In the final part of our look back at 2013, we review the performance of the factories. How did Honda, Yamaha and Ducati stack up last season? What were their strong points, and how did they go about tackling their weaknesses? Above all, what does this mean for 2014? Here’s our rating of MotoGP’s manufacturers.
Honda – Championship Standing: 1st – Rating: 10/10
It seemed as if every technical rule change and tire decision swung against Honda in 2012. First, they found themselves outfoxed over the minimum weight by Ducati, after the MSMA first told the Grand Prix Commission that they had unanimously rejected a proposal to raise it from 153kg to 160kg.
It turned out that only Honda and Yamaha had rejected it, with Ducati voting in favor, which meant the rule should have been adopted and not rejected. As a concession to the manufacturers, the weight was raised in two stages, to 157kg in 2012, and 160kg in 2013.
Then, after being tested at Jerez, the riders voted to adopt the new, softer construction front tires, despite complaints from the Repsol Honda riders.
Honda struggled for much of 2012, first working out where to place an extra 4kg (a problem the other factories did not have, as they had struggled to get anywhere near the previous minimum of 153kg), and then running through chassis and suspension options in search of the braking stability they had lost with the introduction of the softer front tire.
After the test at the Mugello round, they had most of the problems solved, and Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa went on to win eight of the last nine rounds.
Come the 2013 season, and Honda was well-prepared. The factory already had its braking stability issues under control, and the only point left was the extra 3kg it had to carry. Having had all of 2012 to prepare for the extra weight, Honda arrived at the start of the season with few issues.
Dani Pedrosa took a little while to get used to the extra weight, his slight frame a disadvantage when it comes to flinging the extra bulk around, but he soon had the situation under control.
All year long, Honda had the edge on Yamaha because of the work HRC had done in 2012. The better braking stability meant that Pedrosa and Marc Marquez could outbrake Jorge Lorenzo almost at will, leaving Lorenzo struggling to get back.
The Honda’s weak point came on a slippery track, when conditions were either too cold or too dusty, the RC213V struggling for grip out of corners and unable to carry corner speed.
Interestingly, Dani Pedrosa seemed to have more problems in low grip than Marc Marquez. Perhaps Pedrosa was expecting a particular behavior from the bike, while Marquez simply didn’t know any better. Being 20 years old and in your first year makes it much easier to adapt.
It wasn’t just braking stability where the Honda reigned supreme. In terms of fuel consumption, the RC213V was streets ahead of the Yamaha, the Yamaha riders having to cut fuel back at some circuits just to make it to the line.
Conditions helped the Yamaha out at some of the very fuel-heavy tracks. The dusty track at Qatar made the surface too slippery for the Honda, while at Motegi, severely limited practice meant nobody really got to grips with the track, allowing Lorenzo to run away with the race.
At other tracks, Yamahas had to be pushed back to the pits after running out on the cool down lap, something which never happened to the Hondas.
We can only speculate where the Honda’s advantage came from. As a 90° V4, the RC213V doesn’t need a power-sapping balance shaft, which helps. Having two separate banks of cylinders makes for better cooling, too, the 2013 bike sporting larger side vents in the fairing for dumping waste heat.
Honda has worked hard on reducing internal friction. And then there’s the electronics, where Honda is outstanding, providing excellent throttle response even with lean fueling.
The only place where the Yamaha was better than the Honda was in corner speed, but its advantage was small, and outweighed by Honda’s better braking and acceleration. It was a clash of design ideologies. On the one side, the harsh “V” of Honda, hammer into the corner, jam on the brakes as late as possible, get the bike turned quickly and then stand it up and get hard on the gas.
On the other, the sweeping “U” of Yamaha, brake early, carry corner speed, needing less acceleration as the bike is already going faster. The battle has echoes of ancient wars fought earlier, the ideologies of the two parties still intact after twenty five years or more. It is a battle in which the “V” has trumped the “U” more often than not.
The 2013 Honda RC213V was pretty much as close to motorcycling perfection as we have ever seen. HRC enters 2014 full of confidence; with 20 liters of fuel instead of 21, they should have the measure of Yamaha, and as for Ducati, they are still a long way behind. 2014 could be a wild Honda romp.
Yamaha – Championship Standing: 2nd – Rating: 8/10
In 2012, Jorge Lorenzo was left to defend Yamaha’s honor almost alone, as Ben Spies struggled with a series of bizarre mishaps, crashes, material failures, and more. The only help Lorenzo got was from the Tech 3 duo, Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow pushing each other to greater heights.
With the return of Valentino Rossi to Yamaha, the Japanese factory hoped for a little more help for Lorenzo in 2013. It would not turn out that way. While Honda’s struggle with the softer front Bridgestone in 2012 had masked the underlying weakness of the Yamaha, the RC213V’s competitiveness ruthlessly exposed it.
The Yamaha had gotten around the problem with the softer front largely by ignoring it, relying on the ability of Lorenzo to carry an inhuman amount of corner speed. With Rossi in the opposite garage, it became clear that Yamaha had been relying on Lorenzo a little too heavily.
Lorenzo continued to take the fight to the Hondas, but the battle was a lot tougher than it was in 2012.
Lorenzo’s style – brake early, let off early, then sweep majestically through the corner carrying more lean angle than anyone else was capable of – “the only time we reach that lean angle is just before we crash,” Cal Crutchlow joked – giving him more exit speed to carry him on to the next straight.
All of Lorenzo’s transitions were so smooth – watching from track side, he looked like he was moving in slow motion – that he never upset the M1 at all.
The trouble was, after letting off the brakes, Lorenzo would find a Honda diving up the inside and then jamming on the anchors right in front of him, hogging his line, destroying his corner speed, and taking away any advantage he had.
Braking later was not an option, the Yamaha simply not stable enough on the brakes, so Lorenzo had to find another way of beating the Hondas.
Without Lorenzo’s corner speed, the other Yamaha riders simply didn’t stand a chance. Valentino Rossi was a distant fourth at most races, the only exception when Lorenzo and Pedrosa were injured, or track conditions played into the Yamaha’s hands.
Rossi’s strength – his ability to brake late, brake hard, and still get the bike turned – was completely useless, the bike simply not allowing him to ride that way, the front too soft to handle it. The less stiff front Bridgestone and Yamaha’s failure to address their own weakness worked against the returning Italian.
In part, Rossi himself was to blame. At the end of 2013, Rossi admitted that he had know that the new, softer construction front tire would cause problems when he tested in 2012. But given that he was already, as he put it, “in the sh*t” with the Ducati, a softer front tire was the least of his problems.
If it slowed the rest up, it might give him a chance to get closer to the Hondas and Yamahas on the Desmosedici. Once he swung his leg back over the YZR-M1, he found himself in deep trouble.
The factory men at least got some help after Brno. From Misano, Lorenzo and Rossi had Yamaha’s seamless gearbox at their disposal, giving them a big improvement in acceleration. The bike was more stable off corners, and upshifts were possible with the bike still heeled over, making it less tiring to ride and conserving tire wear over the course of the race.
The gearbox brought the Yamaha men that little bit closer to the Hondas, making Lorenzo’s job just that little bit easier. The advantage on upshifts has been canceled out, the Yamaha much closer coming out of corners. Now, Lorenzo and Rossi are asking for help on downshifts, the Honda riders not needing to use the clutch when changing down, while the Yamaha men still do.
The clutchless downshifts mean that the Honda gets into corners better, helping with braking stability by keeping the rear wheel more under control. There is as yet no date on when Yamaha are expected to have this improvement ready.
For 2014, Yamaha will have to work on braking stability, but with tire construction expected to remain the same, or perhaps even firm up a little, that should get Yamaha closer. Their biggest problem will be fuel consumption, the Yamaha being the thirstiest of the three factory bikes on the grid.
The long-bang inline four needs a balance shaft to suppress vibrations, and balance shafts use power, and therefore fuel. The inline four also means the two inner cylinders (two and three) run hotter, as they have cylinders on both sides, and not just one. More heat means more friction, and that too causes power loss.
The traditional way to cool those cylinders is to run them slightly richer, but that uses more fuel, robbing Peter to cool Paul. And there is little room for extra cooling, as the motor has to be kept as narrow as possible. There are no easy answers to Yamaha’s problems in the coming season.
Ducati – Championship Standing: 3rd – Rating: 5/10
Seen from Bologna, the problems of both Yamaha and Honda seem utterly trivial. The list of problems faced by Ducati are very, very long: the bike has chronic understeer, an engine which is too powerful and too vicious, a lack of feeling at the front end, and it requires a lot of physical effort to ride. It is too long, the swingarm is too short, and the gearbox output shaft and crankshaft are in the wrong place. But apart from that…
For the first time since Ducati entered MotoGP in 2003, the factory failed to score a single podium. While Honda and Yamaha were making progress, Ducati mostly went round in circles. At the beginning of the season, Ducati Corse boss Bernhard Gobmeier declared it would be a year of “evolution, not revolution.”
The factory did a fair amount of work, figuring out chassis stiffnesses and improving the feel of the bike. By the end of the season, the latest iteration of the chassis had improved front end feel, and in combination with a softer motor, made the bike less tiring to ride.
The lap times, however, remained stubbornly between seven eighths and a second slower than the leaders. Evolution had been nice, but what was needed was revolution.
That came at the end of the year, with Gobmeier being moved upstairs and off to car racing. In his place came Gigi Dall’Igna, heading up a wholesale return of Italian talent. He was joined by former Ducati boss Paolo Ciabatti, and former team boss Davide Tardozzi drafted in to run the MotoGP team.
For 2014 there is more revolution on the cards, with the factory likely to enter under the Open regulations, allowing them the freedom to redesign the engine as the season goes on. That will mean giving up their ability to develop their own software, but at this moment in the company’s history, performance gains from limited electronics are the least of their problems.
The engine is at the center of Ducati’s issues. Many people - including myself - have written that Ducati’s use of the 90°V was the root of the problem, but the revelation that Honda are using the same engine angle proves that this is not the issue.
Where Ducati is struggling is with power delivery – too aggressive, needing a heavier crankshaft to calm it down – and engine geometry, with parts all in the wrong location. The V has already been rolled backward to make the engine shorter, but it now needs to be moved further forward to get the crankshaft rotating in the ideal location.
Where it is right now – 5-8cm further back than Honda’s crankshaft – could be causing the understeer which so badly plagues the Desmosedici. That, at least, is the theory proposed by the extremely perceptive Giorgio ‘Manziana’ Mulliri of Motocorse.
Moving the engine forward would also allow the output shaft to be relocated, simultaneously improving the geometry of the rear swingarm. These issues were why the extensive work on chassis stiffness only paid very modest dividends for Ducati in 2013.
Ducati’s problems were more than just technical, however. One major issue for the factory was the fact that the engineers working in the Ducati Corse race department in Bologna never got anywhere near the racetrack, and the engineers working with the race team never visited the factory in Bologna.
Communication between the two groups was virtually zero, meaning that data from the track was never assessed and used properly. The two groups functioned as two separate entities. Motorcycle development and design relies heavily on communication, just looking at data provided misses the most crucial element: the input of the rider.
This was an issue which Bernhard Gobmeier never managed to address. As a German, an outsider placed with the factory by new owners Audi, he never enjoyed the confidence of the Italian staff.
The first change made by Gigi Dall’Igna on his arrival was to start rotating engineers between factory and race team. It is much easier to make that change as a fellow Italian. And especially as an Italian with the record of success which Dall’Igna enjoys.
What will 2014 bring for Ducati? The switch to the Open class – officially a decision to be made only once a back-to-back comparison has been made at Sepang, but with so many advantages for Ducati that it seems almost inevitable – will allow Dall’Igna to tackle the Desmosedici’s weakest point.
With 12 engines for a season, he can focus on gradual improvement by modifying engine internals, instead of being subject to both the engine development freeze and the reliability constraints of the Factory Option entries.
More changes will be made to Ducati Corse’s internal structure, with communication a key focus. With Dall’Igna, Tardozzi and Ciabatti in charge, the project will start moving forward again. A championship is out of the question, race wins are vanishingly unlikely, but being within sight of a podium must be a possibility by the end of the season. In 2013, a podium seemed like an impossible dream. There’s a long way still to go for Ducati.
Photos: © 2013 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved
This article was originally published on MotoMatters, and is republished here on Asphalt & Rubber with permission by the author.