What is the value of a MotoGP test? About a morning, if Aragon is anything to go by. At the end of FP1, before any real rubber had built up on the track, four Ducatis topped the timesheets. When I asked Davide Tardozzi whether he was happy with the Ducatis looking so strong so early, he replied that this was just the benefit of testing. Watch and see what Marc Márquez does in the afternoon, Tardozzi said.
Sure enough, by FP2, Márquez had caught up and then passed the Ducatis. The Repsol Honda rider ended the day on top of the timesheets, a tenth ahead of the factory Ducati of Jorge Lorenzo, and half a second quicker than Andrea Dovizioso. Cal Crutchlow was just behind Dovizioso on the LCR Honda, while Andrea Iannone was a fraction over a half a second behind Márquez. The advantage was already gone.
For Yamaha, there wasn't any advantage at all. The Movistar Yamaha team had come to the track and found some gains, Maverick Viñales in particular taking confidence from the test, which he carried into the Misano weekend. That lasted all the way until Sunday, when the grip disappeared in the heat, and the Yamahas slid down the order. Friday at Aragon was more of the same: competitive in the morning, when there was some grip, but nowhere in the afternoon, when the grip went. Rossi and Viñales made it through to Q2 by the skin of their teeth, though with no illusions of a podium, or more. Yamaha are in deep trouble, with no end to their misery in sight, but more on that later.
The fast boys
It is always difficult to draw conclusions from practice on Friday, but what is clear is that the championship contenders (by which I mean Marc Márquez and the two factory Ducatis) have the better of the pace at Aragon. Márquez spent the morning working on a single tire, as is his wont, while Andrea Dovizioso plowed his usual steady furrow, deceptively fast while under the radar. Jorge Lorenzo is blisteringly fast over a single lap, while his race pace seems a fraction slower than Márquez and Dovizioso.
There are others to watch too: Cal Crutchlow impressed with a fourth quickest time, and he had decent pace to match it. Jack Miller was fast in the morning, though it looked like Alvaro Bautista had better pace in the afternoon. Andrea Iannone, and perhaps even Dani Pedrosa have decent pace on the hard rear tire, though Pedrosa was adamant that he was still struggling with corner speed. This group, though, looks to be fighting over the spots behind the podium. To match Márquez and Dovizioso, they will need to find some real speed.
Marc Márquez was pleased to have caught up with the Ducatis, despite not testing at Aragon (Honda chose to work on their 2019 bike at Misano after the race instead). "Of course, the most important thing today is that from the morning to the afternoon we did a big step on the setup, on the electronics, and I feel better with the bike," Márquez said. "Still we need to improve, but it was something that we already expected, that especially both Ducatis would be fast in FP1 because they tested here a few weeks ago. But the good thing is that in the afternoon we were much closer with the race pace to them, and also in one lap we were fast. But the most important thing is that we worked on the race pace."
Race pace was Andrea Dovizioso's objective too. Ducati was obviously helped by the test at Aragon before Misano. "The track today was exactly the same as the test and the lap time was very similar," Dovizioso said. "This is the reason why we were able to start immediately with a good speed because we didn't need to adapt to a new situation, just start in the way we finished the test. Now we have to start to work on some details where in the test it's very difficult for the race, to be good for the 23 laps, be fast and able to save the tire."
What had Ducati been testing at Aragon? No new parts, Dovizioso had told the press conference on Thursday. Pressed to explain on Friday, the Italian explained that even though they had no new parts to test, there was still plenty of performance to be extracted from the package which they already have. "It's not about development or not," Dovizioso explained. "There are electronics, setup. If we change something with that, it doesn't mean we need new parts."
"It's not so easy to explain in detail because it's difficult," Dovizioso said, "but really there is a margin to improve with the same package. You learn how to manage the tires, how to manage the electronics, the bike constantly, because one part is to develop the bike and another important part is for riders to adapt to the situation. That I think is the biggest and most important thing, more than developing the bike. So that's why we are a bit stronger and we try to understand and analyze what we have to do, in the way we have to manage the brake, the setup."
"Ducati manage all the Ducatis that are on the track," Dovizioso explained. "So the reason why you can see some other Ducatis with a good speed is because it's one family. If we find something, normally they have everything. I think Pramac but also some other Ducatis. They don’t have exactly the same things as my bike but the base is from last year and they update within the season, so this is the reason why we are a bit stronger."
More aero trickery from Bologna
Much of Ducati's success has accrued through the Italian factory's using its satellite teams as a development platform. They initially did a lot of development on the spec electronics based on feedback from the satellite teams, and used the data to better understand the Michelins. This philosophy was further evident at Aragon on Friday, as one of Danilo Petrucci suddenly found itself adorned with an aerodynamic outer cover on the fork uppers (pictured below, taken from MotoMatters.com technical photographer Thomas Morsellino of OffBikes Twitter feed).
— OffBikes (@Off_Bikes) September 21, 2018
When I asked Davide Tardozzi about the fork appendages, he would say only, "we are testing something." But examination of the photos, and talking to various people in the paddock, suggest that the purpose of the aero forks is to smooth the airflow behind the fork uppers, and increase air pressure on the radiator. The teardrop or wing shape reduces the turbulence which a round fork tube normally produces, and this increases air pressure, which in turn improves cooling.
It is no surprise that such an update should first appear on Danilo Petrucci's bike. As the heaviest of the Ducati riders, his bike gets slightly hotter than the others. With MotoGP about to head overseas, to the tropical heat of Thailand and Malaysia, any modifications which can help improve cooling, and reduce the engine temperature, will leave the Desmosedici engine with a lot more power.
Grip in every circumstance
That Ducati is the most rounded bike on the grid was evident from the very different assessment of how the grip of the track changed which the Ducati riders gave, when compared to those on Hondas and Yamahas. The track temperature went from 26°C in the morning, to 43°C in the afternoon. But the rubber laid down made the tarmac less abrasive.
"The grip of the tarmac was not fantastic this morning. The track needed more rubber to gain grip, so I think the main improvement has been the grip," Jorge Lorenzo, factory Ducati rider said. Contrast that with the assessment of Marc Márquez on the Honda RC213V: "In the morning the grip was better than in the afternoon. It's strange because the asphalt had more rubber and normally it's better grip, but in the hot conditions the grip is less and it's more difficult to understand the limit."
Valentino Rossi expanded on this. "For me, it depends also which tire you have but in general everybody suffers more in the heat, in general," the Movistar Yamaha rider said. "But it's also true like Jorge that in FP1 usually the track does not have enough rubber. The other problem we have is that it looks like when it becomes very hot, we suffer more than the others. So it looks like the Ducatis don’t suffer a lot."
The Yamaha M1's problem appears to be that the bike is much more sensitive to changes in the track, in grip levels and in temperature, than other bikes. "[The track temperature] just changes ten degrees, and the bike changes completely," Maverick Viñales said. "It’s true. We suffer a lot from the changes on the track."
Johann Zarco suffered much the same problems. "The first practice was really good, I was better than what I expected, and I was happy to have a good feeling and in the good pace," the Monster Tech3 Yamaha rider said. "But in the afternoon, I lost that good feeling totally. With the warm temperature, we totally lose the grip on the bike, and then we are lost, because we have no solutions to do."
Zarco and the two factory riders seemed to have problems in very different areas, though. "The bike doesn't have acceleration," Zarco complained. "Entry is not bad, it's one of the strong points of the Yamaha, but then on the track, you also need to open the gas sometimes. If we could do six kilometers without the gas, maybe we would be competitive!" he joked.
For the factory riders, the problem was not on corner exit, but going into the corner. "For me it’s more the deceleration than the acceleration," Maverick Viñales said. "I slide so much on the rear straight and with banking so I cannot push. I’m really slow going into the corner." Valentino Rossi concurred. "For me personally, more in the entry."
The fact that both the old bike and the new bike suffer with a lack of grip in different areas points to a larger, more fundamental problem. "It's like we are more at the limit with the grip, and this is the problem," Rossi said. "So when the track for some reason has less grip, it looks like the Yamaha suffers more than other bikes. But the other big problem is that in a perfect condition of grip, with the new asphalt and a perfect temperature, anyway we are slower than the factory Honda and Ducati. So it means that also in perfect conditions we suffer. We suffer less, but we suffer."
These issues are not new, Rossi said, but had been coming since the beginning of last year. "After the first season back with Yamaha, where I won one race, I was quite competitive in 2014, 2015 and also 2016. In these three years the bike worked well. Sincerely this season is very similar to the last season. It's not a big difference. Last season I was able to win in Assen but it was just one race and apart from the first three races already in 2017 we suffer like this year. So it's negative because we suffer a lot under the technical point, but what we can say is keep calm and give the maximum indication that we can and hope that we can fix the problem in the future."
When asked about his development priorities for the 2019 M1, Rossi once again pointed out that he was not an engineer, and it was not his job to pinpoint particular engineering solutions. "For me, my work is not to say 'I need the V engine', or 'modify the chassis in this way'," the Italian said. "What I said is, for me we are in big trouble in the area between the tires and the bike. Especially, the rear one. So this what I try to explain, but the area to work is not one for me. They are different. Electronic, engine character etc. But I don't know. They have to know. I can just say the advice and every time I say the same."
The fact that this issue has been ongoing since the switch to Michelins points to a stagnation in the development of the Yamaha, allowing the Ducatis and the Honda to overtake them and become better bikes. The Yamaha still handles well, but it demands a particular riding style, one which is not an ideal match for the Michelin rubber. Where Ducati and Honda have worked on extracting maximum performance from the tires, while preserving the strength of their bikes, Yamaha have tried to polish what was a hugely successful bike in 2015 into a race winner in 2018. To little avail.
This lack of development is evident even from just looking at the exterior of the bike. The 2008 Yamaha M1 is barely distinguishable from the 2018 version of the bike, with only a few details giving away its age. Compare that with the Ducati: The GP18 is barely recognizable when put next to its ancient ancestor, the GP8. So much has changed to take the bike which was only really competitive in the hands of Casey Stoner to convert it into a weapon which is dangerous in the hands of many a rider.
So little has the Yamaha M1 changed that the 2012 engine will fit almost effortlessly into the 2018 chassis. Sure, chassis flex and stiffness has changed, but the character of the bike is pretty much identical.
The buck stops where?
Clearly, there is an issue in the upper echelons of Yamaha's technical management. When Masao Furusawa departed Yamaha, he left the project in the capable hands of Masahiko Nakajima. When Nakajima retired, he handed over the reins to his deputy, Kouchi Tsuji. Development of the M1 appears to have ceased under Tsuji, the momentum having turned into inertia, and an unwillingness to try new ideas. Tsuji's deputy, Yamaha MotoGP project leader Kouji Tsuya, has not brought any radical solutions to the M1's ills. And so the project stagnates, and a season-long winning drought has grown to 22 races, and the prospect or a record-breaking 23rd straight race without a win on Sunday.
A fundamentally new approach is required to Yamaha's MotoGP project. That new approach has nothing to do with the engine configuration, but rather with the way the bike uses the tires. If the M1 can be redesigned to make use of the drive grip of the Michelins, without sacrificing the bike's ability to maintain corner speed, it can be competitive again. The Ducati is winning because it can produce incredible mechanical grip. The Honda is winning because it has outstanding strength on the brakes, and great top end power. The Yamaha has neither of these, and is suffering as a result. Change is needed.
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