Mandalika MotoGP Preview: MotoGP Madness In The Heat Of The Tropics

If there is one country that deserves to have a MotoGP round, it is Indonesia. A country of over 270 million people, all of whom are absolutely mad about the sport. Anyone with a significant presence on Social Media knows about the passion the country has for MotoGP, as a large percentage of their followers will be from there. (In my own case, 12.5% of my 51,800 Twitter followers are from Indonesia, the third largest territory after the UK, 28.5%, and the US 14.4%. A remarkable number, given I am tweeting mainly in English, and not at all in Bahasa Indonesia.)

For years, Dorna has been trying to find a circuit to host the race. There was talk of upgrading Sentul, just outside the current capital Jakarta (there are plans to move the capital to Borneo, as Jakarta is sinking), but nobody could be found to pay for the extensive work willing, as political rivalries between the owner, Tommy Suharto, son of Indonesia's second president Suharto, and current and former presidents and political parties, who view him as a threat, not least because he has criminal convictions for the murder of a judge, corruption, and illegal possession of weapons.

There were also plans to build a new circuit near Palembang, on South Sumatra, Indonesia's largest island, 500km northwest of the capital Jakarta. That, too, struggled to get funding, and so the focus switched to Mandalika, a resort to be developed on Lombok, the island next to popular tourist destination Bali. With Bali overrun by tourists and Lombok underdeveloped, the Indonesian Tourist Development Council proposed the building of a huge resort to attract tourists, with a race track at its heart.

Chicken or egg?

Having a race track at its heart made the whole project possible. The economic benefits of developing a large tourist resort with a popular attraction hosting events are self evident in a region which is lagging behind its nearest neighbor, and relieves Bali of some of the pressures of tourism. But it also creates challenges.

First and foremost, the Mandalika International Circuit was the first part of the development project, with the tourist infrastructure to be built up around it. In theory, a solid idea – first attract the visitors bringing money into the region, and then expand facilities. In practice, it has serious downsides: with little accommodation in the area, and little in the way of other infrastructure, Mandalika is both difficult to get to and incredibly expensive to attend.

Hotel rooms which normally cost the equivalent of €15 a night are going to for over €200. For comparison, those are the kinds of prices you would expect to pay at 4- and 5-star accommodation close to the track at most European rounds. Flights are fully booked and more expensive, ferries are full. Outside of Indonesia's wealthy elite, the country has a burgeoning middle class. But these sort of prices are still well out of reach for most people in a land where the median salary is around €720 a month, and average wages are €150 a month. And in a region like Lombok, median wages are even lower.

That won't stop locals from attending. There were small crowds of people standing outside the fences on the hills overlooking the track just for the test. With the race happening, those crowds are likely to swell to enormous numbers. They may not be able to get into the circuit – at least, not legally – but that won't stop a people who are passionate about MotoGP from attending.

It is hard to overstate that passion and enthusiasm. On Wednesday, a large group of MotoGP riders took to the streets in Jakarta on a motorcycle parade, with Indonesian president Joko Widodo at their head, and a huge crowd of bikers – limited by invitation – behind them in their wake. They were met by cheering crowds, ecstatic to see their heroes. "It was like being a rock star," is how Pol Espargaro described it.

Beatlemania was how one paddock insider described the madness. Crowds followed the riders everywhere, from airport to hotel to the parade. The security guards supposed to hold back the crowds were at the front of the queue to get a selfie with the riders. Even at the test, crowds had gathered at the resorts where the riders were staying trying to get a glimpse into the holiday villas where they slept.

There are some in Mandalika who are less happy to see MotoGP arrive. To build the circuit, the land for the resort was bought up by the ITDC from the people living there. That went through the Indonesian system of konsinyasi, the Indonesian equivalent of eminent domain or compulsory purchase. The residents were offered a set amount, and given the right to appeal if they felt it wasn't enough.

Residents may have the right to appeal, but as long as the appeal is being dealt with by the authorities, they are left without a home and waiting for payment, until the final amount has been agreed upon. But the incomes of the farmers and fisherfolk who were moved off their land were not enough for them to afford to wait. They may have a choice in law, but in practice, they have none.

Wuthering heat

Whatever the ill side effects of the circuit, the ITDC have created a stunning layout. A short straight, a few hard braking sections, and a fast and flowing back section, set in a location almost as spectacular as Phillip Island. Like Phillip Island, the stunning location also has a downside. For the Australian Grand Prix, it's the wind and rain blowing in off the Bass Strait, sucking the heat out of tires. At Mandalika, just a few degrees south of the equator, it is the blistering tropical sun, raising heat and humidity to almost unbearable levels.

The heat is going to be an issue, something the resurfacing is going to make even worse. The newly laid tarmac, stretching from Turn 17 to Turn 7, is so fresh it is still deep black, the tar in the tarmacadam not yet having evaporated and lightened. That blackness sucks in the sunshine, and converting the solar radiation into even more heat. Track temperatures of nearly 60°C were seen at the test, and Joan Mir's crew chief Frankie Carchedi posted a photo of the temperature gun on Thursday reading 65°C track temperature.

At a test, riders can choose to sit out the heat of midday and ride in the early morning and late afternoon. But race weekends have a set schedule, with all three classes allotted time for practice and qualifying. Whatever the heat or the track temperatures, the riders will have to go out and make laps.

The high temperatures could be a further cause of problems. Track temperatures well over 60°C were already turning the new asphalt soft on Thursday, with various people at the track saying that vehicles circulating on the track (Thursday is the day that the track is inspected, and advertising hoardings finished) pulling up asphalt with them. How the new surface will behave once a 300hp MotoGP bike accelerates out of the last corner and along the front straight remains to be seen.

The extreme heat has prompted Michelin to bring a special carcass for the rear tire. Though they were happy with the compounds selected at the test a month ago, it was clear that the heat was going to be a problem. To address that, Michelin decided to use the construction used at other very high temperature tracks, Austria and Thailand.

That construction has a downside: though the rear tire resists blistering due to the heat, and the compounds are strong enough to resist excessive wear, the different carcass produces less grip. That makes it more difficult for bikes which are struggling to find grip already.

Spinning

MotoGP's worrywart Aleix Espargaro was concerned. "Sincerely I’m a little bit worried," the factory Aprilia rider said. "I don’t know how the bike will react. We did not use this casing since a long time. Last time I use was Thailand and I don’t have good memories. Obviously the bike was completely different. But I remember that even in 4th gear on the straight, the bike started to spin."

A bigger issue is understanding how the rear tire will work, given that the data gained at the test has now lost much of its value. "When the tires change the feeling can be different, so I need to understand this new casing and we will see after FP1/FP2," Luca Marini said.

"It will be complicated for many reasons," Joan Mir said of the race weekend. "The first is the tire that nobody knows. The second is the new surface on one sector. And the other thing is the heat. So we just have to survive in this GP, let's say!"

All of these changes make it hard to predict what might happen. "I really don't know," Franco Morbidelli said. "I think nobody knows. Because the track is new again. It’s a different tarmac and everybody has this different tire."

Dirt track

Half of the track was resurfaced because it was throwing up stones, due to the wrong material being used in the aggregate used in the asphalt. The other half was not resurfaced, and that could also be a problem. "I made one lap with the electric scooter, and it looks really nice, the new asphalt is very very dark," Marco Bezzecchi said. "Also the old tarmac was not too bad, except the dirt."

On Thursday, work was still underway to scrub the dirt and dust which had plagued the MotoGP test at Mandalika a month ago. That was badly needed, Bezzecchi said. "In the part where they didn't resurface the tarmac, it's completely the same. On the line you can see rubber on the track, but then it's brown. The last time was like this everywhere when we made the track walk, so you can't see where it was dirty, because there was no line. Now that there is a clear line from the test, you can really see the difference. So I don't know. But now they are cleaning the track, so I hope they will be better."

Are there any lessons we can draw from the test? Perhaps. Pol Espargaro left Mandalika as fastest, having set his best time on the morning of the last day. The Repsol Honda rider is clearly quick, as he proved in Qatar by leading for much of the race and ending on the podium. The new Honda RC213V suits his style perfectly, allowing him to use the rear tire to brake and slow the bike down, prepare it for the corners.

Going the distance

That was where his teammate still had to learn. Marc Marquez was still adapting to the very different feeling from the front end, he told the press conference. It was still hard to understand exactly where the limit was, and that made it hard not to go over it.

Doing the full race distance had been an enormous help, Marquez explained. "In the Qatar race I really understood what I need, what direction I need for my riding style," he said. "In a test it's always difficult, in a practice it's also difficult because you do five laps then stop. But with 22 laps in a row you can understand. Also following the others you can understand which points you are losing.We understand a little bit more now and we start here trying to find the way. We know our base setting is working well."

The Yamahas had also shown strongly at the Mandalika test, Fabio Quartararo ending the test just over a hundredth of a second behind Pol Espargaro. Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Franco Morbidelli was not far behind, ending the test in fifth overall, a third of a second behind Espargaro.

For Quartararo, the shorter straights meant he had a better chance of defending against the Hondas and Ducatis, but the different rear Michelin could pose a problem. All the Yamahas were struggling for rear grip at Qatar, and the special tire at Mandalika is likely to make this worse.

"I think Qatar was tough," Franco Morbidelli said. "It was bad for us given the fact they won last year both races. It was strange, it was a hit." But Yamaha were already working on improving grip, he said. "It’s quite easy to understand in the way that we were missing grip. We will find some ways if we are still missing grip or other tracks, we’ll find ways to not lose it so much."

More power, more wear

Suzuki also have a lot of lessons ahead of them. During testing, the bike showed its potential, finding a lot of the top speed it had been missing in 2021. But at Qatar, Alex Rins and Joan Mir found themselves paying a price for that additional speed over race distance.

"Normally, our strongest point is the tire consumption, and we weren't in our best moment in that aspect, so we have to continue improving the electronics of the bike," Joan Mir said, adding that the rear ride-height device and a different setup had also changed the way the Suzuki GSX-RR used the tire.

The most important thing for Mir is that he felt the bike still had a lot of room to improve. "This race it will be really important to continue understanding the potential of our bike," he said. "It's clear, in Qatar we finished the result not with the result we probably expected, but it's true that there's margin to improve this year. If we had another race now in Qatar we would probably now get better. Last year, we were in a different position. When we finished those races, we said it will be hard to improve a little bit more. This year my impression is a little bit different, so it's important to understand a bit more."

Qatar made clear that the Ducatis also have a lot of work ahead of them. Enea Bastianini took a famous victory on the Gresini Ducati, but riding the Desmosedici GP21, last year's bike. The riders on the GP22 all struggled, especially at the start.

New start

That is in stark contrast to 2021, Johann Zarco pointed out. "It’s true that we were good with the starts last year because we were advanced with the different strategy, but then the other brands made improvements during the year and in the second part of the season there were other guys starting really, really fast."

The new system at the rear, combined with the new system at the front, made starts something of a lottery, the Pramac Ducati rider said. "We are trying to do even better but maybe we made a step back. We have the performance but maybe we have to do more consistency to have more chance to do well every time," Zarco said. "Like I said, I can start super fast but it is only two times from ten and when I start with these two before a race then it is like a big risk to then say I will start well again. It is not good for the result."

Luca Marini felt that the problem was more to do with the riders. The clutch of the Ducati was so sensitive that if you didn't get it just right, you would not get off the line well. "I don’t think it’s something from the bike," the Mooney VR46 rider said. "Maybe we were just not precise. Because the clutch is so difficult to use. If you miss the correct point it’s difficult to recover. You just make a mistake and lose some tenths in the start." This has been an issue in 2021 as well. "With the Ducati also from last year, you have to perfect. You can be perfect, but it’s difficult."

Podium repeat?

How will the KTM fare at Mandalika? Brad Binder arrives in Indonesia fresh from the first podium the Austrian manufacturer has had at Qatar, and where Miguel Oliveira felt strong despite a crash. But the KTM was far from impressive at Mandalika during the test.

Oliveira's focus was on finding more feeling from the front, the Portuguese rider having the same issues as Marc Marquez with the Honda. "The performance is there. I feel good with the bike and I’m performing well but it is true that it is a big priority to finish the race. In Qatar I did not make any clear mistakes that led to the crash but we’re just figuring out how we can have a better sense of where the limit is with the front tire and avoid crashing or at least have warnings, which didn’t happen."

Despite his podium in Qatar, Brad Binder sounded a note of caution. "Definitely amazing to start the year off with a podium, but we have work to do, a bit of exploring to do with our new package, to really try and find the best in every area," the South African said in the press conference. "In general, the team and I are very happy and let’s see what we can do this weekend."

Binder was relatively happy with his form at the test. "The test was pretty good for us a few weeks ago. From the first few laps we had a pretty good feeling and as the weekend went on we tried a few different things; some good, some not so good. In general, our pace wasn’t bad at all and when I went to do a time attack, I was able to do quite a good lap time. I feel strong and good coming into this weekend and want to take it one day at a time, one session at a time, and Sunday give my all and see where we end up."

The limit of endurance

The Aprilia, too, looks strong. Aleix Espargaro came very close to knocking his brother Pol off the podium at Qatar, eventually finishing fourth, just behind the Repsol Honda. At the Mandalika test, Maverick Viñales had finished third on the second day, Aleix Espargaro third on the last day, and fourth fastest overall.

The new RS-GP is lighter and more maneuverable, useful characteristics at a track where the blistering heat saps the energy of the rider. That meant careful preparation, Aleix Espargaro said. "You need to try and arrive in best shape possible on Sunday. This means body must be prepared. But the bike, setting, everything, you have to do your job."

It also means trying to figure out tire consumption, so you know what will happen at the end of 27 laps. But doing a race run in blistering heat was impractical. "Maybe it’s not the best track to do a race simulation," Espargaro said. "You need to deal with this and prepare the bikes. If I train very hard many hours it’s for days like this. Qatar was very easy physically. Could do 100 consecutive laps if we had to. This one is more tough. I like a lot. It’s a challenge for us. I like to try to bring my body to the limit as an athlete."

Taking their bodies to the limit is exactly what the riders will have to do come Sunday. Wrestling with a 167kg MotoGP machine, with the better part of 300hp trying to wrench it out from underneath them. And a good part of those 300 horses being converted into heat, and pouring out from the radiator onto feet, legs, torso, adding to the withering humidity and heat, while packed in tight leathers. It's going to be a long day on Sunday.


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year: 
2022
round_number: 
2

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Comments

I fear for the surface. Every now and then when racing you get to a track where all the standard rules no longer apply. Where the weekend becomes a complete battle of survival.

Some of the practice sessions at 2008 Laguna Seca looked like that for the Michelin riders.  Colin Edwards went out on intermediates in a dry session.

But given that's it a lottery, it'll be interesting. Very nice summary of the political/cultural issues surrounding the track, thank you for that Mr. Emmet.

He is, but hey - I'm glad it takes all sorts. I miss Cal's unfiltered straight delivery though.