Frustration and resignation. Those were the two most prominent emotions at the post-race MotoGP test at Barcelona. Two sides of the same coin, in reality, as the weather robbed teams in desperate need of track time of any chance of doing the hard work which will make them all a bit more competitive. After an hour and a half of a dry track, a massive thunderstorm washed over the circuit, drenching the track and leaving it wet for the rest of the day. Dani Pedrosa was phlegmatic about the situation. " The weather is what it what is," he shrugged. "Obviously it would have been perfect for it to have stayed dry but we don't control that."
In the Tech 3 garage, Pol Espargaro, suffering badly through a slump in his form, did nothing to hide his frustration. "We tested two things, one of them was not good, one of them was good, we improve a little bit. Then the rain comes, it's impossible to make one fast lap time, impossible to make a rhythm, impossible to make anything. We are looking to go to Assen to continue, because it was a disaster today." It has been a tough year for the younger of the two Espargaro brothers, as he is struggling to ride the Yamaha, a bike which requires a radically different approach than his natural tendency, to move around, and be aggressive.
The rain was perhaps toughest on Marc Márquez. Márquez' biggest problem is on corner entry, where he cannot slide the rear controllably once it touches down during braking. The reigning world champion feels strongly that braking is where he has his biggest advantage, and the ability to either pass or make up time on his opponents. Take away that advantage and he feels shackled, fighting with one hand behind his back.
The 2015 Honda RC213V – or rather, the version which Márquez uses, which is stiffer in the front to allow him to push the front tire harder – is a step back in braking. Márquez blames the aggressive nature of the engine on reducing his ability to brake, the engine being grabby in engine braking, meaning that he cannot control the way and the direction in which he slides the rear tire into the corner. Unfortunately for Márquez, the engines are sealed, and the rules do not allow either Honda or Yamaha to change engine internals for the rest of the year.
The only options Honda have are the electronics and the chassis, both ways of affecting the way the rear tire behaves once it hits the ground. Work continues on the electronics, all the way up to the software freeze due at the end of this month, ahead of the adoption of spec electronics for 2016. But Honda have also brought a new option in terms of chassis, Márquez trying what he called "a package" on Monday morning at Barcelona. That package consists of the 2014 chassis together with the latest 2015 swingarm and the 2015 engine. The 2014 chassis has a different stiffness to it, but Márquez was coy on just where the differences lay. "About the stiffness, I think it is similar but the position is in a different way. But I don’t know. They only say ‘try this’ and I don’t want to understand so much about the technical things because then you can confuse your head." Pleading ignorance, real of feigned, is a good way of fobbing off prying journalists. Those who cannot plead ignorance tend to fob us off with disinformation.
Was the package better? "The feeling was good. I feel good and a good potential," Márquez said. "It was different, but especially more-or-less like year. I can do more mistakes, and then with the new one it is like you need to be really precise. You cannot do any mistakes like Sunday. With this one it is more like 2013, 2014. You can do more mistakes." Márquez' riding style has always been to try to push the limit of the bike, riding on the knife edge confident that he can correct any minor mistakes he makes. The 2015 bike has made that knife edge more precarious. Any small errors he makes are now fatal, ending with the bike in the gravel. He could of course back off just a fraction from the limit and try to be as fast as possible without making mistakes, but then he would not have two world titles and so many race wins. Márquez believes firmly that the point of motorcycle racing is to win, and not to circulate safely in seventh.
Márquez may have had a better feeling with the 2014/2015 hybrid package, but the weather had precluded drawing any firm conclusions. He had done just five laps on the bike, and not had time to do more runs. "I only did 5 laps and I cannot say if it is much better or much worse, because you need to try with new tires, with old tires, with a long run. But today we didn’t have the opportunity." The problem in corner entry gets worse as tires wear during the race, the grip dropping more as the race progresses. Doing just one run of a few laps can only give the first glimpse of how the changes might be. It will take a lot more testing to provide a definitive answer. Márquez spoke to us directly after holding a meeting with his crew and HRC technicians, to discuss the option of trying it again at Assen. That will only be possible with stable, dry weather, however. Right now, the weather forecast for Assen is typical of a Dutch summer: not very warm, and not very settled.
If corner entry is Márquez' most pressing problem, the problem all the Hondas face is with exit grip. The RC213V's aggressive engine means that the rear tire spins coming out of the corner, then when it finally grips, the front wheel starts clawing skyward, and the rider is fighting wheelies all the way down the straight. So fierce is the tendency to wheelie that Honda riders have to try to weave down the straights to help keep the front wheel on the ground. That only works at some tracks, such as Barcelona. "Here, when you come on the straight, you can flow because you have time for the next corner," Scott Redding explained. At other tracks, like Mugello, that didn't work, he said.
Even then, it did not help much. "We do still lose time compared to other manufacturers, like Ducati, Suzuki Yamaha," Redding said. "Exiting the corner they have a bit better drive than us, and they can also keep the front wheel down and use the power. We're kind of spinning, then we get the grip, and then we have the wheelie. So it's kind of balancing between the two areas."
Redding was one of the few riders to go out in the wet in the afternoon. The Marc VDS Racing rider has a lot of work to do to adapt his riding style to the RC213V, which is radically different to the Open class RCV1000R he was on last year. The dry laps in the morning helped, but so did the time in the wet. "We got a couple of laps under our belt, then with the rain coming, we did a couple of laps in the rain. So it was nice to have a little bit the feeling again in the rain, which was good." It was better than no testing at all, at least. "Like I say, a bad test is better than a good stand," Redding quipped.
Not everyone was badly affected by the rain, however. Though the factory Yamaha team did not turn a wheel, they had already made plans to head to Aragon, their officially designated test track, for further testing. Yamaha had brought a new chassis for Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, to help improve corner entry. Though the M1 is vastly improved in that area compared to last year, it remains the weakest point of the bike. Yamaha may only be giving away a tiny fraction to the Hondas (at least, when the Hondas are working), Ducatis and Suzukis, but if they can match or even beat their rivals, the M1 would be dominant in almost every area. The 2015 M1 brakes extremely well, can carry fantastic corner speed, and has astounding mechanical grip on the exit, giving it superb punch out of corners and onto the straights. The Ducati is a little better on braking for corner entry, the Suzuki is superior in corner speed, but nobody gets out of corners like the Yamahas. If the chassis they test at Aragon gives them the improvements they need, then we could see Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi take another one-two at Assen.
Yamaha will be joined at Aragon by Suzuki, who are allowed to test much more freely under the concessions allowed to factories with a recent win. Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales both tested on Monday morning, stopping when the rain started to fall, The weather was less of an inconvenience to them than Espargaro's crash early on. The Spaniard had been testing a new fairing on the Suzuki GSX-RR when he crashed it, aimed at helping the top speed of the bike. With that fairing destroyed, Espargaro was worried that a replacement would not get to Aragon on time for him to carry on with the test program. "We were trying something new but I destroyed it with the crash, so bad luck," Espargaro said. He hoped that a replacement would be available at Aragon. "We need to retry in Aragon," he said. "The team is working, we will try all the stuff, and also all the plan we had for this test we will do at Aragon, because we just did 10 laps." Part of that plan is to continue work on getting the most out of the new engine they raced at Barcelona. It was an improvement, but there is much more to come from it.
Teammate Maverick Viñales had less to work on at Barcelona, but as a rookie, his priorities are different. It is all about learning how the bike feels with old tires, and managing to be more smooth in braking and acceleration. "The plan was trying to get better pace with old tires, and finally we did it," Viñales said. "We arrived six tenths faster than the race, also the weather was quite different, so this helps. It was less hot." Working with old tires is key for Viñales, his objective being "to try to understand what the bike needs when the tire drops down," he said. Part of that comes from saving tire wear before it happens by being smoother. "Today we concentrate a lot on try to be really smooth on the gas and also on the brakes to try to save the tires." Suzuki's test plan for Viñales is smart, not letting the Spaniard get ahead of himself. At Barcelona, he had already started switching engine maps to help save tires, something he had struggled with in the first couple of races. Now, he is being allowed to focus on riding, rather than on confusing himself by testing new parts on the bike and trying to figure out whether they are an improvement or not. Suzuki will continue that work at Aragon, on Wednesday and Thursday.