If you want to see the law of unintended consequences in action, just take a look at MotoGP testing. The nature of testing has changed as manufacturers have suffered the consequences of not fully understanding the effects of the engine development freeze during the season.
Honda suffered, Suzuki suffered, and now Yamaha have suffered when they made the wrong choice of engine in preseason testing. They learned the hard way they had to get it right.
This has meant that the Valencia MotoGP test has become first and foremost about getting the engine in the right ballpark, giving the engineers enough data to work out the fine details over the winter. A tight track and cold air temperatures sees engines at their most aggressive, with plenty of horsepower on hand and very little room on track to actually use it.
The addition of Jerez as an official winter test – to be held at the end of next week – makes this even more explicitly an engine test. If the factories bring an engine that is manageable at both Valencia and Jerez, they are in good shape for next season.
As an aside, going to Sepang rather than Jerez to test in the past couple of seasons may be one of the factors that led Yamaha down a blind alley with their engine. Sepang is hot, wide, and fast, sapping power and allowing a MotoGP bike to stretch its legs.
It is the kind of track that can hide an overly aggressive engine, which then can rear its ugly head when the season is underway, the engine spec is frozen, and it’s too late to fix the problem.
With the MotoGP paddock back in Europe and heading to Jerez, the first round of contract announcements is upon us, with the second wave not far behind.
First domino to fall for the moment is Pol Espargaro, who will be staying at KTM for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Ahead of his first home grand prix of 2018, KTM today officially announced that they will be retaining the services of the Spaniard for the next two years.
Espargaro’s signing had been broadly expected. The Spaniard has outperformed his teammate Bradley Smith, and with the Austrian factory’s MotoGP project moving from the development phase to the point where they need to start producing results, Espargaro has been favored over Smith.
Pecco Bagnaia is to move up to MotoGP with the Pramac Ducati team in 2019 and 2020. The news was announced on Twitter by the SkyVR46 team, and confirmed by Bagnaia himself on his Twitter feed.
The move is not a surprise. Bagnaia had been widely tipped to move to MotoGP with Ducati, with Paolo Ciabatti admitting at the launch back in January that the Italian factory had an interest in the 21 year old.
Bagnaia’s contract is official confirmation that Danilo Petrucci will be leaving the Pramac team at the end of this season. Petrucci’s current contract with Ducati contains a clause granting him a seat in the factory Ducati team, if a seat is open.
It is hard to envision a worse time to lose a rider for the season. Jonas Folger’s announcement that he was withdrawing from the 2018 MotoGP season to focus on his health was a hammer blow for the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 team.
Just weeks before the start of testing for the new season, and long after riders good enough to race in MotoGP have signed contracts, Tech 3 team boss Hervé Poncharal is left looking for a replacement.
It is a massive task, especially as Poncharal is refusing to break any contracts to take a rider. “You would be amazed to hear how many phone calls I have had, and who from,” he told us.
“There were some interesting names, honestly, but priority for me, the basis for me is that I will never take or enter into any kind of discussion with someone who has a contract.”
That attitude is born not just from a sense of what is right, but also from self interest. “At the end of the day, everybody is working hard, everybody is trying to finalize and make a plan,” Poncharal said.
“Finally you end up with a contract, and when both parties sign, this needs to have a value, because if a rider signs something thinking, ‘OK, worst case scenario, this is what I have, but if there is a better opportunity, I’m going to take it…’ then why do we sign a contract?”
There were signs that the MotoGP Silly Season could be wrapped up early last week in Bologna, at the launch Ducati’s MotoGP team.
Ducati Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti said he expected to sign the riders for the factory team ‘quite early’. “Quite early probably means the second half of February or the first half of March,” he clarified.
So before the lights have gone out for the first race of the 2018 MotoGP season, Ducati hope to have two factory riders wrapped up, and they are unlikely to be the only factory to have done so.
It is apparent that the riders have taken note of this, and are adjusting their strategy accordingly.
After Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport ran a story suggesting that Ducati were about to sign Pecco Bagnaia to the Pramac team, Danilo Petrucci has told the same paper that 2018 will be his last year with Pramac.
“[Team boss] Paolo Campinoti and I both know this. He pulled me out of the gutter, but we know this is our last year together. The cycle is complete.”
Poetry aside, Petrucci’s announcement is significant. The Italian has a contract with Ducati that promises him a seat in the factory team if one becomes available, in much the same way that Andrea Iannone did previously. But the question is, will there be a seat there for Petrucci to take?
The difference in perspective between team managers and riders is always fascinating. Team bosses always have an eye to the big picture, to the coming year and beyond.
Riders are usually looking no further ahead than the next session or the next race. Anything beyond that is out of their control, and not worth wasting valuable energy worrying about. The future is a bridge they will cross when they come to it.
That difference was all too evident at the Ducati launch in Bologna on Monday.
While the people in charge of Ducati – Paolo Ciabatti, Davide Tardozzi, and Gigi Dall’Igna – were already thinking of managing rider signings and sponsorship deals for 2019 and beyond, Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo were mostly concerned about the Sepang test and about being competitive in the 2018 season.
New contracts for 2019 were on their horizons, but compared to their bosses, it was little more than a blip. First, there is a championship to win.
Andrea Dovizioso has spent the winter relaxing, and preparing for the new season. He starts the year as one of the title favorites, not a position he has been accustomed to.
“A great sensation, and one I had lost in the last few years” is how the Italian described it. He did not feel the pressure of that sensation, but rather saw it as a challenge.
Sure, he was one of the favorites, but there were a lot of competitive bikes with riders capable of winning. “The level of competitiveness has become very high in MotoGP in the last three years,” he said. “There are many riders who can win races. It wasn’t like this in the past.”
MotoGP team launches are always the triumph of hope over experience. Each year, the bosses of every factory in the series tell the media that their objective is to win races and fight for the championship. Sometimes, they even believe it.
At last year’s launch of the Ducati MotoGP team, Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall’Igna said they hoped to be fighting for the championship. That, after all, is why they signed Jorge Lorenzo to what is reported to be a very lucrative contract.
The assembled press was skeptical, despite the clear progress that Ducati had made in the past couple of seasons, its first wins coming in 2016.
Such skepticism was unwarranted, though you get the distinct feeling that even Ducati was surprised at how close Andrea Dovizioso came to clinching the 2017 MotoGP title.
Ducati was delighted by the Italian’s first win at Mugello, amazed at his victory in Barcelona a week later, and impressed by the way he beat Marc Márquez at Austria.
By the end of the season, Ducati had come to expect to win races, and realized just how far they had come on their journey since the dark days of 2013, when they didn’t score a single podium all year.
So on Monday, when Dall’Igna echoed the words of Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali in Bologna, that Ducati’s objective was to win races and challenge for the championship in MotoGP, they were deadly serious.
There is no doubt that Ducati is capable of doing just that – Dovizioso’s results and Lorenzo’s improvement in 2017 demonstrate that – and though they are all too aware of the dangers of complacency, Ducati start the 2018 season with both a firm expectation and belief that they are candidates for the 2018 MotoGP title.
Every race weekend, there are dozens of things I either miss, or don’t have time to write about. Here’s what I missed from the German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring:
About Those Chassis
Since the Barcelona test, the paddock has been awash with gossip about Yamaha chassis. Valentino Rossi was particularly enamored of one of the chassis tested at Barcelona, though his teammate Maverick Viñales appeared to be a lot less enthralled by it. At Assen and the Sachsenring, both riders had one each of the “new” chassis and one of the “old” chassis.
The new chassis is said to be a development of the chassis used last year – some even say last year’s chassis – which was itself a slight revision of the 2015 chassis. The “old” chassis was a new chassis based on the chassis used last year, meant to save the rear tire, but sacrificing corner entry as a result.
Valentino Rossi was constantly clear about which chassis he favored, and which chassis he used. Yet Viñales consistently refused to answer questions on the subject, claiming he had been banned from doing so by Yamaha. So how can one rider answer and the other refuse?
With all twelve factory riders on two-year contracts, there wasn’t supposed to be a MotoGP Silly Season in 2017, or at least, not much of one. That impression was further reinforced when the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha squad quickly tied up both Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger for an extra year, until the end of 2018.
As usual, reality intervened, of course. Though the factory seats were supposedly taken, there was plenty of interest in the satellite seats once the season got underway.
All eyes turned to the Moto2 class, and especially to the remarkable performances by Franco Morbidelli and Pecco Bagnaia. Alex Márquez, too, raised eyebrows. And so speculation started.
Then there were those factory seats. Yes, all twelve factory riders have two-year contracts, but all contracts have clauses that allow for either side to make an early escape.
Great managers make sure the escape clause benefits their rider. Great factory lawyers make sure the contract is in their favor. The measure of a rider manager is where they end up on that side of the equation.
The Pull&Bear Aspar Team will continue to race with Ducatis for the 2018 season. At Le Mans, the team signed a one-year extension of their deal with Ducati, which will see the Italian factory continue to supply satellite bikes to the team for next year.
Exactly what spec machinery the team will run is still to be decided. Depending on budget and the riders Aspar can sign, the team will either run two Desmosedici GP17s, or one GP17 and one GP16.
It has been the most exciting first day of testing for many years. It was reminiscent of the year Valentino Rossi switched to Ducati, and Casey Stoner went to Ducati.
But Tuesday was 2011 on steroids: Jorge Lorenzo to Ducati, Maverick Viñales to Yamaha, Andrea Iannone to Suzuki, KTM entering the class, and four fascinating rookies.
Add in the GP14.2 being replaced by a bevy of GP15s and GP16s, significantly more competitive motorcycles, and you have a test so fascinating and intriguing that it is hard to know where to start.
So let’s start with the timesheets. Maverick Viñales ends the day as fastest, on his first day on the Yamaha, pushing for a quick lap towards the end of the day.
Valentino Rossi was second fastest, his quickest lap set on the 2016 bike he raced on Sunday early in the day. Jorge Lorenzo set the third quickest time on the Ducati, stepping up late in the day to come very close to topping the timesheets.
Marc Márquez was fourth quickest on the 2017 Repsol Honda, though he claimed he would have gone even faster on the 2016 bike. Andrea Dovizioso was fifth, the Ducati rider working with the GP17, while Cal Crutchlow ended the day as sixth on the LCR Honda.
Andrea Iannone made a strong debut on the Suzuki, finishing as seventh, ahead of the Ducatis of Scott Redding and Hector Barbera. Dani Pedrosa rounded out the top ten.