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 importance of tires leads onto the second point: the importance of equipment. Different riders have different tires, and their results differ because of that. This was true in the past when some riders were given tires built specifically to their demands, while others were forced to make do with the standard tires the tire companies had brought along as standard issue.

Similarly, different riders have different bikes, and their results are not the same. A long time ago, the massive difference between satellite bikes and factory machinery meant that riders on a satellite bike didn’t really have a chance. Today, that gap is smaller, but there are still important differences.

Alvaro Bautista’s bike is very close to that of Dani Pedrosa’s, but he has to run Showa suspension and Nissin brakes for contractual reasons, and without the massive development which Öhlins pours into MotoGP, progress for Showa and Bautista is much slower. There is little doubt that Dani Pedrosa is a more talented rider than Alvaro Bautista, but some of the difference is in forks and brakes.

Back to Qatar. There are howls of indignant rage both inside and outside the paddock, complaints about the new rules and the different tire options available. It’s not fair that we only have 20 liters of fuel, the Yamaha men cry. It’s not fair the Open class riders have the soft tire, the satellite riders cry.

It’s not fair that the factory riders didn’t get to test at Qatar, the fans cry – and as the factory riders have the largest contingent of fans, their cries are heard loudest, on social media and on forums.

While there is some merit in their complaints – the rules are a bit of a mess, a necessary evil which has finally helped persuade the factories to adopt spec electronics from 2016 – the accusation that it isn’t fair misses the point.

The rules were set last year (with the exception of the chaotic last-minute adoption of a special rule for Ducati) and the factories and teams made their various decisions about which avenues to pursue.

Honda and Yamaha knew that they would have a liter less fuel, and Yamaha knew that fuel consumption was always a problem for them. Yet Yamaha accepted Honda’s proposal, and decided to remain as a Factory Option team, rather than switching to the Open category and taking the extra fuel. They knew the challenge they faced, and they accepted it willingly.

Of course, it is the riders who suffer the consequences of Yamaha’s decision. Valentino Rossi has been struggling with fuel almost since the start of the 800cc era, when the allowance was reduced to 21 liters. The reduction to 20 liters is killing him at a track like Qatar. He describes the engine as running on air, the bike having no power out of the last corner and along the straight.

Ironically, Rossi is posting top speeds of 336 km/h along the straight, 5 km/h slower than Marc Marquez, and 6 km/h slower than the fastest Ducatis, but still nearly 11 km/h faster than Aleix Espargaro, who is on the Open class Yamaha with 24 liters of fuel. And it is Aleix Espargaro who has topped the timesheets in all three sessions, and leads the way going into qualifying.

While Jorge Lorenzo has fewer concerns about the fuel, he is seriously worried about the rear Bridgestone tire being used at the moment. He once again branded the tire as dangerous, and brought the subject up in the Safety Commission, where the riders sit with representatives of the series to discuss matters of safety.

While Lorenzo has little backing for the claims that the rear Bridgestone is dangerous, the other Yamaha men all back his complaints about the tire. The 2014 tire is basically the same tire that was used at Assen and Mugello last year, one which includes a heat resistant layer.

It works superbly at tracks which stress the tires, but in the dusty and cool conditions at Qatar, the heat resistant layer merely robs the tire of edge grip. Lorenzo’s style in particular relies on being able to generate edge grip as he spends a long time leaned right over and carrying corner speed.

The tire is also posing problems for the Tech 3 riders, though it is not slowing them up much. Both Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith suffered big crashes, though both came away relatively unhurt. Smith described his crash as a ‘500 crash’, a massive highside reminiscent of the 500cc two-stroke era.

His crew had sacrificed a little bit of edge grip for a bit more mid corner speed, and Smith paid the price. The lack of edge grip for the Yamaha men clearly making setup more critical than it was last year.

Real improvement will only come at Le Mans, when Bridgestone will bring a modified version of its medium compound 2014 tire for the rest of the season. That modification will use technology applied to the hard tire at the end of 2013, which provided more edge grip and turned the harder option tire from a garage ornament into a viable race option.

Though the modified tire probably won’t provide the same feel at the cooler and less grippy tracks that last year’s tire did, it will surely be an improvement on what they have now.

The combination of fuel and tires is not the only reason the grid order has been shaken up. The fact that the satellite and Open class teams all tested here two weeks’ ago is also still having an effect.

But that effect was diminishing in every session: while the riders who had tested here all took a half a second off their times from yesterday, the factory riders, who had been testing tires at Phillip Island instead of Qatar, improved by well over a second.

Marc Marquez has moved up the order to fifth, and all of the factory riders bar Cal Crutchlow made it straight through to Q2 by the end of FP3.

For Qatar remains a strange track. The low grip conditions require a lot of confidence to learn to trust, and that only comes with track time and set up. Satellite riders and teams have that, the factory riders don’t.

Which means we have a rather fascinating prospect for qualifying. Aleix Espargaro and Andrea Iannone, the two riders who most often found themselves having to battle through Q1 to get into Q2, now top the timesheets and qualify on merit.

However, the rest of the riders going through to Q2 are those you might expect: the top 12 consists of Aleix Espargaro and the 11 Factory Option riders. The order may be a little less conventional, but some of that is surely down to testing. If all of the riders had tested at Phillip Island or Qatar, the order may have looked a little different.

Aleix Espargaro’s domination of the timesheets – his odds to win halved again after today, now down to 5/1 from 11/1 yesterday, and 51/1 before the riders had hit the track – has been much talked about as being a sign of how the rules are unfairly affecting the standings.

But Repsol Honda team principal Livio Suppo was much more candid about the situation. When asked about how poorly the Honda RCV1000R was performing compared to the Forward Yamahas, Suppo was clear: “Our problem has a first name and a last name: Aleix Espargaro.”

It is Espargaro’s performance which has raised eyebrows, but his speed has more to do with his ability than the bike he is on. Spending years on different bikes, few of them competitive, teaches you a lot of things about managing a racing motorcycle, and now Aleix finally has a chance to put all those to use.

Where the rules will have the biggest effect is during qualifying. The softer rear tire the Open class bikes and the Ducatis have is a genuine advantage, and is likely to produce a few surprises on the grid. Aleix Espargaro looks to be the hot favorite for pole, the Forward rider fast on both the soft and the medium tire.

The Ducatis, too, are benefiting, with the exception currently of Cal Crutchlow. Andrea Iannone and Andrea Dovizioso were 2nd and 4th overall, and should both find slots on the first two rows tomorrow. Apart from them, it seems more likely that normal service will be resumed, with Marquez, Lorenzo, Pedrosa, and Rossi all picking up speed.

The softer tire is playing out much as expected, acting much as the old-fashioned qualifying tires did back before the single tire rule. Back when there was a super-soft qualifier, a brave rider could earn a starting position much closer to the front than his race pace deserved, adding some interest and excitement to the first part of the race.

It looks like something similar will happen with the Open class softer tires, with the Ducatis and Aleix Espargaro capable of seriously threatening for pole.

Once the race starts, the situation may be a little different, with quality coming to the fore. That won’t stop Aleix Espargaro though. Aleix set his fastest time on the super-soft tires he has at his disposal, but he was still the fastest man on track on the medium tires (hard for the Open class, soft for the Factory Option class) which everyone will be racing on.

Valentino Rossi tipped Aleix as the favorite for the pole. Looking at it on Friday, you’d have to say he’s favorite for the race as well.

Photo: © 2014 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.

  • TheSwede

    Brilliant move by Dorna, really. The bickering about parity is gonna not going to stop, and it’s gonna get ugly, and the only way to fix it will be to have everyone go Open.

    Spec ECU’s, sticky tires, more fuel, and a legit level playing field. Could be the best year of MotoGP in decades. Bring on the rider’s revolution!

  • Thamer

    Love reading your insightful articles. Like every war this one between Honda and dorna has it’s victims….namely Reddings, Hayden, and everyone else duped into riding the open class honda. Had Honda played nicely and really looked to shaping the future, rather than trying to control the present, maybe there would be even better racing.

    They way I see it Honda has no problem throwing riders under the bus if it benefits honda’s domination. And Casey Stoner thought Ducati was bad. Really the open class riders should refuse to ride the rcv1000 till it gets sorted. How sponsors are tolerating it is beyond me.

    Would love to see Tech 3 go open mid season…lol.

  • Texx

    For those of us in America who want to watch the MotoGP qualifying and race, where can we go to catch some live streaming please?

  • Thamer

    Moto GP.com and buy a season pass. It’s pretty good with interviews and past races as well as other goodies.

  • dan

    or VIP BOX . NET

  • streamer

    For streaming of all motorsports, got to first row sports (google them)

    I’t’s how I watched all the FP so far :)

  • L2C

    “Brilliant move by Dorna, really.”

    Yeah, if you want your motorsports to be like a movie. Or worse, like the last season of Battlestar Galactica or Lost.

    Maybe there should be one type of bike. Motorcycle manufacturers could bid on a contract to produce prototype racing machines for two seasons. Every rider and team who participates in the premiere class would get the same software, the same parts, the same technical support. Boom — one set of rules. A level playing field. Klankers for everyone, just like in The Clone Wars.


    “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.”

    I think tires are the single most important factor over the rider and a reliable machine. The meat of a rider’s comments before and after every race generally concerns the performance of the tires. Before one gives impressions of whatever bike he/she used or will use in the race, tire performance is usually the first thing to be addressed. Many times riders don’t say anything at all about their bikes, unless the bikes underperformed. Otherwise, a good bike becomes invisible, but the performance of the tires are always at the forefront of every racer’s mind.

    At least that’s how it appears to me out in the audience.

    “While Jorge Lorenzo has fewer concerns about the fuel, he is seriously worried about the rear Bridgestone tire being used at the moment. He once again branded the tire as dangerous, and brought the subject up in the Safety Commission, where the riders sit with representatives of the series to discuss matters of safety.”

    Jorge Lorenzo is concerned about being able to fully take advantage of Marc Márquez’s current condition. It’s the safety of his advantage over Marc and the rest of the field that he’s concerned about more than anything else.

    Based on Lorenzo’s performance at the end of last season, he is right to think that he should have a small advantage over Márquez right now. The problem is he’s not going to be able to do anything about it without a good set of tires.

    The pressure is on for Lorenzo to perform, and yet he cannot. All of the positive attention that’s being given to Aleix Espargaro and the satellite riders only makes it worse, because they have the psychological advantage at the moment, not him — or any of the other factory riders, frankly. A whole set of complex emotions are going on with Lorenzo at Losail. Hopefully he doesn’t pull a Maverick Viñales or Pol Espargaro and implode for a majority of the season. That would be too bad.


    Let’s see how qualifying goes today. That it is a very important day might just be the understatement of the season. Good fortune to all riders.

  • smiler

    There are three manufacturers in MotoGP. Dorna has managed to seriously annoy 2 of them, introduced 5 different types of bike on the gird and ensure that with one of the categories, success will be penalised. Factory, Factory 2, Satelite, Factory Production and usually factory engine and A. N Other frame.

    The sensible solution is to have 2 categories:

    Factory bikes.
    Satelite bikes with a leased engine of factory spec from anywhere and the team can do what ever it likes in terms of electronics and frame.
    2 different tyre makers.
    The satelite teams can be run by anyone but the engine is to the same spec as the factory bikes.
    The same spec is written across the entire series.
    One cc configuration for the next ten years.
    Any manufacturer that wins more that two consequetive titles gets a weight penalty.

    This year will still see 4 rounds in Spain but only 18 rounds. So they have neither introduced new rounds or reduced the number of Spanish rounds. it was their declarted intention to do so and to reduce the number of Spanish riders. There is no doubt that when Rossi goes, the replacement will be Spanish, genven also the movistar sponsorship.

    Even better the factory bikes, who drive development for all other classes of bike are not at the top of the pile, not because of any technical activity, superior engineering and effort by the satelite teams but because of the utter mess that Dorna has concoted. The have managed to reduce costs just as the world comes out of recession.

    There is no motorsports series that has been in such a shambles.

    Dorna has changed the engine config from 500, to 990, to 800 to 1000cc, forced everyone to use one tire, kicked the FIM out of the series because Dorn felt they could manage it better. How on earth were these changes going to make the racing better?

  • L2C

    It just occurred to me that both Honda and Yamaha tossed their factory riders under a bus with fuel restrictions. So busy arguing about rules, I missed a crucial and darkly comical factor that was the result of those rules. After the revised regulations took effect, the conversation between the factories and factory riders went something like this:

    FACTORIES: Since you guys win so much, you will not get more fuel. You will get less, we will learn more.

    FACTORY RIDERS: But our bikes are thirsty. As it is, they are already starving, you didn’t consult us–

    FACTORIES: No! No fuel for you!!

    FACTORY RIDERS: But we won so many races and championships with you, the best factories in the world…

    FACTORIES: Very good, very good. You know what?


    FACTORIES: No fuel for you! Come back — two years!!

  • SBPilot

    Sadly all this juggling of rules really left me less attracted to MotoGP.

    DP saying F1 changes rules, sure, they changed the rules to Turbo V6s to go more in line with the auto trend, and only change rules mid season once it is fully declared that a team actually has an advantage through a loophole (blown diffusers etc). Not before the bloody season starts.

    But I agree with DP on one thing, this transition period between now and 2016 where it’s again “one set of rules” will be a difficult one for Dorna to manage. However, we can only HOPE that in 2016 rules don’t change 2 weeks before the season begins again.

    WSBK managed the rules quite well, re: Aprilia gear driven camshaft, and giving Ducati an air restrictor. Why MotoGP rules are such a cluster f*** is beyond me.

  • MikeG81

    “Satelite bikes with a leased engine of factory spec from anywhere and the team can do what ever it likes in terms of electronics and frame.
    2 different tyre makers.
    The satelite teams can be run by anyone but the engine is to the same spec as the factory bikes.
    The same spec is written across the entire series.
    One cc configuration for the next ten years.
    Any manufacturer that wins more that two consequetive titles gets a weight penalty.”

    I’d like to see most of these happen. Except that there should be as many tires brands permitted as can make a safe tire for MotoGP, and there should never be a penalty for winning. If a manufacture wins, then it’s up to the rest to compete.