The hour of truth is at hand. On Monday morning, MotoGP fans will get their very first look at how the 2016 season is really going to look like. We got a glimpse at Valencia, but it was not a uniform picture. Though the 2016 electronics and Michelin tires made their debut at the two-day test after the final race of 2015, there were still too many variables. Everyone was on the Michelins, but some riders were on the spec electronics, others were on the old proprietary software they had been using for the 2015 season, and the factory teams were using a mixture of both.
It was also the first time the teams had to focus solely on the new tires and electronics, without the pressure of an ongoing championship. Though for both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, the intensity of the season finale had left them drained, making it difficult to generate the necessary enthusiasm for testing. There was a lot of work to do, for everyone concerned, and nobody did anything but scratch the surface.
Since Valencia, there have been a couple more tests. At Jerez in November, Ducati, Honda and Aprilia continued the work they had left off at Valencia. At Sepang, Maverick Viñales took Suzuki's new seamless gearbox out for the first time, Aleix Espargaro forced to miss the test through injury. Michele Pirro for Ducati and Mike Di Meglio for Aprilia have continued their solid work as test riders, testing new parts, working on the spec electronics, getting data from the Michelin tires.
At Sepang, things get serious. The engineers have had a winter to go over the data from Valencia and their test teams, and to try to figure out the direction they need to move in. The riders have had two months away from the Bridgestones, and time to focus on the feeling they had from the Michelins. Everyone (or rather, nearly everyone: Jack Miller is absent through injury, and the IODA team still haven't made an official announcement they will be going to World Superbikes yet) will be at Sepang, and everyone on the same tires and electronics. With a level playing field, at last we get to see where everyone stands.
But before we get to the factories and the riders, a quick recap on where we are with the tires and electronics.
Rubber and sparks
Michelin have been working hard over the winter, preparing new tires for the upcoming season. The main focus was on the front tire, which had caused so many riders problems at Valencia and throughout 2015. The balance of the French tires is the complete opposite of the Bridgestones. Where the Bridgestone front bonded to the asphalt like epoxy, and the rear spun too much without producing drive, it is the Michelin rear which hooks up effortlessly, while the front tire shines only in treachery and a lack of feedback.
A lot of the problems caused by the Michelin front were down to the bikes still being set up too much for the Bridgestones. Too much weight on the rear and not on the front meant that the grip at the rear was overwhelming the front tire. But the Michelins had inherent problems too. The tires lacked feedback, and Michelin had not got the choice of compounds right for the cold conditions at Valencia. New tires tested by Pirro and Di Meglio in December went some way to curing the problem of the Michelins, and the data gathered at Valencia and Jerez have helped to improve compound choice. The new front uses a different construction than the tires tested at Valencia, and the feedback from test riders has been overwhelmingly positive.
As for the electronics, there will be updates at Sepang, but the functionality will not be hugely different to Valencia. The specifications for the software to be used at Sepang were agreed prior to Valencia, and so the data and suggestions from that test will feed back into the software until the next scheduled release after this one. That will come some time after the first race.
That doesn't mean there won't be a massive improvement in the performance of the software. The factories have had two months to play with the unified software, run simulations and get a better understanding of how to optimize the various settings. The glitches the factories and teams suffered at Valencia and Jerez should now be mostly ironed out, and the throttle response should be much better for the riders. It won't be perfect – there is still a very long way to go before we get to that point – but it will be considerably better than at the first couple of tests.
At first glance, the factory with the most to do would be Yamaha. While Honda, Ducati, Suzuki and Aprilia have all already had extra days of private testing, neither the Movistar Yamaha nor the Monster Tech Yamaha teams have seen any track action since Valencia. Yamaha test riders have spent some time working on electronics, with Colin Edwards being drafted in to help out once again. But the men actually contesting MotoGP have not spent any time on the bike since Valencia.
Is this a disadvantage? Under normal circumstances, yes. Added to the fact that Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo spent all their time and energy in 2015 battling for the title, Yamaha spent little time working on their 2016 bike. Yet Yamaha are likely to get away with that: the 2015 Yamaha YZR-M1 was arguably the best racing motorcycle ever built, its only weakness a lack of top speed. It did almost everything as well as any of its on-track rivals, and many things much better. Even if Yamaha did nothing, at best, their rivals would merely catch up. With two more liters of fuel, and already excellent power delivery, they should not be hampered too badly by the switch to spec electronics.
The main focus for Yamaha will be on getting the weight distribution right for the Michelin tires. At the launch in Barcelona, Yamaha's MotoGP project leader Kouichi Tsuji said they would be bringing two bikes to the Sepang test, one with the fuel tank towards the rear, as they had experimented with at Brno and Valencia, and one based on the existing design, with the fuel tank filler at the front. The aim for the Sepang test is to decide which weight bias is the right development direction to follow, so that the engineers can focus on that for the 2016 season. That will also involve a major program of testing new parts, meaning Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo will be kept very busy indeed at Sepang.
Apart from the parts testing, the riders will be concentrating on getting back up to speed. The Valencia test was a bit of washout for Rossi and Lorenzo, both still suffering from the hangover of Valencia (one good, one bad). Sepang offers their first chance to commit their full attention to testing. Both men are out for vindication in 2016, and will arrive at Sepang fully focused on preparing for the coming season.
Monster Tech 3 Yamaha
At the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team, Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith have their work cut out. Like the factory Yamahas, the Tech 3 boys missed out on testing, and Sepang is their first chance to ride since Valencia. As is customary, the Tech 3 team receive the bikes ridden by the Movistar Yamaha team last season, though in this case, with a version of Yamaha's seamless gearbox which is a generation behind the factory bikes.
For them, too, the main focus is electronics and Michelins, though their work is harder than the factory teams. Setting the electronics up perfectly is easier for factory teams, who have plenty of data engineers to throw at analyzing the problem. At Tech 3, they have one data technician shared between two riders, rather than two data techs to each rider, meaning that the factory data techs can do four times as much as at Tech 3. This is the fate of all satellite teams, and why they are always at a disadvantage, no matter what the technical regulations. The factory teams can simply afford to throw more people at a problem, and try to solve it that way.
As for the Michelins, both Smith and Espargaro are confident they will suit the new tires. Pol Espargaro spent all of 2015 wishing he was on French rubber, suffering inordinately from a lack of rear grip from the Bridgestones. He has pinned his hopes on the added grip of the rear Michelin, but must also get to understand the front Michelin, and avoid crashing. Bradley Smith was one of only a very few riders who did not crash at the Valencia test, concentrating on building up slowly and working methodically forward. That approach was rewarded with sixth in the championship in 2015, and so Smith will be looking to build on that for this season.
At Honda, the problems are much bigger. All of the Honda riders suffered throughout 2015 with the excessively aggressive engine of the RC213V. With a freeze on engine development, there was little they could do to fix the problem, trying solely to mitigate the worst of it through software and work on the exhaust tract. For the Sepang test, HRC have brought two engine specifications for Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez to try, an evolution of the engine tested at Valencia and Jerez last November, and an updated spec for 2016.
The evolution spec engine proved to be an improvement over the 2015 engine, but the Repsol Honda riders still branded it as too aggressive. That picture was clouded by the struggles which Honda was having getting to grips with the unified software, which was failing to tame the wild engine. Whether the updated engine is an improvement over the evolution spec will only become apparent after Márquez and Pedrosa have taken it out for a spin.
They may not learn enough at Sepang to make a decision, however. It was the low grip, long gearing and high temperatures at Sepang last year which lulled them into a false sense of security, sapping the engine of a lot of power and making it feel much more manageable. If anything, temperatures this year feel even hotter than in 2015, making judging the engine a bit of a lottery. They may learn more once they get to Phillip Island, but that will leave HRC very little time to make any changes to get the engine ready in time for Qatar, which starts just over four weeks after the Phillip Island test.
Getting the engine right is a major priority for HRC. The 2015 debacle, when they found themselves stuck with an unmanageable engine all season, was a very hard lesson to learn. A repeat of that problem will not be acceptable to Honda senior management.
The next big problem on Honda's list is the electronics, which the Honda riders have had huge problems trying to manage. They have faced issues trying to make the throttle response progressive and predictable, and both Pedrosa and Márquez have had crashes which they put down to the software. HRC has had a winter to examine the data collected at Valencia and Jerez, and to try to figure out improvements. Getting that right will go a long way towards sorting out more of Honda's engine woes.
LCR and Marc VDS Racing
The main objective for the factory Honda riders, picking an engine, leaves the riders on satellite Hondas in limbo. They have been put on hold while Pedrosa and Márquez decide on a final engine spec. So the test will see them start on older material than the Repsol Honda riders. The official line – given to me directly from an email from a Honda executive to one team – is that they are on the 2016 chassis with an evolution of the 2015 engine (though not the engine from Jerez or Valencia). Another source denied this, saying that the satellite Honda teams will be on 2015 Honda RC213Vs, presumably until HRC have their 2016 bikes ready at Qatar.
With Jack Miller still out through injury – the cast on his leg is due to come off on Tuesday – Tito Rabat will be Marc VDS Racing's sole representative at Sepang. The Spaniard is set to continue his adaptation to the MotoGP class. The rookie has an advantage over the rest of the MotoGP field, as he has no experience with the Bridgestones, and no habits he needs to unlearn, or at least, no MotoGP habits. Having no expectations of the Michelins allows him to approach them with an open mind. Much the same goes for his approach to the spec electronics.
Cal Crutchlow starts 2016 with more experience, but also plenty of determination. Like Rabat, his focus is solely on the tires and electronics, but unlike Rabat, he has the Bridgestones to get out of his head. Two months off the bike should be enough time to clear it all out ahead of the coming season.
Ducati have arguably the strongest hand coming into the 2016 season. The GP15 responded well to the Michelins when tested, and Ducati's riders were generally positive about the new electronics. That is probably down to the fact that the power delivery of the Desmosedici is already excellent, supply plenty of power throughout the rev range. The GP16 features only detail changes from last year's bikes, and the two Andreas, Dovizioso and Iannone, will have one GP16 and one GP15 for the test. The GP15 will be in full Ducati livery, while the GP16 will be running in black testing bodywork.
Ducati have already had two days' testing at Sepang, with Michele Pirro pounding out the miles, and Casey Stoner making a welcome return. The Australian was extremely positive, about both the GP15 and about the new electronics (as you can see for yourself in this Youtube video of his media debrief with reporters, put up by GPOne.com). He was also impressively fast, with multiple sources confirming his best lap of 2'02.1, very near to the pace after such a long layoff from riding. Ducati's testing planned changed, so that he was not riding on Sunday, but he will take part in the official test, most probably on Tuesday or Wednesday. We should then have a true benchmark against to measure his times.
Ducati's factory riders will be working mostly on the tires and on electronics, and preparing for Qatar. Of all of the factory riders, their times will be the most representative of their actual performance, having a stronger base from which to start. There are already stirrings in the paddock tipping Dovizioso and Iannone for a win at the season opener at Qatar.
A win would be important for Ducati, as the rumored goal of Ducati management is to tempt a top rider onto their bike. In practice, that means Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa or Maverick Viñales, Valentino Rossi already having done a stint at Ducati and unlikely to want to return. Ducati need to start winning regularly again, and the missing piece in the puzzle is between seat and handlebars, in Ducati's vision. Getting one victory would go a long way to making the bike an attractive prospect. If Iannone or Dovizioso can't get it done, then perhaps the factory will try to persuade Casey Stoner to take a shot. He is expected to ride at Phillip Island, but that is too late if Ducati want to tempt others onto the bike. It is not impossible that the Australian could make an appearance much earlier in the season, if he believes he is ready.
Pramac, Avintia, Aspar
If confidence is high at Ducati's factory team, it is positively stratospheric among the satellite teams. Scott Redding immediately loved the bike he rode at Valencia and Jerez, the bike fitting him much better than the still tiny Honda RC213V. The Pramac Ducati rider is aware that his reputation was tarnished during his year at Marc VDS, but now feels he is ready to make amends. He was the fastest man at the private test at Jerez in November, so it will be interesting if he can maintain that level of performance at Sepang. Teammate Danilo Petrucci had a strong year at Pramac last year, and now needs to make the next step. With solid factory backing behind Pramac, both riders start from an excellent position.
The Avintia and Aspar teams face a slightly tougher challenge, as they will contest the season on a Ducati GP14.2. Yet Hector Barbera and Loris Baz at Avintia, and Eugene Laverty and Yonny Hernandez at Aspar are all optimistic of doing well in 2016. The unified software is a step forward for all except Hernandez, helping to close the gap to the factories. They have no illusions of podiums, but regular top tens must surely be the goal. The difficulty is that there are so many competitive MotoGP bikes on the grid this year that even getting into the top ten can be a huge challenge. Tires and electronics will be key.
The Suzuki is one of the most intriguing prospects for 2016. At Sepang, both Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales will have three bikes at their disposal: A brand new 2016 prototype, a hybrid, halfway between the new bike and last year's one, and a 2015 bike to use as a baseline to check their impressions against. All three bikes will use the seamless gearbox, though at the moment, only featuring seamless upshifts. The fully seamless gearbox is still undergoing testing, but Suzuki hope to debut the fully seamless box at the Phillip Island test in just over two weeks' time.
Maverick Viñales has already tested a version of the bike at Sepang back in November. The Spaniard was extremely positive about the new electronics, calling them a step forward for the Japanese factory. With only a year of experience in MotoGP, his adaptation to the Michelins should also be shorter, having not had so much time to pick up bad habits with the Bridgestones. Aleix Espargaro gets his first outing on Suzuki's seamless gearbox at Sepang, and will be hoping this will go some way to curing the problems the GSX-RR had in matching the acceleration of the other bikes. More power is still needed, and from Monday, we get to see if Suzuki have brought some.
MotoGP's current backmarkers are hard at work on a completely new prototype for the 2016 season. But building a new bike from scratch is a massive undertaking, so it is hardly surprising that the bike has suffered a slight delay. It now looks like the bike won't be ready until later this month, and so Stefan Bradl and Alvaro Bautista will use a private test at Qatar to make their debut on the new Aprilia RS-GP. At Sepang, the two experienced riders will be working solely on electronics and tires using last year's machine, trying to gather as much data as possible to help in the final stages of getting the new bike finished.
Lessons to be learned?
What will we learn from the Sepang test which starts on Monday? Everything and nothing, is probably the correct answer. Having two massive changes for the 2016 season leaves the teams with a huge pile of work to get through, and only a limited amount of test time to get it all done. Each factory is at a different stage in the development, making direct comparison between manufacturers exceptionally difficult. The outcome of the Sepang test may turn out to be a very poor predictor for the 2016 season.
The test will help to make some things clear, however. The biggest thing we will learn from Sepang is just how much progress has been made with the front Michelin tire, and who is adapting to it fastest. A new construction front tire should fix most of the problems, but only the factory riders pushing it hard will reveal its true limits. The second is which factory is most adept at managing the new electronics, that being key to extracting maximum performance from their bikes.
The factories, teams, and riders all have a mountain of work ahead of them over the next three days. They will not get anywhere near as much as they hope done, but they should make a very good start. The test marks the start of one of the most intriguing championship seasons of recent years, and a worthy successor to the scintillating season of 2015. The fans are ready to start looking ahead to 2016. It's going to be a great year.
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