After four weeks, MotoGP is back. That four-week break is a big deal. A much bigger deal than you might expect. Having a big break in the middle of the summer made the season much more manageable. "The problem is the pressure we have," Aleix Espargaro explained. "MotoGP looks like it's a lot of fun on the TV, and it is very fun, but we have a lot of responsibility, a lot of pressure, so to be able to disconnect and do nothing, it's always good."
That comment came in response to a question about the addition of the KymiRing in Finland to the calendar in 2019, which will expand the schedule to 20 races, after the inclusion of the Chang circuit in Thailand next year. The general feeling among riders was that 20 races was manageable, though with the caveat that Dorna ensure there is a large summer break.
Aleix Espargaro again: "For me the most important thing is to have a good break in the summer, like one month, because then you can disconnect. Really, I don't care if we do four races in a row, I don't care. I would like to do it if possible, four races in a row or three times three races in a row, but it's important in the middle to have a break, to just reset your mind, charge batteries. Because when you race a lot of consecutive races, it's very very hard for the body, for the head, for everything. But if we still have the summer break, one race more is no big problem."
The plan, as I understand it, is to cut testing to a minimum, with two, or perhaps even just a single winter test in late January/early February. The timing of the Qatar race would be changed, so the race would be at 7pm rather than 9pm, with Moto3 and Moto2 running during daylight. That will allow Qatar to be scheduled for a much earlier start, perhaps the first week of March, or even the last week of February. The season could then be broken up into two parts of ten races each, with a month break in the middle. Where Finland fits in with that is uncertain, but it seems clear that a change is coming.
Riders rest, race departments toil
The long summer break means the riders return feeling more refreshed than they have in recent years. Everyone has had time to rest, spend some time away from motorcycles before returning to training. Although, not quite everyone. At the factory race departments, the engineers have been hard at work designing new parts ahead of the second half of the season. Aprilia have a new engine, new chassis, new swingarm, Ducati have a new fairing, Honda have a new chassis, and KTM have a couple of truck loads of new parts. All the parts have been tested, sometimes by the factory riders, sometimes by the test teams, and the best kept for use starting this weekend. Some in the race, some at the test on Monday. But first, there is the small matter of a race weekend.
And what a place for the action to resume. The Brno circuit is a spectacular affair, set amid the Czech forests on a hill overlooking the city of Brno (or it would overlook Brno, if you could see through the trees). It is wide, fast, and flowing, and one of the best pure motorcycle racing circuits in the world.
The reason the racing is so good at the circuit is because of the layout. The track consists of a series of linked corners, right-left and left-right combinations which run into each other. Combination corners and a wide track means that anyone making a pass immediately leaves themselves open to retaliation. A pass is never done with until you have managed to put daylight between you and your adversary. And that is easier said than done.
The track has a little bit of everything. A fast back straight, uphill corners, downhill corners, and the dreaded Horsepower Hill, the section up from Turn 10, through Turns 11 and 12, before finally cresting the hill before the final chicane, and the last chance to attack before the line. There is the wide, fast Turn 1, a kink at Turn 2, hard braking for Turn 3, the tricky and multi-line stadium section from Turn 5 through to Turn 9, then the drop to the bottom of the hill before the climb back to the finish line.
Variety is the spice of life
That layout also explains why so many different bikes have won at the track. Though the last Ducati win is a while ago, when Casey Stoner won in 2007, the bike was on the podium again in 2010. Andrea Iannone finished fourth in 2015, and the Avintias of Hector Barbera and Loris Baz finished fourth and fifth last year, taking advantage of the weather.
In recent years, Honda and Yamaha have taken top honors. Valentino Rossi won it in 2008 and 2009, his then Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo taking victory in 2010. Honda then won four years in a row, with Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa, and Marc Márquez sharing the spoils. In 2015, it was Lorenzo's turn on the Yamaha again. And last year, Cal Crutchlow rode the LCR Honda to victory becoming the first British rider to win a premier class Grand Prix for 35 years. Picking a winner just based on manufacturer seems like a fool's errand.
That said, it would be fair to view Honda as the favorites this year. The events of this season suggest that the team having tested at a track is the team most likely to win. It happened with Ducati at Barcelona. It happened with Yamaha at Le Mans. Could it happen in Brno for Honda? The bike is competitive, Marc Márquez leads the championship, and Dani Pedrosa has won here twice in the past five years. He also has four more podiums, including finishing just 0.313 behind his teammate Marc Márquez in 2013. And then there was Cal Crutchlow's masterful win last year, judging the difficult conditions perfectly and choosing the right tire on a track that dried much more slowly than expected.
Making strengths stronger
The Hondas also have a new chassis at Brno, a version which they tested here in early July. It is an improvement, but the problem is the improvement comes on corner entry, making the bike easier to brake and turn in. The bike is already incredibly strong there, and the biggest weakness of the bike – no grip on corner exit – is still to be addressed. It is remarkable that HRC seem to be able to improve their strengths, while never fixing their weaknesses. But at a track where corner entry can be crucial, a Honda may yet win here.
If the changes to the Honda will be invisible – chassis changes are at best very difficult to spot, modifications consisting mainly of altered stiffness in certain parts of the frame – the big change coming to Ducati should be very easy to spot. At Misano, Danilo Petrucci tested a new aerodynamic fairing which was a big improvement. The fairing has more downforce, Petrucci told us, and unlike the previous 'hammerhead' fairing, very few downsides. Top speed seemed good, though it was hard to tell at Misano.
Petrucci was very positive about the fairing. We decide to try to homologate this new fairing for the rest of the season, but we can choose between the old and the new," he told us on Thursday. "It's an important thing for us because last year we were for sure two steps ahead in aerodynamics and when they decide to keep out the wings we were quite in trouble. Because we had a lot of study about the aerodynamics of the bike and the downforce of the front end of the bike. So without the wings we have to rebalance all the bike and it was quite difficult work. But at the end with this fairing I think we can make another step ahead, compared to the other manufacturers."
Petrucci's positivity was sufficient to persuade Jorge Lorenzo to homologate the new fairing as well, as one of the two fairings he is allowed to use this year. The benefit he was seeking? "Especially front contact, no?" he said. Lorenzo has struggled with a lack of stability at the front of the Ducati ever since losing the wings. "At the Valencia test we made the test with wings and I felt - different than with the Yamaha- but I feel quite great. I finished third on the first day and eighth on the second day. I like a lot the stability on the front, the front contact. Without the wings we had some difficulties in the Phillip Island test and probably in first nine races, so hopefully this - I don't know if it will arrive at the same level as the wings - but will probably can get close to this front contact and for riders like me that need this safety on the front it can be very useful."
No more valve bounce?
There were significant upgrades at Aprilia as well, though neither Aleix Espargaro nor Sam Lowes had tested them. That work had been assigned to the test team, who had a new, modified engine to try. Actually, two new engines: one with a fix for the reliability issues with the pneumatic valves which has plagued the Italian factory all year, and another with a power boost at the bottom of the rev range.
That second change – which will only be available at Austria, most probably – was aimed at making the bike easier to handle under acceleration. The RS-GP is pretty good on top speed, and not bad when accelerating with plenty of revs, such as out of the fast corners at Phillip Island, but getting on the gas from slow speed corners was a problem. The bike felt a bit like a two-stroke, Sam Lowes explained, with power coming in suddenly and making the bike difficult to control. If the new engine addresses that problem, the Aprilia RS-GP could well be a much more competitive machine.
There were more parts expected, but still more work to do. A new chassis was coming, as well as a very different swingarm, of which much was hoped. The bike was still too heavy, Aleix Espargaro complained, but that was the last thing that needed to be addressed. It was also much easier to fix than the power delivery, and fixes should start to come in the second half of the season.
Summer sun changes the mood
Significantly, a lot of the new parts were also being made available to Sam Lowes. He will now have at least one bike which will be identical to the two Aleix Espargaro has. That is positive for him, Lowes said, as it gave him a much-needed confidence boost. But above all, it was an expression of confidence in Lowes by Aprilia, and a sign that his contract at the factory for next year is looking safe. There was no official comment on the situation, but factory sources indicated that before the summer break, they had been talking to other riders. After the summer break, they had stopped talking to other riders.
The summer break had clearly given other factories and teams a chance to think. Sam Lowes' contract situation was not the only one to change over the summer. We came to Brno expecting to hear Jack Miller announce that he would be signing with Pramac Ducati for next year. But on Thursday, Miller told the press that nothing had been signed.
That appears to be puzzling, as his only other realistic option is to stay with the Marc VDS Honda team. He is very happy inside the team, and is a good fit there, but his situation there is complicated by the fact that he is there on an HRC contract. Part of that contract means that HRC supply key members of his team – crew chief Ramon Aurin, a gearbox specialist, and two data technicians – but with his contract ending after this season, it is uncertain whether he will be able to keep his crew together.
HRC team principal Livio Suppo told a group of journalists that no decision had been made about that yet. It is possible Miller gets to keep his crew, though Marc VDS would have to pick up the tab for their salaries, rather than Honda. But Honda may decide to deploy them elsewhere, leaving Marc VDS having to find a replacement. The trust between a rider and his crew chief and engineers is becoming ever more important in MotoGP, and Miller is very happy with the people he has around him. If he is unable to keep working with them, then a decision might be forced on him.
Upgrades, downgrades, or a sideways step?
That situation should be clarified in the next couple of races. The deadline for satellite teams to finalize their arrangements with the factories is fast approaching, as race departments need a long lead time to produce parts in sufficient quantities to supply satellite teams. Another factor in the Marc VDS decision for Miller is the level of machinery available. Livio Suppo told us that Honda were examining a situation more like Yamaha, where the factory bikes are wheeled into the garages of the satellite teams at the Valencia test. That would leave Miller – and Franco Morbidelli, and Taka Nakagami, if LCR Honda expand to a two-bike team – riding 2017-spec Honda RC213Vs.
The question is what happens to Jack Miller and Marc VDS if they decide not to renew the contract with Honda. There have been persistent rumors that Marc VDS are talking to Suzuki about supplying satellite bikes. Suzuki are keen to gather more data – a sign, perhaps, that they don't entirely trust the feedback coming from Andrea Iannone – and supplying a satellite team is the quickest way to fix that. The question is whether Suzuki have the resources to build enough bikes to supply a satellite team, especially a two-rider team. We should now very soon.
But first, there is the small matter of a motorcycle racing Grand Prix at Brno. The heat so far has been sweltering, which in this part of the world usually presages rain. A few days ago, it looked like we would have a dry but very hot weekend at the Masarykring circuit. But with every passing hour, the forecast grows worse. It may well be a little cooler this weekend, but it could also end up very wet. Given that the same thing seems to happen at every MotoGP event this year, though, are we really surprised?
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