There's a race on Sunday, but all the talk is of 2016. Why the seemingly absurd preoccupation with a date that is so ridiculously distant in the future? Because from 2016, MotoGP will have a new tire supplier, after Bridgestone announced they will be pulling out of MotoGP at the end of 2015. Why does this matter? Because tires are the single most important component of a motorcycle, and determine the performance of a machine to a massive extent. No matter how much power your engine produces, if you can't get it to the ground, it becomes irrelevant. No matter how powerful your brakes, if the front tire collapses when you squeeze the front lever, you won't be doing much slowing down. Even if you can brake and accelerate as much as you like, if the bike wanders around like drunken poodle on a skateboard when you tip it into the corner, your laptimes won't be up to much.
It is hard to overstate just exactly how important tires are to motorcycle performance. Why is Aleix Espargaro so consistently fast during qualifying, on a bike that is two years old and with an engine under strict control by Yamaha? Because the Open class entries have a softer rear tire available, and that tire itself is worth half a second or more. That is not to belittle the elder Espargaro's performance, as clearly, he is riding exceptionally well, but the softer rear tire makes a big, big difference.
Another example: during the press conference today, Marc Marquez was asked by Thomas Baujard of the excellent French magazine Moto Journal about how he manages to enter the corners on the front wheel, and tip his Repsol Honda into the turn while the rear wheel is still in the air. It looks spectacular, and seems to defy the laws of physics. Yet Marquez manages it, and manages it consistently.
How does he do it? Controlling the stoppie is the easy part, Marquez said. 'But when the rear wheel comes back down, the movement of the bike is so aggressive. So you need to adapt the riding style and the set up of the bike to be a little bit smoother at that point.' The real key, however, was having faith in the front tire. 'Of course, you also need to have good confidence in the front tire and with the front part of the bike,' Marquez emphasized. 'In Moto2, it was impossible to do. But even when I tried the MotoGP bike for the first time, I felt that you can push a lot with this front tire. With the [Moto2] Dunlop, it was the opposite. You cannot push with the brakes. You have to keep speed in the middle of the corner. With Bridgestone it's the opposite: you need to push on entry to the corner, but it is more difficult to keep the speed in the middle of the corner.'
So when the riders get their first taste of the tires made by the manufacturer that will replace Bridgestone, they will be in for a bit of a shock. The factories, too, will have their work cut out, and will have to redesign their bike around the new tires. Shuhei Nakamoto told me that adapting to a new tire would be 'very, very difficult.' The HRC boss harked back to 2012, and the new front which Bridgestone brought early in the year. 'For 2012, Bridgestone changed the front tire construction. We made a new machine [to handle the new tire],' Nakamoto said. 'We will have to do so trial and error to understand the new tire.' How long would it take to build a bike capable of coping with tires from a new manufacturer? 'Minimum of six months,' Nakamoto told me. The HRC boss was resigned to the change, however. 'This is normal,' he said, 'when you change the tire, you spend the money.' This was not something for which the factories could turn to Dorna for help with, however. 'Bridgestone decided [to leave MotoGP], so we can do nothing.'
Just how quickly will we hear who the new supplier is? Race Director Mike Webb believed it would be around the middle of the season. The tender process starts today, 1st May, and concludes on the 22nd. It will then take a few weeks to evaluate the various bids, before a winner is selected. Bids would be evaluated based on commercial and technical aspects. Despite the fact that the three main candidates – Dunlop, Pirelli and Michelin – all have recent experience at the highest levels of racing, matching the performance of the Bridgestones would be difficult. That, however, was not a particular concern, although Webb was keen to emphasize that safety would be paramount. If the riders lapped slower on the new tires than on the Bridgestones, so be it. 'I don't care what lap time they do,' Webb said, 'As long as they are racing.'
In fact, reducing performance could have a positive effect on some of the traditional venues for racing like Jerez. At Turn 1, Webb explained, they were having to put up a lot of air fence, because the bikes were arriving at the corner far faster than in the past. Reduced tire performance would slow the bikes up, make them brake earlier, and reduce corner speed, all aspects which reduce the distance the bikes travel when something goes wrong. That would mean that tracks would not have to look at pushing back walls even further: Turn 1 at Jerez sits underneath a hill, and moving it would mean moving a lot of earth. Turn 1 at the Sachsenring is even worse, trying to move the run off back further there would mean encroaching on the section between Turns 10 and 11, making it almost impossible to move the barrier back much further.
The irony of Bridgestone leaving was that for the first time, the riders were unanimous in their praise for the tires supplied by the Japanese firm. The company has faced much criticism over the years for the performance of the tires. But they had improved vastly, especially in the past few years, everyone was keen to emphasize. Jorge Lorenzo singled out the changes made to improve warm up performance, an aspect which had caused major problems for a number of riders over the years. Lorenzo had been caught out and thrown from the bike a few times, Valentino Rossi broke his leg at Mugello in 2010 after backing off by just a fraction to allow Hector Barbera to get past, and Hiroshi Aoyama badly damaged his back in 2010 in a cold tire highside, and has never really regained the form which won him the final 250cc championship in 2009.
All praised the performance of the front tire, especially. 'I think the Bridgestone tires, especially the front one, has enormous performance. From my switch from Michelin to Bridgestone I just felt from the beginning that the front tire was unbelievable,' Lorenzo said. Teammate Valentino Rossi concurred. 'The last time I used a MotoGP bike without Bridgestone tires was in 2007 and when I switched and I tried the Bridgestones it was a huge step. A big difference,' Rossi said.
Having a new tire supplier would transform MotoGP. 'Our sport will change very much in 2016,' Rossi said. 'It looks like less electronics on the bike and if you change the tires it means that the bike has to change a lot, especially the riding style. I think the quality of the Bridgestones is very, very high and I don't know if another supplier can arrive at the same level.'
For Dani Pedrosa, there was only concern. 'The first thing you have to ask for is safety,' Pedrosa said earnestly. He then added impishly, 'but obviously, then we will complain about the performance!' Most of all, the riders' wishes had to be paramount. 'I hope the new company will listen to the riders,' Lorenzo said.
So why is Bridgestone leaving? 'We have achieved the objectives we set out when we entered MotoGP,' Bridgestone's Global Motorsports Manager Kyota Futami told a press conference convened in the tire firm's hospitality unit. They had set out to learn in four different areas: tire technology and research and development; brand enhancement; business relationships; and employee development and pride. They had reached the goals they had set themselves in all those areas, and it was time to move on. They had learned a massive amount, much of which was directly applicable to road tires. The most significant areas where they had benefited were in terms of durability, and in tire warm up from cold. Being able to build tires which were easy for everyone to ride had been another lesson from MotoGP.
Why pull out now? Futami would not be drawn, reiterating only that Bridgestone had achieved their goals. The decision was not related to requests from Dorna, or other demands being placed upon them, nor had the criticism they had faced over the years played a role. Criticism was normal, Futami said, riders never satisfied with what they have and demanding more. Pushed to answer whether their investment had been worth it, and whether they had gotten the return on investment they had hoped for, Futami remained vague. It was impossible to measure, he said, but they believed their money had been well spent. Would withdrawing make a difference? 'Their might be an impact, but not so big,' Futami said. Hiroshi Yamada, added that in the year after they left Formula One, Bridgestone had their best year in terms of sales and profit. It would appear that the link between involvement at the highest level of racing and actual sales to consumers is extremely hard to pin down. This something which I have run into previously: all my attempts to extract information from factories on exactly what the financial return is from racing have met with failure. Factories have been neither been willing nor able to quantify the return on their investment. Factories go racing because factories want to go racing.
There is, of course, the small matter of a race on Sunday. This is the only track where Marc Marquez has never won at, in any class. But that does not mean he cannot win at Jerez. How will his rivals attempt to counter the dominance of Marquez at Jerez? 'We have to finish ahead of him,' Pedrosa answered drily. This is a track at which Pedrosa has always performed well, never having finished off the podium since he entered the premier class, and where he has won two races, including the edition last year. But it is also a track where Lorenzo has won, and where Valentino Rossi used to dominate. With Rossi gaining confidence in the Yamaha M1 and improving his riding, this is the first real test of his competitiveness. Early season form has been promising, but question marks remain. Jerez, and then Mugello in four weeks' time, are circuits where Rossi will want to show his form. The Spanish Grand Prix promises to be a much closer run affair than the last two races.