They say that there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. There are also two certainties in MotoGP so far this year: at every race, Michelin will introduce yet another new tire, and the Ducati Desmosedici GP will sprout a new set of wings. For Le Mans, Michelin brought a new rear tire, with a slightly softer construction but identical compounds, to try to generate a little more grip and address rider complaints about the rear spinning without creating drive, even in high gears. The new wings on the Ducati were much larger than the previous versions, to perhaps address the need for drive out of the many first gear corners at Le Mans.
Michelin bringing yet another tire to another race may sound like they are still flailing around, but in reality, it is a sign that the French tire maker is starting to settle on a development direction, after their plans had been sent astray by the double Ducati disasters of Loris Baz and Scott Redding. The rear tire raced at Austin and Jerez was the so-called "safety tire", a construction Michelin was certain would make race distance without any nasty surprises. It was raced without any real testing, meant only as a back up, not seriously intended for competition.
A little better rubber
The new rear tire is better, a little softer construction which generates more grip. It met with a positive reception, though the riders who used it were hardly gushing about it. "It's obvious that this direction is going to be a better way for me, but also for many other riders," Dani Pedrosa said of it. But the difference was small. "A little different in a positive way, but only a very, very little."
Bradley Smith was a little more positive. "It's a step in the right direction. It seems to hook up and drive a little better." Smith had done 24 flying laps on the tire, just shy of race distance. He was confident it would last for a full race, though, something which Michelin was set to check. Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo were similarly positive, with Lorenzo particularly pleased that the rear tire stopped the bike from moving so much through the Dunlop Curve, the 300 km/h right hander which is the fastest first corner on the calendar. Given just how much the bikes were shaking their heads through that section, any reduction would be more than welcome.
One of the only riders not to test the new rear tire was Valentino Rossi, having decided to concentrate on trying to make the medium tire (the hardest compound available using the older, safety tire construction) work for the race. That had not been the right choice, he told reporters, corner entry being a serious problem, especially into the Dunlop Curve. The plan was to try the new rear tire on Saturday, and hope that it worked as well for him as it had for Lorenzo.
Another sign that Michelin are getting a handle on MotoGP is the fact that there is now only one front tire construction available. That was the stiffer construction designated "34", which had caused a lot of riders to fall at Austin, as they struggled with a lack of feel. At Le Mans, removing the choice between two constructions had actually made things easier for the teams, according to Bradley Smith.
Giving riders choices meant they spent more time trying to figure out which tire they liked. Take away the choice, and they made the tires they had work. "A lot of it with us riders is that if you have that construction and those compounds, you make something work. You have an option between soft, medium, and hard. You've got to find something within those areas to make it work."
It wasn't just the work by the teams, though. Michelin had also made steps forward, according to Smith. "They've got to the point where it's clear now, and no one seems to be locking in a straight line any more, nobody seems to be having funny crashes," Smith said. "That means that within reason, they've got the front to where it needs to be, and now it's a case of continuing to adapt the rear. Because we're only on the third race weekend with that tire, and they'll move forward with that."
A flock of winglets
If the new Michelin was a sign that the tire situation was normalizing, then Ducati's new winglets are perhaps a sign of something similar with aerodynamics. The new winglets which appeared on the Desmosedici GP looked tailor made for Le Mans. Behind the upper winglets, an extra surface had been added, extending the size of the wings. That surface also had a large end plate, perhaps for shaping airflow around the rider. The bottom winglets were the large double decker versions featured previously.
Le Mans has a lot of corners where acceleration is key. Both the front straight and the back straight feature fairly tight corners where riders get hard on the gas and accelerate in a straight line. The winglets won't help in first gear, but the larger winglets are probably more effective at relatively low speeds (say, upwards of 130 km/h) than the smaller ones which have appeared previously. The smaller items at Jerez were said to help out of Turn 5 at the Spanish track, the 160 km/h corner leading on to the back straight. These bigger items should help out of tighter corners.
Why is everyone suddenly investing in winglets and in aerodynamics? Quite simply, because of the spec electronics. Though the unified software has anti wheelie strategies built in, they are not as efficient as the ones in the old proprietary factory software. With that avenue closed off – and perhaps just as importantly, the money freed up by electronics budgets to spend – factories are looking for other solutions to the problem of getting more drive out of corners. Winglets help keep the front end down, which means riders can apply more power, which means they get out of corners harder. Ducati opened the Pandora's box which is aerodynamics, and now the rest are following suit.
A winglet for every track
Andrea Dovizioso revealed just how much Ducati are focused on aerodynamics. "We can see before arriving in other tracks which winglets are the best for us so we don’t really compare during the weekend," the Italian said. "We know which one is the best for the layout of the track." The appearance of the new winglets at Le Mans are a sign that Ducati are customizing the aerodynamics package to suit each particular track.
Despite this specialization, the gains are only marginal. "It’s something very strange to explain and difficult to feel," Dovizioso said. "When you have different winglets you don’t really feel what happens, like you have a different set-up on the bike." Bradley Smith told reporters the advantages were only very small. "I think that they have very minimal effect on performance, especially our ones at Yamaha. I don't even think that it gives you 0.1 a lap." Things were a little different for Ducati, according to Smith, as they have clearly spent more time on development in the area.
They're dangerous, but we'll use them anyway
Opposition to the winglets is widespread among riders, most of them citing safety concerns, though interestingly, different riders talked about different dangers. For Dani Pedrosa, the danger was collision. "The rider is very exposed in general, so we are making Safety Commissions to change the kerbs, to change the grass, to change the sand of the track, to increase the air fence, etc," Pedrosa said. "And then we put these kinds of 'knives' on the bike. So it does not make so much sense, to work so hard in one way, and destroy it in the other."
For Smith, the issue was more one of turbulence. "For me, the number one issue is turbulence, the fact that bikes become unstable behind other motorcycles at 350 km/h, and the front starts to shake and blows the brake pads apart," he said. "That's where my issue with them comes from." Despite his objections, though, he would still be riding with the winglets. "I could ride without them, but what's the point in giving away 0.1?" Smith pointed out. "It's 2.7 seconds at the end of a race, that's the difference between sometimes fifth or tenth. So while it's available to you, you're always going to use it."
Smith also pointed to the issue of cost, explaining that aerodynamics could soon degenerate into a spending war, with factories spending more and more on wind tunnel work. While he has a point, merely banning aerodynamics will not necessarily reduce spending. If history has taught us one thing, it is that engineers enjoy the challenge of finding ingenious ways of solving problems, and factories will spend whatever budget they have on enabling their engineers to do just that. Dual clutches were banned to prevent a spending war, and HRC took the budget they would have spent on DCT and poured it into their seamless gearbox. Now, everyone has a seamless gearbox – they have to, otherwise they cannot compete.
The perils of hubris
Wings and tires were not the only topic of conversation, of course. There was plenty of talk about 2017, as usual, as the paddock waits on tenterhooks for Maverick Viñales' decision. The Spaniard was still vacillating between Yamaha and Suzuki, and that may have led him to overplay his hand. Speaking to Spanish reporters about reports that Yamaha were looking at Dani Pedrosa to fill the seat alongside Valentino Rossi, his first response was, "Dani has spent a lifetime with Honda. He should finish his career there."
A few hours later, Viñales was taking that remark back on his Twitter account. "Excuse me for my statements on Dani's future," he tweeted. "What I wanted to say was it would be fantastic for Dani to finish his career where he had started it."
Why the backpedaling? Perhaps he realized he had gone too far. Or perhaps he had received a quiet word from Yamaha or Suzuki, pointing out that they did not appreciate the way he had expressed himself. Or perhaps he got word of news that broke late on Friday night, that Dani Pedrosa was set to sign a contract with Yamaha, and that his chance in the factory team was rapidly disappearing.
The news, published by Nadia Tronchoni of respected Spanish newspaper El Pais, is that Dani Pedrosa has already agreed terms with Yamaha for 2017 and 2018. Tronchoni – arguably the best journalist in the MotoGP paddock, both extremely knowledgeable and extraordinarily reliable – wrote as fact what Simon Patterson of MCN had reported earlier in the week. Whereas Patterson's sources had told him only that Pedrosa's switch to Yamaha was being very seriously considered, Tronchoni asserts that the deal is done. Understandably in such a sensitive situation, neither journalist revealed their sources.
Viñales may have ended up as a victim of his own hype. The young Spaniard is clearly incredibly talented, but he has neither completely outclassed his teammate, nor scored a MotoGP podium. Andrea Dovizioso's manager, the ever thoughtful Simone Battistella, told GPOne that the current Silly Season was distorting the rider market. "[Viñales] is strong, but he is overvalued in the current market," Battistella said. "There are only a few strong young riders. The same is true for Alex Rins. At the moment, there are three groups of riders: the top group, 30 years of age and older, Iannone, who is 27, and then the rest. The only truly great young rider is Marc Márquez."
Dani Pedrosa at Yamaha leaves Maverick Viñales at Suzuki, and opens up a new front of speculation over who will take the second seat in Repsol Honda. MCN had earlier reported that Cal Crutchlow could get the seat, and given the current state of the market, that may not be so far off the mark. In part due to a lack of alternatives: when I spoke to a senior Honda source at Jerez, they told me that neither Maverick Viñales nor Alex Rins had done enough to impress them. Jack Miller is in a similar situation, despite having an HRC contract. The Australian is suffering with a lingering ankle injury, and has failed to impress so far this year.
That second Repsol seat could come down to a question of who is available. Andrea Iannone is fast, but has a number of black marks against his name, with the incident at Argentina as the most obvious example. Pol Espargaro is desperate to get onto a Honda, and would love a shot at the Repsol seat, but has yet to demonstrate beyond all doubt that he has earned. Michael van der Mark has been impressive in World Superbikes, but the leap from WSBK straight into a factory MotoGP seat is a massive step. Reigning WorldSBK champion Jonathan Rea would be capable of making the jump, but he seems to have given up on the idea of a MotoGP ride.
Let speculation reign
The empty Repsol seat provides an excellent opportunity for publications needing to fill column inches or ensure website visits. Expect a daily string of stories in the coming weeks, in which every possible combination of rider and bike is covered. Once the remaining seats are announced, such publications will be able to claim they were right all along, and point to the stories which had the right rider on the right bike. The dozen or so others, where the same rider is on a very different bike, will be quietly swept under the carpet.
For an interesting take on why teams are not looking at World Superbikes, and why factories are afraid of bringing riders over from one championship to another, see Cal Crutchlow's comments over on Crash.net. As always, Crutchlow offers an interesting insight into why particular riders end up in a particular place. Crutchlow's tip? Chaz Davies to Pramac Ducati. From my perspective, this seems like a solid possibility. Davies could be joined in MotoGP by Michael van der Mark, but only if a seat in a satellite team becomes available. If Crutchlow is promoted to the Repsol Honda team, then that would open a vacancy at LCR …
Oh yes, there were bikes on track as well today. Jorge Lorenzo laid down an unstoppable pace, the Movistar Yamaha rider fast at a track where he is often strong. The Hondas did much better than expected, not suffering from the lack of grip as expected. As said above, Valentino Rossi and his crew went in the wrong direction, something they hope to rectify on Saturday.
In Moto2, Johann Zarco put on a display for his home crowd, topping the timesheets in the afternoon. Championship leader Sam Lowes is struggling, though why he should be doing so is unclear. Moto3 saw Brad Binder take control in the afternoon, after a very poor start to the morning. Enea Bastianini was forced to give up on his championship hopes, after being ruled unfit to race. Bastianini is already 48 points behind Binder in the title race. That deficit is likely to have grown by the end of Sunday.
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