There is a MotoGP race at Le Mans this weekend, but to be honest, it is hard to concentrate on the race. A lot has happened in the past couple of weeks, which has shaken up MotoGP to a degree we hadn't expected even as late as two weeks ago. Suzuki's withdrawal blows the MotoGP silly season right open, with not just rider seats up in the air, but grid slots and bikes too. Then there's the controversy over tire pressures being routinely under the minimum allowed, and whether that is even an issue or not, given the MSMA have agreed not to do anything about it.
But first, to the track, perhaps. The Le Mans circuit lies just south of the charming eponymous town in the Sarthe region of France. For much of the year, when there isn't a race on, the town is quiet and rather lovely, the central square surrounded by 18th and 19th Century buildings a very pleasant place to be. The circuit, too, is rather charming, situated between the industrial outskirts of the town and the woods which frame the 24 hour car racing circuit.
When racing comes to town, the circuit loses much of its charm. The passionate and friendly enthusiasm of the fans during daylight turns grim when the sun goes down and the enthusiastic consumption of alcohol transforms the atmosphere from fun to carnival to a bike-racing version of Quentin Tarantino's From Dusk Till Dawn. Sleep, or indeed breathing, is for the weak.
The track has a reputation for being something of a stop-and-go circuit, but that sells the Bugatti Circuit short. Sure, there are a bunch of hairpins and esses, but the way they flow add a charm and a difficulty to make it a challenge for all levels.
Turn 1, the Dunlop Curve, is the fastest and most challenging of the corners. It is a place where the brave line up their first attempt at a pass, Turn 3. That corner, the first part of the Dunlop Chicane put in to kill the insane speeds the bikes used to reach through Dunlop Curve, is a good place to try to pass, but also a good place to wash the front as you tip the bike onto its left side for the first time in well over a kilometer.
Make it through the Dunlop Chicane, and La Chapelle awaits, a sweeping right, off camber and downhill, entered over a crest. It is a wonderful corner, and a place which will eat the unwary and those who are just a little too enthusiastic in throwing it in without thinking about the way the track is rolling out from under you.
Through the Esses
After that, the track sweeps left through Musée, before the next passing place, Garage Vert. The double right hander has been frequently criticized, as the hard standing – and location of the Long Lap Penalty – allows riders to attempt a pass on the entry of the corner without risking too much.
Exiting Garage Vert, the bikes head down the short back straight and another point at which to attempt a pass, the braking zone for the Chemin aux Boeufs esses. Left-right and then another short straight takes you to the Garages Bleus esses, which lines you up for your final chance to attack. Raccordement, the double right before the finish line, offers sufficient space to try to dive under a rider a head, and not enough space for the rider to retaliate. But get it wrong, and you are out wide, and risk losing places to those behind.
Lacking a long straight, the track does not confer a particular advantage for bikes with a lot of top speed. What you need is braking stability, mechanical grip to get drive out of corners, and agility to change directions. Not usually a combination which MotoGP bikes have all three of. Which might explain why the last two editions have been won by Ducatis, and before that, by a Honda rider twice, a Yamaha three times, a couple of Hondas, a Yamaha, and another Honda. In other words, the track will suit pretty much most MotoGP machines.
All bikes at all tracks
And perhaps the days of circuits being a Ducati track, a Honda track, or a Yamaha track are behind us. "In my opinion, now every track is good for every bike." Luca Marini, Mooney VR46 Ducati rider said. "Because also in Jerez, Pecco [Bagnaia] won. Another time another Ducati won."
Tracks suiting bikes are a thing of the past, Marini said. "There is not this [situation] where a manufacturer has favorite tracks. Now everything is more similar in all the situations." The parity among the MotoGP machines, and the fact that they are all now pretty good and well-rounded also put pressure on the riders. You couldn't go into a weekend thinking you had an advantage because of the bike you are on, Marini pointed out. "So it's not easy to start a weekend with this in your mind, that maybe this time you are the favorite with your bike."
What does that mean for picking a winner? It means you might as well put the names of the championship leaders into a hat and pull one out at random. Fabio Quartararo should be strong on the Yamaha, especially as he comes in here on a roll of good results and leading the championship. Pecco Bagnaia's win proved the Ducati is working well now that the Borgo Panigale factory has had a chance to iron out the issues left after testing. The Aprilia has come good, and Aleix Espargaro has finished on the podium two races in a row.
The Suzukis are looking strong, and both Joan Mir and Alex Rins are highly motivated to prove Suzuki wrong (more of that in a minute). The Honda is still lacking front end confidence – and Le Mans is a track where that is vital – but the Monday test at Jerez gave the Honda riders a chance to improve some of the feel. And the KTM can use its strength on the brakes to get into corners ahead of other bikes, and its generous surplus of torque to get out of them again quickly.
With the weather set fair for most of the weekend, the teams should have plenty of time to hone the setup of their bikes. Which might all go for naught, given that the forecast is currently for rain around race time on Sunday. It's Le Mans, so there is a very real chance that the race will be wet. But also, it's Le Mans, so there is a very real chance that the weather forecast this far out is just plain wrong.
Back to more weighty matters. Le Mans was the first time the media got to talk to anyone from Suzuki since the news leaked out about the Hamamatsu factory's planned withdrawal from MotoGP. Not that anyone from Suzuki's MotoGP team had much to say; they had been kept just as in the dark about Suzuki's plans as the MotoGP media. The fact that the press release with their plans – which stated Suzuki was "in discussions with Dorna regarding the possibility of ending its participation in MotoGP at the end of 2022" – only on Thursday morning felt like Suzuki Motor Corporation were adding insult to injury.
Why did it take so long for Suzuki to issue a press release? Perhaps because they were waiting until their financial results were published for Fiscal Year 2021, which happened on May 11th. But the statement itself was rather curt and not particularly informative. Attempting to read between the lines, Suzuki is more concerned about shaping its future, and especially the transition from internal combustion engines in its cars to fully electric vehicles, than it is about the plight of its motorcycle business in the short to medium term.
That is perhaps understandable: sales for Suzuki's automotive division (¥893.4 billion) is nearly 13 times the size of its motorcycle sales (¥69.8 billion). Building cars, and getting that part of the business right for the long term, is an existential question for Suzuki. Motorcycles, and especially motorcycle racing, are very much secondary to the overall success of the company.
That does not excuse Suzuki HQ's leaving the team in the dark, however. And though both Alex Rins and Joan Mir were careful in their choice of words, they did not hide how upset they were. "On Monday, after the Jerez test, Livio [Suppo] and Sahara-san took me to the office and told me," Alex Rins explained how he found out. "And for sure it was super-hard. I was fully crying because I gave everything to this team, since 2017 trying to give a lot of info to have a competitive bike to have a winning bike."
Rins emphasized that he felt the decision had been extremely harsh. "Whether I understand or not it doesn’t matter but it is very hard for me, the decision. We are fighting for the world championship and in the standings we are first as a team so it is very difficult to understand but from the big bosses and Suzuki HQ they took the decision. We cannot change it."
The biggest thing for Joan Mir was that it had all been such a complete surprise "The word is 'unexpected'. That is the word," the 2020 world champion said. "We didn't suspect anything about it, because we were negotiating for the next seasons." His first thought when he was told was not so much for himself, but for the members of the team. "When I received the message, the information, the first thing in my mind was the people in Suzuki. Because we all know this team is special, but what made this team special is the people that work in this team. Without a lot of information, knowing that they have to part ways with Suzuki at the end of the season, like me, like everyone, we are not having a great time for sure. But you know, we will continue and let's see."
Prove them wrong
Ironically, Suzuki's decision has altered the motivation for the riders, and probably also the team. "Sincerely, this gives me an extra boost because you know, we have the bike and I think this bike is the best package we’ve ever had in Suzuki, so let’s show them they took the wrong decision." Alex Rins told journalists.
Joan Mir was a little less explicit, but his goals were the same. "Now the motivation is a different one," the 2020 world champion said. "Because before it was to continue scoring great results and good things for Suzuki, to try to continue in the best way. But now it's different. Now we have to finish this season in the best way. Let's see if we are able to fight for the championship until the last race, to give to the team a good result at the end of the year. Nothing would make me more happy."
How realistic is it to expect to be able to fight for the championship until the end? The bike is definitely competitive as it is. And Alex Rins said that the budget for 2022 was already set, so development would only stop at the end of the year, rather than halfway through. "What they say is that the budget for this year is closed so they will bring everything and make all their effort," Rins said.
The Spaniard was combative after the news of Suzuki's withdrawal, having seen the effect the news had on the team. "Trust me, the Japanese people and mechanics were destroyed; the Japanese even more," Rins said. "For sure the development …well, for Montmelo we are waiting for a new aerodynamic package so let’s see. Let’s get good results. We already have two podiums this season, let’s get a lot more and show them!"
What happens next for Suzuki? The answer to that is a long period of negotiation with Dorna over the terms of the contract. As I explained in detail earlier this week, the experience of 2008, Kawasaki's withdrawal and the threatened withdrawal of Honda, changed the way Dorna viewed the factories, and allowed them to restructure the contracts in their favor. Dorna have commercial contracts directly with each factory, for a period of five years from 2022 to 2026. Getting out of such a contract will be painful and expensive. And whether Dorna would be open to a return in the medium term is another question.
One thing we can almost certainly rule out is a situation similar to 2009, where Kawasaki stayed on for a year under the guise of Hayate, an independent team using Kawasaki's ZX-RR with Marco Melandri. In 2009, Dorna needed the bikes on the grid, so the offer of equipment for a one-rider team with Hayate was sufficient for Dorna to let the matter pass.
In 2022, there are five other manufacturers on the grid, and, if Dorna's press release is to be believed, more eager to come in. There is no shortage of bikes – KTM could easily expand their presence in MotoGP by giving one its subsidiary brands such as GasGas or Husqvarna a slot on the grid – and even without Suzuki's two machines, that would still leave 22 bikes on the grid, rather than 24. Losing two bikes would make little difference to the spectacle, and might allow Dorna to save a bit of cash in subsidies for the team, and tire and transport costs.
Suzuki's withdrawal does have a major impact on the rest of the grid, however. The loss of Suzuki is compounding the shift of Aprilia pushing to expand its presence by equipping a satellite team. That could be by supplying whoever comes in to replace Suzuki, or by taking over the supply of bikes to an already existing team.
What does that mean? It is no secret that Aprilia have been hawking their wares, and it is also no secret that the RNF WithU team feel they are underperforming their potential. A switch from Yamaha to Aprilia might offer Razlan Razali the chance to become a junior team, along the lines of Pramac Ducati and Tech3 KTM, aligning more closely with the Italian factory, rather than just being a client team to Yamaha.
If RNF does drop Yamaha, the Japanese factory could find itself with just two bikes on the grid. Under normal circumstances, the VR46 team would be the natural heir apparent to any Yamaha M1s going spare, particularly given the eponymous owner of the team being so closely linked to Yamaha throughout his career. But so far, Luca Marini and Marco Bezzecchi are doing rather well on Ducatis, giving Valentino Rossi's squad little reason to swap. And seeing the VR46 stable's Franco Morbidelli struggle to ride the M1, as does anyone not named Fabio Quartararo, might make VR46 think twice about a switch.
Once, the Yamaha M1 was the most desirable package on the grid. A little underpowered, but easy to master and easy to go fast on. Now, the M1 resembles the Honda RC213V in the hands of Marc Marquez, or the Casey Stoner era Ducati Desmosedici: very fast, but only in the hands of one rider. No Fabio Quartararo, no championship party.
Riders up for grabs
Having two quality riders on the market shake things up too. Both Rins and Mir were close to signing new contracts with Suzuki before the news broke. (As an aside, the fact that the managers of both riders were in the final stage of negotiations with the team show how little information the team had from Suzuki HQ.) Now, though, they are both free agents. Joan Mir is already being linked to the second seat at Repsol Honda, Pol Espargaro widely believed to be unwanted by HRC, and especially by team boss Alberto Puig. But being linked somewhere and actually ending up there are two different things.
As a former world champion, Mir is the hottest property of the two, but Alex Rins has made a huge step forward in his consistency and ability to stay on the bike during races. The Spaniard has already had two podiums this year, and is sitting fourth in the championship. His style would be natural fit with a Yamaha or an Aprilia, his ability to be smooth and carry a terrifying amount of corner speed exactly the skills needed for both those bikes.
Putting Mir and Rins on the market means that teams have the pick of a great deal of talent. If Pol Espargaro is out at Repsol Honda, then he could be an interesting target for KTM should they put two more bikes on the grid. Though Franco Morbidelli has a contract for 2023, in a radically shaken up market, Yamaha might take a look at performance clauses which are in most MotoGP contracts. Then there's the question of whether Aleix Espargaro stays at Aprilia, and whether Aprilia feel Maverick Viñales is living up to the expectations the team had when they signed him.
And there's Jack Miller, who will be moved out of the factory Ducati team to make room for Jorge Martin, most likely, or else possibly Enea Bastianini. Does Miller go back to Pramac, or does he switch to LCR, the team he moved up to MotoGP with back in 2015. What happens to Andrea Dovizioso if RNF drop Yamaha? And what of Darryn Binder?
Team managers have a lot to think about, and a lot of options. At the start of the season, it looked like the 2023 grid could look very similar to this year, despite almost everyone's contract being up at the end of the season. Right now, you would have to say there could be an awful lot of movement before the year is over.
Which brings us to MotoGP's very own deflategate. Earlier this week, veteran journalist Mat Oxley revealed that teams have been running below the minimum pressure throughout the 2022 season. This was a subject I had spoken to Michelin's Piero Taramasso about at Portimão, in which he explained that although the rules made it clear that the teams had to run at least half the race with tire pressures at or above the required minimum, of 1.9 bar front and 1.7 bar in the rear tire, there as an agreement not to penalize any infractions while the MSMA negotiated a more permanent solution for 2023, consisting of a spec tire pressure sensor and a clear set of rules for how much of a race a tire should be at or above the minimum.
That article was picked up by the international MotoGP media, and generated sufficient controversy to force MotoGP Technical Director Danny Aldridge to issue a clarification. ""In cooperation with the MSMA and following a request from the MSMA, the Technical Direction of the Championship is currently in the process of evaluating a new tire pressure monitoring protocol," the statement explained. "This procedure must include the introduction of a unified sensor and receiver system, because it is the only way to have reliable data for scrutineering. In addition, a detailed protocol of how the new regulations will be enforced has been discussed with the MSMA and it has been unanimously agreed that it will not be implemented before the start of the 2023 season."
"This protocol has preliminary been agreed within the MSMA on the condition that it would be evaluated by all manufacturers during the 2022 season," the statement went on. "To aid in this evaluation, all manufacturers have unanimously agreed to freely share their riders' tire data after each event with all other manufacturers; as this data is supplied voluntarily and the sensors are calibrated individually by each sensor manufacturer, it cannot currently be verified for its accuracy."
"As agreed between Michelin, FIM, IRTA, MSMA and Dorna, the tire regulations will continue to be enforced as they have been for many years, under the control of the Technical Director and Michelin, until such time that the proposed new procedure is ready to be introduced."
Rules are rules?
That statement, that tire regulations would be enforced as they have been before, raised a few eyebrows. After all, the agreement among the MSMA members was that any transgression of the tire regulations would be noted, but not punished. Andrea Dovizioso put it rather pithily, when asked about it. "I think to say there are rules is wrong. Because if you don't have a penalty, there are no rules."
There was neither surprise nor a great deal of concern among the many riders who were asked about the role tire pressures played. Modern MotoGP bikes are very sensitive to front tire pressure, and the increase in aerodynamics and the use of ride-height devices loaded the front differently and made them far more sensitive to pressure and temperature.
"I am not surprised about what everybody can see about the pressure of every race of some riders, because it changes every race, it's not always the same riders who have that," the Italian told journalists. "Because it's very difficult to manage, because it depends on how many laps you are doing in front and how many you are doing behind. And it depends how many riders you are behind. So I know how difficult it is, but if you don't have a penalty, the rules don't exist."
Tire pressures and temperatures were extremely sensitive to being behind other riders, Jack Miller said. "The tire pressure can be that much on a knife edge that, OK, if you go and lead the whole race, you’re not going to get to the target point. But if you get behind somebody for a lap, you're on the target point," the Australian said.
That had a very noticeable and negative effect. "If you get behind somebody at one point the tire pressure is instantly through the roof and you can't stop the bike or turn the bike. So it is a tough one. And that's what can happen sometimes, especially if you go out and you lead a race the whole way through. You don't get any hot air on it, and I mean they've obviously prepared the bike for that so it's kind of a tough one because if he had dropped back behind, pressure would have gone up."
This is something which the Covid-19 pandemic has had a very negative effect on. In 2019, Michelin had been planning to test a new construction front tire, which is less sensitive to temperature changes, throughout the 2020 season. But the pandemic meant there was no testing during 2020, and then limited testing during 2021.
In the meantime, the bikes had changed massively as well, with more aero and the ride-height devices putting more stress on the front tire. That has forced Michelin to reevaluate its tires, and start the testing process over again, French tire boss Piero Taramasso told me at the Sepang test.
"We are still working on the front," Taramasso said. "We will make some adjustments, and the tests will be done in 2023, to be introduced for 2024. So basically it's delayed, because we are working to improve the temperature and the pressure control. Now when you have the slipstream, the tendency of the front tire is to overheat. So we are working on that, to try to better control that point."
The development in aerodynamics had made for problems, he explained. "We realized in the past two seasons that bikes are changing, they are putting more and more weight on the front, with the winglets, and riders are braking very very hard. So the load is changing, so we had to also change the development to adapt to that."
What happens next for tire pressures? There are paddock rumors that there will be more spot checks on the grid, with scrutineers and Michelin techs walking around and checking tires using a manual tire pressure gauge. But that will still not be entirely accurate, as the tire pressures on the grid are lower than the minimum, as they rise during the race, and can vary enormously based on whether a rider is alone or in a group. But it might perhaps discourage the most egregious of rule violations, if the teams know pressures will be more closely controlled.
In the end, though, this, and the change in 2023, are just temporary fixes. The longer term fix comes when the new front Michelin is introduced, hopefully in 2024, and gives a more stable temperature and pressure profile both in the slipstream and on its own. That, at least is the hope. Until then, the MotoGP grid just has to grin and bear it.
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