Spanish GP


Episode 101 of the Paddock Pass Podcast is out, and in it we see Neil Morrison and David Emmett on the microphones, as we discuss the happenings at the Spanish GP at Jerez.

As usual, the guys cover the on track action at the race, as well as the goings on behind the scenes in the paddock.

Special attention is given to Marc Marquez’s victory at Jerez, as well as the meltdown of Fabio Quartararo, who became the youngest MotoGP pole-sitter ever, and looked to have a promising race ahead of him.

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.

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.


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.

It was a grim sight in the early hours of today, as the MotoE paddock that had been erected in Jerez burned to the ground. A shared space for all the MotoE World Cup teams and riders, word from Spain is that the flames engulf all of the Energica Ego Corsa race bikes for this years series.

The damage will obviously mean that the opening round of the series, which was set to be at Jerez, will not occur, but Dorna says that the FIM Enel MotoE World Cup will take place this year, despite today’s setback. 

A calendar for the later race dates will be released, most likely when Dorna and Energica (the single-spec bike provider) can figure out how long it will take to build the 20 or so race bikes that the series needs. From what we hear, the last motorcycles for the MotoE series were just delivered to Dorna a few weeks ago.

Racing produces drama. When you put 24 riders on an equal number of 270hp MotoGP machines, you can never be certain of the outcome.

The tired and obvious story lines you had written in your head before the race have a tendency to go up in smoke once the flag drops. Racing produces a new reality, often surprising, rarely predictable.

But that doesn’t stop us from drawing up a picture after practice of how the race is going to play out. At a tight track like Jerez, passing is difficult, and so the rider who can get the holeshot can try to open a gap and run away at the front.

After qualifying, it was clear that the three factory-backed Hondas were strongest, the Repsols of Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa, together with the LCR Honda of Cal Crutchlow were all a cut above the rest.

It would be an all-RC213V podium, with the other manufacturers left to fight over the scraps. The Ducatis would do battle with the Suzukis, and the Yamahas would find some pace at last, and get in among it at the front. It didn’t pan out that way, of course.

“To get one tenth here is so difficult,” Cal Crutchlow said after qualifying at Jerez. The timesheets bore witness in black and white to the wisdom of the LCR Honda rider’s words.

In FP3, there was less than four tenths between fourth place and thirteenth place. In FP4, there was less than half a second between second and ninth places. And in Q2, just 0.117 seconds separates second place from seventh place. The field is tight because the track is tight. And twisty.

Whether that makes for a close and exciting race is yet to be seen, however.

There hasn’t really been a close race for victory since 2010, when Jorge Lorenzo was so elated after beating Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi in a tight battle that he jumped into the artificial pond used to store water for firefighting, and nearly drowned when his leathers became waterlogged.

Times are often very tight at Jerez, but if you lose a tenth to the rider in front of you, it becomes almost impossible to get it back.

So qualifying well is crucial. And qualifying well is a question of strategy.

Choosing the right time to go out, choosing the right front tire to manage the stresses of a qualifying lap, choosing the right number of stops, getting a perfect lap in when the tire is at its best, all of this has to come together just right if you are to have any hope of a front row start.

That different riders were employing different strategies was evident from the start of Q2.

On paper, things are close at Jerez. At the end of the first day, the top eight riders are all within half a second of each other. The first fourteen are within a second.

You would normally see the kind of tightly bunched times on a Moto2 result sheet, not MotoGP, as former Moto3 and Moto2 crew chief, and now Eurosport commentator Peter Bom put it. It has all the makings of a very tight race.

Or it does if you judge it only by the headline times. Dig a little deeper and a different picture appears.

Scrap the riders who put in a new soft tire and chased a fast lap, and focus only on race pace on used tires, and it Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez looks like being fought out between the Hondas Repsol and LCR, Ecstar Suzuki rider Andrea Iannone, and just maybe, Johann Zarco on the Monster Tech3 Yamaha.

Sure, a bunch of people did some 1’38s and low 1’39s, but Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, and Cal Crutchlow were banging out that kind of pace consistently, on tires which have more than half race distance on them.

Is it going to be a Honda whitewash? “It is still too early to say,” Cal Crutchlow told reporters, trying to dampen expectations after finishing the day as fastest.

“A lot of the other bikes take one day and overnight they are there. If they are sliding a lot then they try to fix it for day two. If we’re sliding then that’s our natural bike and we don’t make the same improvement overnight. I don’t think we’ll suddenly have another second but other people might find another half a second.”