If the second day of practice for the 2016 MotoGP season taught us anything, it taught us that everything is still wide open. Yesterday, the Movistar Yamahas were clearly a cut above the rest during FP1. During the two free practice sessions on Friday, the top of the timesheets looked a little different. In FP2, it was a wild mixture of Ducatis, Hondas and Maverick Viñales on the Suzuki GSX-RR. In FP3, when the stakes were raised with direct entry to Q2 on the table, Jorge Lorenzo put his Yamaha M1 back into contention, but his previous clear superiority from Thursday was gone.
The reason? There isn't a single cause you can put your finger on. In FP2, the Movistar Yamaha riders spent their time working on tire choice, and especially the tricky task of figuring out which front tire to use in the race. That differs depending on which bike you happen to be riding: the Hondas are trying to make the hard front work, with different success, the Yamahas have abandoned the hard for the medium, and may even race with the soft, while the Ducatis are caught in a similar dilemma.
The Hondas – at least, the factory bikes – made a big step forward with electronics, and that made the competitive. Or rather, it was a step backwards, reverting to the settings Marc Márquez had tried in the test. "Yesterday, we changed a small thing that we expected normally would not be a big difference on the bike on riding, but this time was a big difference with these electronics," Marc Márquez explained. Dropping that change made a massive difference, and Márquez was competitive in both sessions on Friday.
The one constant through all three sessions of free practice has been Andrea Iannone: third fastest on Thursday, fastest in both FP2 and FP3 on Friday. "A perfect day," was how he described Friday. He was far from complacent, however. "Just because I am first, it doesn't mean we are completely ready." The biggest issue for Iannone is one he shares with very other rider on the grid: it is almost impossible to push hard on a new set of tires. The improvement is only a couple of tenths – or nothing at all, if like Cal Crutchlow you are struggling badly – instead of half a second or more as it was last year. What's more, tires don't really start to come in until they have three or four laps on them, rather than being fast straight away.
The horns of a dilemma
This is probably attributable to a design decision made by Michelin when planning for their return to MotoGP. They had two priorities: enough performance to match the lap times of the Bridgestones, and plenty of endurance, to ensure the tires were still as fast as possible at the end of the race. The goal is to persuade potential customers that Michelin is capable of producing a high-performance tire which will last. What better way to demonstrate that to sports bike owners weighing up their tire options? (The correct answer to this rhetorical question is, of course, endurance racing. Unfortunately, endurance racing does not command the popularity it deserves, making it less useful as a marketing vehicle.)
It is possible that Michelin is running into a similar problem which dogged Bridgestone in their early days of being official MotoGP tire supplier. In search of durability and performance, the 2009 and 2010 Bridgestones were slow to warm up, causing a number of highsides on a cold rear tire, including Valentino Rossi's crash at Mugello in which he broke his leg. Bridgestone worked hard to fix this in the next couple of years, reversing the situation completely by the time they left at the end of 2015.
Should the MotoGP riders fear similar cold tire highsides? Fortunately, it is not the rear which is causing the problems with the Michelins. It has excellent grip even when cold, making highsides unlikely. The front can be more of a problem, taking a little while to give feedback.
Qualifying shake up?
That will change the face of qualifying on Saturday. The Bridgestones made it possible to go out for short runs, pushing as hard as possible as soon as riders left pit lane, then coming back in to swap tires. That may not work with the Michelins. "You need one lap or half a lap more so you need to start a bit more quiet," said Valentino Rossi. In 2015, riders were leaving the pits and doing two runs at Qatar, with between two and four fast laps during the entire qualifying session. If tires are taking longer to come in, then it makes more sense to either stay out for a longer run of five or six consecutive laps, or come in and switch settings, rather than tires.
What this will mean when we get to shorter tracks will be interesting. At Jerez, it was common to try three runs, leaving the pits as soon as the lights turned green. If that is not possible, then it will no longer be necessary to leave pit lane as quickly as possible. That in turn reduces the possibilities of using a tow. After all, you cannot rely on a fast rider leaving the pits at a set time. Qualifying could see a good deal more malingering than in the past.
Qualifying is likely to see the biggest change in 2016 anyway. No longer is there softer rubber for teams and factories which have not been successful in recent years. No longer do the factory Hondas and Yamahas need to fear the Ducatis and Suzukis qualifying above their race potential on their special tires, only to get in the way during the race. Qualifying really is a much, much more level playing field than it was before.
Just because there are no special tires, that doesn't mean that the Ducatis and Suzukis will not be at the front of the grid. Iannone has been strong throughout all three practices. Maverick Viñales has been in the top five throughout as well. Andrea Dovizioso, Hector Barbera, Scott Redding have inserted themselves in the front echelons as well. Spec electronics and new tires have given the field a genuinely good shake up.
The Bologna Bullet is back
Why are the Ducatis doing so well? In part, because the bike is so incredibly fast. Qatar is always a track where the bikes have been fast. 2015 was a prime example, but hardly the only one. The long front straight, over a kilometer in length, with a reasonably fast corner leading onto it makes for fairly high speeds anyway. This year, though, speeds are higher than ever, and Ducatis are dominating. In the top speed charts for FP3, the top seven fastest bikes were all Ducatis, Loris Baz the odd man out. Bradley Smith was the first non Ducati, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha 10.8 km/h down on Andrea Iannone's rocketship Desmosedici GP.
Why is the Ducati so much faster than in 2015? Comparisons with FP3 last year make for interesting reading. Andrea Iannone's bike is 5.3 km/h faster than last year, so clearly it is improved. But last year, Iannone was only the second fastest. The highest top speed registered at Qatar in FP3 last year was by Dani Pedrosa and his Repsol Honda. Then, Pedrosa was clocked at 345.4 km/h, to Iannone's 345.0 km/h. This year, Iannone hit 350.3 km/h, while Pedrosa could only manage 339.4 km/h. Bradley Smith, meanwhile, clocked 339.5 km/h yesterday, compared with 339.9 km/h in 2015. It is a fair summary: the Ducatis have gotten faster, the Hondas are slower, while the Yamahas have stayed pretty much where they are.
The speed of the Ducatis left Valentino Rossi rather concerned. "This year, we are very close to Honda, but the difference to Ducati remains big," the Italian said. "I hoped before I came here that with the same number of engines and the same amount of fuel, the difference between us and Ducati would be less than 10 km/h. But no." Teammate Jorge Lorenzo was more sanguine. "For sure this doesn't help, because we are losing quite a lot of meters on the straight," he said. "But I believe it is more important to have a competitive bike on the corners."
The speed of the Ducati – not just in a straight line, but also in terms of lap time – may well prove to be decisive this weekend. Not just in terms of the race, though there is every reason to believe that one or more Ducatis could finish on the podium, with the top step not out of the question. But rumors are intensifying that Ducati is set to make a move for Jorge Lorenzo, and that the performance of the Desmosedici is starting to convince the Spaniard. At the moment, both Yamaha and Ducati are denying the possibility. But there are signs of nervousness from Yamaha, and Ducati believe they need a proven winner to make the transition from podium to winner.
Should Jorge Lorenzo sign for Ducati – and it is very far from given that he would do that, as the Yamaha M1 is such a complete package – then that would blow the market wide open. Conventional wisdom has both Movistar Yamaha riders and at the very least Marc Márquez staying at Honda, leaving little room for fresh blood. If Lorenzo left for Ducati, then that would leave an empty seat at Yamaha, arguably the most highly prized seat in MotoGP. Yamaha is known to have its eyes on Alex Rins, and Rins, in turn, is angling for a factory seat. If Lorenzo stays, Rins may be less inclined to sign for Yamaha and be placed with the Tech 3 team.
Then, of course, there is Maverick Viñales, who many believe would be a perfect fit for the Yamaha YZR-M1. If Lorenzo leaves for Ducati, then Viñales would slot in at the Movistar Yamaha squad, and Johann Zarco, already signed for Suzuki, would take the place of Viñales. With Lorenzo gone to Ducati, Honda may be more inclined to gamble, and decide to slot Alex Rins in at the Repsol Honda squad. That would not sit well with Marc Márquez, nor his manager Emilio Alzamora. The atmosphere between Rins and the Márquez clan is thoroughly poisoned from the last year of Rins in Moto3. A seat at Repsol Honda may offer Rins the dual bonus of a factory seat and the chance to seek revenge for his treatment in the Monlau Moto3 team.
Better the devil you know?
Of course, all this speculation presupposes that Jorge Lorenzo would consider leaving Yamaha. Viewed rationally, there is no reason for Lorenzo to leave. He is the reigning world champion, a title won on the Yamaha. He starts the 2016 MotoGP season as the clear favorite to win the title. The YZR-M1 is clearly the best bike on the grid, notwithstanding its speed deficit. The logical decision would be to stay.
On the downside, staying at Yamaha sees him alongside Valentino Rossi, with whom he has a fraught relationship, something which the events of 2015 have not really helped. Leaving for Ducati would clarify his status, making him the obvious number one. But Lorenzo has also seen at first hand how that can work out, Rossi having left for Ducati at the end of 2010, for similarly emotional reasons.
While all the gossip is of Jorge Lorenzo, there was also a vague sense of disappointment at Qatar on Friday. After a brave attempt to ride, Danilo Petrucci has been forced to pull out of the race. Examinations showed one of the broken bones in his right hand had become dislocated, making it unwise for the Italian to keep riding. Ducati test rider and ambassador Casey Stoner is present in Qatar, ready for a private test on Monday. He could step in to take the place of Petrucci at Pramac Ducati. He won't, though, Ducati have decided. That is a real shame, however understandable.
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