On Thursday night, it looked like a revolution had been unleashed in MotoGP. After qualifying on Saturday, that revolution has been postponed. Three Spaniards on pole, two Spaniards on the front row for both MotoGP and Moto3. No prizes for guessing the names of any of the polesitters, all three were hotly tipped favorites at the beginning of the year.
So what has changed to restore order to the proceedings? In a word, track time. When the riders took to the track on Thursday, the factory riders had a lot of catching up to do. They had been down at Phillip Island, a track which has lots of grip and puts plenty of load into the tires.
The heat resistant layer added to the 2013 tires really comes into its own, the track imbuing the riders with confidence. Qatar is a low grip track, thanks in part to the cooler temperatures at night, but the sand which continuously blows onto the track also makes it extremely abrasive, posing a double challenge to tire makers.
Use rubber which is too soft, and the tire is gone in a couple of laps. Make it hard enough to withstand the abrasion, and it’s hard to get the tire up to temperature.
Coming to Qatar is always tricky, riders needing time to build confidence and learn to trust the tires. Coming to Qatar from Phillip Island is a culture shock, and takes a while to get your head around. Riders need to throw away everything they have just learned, and start again.
When was the last time a non-factory rider won a MotoGP race? Any MotoGP fan worth their salt will be able to give you year, track and rider: 2006, Estoril, Toni Elias.
Ask them why he won and they will give you all sorts of answers – Dani Pedrosa taking out Nicky Hayden in the early laps, Colin Edwards not being able to maintain his pace to the end of the race, Kenny Roberts Jr. misjudging the number of laps left in the race, or, as Valentino Rossi put it, because “Toni ride like the devil” – but none they can be sure of.
There is a less well-known explanation for Elias’ performance, though. Ahead of the Estoril race, Elias was given a set of the overnight special tires shipped in especially for Michelin factory riders.
In this case, Elias was handed a set of ‘Saturday night specials’ destined for Dani Pedrosa, but which Pedrosa had elected not to use, and so were going spare. Elias liked the same kind of soft carcass tire that Pedrosa was being offered, and went on to exploit the advantage it offered.
What does that have to do with Friday at Qatar? Two things. Firstly, it highlights exactly how important tires are in motorcycle racing. Tires dictate a huge amount of the performance of a motorcycle. They are the connection between the bike and the track, but that is a very full and complex function.
Tires determine how far a bike can be leaned, how much drive the bikes can get out of a corner, how well the power delivery of an engine transfers to the tarmac, how hard the bike can brake, they provide a certain amount of suspension, and they pass information about track surface, grip conditions and where the limits of braking and turning are for a motorcycle.
And that’s just the beginning. Tires are (quite literally) a black art. Their complexity cannot be underestimated.
The old adage about not judging a book by its cover seems particularly apt after the first day at Qatar. Fans and followers were hoping the changes made over the winter might shake things up a little, but they weren’t expecting a revolution.
At the top of the timesheets in MotoGP sits Aleix Espargaro on the Open class Forward Yamaha, nearly half a second ahead of the rest. In second place was Alvaro Bautista, not on an Open bike, but on a satellite Honda. Bautista, in turn, was ahead of three other satellite machines, Tech 3’s Bradley Smith leading Pramac Ducati rider Andrea Iannone, with the other Tech 3 bike of Pol Espargaro behind.
The first factory rider (that’s factory rider, not Factory Option) was Dani Pedrosa in 6th, over a second behind the Open class bike of Aleix. Valentino Rossi in 7th, on the factory Movistar Yamaha, could only just hold off former teammate Colin Edwards on the other Forward Yamaha. Even Nicky Hayden was just a tenth off the pace of Rossi, despite the Drive M7 Aspar rider being on the production RCV1000R Honda, a bike which was giving away over 12 km/h to the M1 of Rossi.
Has the revolution finally arrived? Has the Open class turned MotoGP on its head? Not really, though that didn’t stop the bookmakers from shortening the odds of an Aleix Espargaro win from 51/1 down to 11/1. The first page of MotoGP’s 2014 chapter is deceptive, as the Open and satellite bikes all have a head start.
At the notoriously dusty and low-grip track, it takes time to get the bikes dialed in, and the factory riders, fresh from testing at the ultra-high-grip Phillip Island circuit are suffering a Qatari culture shock. The satellite and Open bikes have already spent three days testing here, and have both the setup and the feeling of the track under control.
It has been a long and confusing wait for the 2014 MotoGP season to begin. An awful lot has happened since the MotoGP bikes were rolled into their packing crates after the Valencia test and shipped back to the factories and workshops from whence they came. There have been shock announcements, shock testing results, and shock training crashes.
There have been last-minute rule changes, made in an attempt to keep all of the different factions in the paddock from rebelling. The final rules for the premier class were only announced on Monday, and even then, they still contain sufficient ambiguity to confuse.
But this confusion and chaos cannot disguise the fact that 2014 looks set to be the most intriguing championship in years. Gone are the reviled CRT machines – unjustly reviled; though slow, they were still jewels of engineering prowess – and in their place is a new class of machinery, the Open entries.
A simpler demarcation has been made, between factories running their own software on the spec Magneti Marelli ECU, and the Open teams using the championship software supplied and controlled by Dorna.
The latest rule change adds a twist, allowing underperforming Ducati all the benefits of the Open class – 24 liters of fuel instead of 20, 12 engines per season instead of 5, unlimited testing and a softer tire – until they start winning races. But the 2014 grid looks much more like a single coherent class than the pack of racing motorcycles that lined up last year.
A cleaner track made for better times at the second MotoGP test at Sepang on Thursday, but conditions remain far from ideal. The track was still greasy, and the added heat made the situation worse. That meant the track remained empty for large parts of the day, the riders waiting for temperatures to come down at the end of the day.
When the riders did go for their fast laps, the usual suspects raised their heads. Aleix Espargaro was quick, Alvaro Bautista was quick, but if anyone was in any doubt about where the real power lies on the MotoGP grid, Dani Pedrosa quickly disabused them of their misconceptions.
The Repsol Honda man posted two scorching laps, faster than anyone else was capable of riding. At nearly three tenths of a second, the gap was convincing. When Dani Pedrosa decides to exert his authority, the world listens. Especially when his teammate is absent.
Pedrosa spent the day working on the front of the Repsol Honda, and deciding on which of the two chassis to use for the rest of the year.
The quicker of the two options was also less forgiving under braking, meaning Pedrosa elected to pursue the slower of the two frames. Sacrificing a little bit of speed for more stability and less effort to ride seemed like a suitable trade off.
But the talk of the second day of the test was not Pedrosa’s speed; that is taken as a given. The biggest talking point of day two was the lack of speed from Jorge Lorenzo. The factory Yamaha rider ended the day down in ninth spot, sandwiched between the two Tech 3 bikes of Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith.
He was over a second slower than Pedrosa, the biggest gap since the rain-hit race at Le Mans last May. Worse still, he was the fourth-fastest Yamaha, with the Open Yamaha of Aleix Espargaro and the factory bikes of his teammate Valentino Rossi and Tech 3’s Pol Espargaro ahead of him.
His problem is simple: he cannot get the new rear tire to work. Whatever they do to the bike, Lorenzo simply has no grip, and no confidence.
If the first Sepang test threw up a few surprises, the first day of the second test turned into a bit a shocker. Anyone putting money on Alvaro Bautista, Aleix Espargaro and his brother Pol being the top 3 at the end of the first day would very, very rich indeed.
Though all three had good reason to be further up front – Bautista has a new rear shock from Showa which is a big step forward, Aleix has been fast throughout, and Pol has the new seamless gearbox from Yamaha – their speed should not be seen as presaging a revolution in MotoGP.
A dirty track, and several riders not chasing times gave the trio a chance to shine, which they seized with both hands.
Seventh fastest, half a second off the fastest factory Yamaha of Valentino Rossi, and ahead of the two Tech 3 riders Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro. By lunchtime on the second day, Aleix was closer still, just two tenths off the best Yamaha.
Naturally, all eyes turned to the Tech 3 garage, and the response of team boss Herve Poncharal. How would the otherwise charming Frenchman react to being beaten by a bike which Yamaha was supplying to a rival team for a third of the price he is paying to lease the Tech 3 Yamaha M1 machines, entered under the Factory Option rules in MotoGP?
A long line of journalists beat a path to his door, including us, to put those questions to him.
Poncharal spoke at length about the Open class, the issue of fuel consumption, and the performance of Aleix Espargaro. First of all, though, he emphasized the strength of his relationship with Yamaha.
On Thursday, the riders opted almost unanimously to go out first thing in the morning. It was a wise choice, conditions proving ideal to see the fastest ever lap around the circuit set, beating Casey Stoner’s time from 2011.
The name of the rider that took Stoner’s record from him? Marc Marquez, the man brought in by Honda to replace the departing Australian.
Marquez’s time was impressive, but he was not the only man to get under the two minute mark. Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, and the continually surprising Aleix Espargaro also cracked the barrier, though none were quite capable of getting under Stoner’s old record.
The first 30 minutes of testing had produced a scintillating start to the day, whetting the appetite of all in the paddock for more.
While Marquez’s time is without doubt a fantastic lap, perhaps the most impressive time was set by Jorge Lorenzo. His fastest time, and the fastest time of the test up until that point, was set on his flying lap of the day.
It was, if you like, a simulation of the start of the race: firing off the line from pit lane exit, getting up to speed immediately, and then going on to set a lap record.
Normal fare for Lorenzo, whose flying starts have become something of a trademark. What made it truly incredible was the fact that this was done on new tires, on his very first laps of the day.
On race day, Lorenzo has the morning warm up to get up to speed, but not today. Fast straight out of the starting blocks, then following it up with another 1’59.9. If you ever needed proof of Lorenzo’s metronomic ability, this was surely it.
Motorcycle racing championships are like a pendulum, flowing back and forth between one rider and another, between one manufacturer and another. One year, Yamaha is on top, the next, it’s Honda. One year, Yamaha manages to exploit the rules best, the next year it’s Honda.
On the evidence of the first two days of testing – scant evidence indeed, but all we have to go on at the moment – conditions appear to favor Honda. With a liter less fuel to play with, and the new tires being introduced by Bridgestone, it looks like the tide is flowing Honda’s way, while Yamaha is set to suffer.
For the Factory Option entries at least; in the Open category, the tide is flowing very firmly in the other direction, with Aleix Espargaro and the NGM Forward Yamaha blowing Honda’s production racer out of the water.
That the fuel reduction would favor the Honda was expected, but the advantage might be bigger than Yamaha would like to admit. After a tough first day of testing, Jorge Lorenzo spent all of Wednesday trying to recover his confidence in the bike, as his crew searched for a setup that would smooth power delivery and give him the precise throttle control his high-lean-angle – and high risk – strategy demands. They were successful, at least in renewing Lorenzo’s confidence in the bike, he told the press.
A change to the electronics gave him the feeling he had with last year’s machine, and he was able to ride more freely. With that change made, he went in search of a fast lap, setting it at around 3:30pm, in the hottest part of the day.