With the Qatar, Argentina and U.S. rounds in the books, the MotoGP circus returns this week to Europe, where most of the riders feel more at home and are more familiar with the tracks. So what did we learn at the season-opening flyaway rounds?
The Michelin tires are actually good, or at least one of them is. Suzuki is making huge gains. Maverick Viñales is an aspiring alien. Ducati has race-winning pace. Honda has problems that Marc Márquez is masking — or just riding around. The silly season started early this year, and may drive the drama for all of 2016.
Tires, tires, tires
The Michelin tires work differently from the Bridgestones. We caught glimpses of this during testing, and now we know for sure. The rear has the grip to handle big power for the duration of the race. That helps Honda and Ducati, as evidenced by the fastest lap of the race being set on the second-to-last lap at Qatar and halfway through the race in Austin. What we are not seeing, so far, is that drastic drop in performance halfway through the race that was happening with the Bridgestones.
The front finally works well enough, but still not on the same level as Bridgestone. This was a common theme in testing and Michelin has made great strides to beef up the front tire to better handle braking while turning. Austin was their undoing, though.
A track that is traditionally rough on front tires, Circuit of the Americas has three distinct heavy braking zones where the front tire needs to cope with vertical and lateral forces. Uphill turn one, in particular, piles on tire stress as riders crest the hill, loft the rear wheel, and try to get the bike turned in at the same time. This one corner caught out five riders on four different machines when the front tire just could not cope and tucked in.
Thank Dorna for on-board cameras, too, as we got live footage of Dani Pedrosa's Honda bucking him off and becoming a projectile aimed right at Andrea Dovizioso. I bet that woke up some TV viewers. It is still very early in the season, but we already have a contender for “scariest on-board of the year.”
Not all is rosy though with that rear though, as we saw in Argentina. The Ducatis have a speed advantage and are chewing up tires and there have been a couple of failures (Scott Redding and Loris Baz). These are the usual teething issues to be expected from a new spec tire supplier, however. After crashing at Austin when he lost the front, Valentino Rossi said it's not that the Michelins are bad. They're just "normal."
“This year, if you make a small mistake, you pay," Rossi said. "For me like this is quite normal. I think it is like with the Pirelli in Superbike. If you make a mistake you crash. The Bridgestone you could make some small mistake without crashing.”
Isn’t that how a race tire should perform? It is now up to the teams to develop setups that work better with these tires, and it is up to the riders to unlearn habits developed during the Bridgestone era.
The silly season came early this year and Ducati is at the center of the drama. With Jorge Lorenzo signing to ride for Ducati for the next two years, one of the two Andreas — Iannone or Dovizioso — will go. The pressure is on them to beat each other.
This showed at Argentina, when Iannone started the race with a brazen pass, hitting Márquez and pushing Pedrosa wide. He then followed up by pushing Rossi wide late in the race while battling for second place and opened the door for Dovi. Keen not to let his teammate beat him, he pushed his luck too far and crashed both Ducatis out of a podium finish in the last corner. After getting taken out of two consecutive races through no fault of his own, Dovi faces an uphill battle to get back in the championship fight. I'm just hoping the rivalries don’t get ugly again this year, not only at Ducati, but also all across the grid.
The other focus of silly season speculation is on Viñales, who continues to impress. In Argentina, we saw Viñales put Rossi on the defensive before crashing out, and in Austin, we saw him take fourth place. There may be contractual obstacles, but Viñales is the top contender to get Lorenzo's coveted YZF-M1 next year.
Viñales has shown an ability to run at the front despite giving up more than 12 mph in top speed to the frontrunners. There is no doubt Suzuki has made great strides during the off season, as is evidenced by them almost halving the gap to the leaders, but the GSX-RR still needs more engine. The way Viñales is riding that bike though, this kid is one to watch.
Honda’s elephant in the room
Just looking at the results can make you think everything is alright at Honda. Third and fifth at Qatar, first and third at Argentina, and a win for Márquez at Austin. However, looking at the time sheets, the problems become more apparent. In Qatar, Pedrosa in fifth was 14 seconds adrift of the lead at the finish, with Suzuki the closest competition. That’s Suzuki, which only last year at the same track was almost 20 seconds behind the leader at the finish.
Granted, Qatar is one of those tracks where as long as the setup is good enough, a good rider can make it work. Let’s look at Argentina now instead. There we saw Márquez clean up, and Pedrosa was gifted a third place, courtesy of Iannone. We see a similar problem though. Pedrosa was over 28 seconds adrift of Márquez at the finish.
This at a track where a bike needs to be really well set up, especially with so much tire wear generated by long periods of time leaned over. Some have speculated that Pedrosa is having trouble generating enough heat in the Michelin tire because he is the lightest rider in the field, and the damp, cool track conditions in Argentina just made the situation worse.
However, we could see that neither Honda was happy, with both bikes bouncing and hopping out of turns and losing drive onto the straight. Honda has made great progress since the beginning of pre-season testing in getting the spec electronics to work better, but the variable track conditions showed how uncomfortable those bikes still are. Márquez just proves his talent and is able to ride through problems, as we saw in another master-class performance at Austin.
We now enter a new phase, and the heart of the season. The next 11 races, beginning with Jerez this weekend, are in Europe. More surprises are certain.