It looks like we have been wrong all along. As usual. All this time, we thought it was the engine which was the problem for Honda. This would be a major issue, as engine designs are sealed and fixed for an entire season in MotoGP, at least for factories which have gathered sufficient podium credits to qualify as competitive under the rules. With nine wins last year, and a MotoGP title, Honda definitely does that.
Maybe the problem isn't the engine after all, however. Honda riders are starting to express the apparently unpopular opinion inside HRC that maybe the solution isn't to rejig the engine again by playing around with firing orders, crankshaft counterweights, and other internal moving parts now set in aspic until the season ends at Valencia. Perhaps, they suggest, Honda could take a look at its chassis, and try finding solutions there.
Cal Crutchlow was the most vociferous, though that is an extremely relative term when speaking of rider statements about the Japanese manufacturer they ride for. "I think we need to start working with the chassis a bit more," Crutchlow told us after another hard day at a very physical track. "That's not a comment against my manufacturer, against my team, it's just a comment that we've looked at the engine for the last two years, and I believe that a lot will come from the chassis. Sure, some electronics, but I think it's chassis. I've ridden other bikes, so I know what the chassis is doing. And I believe that's where we could improve a lot. Because the engine is sealed, that's done, it's done and dusted."
More speak out
He wasn't the only one, however. Dani Pedrosa was more circumspect, as you might expect from a rider in the direct employ of HRC. But the Repsol Honda rider's comments were pretty much the same. The chassis was definitely something that needed to be looked at, he said. "It's one of the things, for sure. We are working in many different areas. We want to do the right step forward. Obviously, the engine we can't change or modify, so we need to see which areas we can improve. We are working, and getting the best information to see what's the best move, in the chassis or in the electronics."
The difficulty the Honda riders face in persuading HRC to listen to them is that there were three of them in the top seven at the end of Friday. The Honda RC213V does one thing exceptionally well, which is brake very late and drag the brakes deep into the corner, stopping and turning in better than probably any other rider on the grid. At a track like the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, with four or five spots where hard braking is decisive, that can turn into a big advantage.
That advantage comes at a cost, however. "There's no explanation for it," Crutchlow answered when he was asked why there were so many Hondas at or near the top of the timesheets. "I think we're still by far the hardest bike to ride on the grid. As I've said in many interviews lately, I think Honda have the most versatile riders and the ones who are riding the hardest." Crutchlow was at pains to add that he did not mean that the riders on other bikes were less talented, or not trying as hard, but merely that the Honda was forcing its riders to dig very deep if they wanted to be competitive.
The strain of relying on the RC213V's front end also places a burden on the front tire. The Honda riders invariably complain about the Michelin front, that it doesn't offer enough support and tends to overheat quickly. Asked if he would have liked to have the stiffer construction front Michelin in Austin, Crutchlow was phlegmatic. "It is what it is. I don't think it's a Michelin problem. I've been saying for a long time, these tires seems to work a lot with the other bikes, but not with ours. So I don't think it's a Michelin problem. They're working hard, they're doing a good job I feel. But I believe we will be a lot faster with something we could work with, or not have as much risk."
There is some merit to the argument that the problem is not with the engine. Firstly, as Crutchlow points out, Honda have made two significant changes to their engine in the past two years. First, they reversed the direction of the crankshaft so it spins backwards instead of forwards, and added mass to the crankshaft to make the engine respond less aggressively to the throttle. This year, they modified the firing interval, turning a classic screamer into a big bang engine, and taking two different approaches to do so.
Meanwhile, the chassis has remained largely unchanged. The frame has received only minor updates, and various peripheral parts have been tweaked. Marc Márquez is racing with basically the same frame he used in 2014, after abandoning an update halfway through his torrid 2015 season. The other Honda riders have slightly more modern frames, but even those have not seen any major revisions for at least a season.
This seems odd. When you change an engine as radically as turning it from a screamer into a big bang, you radically alter its character. Understandably, an engine with a different character needs a different chassis to get the most out of it. It's all very well changing the way the engine behaves, but a motorcycle is a holistic entity. It is like a sliding puzzle: move a single piece, and you achieve nothing. The puzzle pieces all have to be shifted through a specific sequence before it even starts to make sense.
So changing the engine character should have been accompanied by a thorough review of the chassis dynamics. How does the new engine affect the swing arm? How do the forces applied to the frame change? Are the swing arm pivot and the headstock still in the ideal place? Does the bike need new suspension linkages, new triple clamps? How does it affect the suspension?
Has HRC conducted such a review? It seems vanishingly unlikely they should have neglected such a step. And yet there is precious little evidence of radical new thinking in terms of the chassis. Or perhaps there is, but it is indistinguishable visibly from the old thinking.
The goose which lays the golden eggs
There is one very powerful reason why Honda may have neglected such a review. That reason is the man who has won three world championships in the past four seasons. Márquez has come to rely almost entirely on his ability to make up ground on corner entry, braking late and trailing the brakes all the way to the apex. The reigning world champion has the rear stepped out not just in a straight line, but also when the bike is leaned way over, almost on its ear.
That places yet more load on the front tire, pushing the limits of tire durability and grip. Márquez is forced to surf a wave of risk all the way into the corner, because of a lack of rear grip and acceleration. Márquez acknowledged on Friday that the chassis needs study, but he also voiced a fear of the costs changing the chassis may bring with it. "It’s true that in the chassis area still we need to work," Márquez said. "But in the corners still we are really fast. We have problems with the front confidence and we have problems with the front tire but we are the fastest ones in the entry of the corner."
We've been here before
It is rather reminiscent of an anecdote related to me by Dennis Noyes. When Kevin Schwantz was at Suzuki between 1988 and 1995, he was always far more competitive than his teammate. The problem, it turned out, was that Schwantz only wanted the bike to do one thing: brake better, later, and deeper than any other bike. Other areas got neglected, the bike not accelerating like it should and being underpowered. But Schwantz didn't care: as long as he could outbrake his rivals, he could manage the rest.
That seems to be where the Honda RC213V is at at the moment. The bike is excellent on the brakes and superb at corner entry. Perhaps a little too good: the rest of the bike's performance has been sacrificed to serve this one area. Improvement is possible, but like all of vehicle dynamics, it requires compromise. If the Honda is to get more drive out of corners, and be more stable over bumps and in a straight line, engineers will have to give up some its quicksilver handling and mercurial corner entry.
The actual engineering involved is not easy, but it's not exactly rocket science either. It is a small matter of engineering, of poring over models, running countless finite element analysis chassis simulations, then having test riders grind out the miles on the bike. It won't be done in a week, or even a month, but there is no reason for it to take two or three more years.
Who moved his Manchego?
The hard part is getting Marc Márquez to accept the changes, of course. The thing is, Márquez is still winning on the bike. He is, after all, the reigning world champion, and came into the 2017 season as favorite for the title. He knows he can win with what he has, so why give up on that if the changes being made offer only uncertain benefits? Though Márquez has much to gain, he also has an awful lot to lose if things go wrong.
This, after all, is why HRC value Cal Crutchlow so highly. Not because he is on the brink of becoming a MotoGP Alien, but because he is an "ordinary" rider of exceptional talent, a rider of more or less average height and average weight, capable of scoring outstanding results when things work out right. He is not a freakish talent who can ride around almost any problem imaginable and balance one-fingered on a razor's edge without falling off too often. Nor is he a freakish talent of diminutive stature and weighing less than the handgrips on the bike. Crutchlow is human, and HRC need to start building bikes for humans again.
Yet change may be in the air at HRC. Márquez was reportedly furious after FP1, after having followed Johann Zarco around. Asked if he was surprised at how fast Maverick Viñales had been on the Movistar Yamaha, Márquez was curt. "No. I followed Zarco, and I understood everything. They have more or less the same bike. They have really strong points, and we have to try hard to attack on other points. Because there, on those points we are really far behind."
Despite that, Márquez ended the first day of practice in Austin as fastest. His best time came with a caveat, however. Márquez set his time on a new soft rear tire. Maverick Viñales, third quickest and four tenths slower than Márquez, put his best time in on a medium rear tire which had already seen its fair share of laps. Márquez may have been quicker than Viñales, but it is fair to say that Viñales was not even trying.
Absorbing the bumps
All this talk of three Hondas in the top seven overlooks the fact that all four Yamahas were in the top eight. Yamahas filled slots two, three, and four at the end of FP2, with Johann Zarco just beating out Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi. Jonas Folger brought up the rear in eighth, just under a second behind Márquez and a quarter of a second behind Valentino Rossi.
Why were the Yamahas so strong? "Yamaha over the bumps is really good, really stable," Márquez explained. "And on acceleration, it looks like they improve every year more and more."
The bumps were a big bone of contention on Friday at COTA. "The track is a lot worse compared to last year, a lot of bumps, and this I don’t expect," Valentino Rossi said, voicing a sentiment commonly heard. "It will be a problem for the future because already the track is difficult and on the bumps more difficult." The bumps were probably caused by the F1 car race at the track, rather than anything else. The bumps were tightly spaced, rather than being big deep holes like they had been in Argentina.
The bumps were a topic the riders intended to bring up in the Safety Commission. With the circuit's contract up for renewal, Dorna is likely to push for the track to be resurfaced as a condition. However, as the track is badly strapped for cash, finding the money to do that may be rather difficult. Dorna regard a race in the US as vital for the future of the sport in America. Yet finding a track which is financially viable to host it remains a very difficult matter.
Any other business
There were other items worthy of note on Friday. Firstly, Valentino Rossi appears to have come to grips with the front end issues which had plagued his season so far. The radical change to weight distribution tried in Argentina was still working, making him hopeful of being competitive from the start.
There was also another aerodynamic novelty on display in Austin. KTM rolled out its new aerodynamic fairing, a nose with winglets that didn't look as if they would be legal. But I checked with Danny Aldridge, and he explained that KTM were operating very narrowly within the letter of the regulations. The winglets were swept back toward the rear of the bike, and not the front. They did no protrude beyond the width of the handlebars. And the shape is such that the winglet part is quite thick, and returns back in a curve to the fairing, making them far more integrated as part of the fairing, rather than stuck on to the fairing like the winglets were last year.
KTM estrenando nuevo carenado para su MotoGP. pic.twitter.com/nDvVGRZVk0
— Borja González (@BorjaGonzalezG) April 21, 2017
The response from the riders was positive. "Here the back straight is turning, up and down and bumpy. The bike was shaking quite a lot. But with this fairing it felt more stable and we can put a little bit more power," Pol Espargaro confirmed. Bradley Smith agreed. "For me it was a step in the right direction. It was designed for less wheelie and we definitely wheelied less and that's a positive because we don't lose as much in the acceleration."
After being written off by all and sundry after the first two races, Jorge Lorenzo felt more comfortable and more confident on Friday in Austin. The change to the seating position had helped, sliding him forward and putting more weight on the front of the bike. "The position is still not good, but the feeling is much better," Lorenzo said. "The position on the bike, the way I enter the corners is better, even if here the bumps get bigger compared to last year, and the absorption of the bumps is not perfect, we still need to work on that, because the bike over the bumps becomes very unstable, and we struggle a little bit there. But in general, a better feeling, I can do more laps in a good pace, and we are not so far from third, fourth, or fifth position."
Austin is a very tough track for Ducati. The bike is quick enough, but it is even more physically demanding than anywhere else. Andrea Dovizioso was rather downbeat when he spoke to reporters. The bumps are causing the riders to suffer, and struggle to cope with the bike. Though he could push for a single fast lap, actually maintaining that pace could well prove to be exceptionally tricky.
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