Author

David Emmett

Browsing

Typical Le Mans weather is what we have had so far at the French circuit. Yesterday was glorious, sunny and dry. Saturday was overcast, gloomy, with a very light rain falling for most of the day.

Track conditions were changing continuously, especially during qualifying, the track drying out quickly when it briefly stopped raining, before becoming much wetter in a matter of minutes once it started again.

The fickle track conditions made life very difficult for everyone in MotoGP. The only session with consistent conditions was FP3, when it was wet for all of the session.

The amount of water on the track changed drastically during FP4, so a majority of the riders decided to sit out most of the session, only taking to the track in the last ten minutes or so to get a feel for the track ahead of qualifying. But by this time, it was clear that qualifying would be something of a gamble.

The form that gamble would take turned out to be poker. In Q1, some riders raised the stakes, some bluffed, and some folded. That process repeated in Q2, the 12 riders entering the second session examining their cards before trying to find the best way to play them.

The cards in play were whether to choose slicks or wets, whether to use the soft of the medium compound wet tire, and the ever-changing track surface as the rain disappeared then returned.

The weather is a fickle mistress to motorcycle racing. The MotoGP riders have just spent two sessions in dry and relatively sunny conditions looking for the perfect setup, and all that work is likely to be wasted.

Rain is expected overnight, and then all day on Saturday, starting from around 10am, just in time for FP3. Sunday looks like being damp, rather than wet, so even the setup found in what will probably be very wet conditions on Saturday will be of little use on race day. The race will be something of a gamble.

But we still learned plenty on Friday. We learned that Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales have the best race pace, a couple of tenths quicker than the sizable group capable of fighting for third.

We learned that Marc Márquez is still capable of impossible-seeming saves, though that is also a portent of problems with the Honda – neither Jorge Lorenzo nor Cal Crutchlow managed to duplicate Márquez’ trick, instead ending up in the gravel.

We learned that Alex Rins still can’t put a single fast lap together, despite having very good race pace. That it was a carbon swingarm which Pol Espargaro had been testing in secrecy at Jerez. And that Fabio Quartararo is a genuine competitor.

First, race pace. For once, the top of the combined Friday practice timesheet is representative of likely pace in the race. Both Maverick Viñales and Marc Márquez are capable of lapping in the low 1’32s, on old tires and without too much effort.

That Márquez is quick should not come as a surprise, the Repsol Honda rider is fast, and has been at most tracks this year. But Viñales believes that Yamaha have made a minor breakthrough, and he is capable of being fast at many tracks.

Le Mans is very much a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde kind of a weekend. The city of Le Mans is utterly charming and sedate, its historical center full of buildings reaching back to the 12th Century.

The Le Mans circuit (the shorter Bugatti Circuit used by MotoGP and motorcycle racing events, that is) is a run down affair beside an industrial estate on the outskirts of the city.

In the evenings, the central square in Le Mans has peaceful and civilized air, where people gather to eat and drink. A few miles further south, inside the circuit and at the campsites which surround it, mayhem is unleashed, a bawdy, rowdy riot of drink, fire, and noise.

The atmosphere during the day is the opposite, almost, a friendly, lively, and especially passionate crowd roam the wooded areas around the track, enjoying some of the richest entertainment you will find at a race track anywhere around the world.

In the evenings? Well, best leave the track before the sun goes down. Though the entertainment goes on all night – a ploy forced on the organizers to keep the bike fans out of the town in the evening – the atmosphere turns from joyful to wild and chaotic. At night, things can get a little unruly.

Motorcycle racing fans have heroes. They worship the riders like demi-gods, beings capable of superhuman feats of speed and agility.

And watching riders at the top of their game – Marc Márquez skating the edge of disaster, Alex Rins sweeping through corners, Andrea Dovizioso braking not when he sees god, but after he has been invited home to meet god’s mother, Valentino Rossi disposing of rivals like they are standing still – it is easy to understand why they are deified like that.

They truly are exceptional, awe-inspiring, breathtaking to watch.

This idolization of riders makes it easy to forget that there is more to MotoGP than just a superhero on two wheels. If a rider is to destroy his rivals, he needs a weapon, and that weapon needs to honed to a fine point before being wielded with the kind of malice racing requires. Bikes need engineers to design them, mechanics to prepare them, crew chiefs and data engineers to make them fit the riders’ needs.

Riders, too, need preparation. They don’t just wake up one day, leap on a bike and go racing. They must train, and diet, and stretch, and get themselves ready. They must listen and learn from engineers, coaches, team managers.

They need support when they are down, encouragement when they are up, guidance when they are out of control. They need to be honed and fettled as much as the motorcycles they race.

The Silverstone circuit is to be resurfaced in June, ahead of the British F1 Grand Prix, and to be ready for the 2019 British round of MotoGP at the circuit in August.

The resurfacing was a condition for the Northamptonshire circuit to be able to host MotoGP. After last year’s debacle, when the race had to be canceled because the track was not clearing water fast enough to be able to race safely, the FIM suspended Silverstone’s license to host international motorcycle racing events. 

The day after the Spanish round of MotoGP, the riders were back on track, busting out lap after lap with a lot of work to be done. After 25 laps on Sunday in the punishing heat, almost the entire grid did another three race distances or more on the Monday.

Everyone rode, with the exception of Andrea Iannone, who was still suffering with an extremely painful ankle after a crash on Saturday, and Stefan Bradl, who had handed his test bike over to Marc Márquez to turn some laps on.

Conditions were ideal, the track all rubbered in after Sunday’s race and the track temperature in the mid-40s, perfect for Jerez. That was both a good thing and a bad thing: riders who wanting to work on something specific, such as corner entry or mid-corner speed, could take full advantage of the grip to understand the finer details of what they were working.

We came to Jerez expecting records. A new surface with most of the bumps removed meant the bikes were always going to be quicker around the track. A weekend of stable weather conditions promised ideal conditions for realizing unbelievably quick laps around the track.

And a field which is closer than ever ramps up the pressure on the riders to extract the absolute maximum from their bikes. In FP3, for example, there were 16 riders within a second, and the gap between Andrea Dovizioso in fourth and Pol Espargaro in thirteenth was precisely two tenths of a second.

Friday is turning into update day, especially since Ducati opened the can of worms which is aerodynamics in places not covered by aerodynamics. The first day of practice at any race now is the day the other factories roll out their new swingarm attachments, or devices, or whatever you want to call them. But let’s be honest: they are aerodynamic spoilers.

Jerez was no different. On Friday, both Aprilia and Yamaha debuted their versions of Ducati’s swingarm spoiler (poetic justice for Yamaha, as their water-deflecting spoiler from last year was the inspiration for Aprilia and Ducati to start adding parts to the swingarm).

Stefan Bradl, making an appearance as a wildcard as a reward for his role as HRC test rider, was spotted riding a chassis covered in carbon fiber (stuck on top of aluminum, not an entirely CF frame).

Normally, test riders don’t attract too much media attention, but HRC’s obsessive secrecy managed to change that around. As soon as Bradl entered the garage, mechanics from the test team put up massive screens, hermetically sealing off the garage to prying eyes.

This alerted the media to the fact that Something Big Was Going On in Bradl’s garage, and a group of keen observers gathered every time he exited the pits. That kind of behavior did more to draw attention to what Honda was doing, rather than keep it out of the public eye.

The Hidden, The Visible, The Overlooked

These clearly visible changes were a reminder that there are plenty of updates brought at almost every race.

But for the most part, these changes are to the parts we cannot see: software updates, chassis updates where stiffness has been modified using different wall thicknesses, a slightly different way of layering carbon fiber to build a swingarm, which looks identical to the previous version, but behaves slightly differently.

Ducati have had a different swingarm for a couple of races, though nobody noticed it. It was only the paddock grapevine which brought us this news.

While all eyes were on the swingarm spoilers at Aprilia and Yamaha, Ducati used the distraction to roll out a bunch of updates at Jerez. First, there were the much enlarged (and much stiffer – they are no longer rubbing against the tire wall, erasing the Michelin logo as they go) wheel covers on the front wheel.

Instead of covering less than a quarter of the bottom of the front wheel, they now extend from much further forward all the way back to the brake caliper. They have gone from covering an arc of perhaps 80° to something closer to 130°, at a rough estimate. See below for the old and the new wheel covers.


Old wheel covers (photo Tom Morsellino)


New wheel covers (photo Niki Kovacs)

A lot of people had spotted the wheel covers, but only the eagle-eyed photographer Niki Kovacs saw that Ducati also appear to have not one, but three different versions of the swingarm spoiler, or what the Italians like to refer to as the ‘spoon’. First, the original version of the spoiler, a full length spoiler with three long aerofoils.


Original spoiler – long, and angled sharply forward (photo Niki Kovacs)

In addition to the original version, Ducati had another version which used a shortened lower aerofoil, and so was not quite as long as the standard one.


‘Mid-sized’ spoiler – angled sharply forward, but with a shortened lower aerofoil (photo Niki Kovacs)

Finally, there was a shortened version, which was more vertical and less angled forward. That also used a shortened lower aerofoil.


‘Short’ spoiler – angled closer to the vertical, with the shortened lower aerofoil (photo Niki Kovacs)

MotoMatters subscribers have access to a gallery with much larger versions of these pictures, but these should give you an idea of just how important aero is to Ducati.

Loopholes Large Enough for Spoilers

How come Ducati can use different versions of the swingarm spoiler? The regulations only talk about the aero body being homologated, and limited to one update a season.

But the whole issue with Ducati’s wheel covers and swingarm spoiler is that they fall outside of the aerodynamics regulations, and so can be altered at will. Now that Ducati have established that the swingarm spoiler is to cool the rear tire, they can change it as often as they like. Which they appear to be doing.

(It is also worth noting that all of these photos are of parts which appeared on the factory Ducati bikes. Jack Miller is using only the original wheel covers, and the original swingarm spoiler).

Ducati aren’t the only ones to have cottoned on to the freedom allowed by the swingarm spoiler. I saw two versions of Aprilia’s spoiler, one on Aleix Espargaro’s bike, one on Andrea Iannone’s bike. The Aprilia spoiler looks very much like the Ducati version, with three aerofoils.

But the aerofoils are detachable, and so Iannone used a version with two aerofoils inserted in the morning, then with three in the afternoon. Espargaro’s spoiler had all three aerofoils fitted in both FP1 and FP2.

Electrickery

While Ducati, Aprilia, and Yamaha all had highly visible updates, Honda had one which could not be seen, according to Marc Márquez. The crashes at Austin of Marc Márquez and Cal Crutchlow had come from the rear of the bike as much as the front, the engine brake struggling to cope with the Honda RC213V’s flailing rear end as the riders brake hard for a corner. Sometimes the rear bites, and then pushes the front, and that tips riders over the limit and onto the floor.

That has been fixed with a software update, and maybe a little bit more, Marc Márquez revealed. “I’m very happy today, because honestly speaking the problem that we had in the first three races – okay in Argentina you can say ‘you won’ but the problem was there, I was able to adjust. But in Austin I was not able to adjust,” Márquez said.

“The Repsol Honda team did a great job, especially in Japan, they worked with the test team and we improve a lot on that area and especially in the entry of the corner,” he explained.

“Now I feel better in the way that is more predictable, the engine. So this is something that helps a lot to be safer on the bike because if not sometimes I was doing some mistakes that I didn’t understand. And today we were working in a better way.”

The news that Honda has solved their problem with unpredictability on corner entry should be a concern to Márquez’ title rivals. In previous years, it took them until Barcelona at least before they fixed the problem. If the new setup is enough to solve the issue from Jerez, then Márquez will be a tough man to beat.

The times from Friday only confirm that impression. Márquez was fastest in FP1, then fourth quickest in FP2, but that doesn’t tell the full story at all. Márquez set his best time at the end of the morning session on a hard rear tire with 18 laps on it.

He then put the same rear tire in at the end of FP2, and set his quickest lap on the hard rear’s 21st lap. Almost everyone else did their best FP2 time on tire which was either new, or had just 2 or 3 laps on it. Márquez is fast without even trying, and that must be a concern.

Yamaha Blues

The weather played a huge role too. It was hot and sunny, track temperatures rising quickly from the morning to the afternoon, the track over 20° warmer in FP2, and hovering just under the 50°C mark, where grip vanishes completely. That meant that while some Yamahas were fast in the cooler conditions of the morning, they went backwards in the afternoon.

“When we lose grip, we don’t lose two tenths or three tenths, we lose one second,” a frustrated Maverick Viñales explained. “It’s very difficult to find a setup, because in the morning it’s working well, in the afternoon it’s very difficult to go with it. So it’s difficult to find a compromise on the bike.”

The problem was the electronics, Viñales explained, something which has been an issue for the past two years for the Yamaha. But they had made progress, the Spaniard said. “We worked hard, we made five or six runs in FP2, and finally we found something better, but still we need much more to be competitive.”

Things were much worse for his teammate, however. “I was not fast and my pace is not fantastic,” Valentino Rossi said. “I am quite low in the ranking and we are a bit in trouble, we are not strong. It looks like the marriage between the M1 and the tires and the track is not fantastic.”

They had hoped that the new asphalt would help, Rossi explained, but the fact that the new surface is so dark means it is holding a lot of heat, and making it even hotter. “We tried the spoiler, the spoon, for us to have a bit less temperature in the tire. It is a small help but I tried with and without and it is not a big difference.”

The problem was also that Jerez has been difficult for Yamaha in the past few years. That did not give Rossi much for the Spanish GP this weekend, but it left him optimistic that solutions could be found at other tracks. “If we are able to be strong here it is very positive, but if we struggle here it is negative for this weekend,” Rossi said.

“For me, it is not the final answer to the season for this weekend. It is Jerez. Maybe we will struggle in Jerez but we go to Le Mans next week and the bike works well. It does not finish everything here. But for us to continue to fight in the championship we need to take some points, and we need to stay concentrated and work harder than in other places where the bike is good so we can take as much as possible.”

If there is some light on the horizon for the Yamahas, it is that the rest of the weekend should be a little cooler, but more importantly, see a bit more cloud. Cloud cover should shield the asphalt from the suns fierce rays, and help to reduce the track temperature significantly. That may be enough to bring them back into contention.

Ducati Good, Hot & Cold

The Hondas are up – Jorge Lorenzo was quick in the morning, suffering a little more in the afternoon with track temperature – and the Yamahas are down, but the Ducatis are fast pretty much whatever the conditions. Andrea Dovizioso was particularly pleased with progress on the first day, ending FP2 in second behind teammate Danilo Petrucci, and finishing the day third overall.

“Overall the grip is good,” Dovizioso said. “We will see because we have just started the weekend and the track will change before the race. At the moment in the afternoon our speed was really good. I’m happy because we did a small improvement with the set-up and our speed was of the top group. So I’m happy about that. I don’t think it will be enough because there are some riders with a really good speed and there is still time to improve the situation with this weather. But overall our base is good.”

Danilo Petrucci was equally pleased. “For sure the feeling is very good,” the factory Ducati rider said, after finishing the day as fastest. “I’m happy about the feeling with the bike. I was talking before with my people and the bike the same like Austin, but I have a better feeling here. It’s good for me because I can ride the bike like I want.” Qualifying was a worry, he said, as pushing for a single lap was not his forte.

And he will need to do a quick lap, as will so many others – Alex Rins spent the day working on tire choice, for example, rather than chasing a single lap. The new surface has a lot of grip, without being too abrasive, meaning tire wear should not be a massive issue.

But the added grip means that times were very fast. Marc Márquez’ time in FP1 was just three tenths off the outright pole record, and some in the paddock suspect we could see a 1’36 when qualifying comes around on Saturday afternoon. If the track is a few degrees cooler than it was on Friday afternoon, we could see records shattered.

Photo: Ducati Corse

And so MotoGP returns to terra cognita. At Qatar, the sand and dust conspire with temperature and moisture to make for unpredictable conditions. Termas De Rio Hondo, despite its magnificent layout, barely gets used, meaning conditions change from session to session.

And the shifting substrate below the Circuit of the Americas means bumps come and go, and shift around from year to year in Austin. Furthermore, MotoGP visits Argentina and Austin just once a year, meaning the teams have very limited data for the track, making setup just that little bit more complicated.

How very different is Jerez. There cannot be a rider on the MotoGP paddock who does not have thousands, if not tens of thousands of laps around the Circuito de Jerez in Andalusia, Spain. If they raced in the Spanish CEV championship (now the FIM CEV championship), they raced there once or twice a year.

When they got to 125s or Moto3, they tested there two or three times a year. Same again in 250s or Moto2. Even in MotoGP they test there regularly, both private tests and now at the official IRTA test in November. Each and every one of them could post a lap of the track blindfolded.

Yet there are still some unknowns at Jerez this year. Though the entire field tested here in November last year, the track has been resurfaced since then. The worst corners, where the asphalt had cracked and holes started to form, torn up and given a brand new layer of asphalt. The bumps are gone, the track has grip, and things are very different now.

KTM has exercised the option it held over Miguel Oliveira’s contract, extending it for the second year, according to German-language website Speedweek. The Portuguese rider will now race for the satellite Red Bull KTM Tech3 for the 2019 and 2020 seasons at least.

That KTM should decide to sign Oliveira up early is hardly surprising. The Portuguese rider has been quietly impressive since moving up to MotoGP. He rode well in the first half of the season opener at Qatar, before burning up his tires and dropping down to finish seventeenth.

But he learned quickly, and put on an outstanding display in Argentina, just losing out in the battle for ninth from Aleix Espargaro on the Aprilia and brother Pol Espargaro on the factory KTM. In Austin, he finished shortly behind the other factory KTM of Johann Zarco, whom Oliveira has frequently outperformed this year.

There are only three certainties in life: Death, taxes, and Marc Márquez winning any MotoGP race organized in the United States of America. That has been true since the Spaniard moved up to MotoGP, and for both years he spent in Moto2 as well.

There is something about America which makes Márquez nigh on invincible. Is it the anticlockwise tracks? Is it the low grip and tricky surfaces found at the circuits? Or is high fructose corn syrup Márquez’ equivalent of Popeye’s spinach?

MotoGP went to Austin hoping this might be the year when things changed. With good reason: the racing in the series has been getting closer and closer almost on a race-by-race basis. Valentino Rossi finished just 0.6 seconds behind race winner Andrea Dovizioso at Qatar, but he crossed the line in fifth place.

In Argentina, the seven riders fighting for second place were separated by 3 seconds on the penultimate lap. The Ducati Desmosedici GP19 is faster and better than ever, the Yamaha M1 has made a huge step forward since 2018, and the Suzuki has consistently been in the hunt for podiums since the middle of last year.

That is all very well and good, but the margin of Marc Márquez’ victory in Termas de Rio Hondo suggested that ending Márquez’ reign in the US would require something extraordinary to happen. The Repsol Honda rider had a 12 second lead going into the last lap in Argentina.

The Honda RC213V had the highest top speed in both Qatar and Argentina, the bike having both more horsepower and better acceleration. Then, during qualifying, Márquez took pole – his seventh in a row at the Circuit of the Americas – with an advantage of more than a quarter of a second over Valentino Rossi. Normal service had been resumed.