

This year he made big changes – he replaced veteran crew chief Ramón Forcada with the less avuncular Esteban García and he hired former 125cc world champion Julián Simón as a rider coach.

Viñales isn’t mentally fragile, but perhaps he needs more psychological and emotional support than some riders. Crew chiefs and rider coaches don’t only fix the bike and offer riding advice, they also play a major part in stabilising the rider’s mental state, which is the most important performance factor of all.


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“Maverick has a great talent,” says Simón. “I am his rider coach but my job is also to help him with his mentality and with stability – my recommendation is always to stay at the maximum possible calmness. Maverick always wants to win and he always wants to be first, second or third in every practice session. If you want to be there every time it’s a problem, because it can lead to more frustration.

“You need to analyse and understand the situation for every session, because sometimes the track may not be in the best condition, because it’s dirty or the temperature is low, so then I tell Maverick that in this session P5 or even P10 is okay. We are always limited by the quantity of tyres, so you need to keep the right tyres for the right session. This can be a problem, because if the rider wants to be at the top every session he can become frustrated, so I always try to keep him calm, which is sometimes difficult.”

 

As Viñales ascends, Rossi descends

Valentino Rossi struggled at Sachsenring

Valentino Rossi struggled at Sachsenring Photo: Yamaha

What about the other side of the factory Yamaha garage? Lots of confusion, that’s what. At the first five races of 2019 Rossi’s average gap to the winner was 4.2 seconds. At Sachsenring it was 19 seconds. The Italian was advised to use the medium rear tyre and lacked grip throughout the race, while Viñales used the hard.

But there’s a bigger problem: Rossi didn’t feel confident attacking fast corners at Mugello, Assen or Sachsenring, where his race time was 20 seconds slower than the previous year, while the race was just three seconds slower.

“It’s very difficult to understand,” he said. “Last week in the Assen race, before my mistake, I felt good with the bike and I was fast, so here we wanted to confirm if we had found the right way. Unfortunately we suffered and we need to understand why, because last year these races were the best part of my season: always very competitive and some podiums. At the last few races and especially here we’ve suffered very much, so we need to analyse the data and understand why I don’t feel good with the bike.

“I can’t ride the bike like I did last year. This year’s bike needs different settings and it’s more difficult for me and Franco [Morbidelli] to use these settings. We need to find the way because if during today’s race I was fast like last year but the other guys made a step and were 20 seconds faster, I’d say, hey, it’s over. But I was 20 seconds slower than last year. I feel good, I feel motivated, but I don’t have ‘the touch’ with the bike.

“I’m old for sure, but I was already old last year! Sincerely in my mind I don’t feel I’ve given up or I’m not concentrated or I don’t have enough motivation, so I don’t have a reason why I was 20 seconds slower than last year, so we must understand and recover. We don’t give up.”

 

Why riders read front-tyre data during races

Yamaha front tyre sensors and a McLaren tyre-valve sensor

The front tyre is arguably the most important part of a race bike, just ask Rossi. Without good grip from the front tyre and good confidence in the front tyre the rider is completely lost – he can’t enter corners fast, he can’t corner fast and therefore he can’t exit corners fast. And more than likely he will crash. This is extra-important in MotoGP’s Michelin era – the front tyre offers delicate performance, which largely depends on what state it’s in.

This explains MotoGP’s increasing interest in electronic monitoring of the front tyre. Most teams monitor all aspects of tyre performance – surface temperature, core temperature, air temperature and pressure – during testing, practice, qualifying and racing. This data is communicated to the rider’s dash because it has a crucial effect on the grip that’s available.

When tyre temperature increases the air inside the tyre expands, which increases air pressure, which changes the shape of the contact patch, which has a huge effect on grip. If the tyre gets too hot and the pressure increases too much then the contact patch reduces and therefore the rider has less grip. Obviously, this can make the different between the rider winning the race, losing the race or crashing.

The factory Yamaha team, like most teams, has three infrared temperature sensors attached to the front mudguard to monitor surface temperature at the centre of the tyre and the left and right shoulders.

Inside the tyre another device attached to the valve assembly measures air temperature and pressure and features infrared monitors that measure the core temperature of the tyre carcass.

All this information is live streamed to the rider. Some riders prefer a simple green/red light on the dash, others want exact temperature and pressure numbers. Either way the aim is the same: the rider wants to know how much contact patch and grip he’s got, so he knows how hard he can attack corners and how deep he can brake towards the apex, without losing the front and crashing.

If the data is good, he can keep pushing hard. But if the data is bad he will need to ease off for a while to reduce temperature and pressure.

 

What's gone wrong at Ducati?

Danilo Petrucci leads fellow Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso

Danilo Petrucci leads fellow Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso Photo: Ducati

Try not to feel too sorry for Ducati right now. If the Italian factory was a Premier League football club, let’s say Arsenal, it would’ve had back-to-back matches with Man City and Liverpool, while its next fixtures would be with Huddersfield, Cardiff, Brighton and Fulham.

The Desmosedici hasn’t suddenly lost performance, it simply finds Sachsenring as difficult as Assen. In Germany the bike’s race pace was 0.55 seconds slower than the winner’s, while in the Netherlands it was 0.54 seconds slower.

The problem at both tracks is the same: long flowing corners and short straights where the bike cannot apply any of its three advantages: braking stability, acceleration stability and straight-line speed.

“Here you use a lot of lean angle for a lot of time,” said Danilo Petrucci who beat fellow GP19 riders Andrea Dovizioso and Jack Miller by a fraction of a second at Sachsenring. “There are only two or three hard braking areas and especially there are very, very long corners where we don’t feel the front turning. From corner threes to 11 you don’t brake, you just close the throttle, so you don’t load the front tyre. This is our weak point. Yesterday I tried a bit harder at turn nine and I crashed and arrived in the wall.”

Miller also had plenty of scares at turn nine: a daunting 110mph/185kph left-hander that takes riders over the brow of a hill, which unloads the front. In the Ducati’s case the front tyre doesn’t grip, so the bike tends to plough straight on

“Every time you go over the top there it feels like you don’t have the front tyre on the ground,” said the Aussie youngster, who isn’t easily scared. “Every time I go through there I hold my breath because you’ve got no contact with the front, so you’re waiting for the tyre to load up and for the bike to start turning. Until then you’re just going straight to the wall. It’s pretty frightening.”

Petrucci, Dovizioso and Miller all use a lot of rear brake to get the Ducati turned in mid-corner, but this doesn’t help much in such situations.

Miller generally has a slight advantage here. He uses a foot-operated rear brake, because that’s what he used when he was a kid dirt-tracker, just like Casey Stoner, the king of using the rear brake as a tool for turning. Petrucci and Dovizioso use thumb-operated rear brakes, because they only started using the brake to turn in MotoGP, so they can’t get their right foot in the right place. Miller can apply 40 bar of brake force through his foot pedal, four times more pressure than can be applied through the thumb lever.

Of course, using the brake like this is simply compensating for a design fault. Petrucci, Dovizioso and Miller all know that Gigi Dall’Igna must do something to help them.

“Ducati is working so hard, they never stop,” said Dovizioso. “But I think we’ve arrived at a point where it’s clearer than it was in the past that we have to focus on turning.

“Our speed at this moment isn’t worse than it was, but the difference with our competitors is bigger than in the past. Marc [Márquez] is on another level and now there are a lot of other riders faster than us. Our competitors are now stronger.”

Petrucci isn’t even sure that the upcoming tracks where the Ducati usually goes well – Brno, Red Bull Ring, Silverstone, Misano, Aragón, Buriram and so on – will be their saviour.

“Qatar and Mugello have always been Ducati tracks, but this year Marc fought with us at both and we won by thousandths of a second,” he said. “The next few tracks are also Ducati tracks, but…”

 

After 122 years, Triumph goes GP racing

Trevor Morris (ExternPro) and Steve Sargent (Triumph)

Trevor Morris (ExternPro) and Steve Sargent (Triumph)

Triumph started designing motorcycles in 1898 but 2019 is the company’s first grand prix season, with Sachsenring the halfway point.

So far Triumph’s 765cc triple has been a great success in Moto2. The engine has almost 30 per cent more capacity than the Honda CBR600 it replaced. This means more torque, which usually means better racing, because riders can use different lines and recover better from mistakes.

When riders have little torque their only way to get out of a corner is by carrying a lot of corner speed, which is fine, until the rider makes a mistake which will cost him or her vital exit speed, which can’t be regained. When the rider has lots of torque he or she can use that torque to get out of trouble.

The guys who abuse the engines the most aren’t the guys at the top of the championship. They think they’re riding hard...

Triumph’s chief product officer Steve Sargent was at Sachsenring to keep an eye on his engines and liaise with Trevor Morris of ExternPro, the Aragon-based company that prepares and maintains all Moto2 engines.

“When we decided to get into Moto2 a lot of people said it’s a safe way of going racing because you’re always going to win,” said Sargent. “But in fact your neck is on the line because you’re beholden to a bunch of teams over which you’ve got no control, so you don’t know how they’re setting up their bikes. And you’ve got a whole bunch of riders who contractually have nothing to do with you at all. So trying to control how the teams and riders use the engine isn’t easy.”

To say that Moto2 riders thrash the living daylights out of their engines would be an understatement.

The 765 has a 14,000rpm rev-limiter on upshifts, but there’s nothing to stop the riders exceeding that on downshifts, when some are exceeding 15,200rpm every time they hurtle into a corner

“The guys who abuse the engines the most aren’t the guys at the top of the championship,” added Sargent. “They think they’re riding hard, and in some ways they are. Some of them are flat-out with the throttle down the straight and they’re banging it down two gears while they’ve still got the throttle open! Then you look at the data from guys like Álex Márquez and Thomas Lüthi, who don’t over-rev the engine and are much smoother.”

ExternPro have full access to all Moto2 data, which flags up riders who are going way over 15,000 on downshifts.

“We talk to the serial offenders at every race,” says Morris. “But most of them never seem to change, so from Brno we will be imposing a downshift rpm limit and riders who constantly exceed that limit will be penalised.

“Despite this, we’ve done 100 engine rebuilds and the gearboxes don’t even look like they’ve been run in. And the Nikasil-coated cylinders look brand new when we strip each engine after 1500km (931 miles, which is three rounds). We’ve had no mechanicals so far and the only issue we’ve had is a few riders who sometimes struggled to get into first gear for turn five at Assen; which is something we’re looking into.”

Sargent has enjoyed watching the racing develop over the first nine rounds.


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“At first Lorenzo Baldassarri found a set-up that worked for him, then the bigger Dunlop rear tyre came in at Jerez and Alex Marquez found something that works for him. The thing is that they’re starting every race weekend with no data, so I’m hoping that next year they will be even closer than now.”

Triumph has a three-year deal with Dorna, with an option to extend for another three years. Honda powered the first nine seasons of Moto2 with the CBR600 engine, during which riders covered 1.7 million miles (2.8 million kilometres), the equivalent of riding to the moon and back more than three times.

The main kickback for Triumph is global publicity and increased engineering knowhow. Inevitably there are all kinds of rumours about Triumph producing a Moto2-inspired road bike.

The company hasn’t created any superbikes or supersport machines for several years, simply because these market segments have shrivelled to almost nothing. Instead Triumph concentrates on nakeds, retros, cruisers and adventure bikes. Therefore its Moto2 road bike is unlikely to be a high-volume product. More likely is a short run of grand prix-spec machines, perhaps even with Kalex chassis, that will mirror the bikes that Márquez, Lüthi and others race.

 

Two-stroke roadrace bikes are back

KTM's new RC4R for the new road-to-MotoGP series, the Northern Talent Cup

KTM has unveiled the RC4R for the new road-to-MotoGP series, the Northern Talent Cup Photo: KTM

KTM launched a very important race bike at Sachsenring. The RC4R will be used in a new road-to-MotoGP series – the Northern Talent Cup – and is important because it’s so basic.

The RC4R essentially uses a KTM 250 SX-F motocross engine, frame and swingarm. The engine is four-stroke but KTM is planning two-stroke versions. The idea is to drive down the cost of getting into racing, both for aspiring world champions and for those who simply want to race at club level.

“We need to make cheaper race bikes,” said KTM motor sport director Pit Beirer. “We want to try putting two-stroke engines in this chassis, because for sure they are cheaper to run. This is not only for riders who are trying to make it to the top, it’s also riders who race for fun. “We want to reignite this part of the sport.”

 

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