MotoGP: Could Engines Decide the Championship?

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Ever since Jorge Lorenzo’s #3 engine went up in smoke at Assen, after the Factory Yamaha man was scuttled by Alvaro Bautista in the first corner, MotoGP followers have been asking themselves whether Jorge Lorenzo will make it to the end of the season with the remainder of his allocation, or whether he will have to take a 7th engine and start from pit lane at some point.

As each race goes by, the questions have become more urgent: will this be the race where Lorenzo finally runs out of engines, and hands Dani Pedrosa the advantage in the championship fight?

So how is Jorge Lorenzo doing with his engines? Is he, as many suspect, in imminent danger of losing an engine, and with it potentially his second World Championship? What strategies have his pit crew been using to manage with one engine prematurely withdrawn? And will those strategies be enough to see him through to the race at Valencia?

A few races after the first-corner crash at Assen, I asked Jorge Lorenzo’s team manager Wilco Zeelenberg if he believed that Lorenzo would have a problem with his engines. “No,” he told me, “it will just give the guys in the garage a bit more work swapping engines.”

Instead of following the standard pattern of using a pair of engines at the start of the season, then adding in engines slowly until the end, replacing older engines as they reach their mileage limits, Lorenzo’s team have spent their weekends juggling engines, swapping them around in a concentrated effort to optimize mileage.

They have of course been helped along they way by bad weather – there have been few weekends this year where at least part of some sessions has not been lost to the weather – but the strategy has so far proved successful.

The team’s strategy has mainly been focused on getting as much mileage as possible out of Lorenzo’s oldest engines – #1 and #2 were both introduced at the first race of the year at Qatar – while saving the later engines for use in the race. Lorenzo’s #1 and #2 engines have been used in a total of 46 and 47 sessions respectively, including 7 races between them.

Though they have not bee raced since Germany (engine #1), at least one of the two engines has been used at every event this year. While those engines help carry a lot of the load during practice, Lorenzo’s later engines (#4, #5, #6) have been spared, seeing most of their action during qualifying and during the race, when performance is at a premium.

It is clear from the usage patterns that this has created an extra workload for Ramon Forcada and the rest of Jorge Lorenzo’s crew. At the nine races that have taken place since Assen, Jorge Lorenzo has used three different engines at three races (Mugello, Laguna Seca and Indianapolis), and four different engines at two others (Brno and Motegi). At the Sachsenring, Lorenzo’s team eked an extra race weekend out of his first two engines, and at Aragon, Misano and Sepang, either his #1 or #2 engines were alternated with later engines.

The contrast to a more traditional strategy is made clear when comparing Lorenzo’s engine usage to that of Dani Pedrosa, the Repsol Honda man still having all of his engines available for use. Unlike Forcada, however, Mike Leitner and his team have not faced the task of juggling engine mileage, concentrating instead on working on set up.

Of all the races since Assen, Pedrosa has only used three engines twice: Once at Laguna Seca, when Pedrosa had a new engine with upgrades which he had tested two weeks’ previously at Mugello and liked; and once at Aragon, where Pedrosa’s #6 engine was slotted into the bike for the Sunday morning warm up, ahead of being used on a regular basis. The rest of the time, Pedrosa has been working with the same two engines all weekend.

Pedrosa’s more traditional engine strategy is clear from the session count for each motor. His #1 and #2 engines have 35 sessions each on them, having been used for the first seven and nine races respectively.

Pedrosa’s #3 engine has just 13 sessions on it before being shelved, that engine specification being superseded by a revised version of the engine that is a little smoother than the one they started the year with. Pedrosa’s #4 engine has born the brunt since then, racking up 27 sessions and being shelved as a back up since Aragon. Meanwhile, Pedrosa’s #5 and #6 engines have been introduced in an orderly fashion, slowly racking up the miles as expected from the start.

Will Jorge Lorenzo run out of engines before the end of the year? The championship leader is actually in better shape than he might have feared. With two races to go – a total of 12 sessions in which he will need two bikes with engines in them – Lorenzo has three relatively low-mileage engines.

Motor #4 has the most sessions on it, having been out 11 times, including 3 races. Numbers 5 and 6 are not far behind, with 8 and 9 sessions on them respectively, as well as a race count of 3 for #5 and 2 for #6. Lorenzo’s high-mileage engines, #1 and #2, are still available, but will be running to the very limits of their endurance now. Even if Lorenzo were to lose another engine, he should be able to make it to the end of the season without having to start from pit lane. But it would not be a comfortable situation to be in.

Lorenzo’s biggest challenge may come not from an exploding Yamaha engine, but from the Honda’s dreaded reliability. Dani Pedrosa has engines to spare, and nothing to lose by using them. Sound analysis of Honda’s RC213V at recent races, undertaken by educated fans, is showing an increase in the maximum revs the engine is using.

Pedrosa appears to have been given an extra couple of hundred revs to play with, meaning that he has a little more horsepower at his disposal. This would fit with the step forward which Pedrosa has made in recent races, winning 5 of the last 6 Grand Prix. That performance step was clearest at Aragon, Motegi and Sepang, where Pedrosa controlled the race utterly, following Lorenzo until it was time to get past, and then opening up a gap to the Yamaha man almost at will.

There is no doubt that Dani Pedrosa is riding better than he ever has, but one possible factor in that improvement is the confidence of knowing he has a little more in the tank if he needs it.

The question of whether the engine which Lorenzo lost at Assen could end up losing him the championship is thus a little more complex than it at first seems. Lorenzo being forced to start from pit lane after taking a 7th engine now seems vanishingly unlikely. But the crash may have ended up handing Pedrosa a small but significant advantage in their battle. Lorenzo may not lose an engine, but he cannot afford to lose his concentration: one slip and the title could be gone.

Below are the engine usage charts for both Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa. The table shows a list of engines, with the number of sessions each engine has been used in, the number of races each engine has been used for, the status of the engine (active – currently in use, withdrawn – unavailable for use due to engine damage, shelved – available for use, but left unused for multiple races), the total Grand Prix at which the engine has been used, and a list of which Grand Prix the engine was used at.

Jorge Lorenzo’s Engine Usage

Engine Sessions Races Status Total events Events used
#2 47 3 Active 14 QAT, SPA, POR, FRA, CAT, GBR, NED, GER, ITA, USA, IND, CZE, RSM, JPN
#3 4 1 Withdrawn 1 NED
#4 11 3 Active 5 ITA, USA, IND, CZE, JPN
#5 8 3 Active 3 CZE, RSM, JPN
#6 9 2 Active 2 ARA, MAL


Dani Pedrosa’s Engine Usage

Engine Sessions Races Status Total events Events used
#1 35 5 Shelved 7 QAT, SPA, POR, FRA, CAT, GBR, NED
#2 35 2 Shelved 9 QAT, SPA, POR, FRA, CAT, GBR, NED, GER, ITA
#3 13 2 Shelved 3 GER, ITA, USA
#4 27 5 Shelved 5 USA, IND, CZE, RSM, ARA
#5 17 0 Active 7 USA, IND, CZE, RSM, ARA, JPN, MAL
#6 11 2 Active 3 ARA, JPN, MAL

Source: MotoGP; Photo: © 2012 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.