The Racing Capital
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March 27, 2012 | By Dennis Noyes - Speed.com
Courtesy of Speed.com
Honda’s reigning champion, Casey Stoner, reminds paddock veterans of Mick Doohan. Jeremy Burgess used to say that Mick’s goal was to keep his name at the top of the timing monitors from the first free session right through qualifying. The reason was not so much to boost Mick’s always-strong confidence as it was to keep the pressure on his rivals.
If Casey Stoner had packed up and gone back to the motel with ten minutes to go on the final day of practice at Jerez, he still would have established the best pace over a 10-lap run and still would have ended the preseason with the best overall record. On a cooling track and with the hard work done, however, Casey went out and wiped Jorge Lorenzo's name off the top of the chart.
Casey uncorked a fast lap late in the third and final day of the Jerez IRTA tests, less than ten minutes from the end of 24 combined hours of testing from Friday morning to Sunday evening, to leave Spain with the best time of 1´38.780, bettering Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo by 0.173 and Stoner’s Repsol Honda teammate, Dani Pedrosa, by 0.377. Only three other riders, Ben Spies, Cal Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi, managed to stay within a second of Stoner.
That final lap was good enough to deny Yamaha and Lorenzo any preseason bragging rights (although still well off the absolute Jerez motorcycle record of 1'38.189 set by Lorenzo on his Yamaha 800 back in the heady days of Michelin qualifying tires.) Stoner was a tenth of a second off his own best qualifying time from last year but said that the track was not giving the same grip as last year. (The new Bridgestones will be discussed later in this piece.)
Okay, he took less than two tenths from Lorenzo and less than four tenths from Pedrosa. That's relatively close, but, just as it was at Sepang II, when we look at pace we see that the two-time World Champion was actually faster than he looks just by glancing at the timing chart.
Lorenzo and Pedrosa both did full 27-lap race simulations. Lorenzo had an average lap time over race distance of 1'40.310 while Dani was at 1'40.496 for Dani. Lorenzo even did his fastest lap of the simulation (1'39.952) on the 25th of the 27 flying laps. Pedrosa's best time during his full-race run was 1'40.014 on his second lap but he ended the stint with his second fastest lap (1'40.036). (It appears, from this, that the Bridgestone race tire now not only warms up quickly, but also allows riders to turn very quick laps on the final laps. At least it does at Jerez.)
Stoner did not run a 27-lap simulation, but Pedrosa's pace makes it clear that there is nothing about the Honda's power delivery or set-up to give Yamaha hope that they hold any advantage over long runs. In fact Casey's only longish run of 10 flying laps produced a devastating average of 1'39.697. Stoner's best lap from that run was a 1'39.285 on his second lap, but over the entire run, nine of his laps were better than Lorenzo's best simulation lap.
Given Stoner's race pace average, he would have taken over 16 seconds from Lorenzo over full race distance. Does anyone really doubt that Stoner could have kept the pace up over 27 laps?
Casey’s answer, when asked why he usually doesn’t do full-race simulations is a simple one: "With these bikes and these tires once you have a pace you know what you can do. You don't have to wear your engine out proving what you already know."
Doubly worrying for Yamaha is the fact that Jerez is Stoner's worst track. In his six seasons in the MotoGP class he has never won at the Andalucian venue and only finished on the podium once (third in 2009). He might, however, have won last year in the rain had not Valentino Rossi taken him out in the famous incident that prompted the young Australian to inform the Italian superstar that "obviously your ambition outweighed your talent."
Ben Spies was a solid fourth overall, but made no long runs on the final day, and was 0.715 off Stoner’s best. Tech3 Yamaha’s Cal Crutchlow was an impressive fifth less than a tenth of a second back of Spies on the factory Yamaha. This gave Yamaha three bikes in the top five along with the two factory Hondas.
Rossi's best time of 1'39.953 placed the Ducati rider just barely in the same second as Stoner but the nine-time World Champion ended his day with a 13-lap run that brought an average lap of 1'41.102 . That means that Rossi would be losing 1.3 seconds per lap over race distance assuming he could maintain that average over race distance -- and that would mean giving up 35 seconds over full race distance, the sort of pace that, in past years, would mean battling for tenth place.
It looks like a battle between Honda and Yamaha for the title with Stoner and Lorenzo leading the way. Ducati will not have their new engine until Portugal or France (the third or fourth race of the 18-race season) and nothing we have seen from Ducati over the last season or this preseason indicates that they will finally get it right.
The Two Preseason Mysteries
Two tantalizing questions remain: Is Ducati building a completely new engine? And what was the red-light glitch that limited the Hondas to four-lap runs in Sepang?
If Ducati was just tweaking the frame they would not be saying that the new bike would not be along until Estoril or Le Mans. They have to be building a new engine. Some paddock regulars speculate that Ducati might finally be going to a tighter V-4 engine, but my best deep insider says no, Ducati has decided at the corporate level to live or die by the 90-degree L-4. A 70-ish degree V would require a major redesign and balance shaft, and that, even for a factory, might mean a longer delay than two months.
If my source is right (and he usually is), it is probable that Ducati may have, in spite of affirming that its current GP12 is a full 1000cc bike, opted for a 930cc displacement and an ultra-short stroke in a quixotic attempt to overcome greater displacement with more revs. To the trained but naked ear along the back straight at Jerez, it sounded like the Ducati L4s of Rossi and Hayden were revving their guts out but still being discretely yarded by the Hondas and the Yamahas.
It also sounded like Ducati tester Franco Battaini was turning less revs. Perhaps he was on a quickly cobbled up version of an engine with a 48.5 mm or so length stroke
Mystery two concerns the reason for the warning light in the instrument panel of Dani Pedrosa's Honda that caused HRC to sit out the second day completely and reduce runs to four laps on the final day at Sepang II. One rival team director told me that he suspected that the problem had to do with the gearbox. He based this on the fact that Honda emptied their garages of all but their highest ranking Japanese technicians, the same ones, he said, who are entrusted to service the seamless gearbox. The other possibility is that, seeing that Yamaha were matching their best runs along the long Malaysian straights at the first tests, Honda may have increased the revs for Sepang II and run into friction (heat and oil pressure) problems.
That could also explain why all but the key Honda technicians were sent out of the garage while the engines were looked at after the opening day in Malaysia.
If Honda runs true to course, someday around the year 2030, a retired non-Japanese Honda technician will let it slip, and on that same occasion we may even find out what really happened with that supposed sticking throttle problem at Motegi 2010.
The True Level Of Stoner's Dominance
In general, and in spite of the oft-quoted remark by Honda HRC boss Shuhei Nakamoto that the Yamaha was now at least as good as the Honda, Stoner was the only rider to complete more than half of his flying laps under the 1 minute 40 second barrier.
To determine 'flying laps' we count only those laps completed at normal race pace, eliminating all 'out laps,' 'in laps' and 'discarded laps' (when a rider shuts off to avoid traffic or to get another rider out of his slipstream).
The true dominance of Stoner's race pace is seen in the fact that of the 41 flying laps that he completed, 23 were in the sub 1'40s, a percentage of 56%. No one else was even close. Pedrosa with seven of 41, managed 17.1% of his laps in the sweet times and Lorenzo at 10 of 59 was virtually tied with his fellow countryman's pace.
Only nine of the 22 riders (21 GP regulars plus Battaini, the Ducati tester) managed to get below 1'40 and Stoner was the only rider to get into the 1'38s, lapping in 1’38.975 and 1’38.780 on his two final laps.
Place Rider Flying laps Sub 1'40s Percentage Of Sub 1'40s
1. Stoner 41 23 56%
3. Pedrosa 41 7 17.1%
2. Lorenzo 59 10 16.9%
4. Spies 41 4 7.5%
5. Crutchlow 47 3 6.4%
6. Rossi 55 2 3.8%
7. Dovizioso 47 1 2.1%
8. Hayden 57 1 1.7%
Crutchlow Leads Satellite Riders
Cal Crutchlow, World Supersport Champion with Yamaha in 2009, rode his Tech3 Yamaha to fifth overall on the final day in Jerez and was easily the best of the satellite riders, taking nearly a half second from Gresini Honda’s Álvaro Bautista.
Rider Bike/Team Best Time Overall Placing
Crutchlow Tech3 Yamaha 1'39.585 5
Bautista Gresini Honda 1'40.017 9
Bradl LCR Honda 1'40.098 10
Barberá Pramac Ducati 1'40.287 11
Abraham Cardion Ducati 1'40.579 12
De Puniet & Aprilia CRT Push Satellite Riders
Randy de Puniet took the Power Electronics Aspar Aprilia to 13th place overall, a full second ahead of his Spanish teammate, Aleix Espargaró, and only 0.022 off the last of the satellite riders, Karel Abraham. His time of 1'40.601 pulled him well clear of the rest of the CRT machines.
The best of the rest of the CRT field was Espargaró followed by Came Ioda Racing Project's Danilo Petrucci (runner-up in last year’s FIM Superstock Championship). The rest of the riders on track in Jerez all posted times slower than the very fast Moto2 time of former FIM Superstock runner-up Claudio Corti on his Kalex.
How could Corti on a 120hp Moto2 set faster times than American veteran (and two-time World Superbike Champion) Colin Edwards (BMW-Suter), Michel Pirro (CBR Honda-FTR) and the two Kawasaki-FTRs of Spanish Superstock Champion Ivan Silva and Colombian Yonny Hernandez, moving up from Moto2?
The answer is corner speed. The Kalex, like the rest of the faster Moto2 machines, is a corner speed monster on a track with only one sixth gear straight. Two years ago the Moto2 bikes were unable to get under 1'44. Now Corti has equaled down to the 1/1000th of a second the pole position time of Loris Capirossi on the Ducati 990 Desmosedici in 2003. Wrestling a big(ger) MotoGP CRT with less than perfect electronics just may be harder than pushing a well-sorted little Kalex around the twisty 2.748 mile Spanish track.
And before dismissing the CRTs remember that in 2010 pundits said Moto2s would not even equal World Supersport times, let alone 250cc times. (Wrong twice.)
Clearly the best of the lot among the CRT teams is the Aspar Aprilia effort and among riders De Puniet, often underrated, is showing the form and motivation that we saw in 2010 when he qualified the satellite LCR Honda on the front row in three straight races (second in Silverstone and Assen and third in Cataluyna) before he was run over in a multi-bike crash at the Sachsenring. That crash spoiled his season, although he did finish ninth overall, just behind the late Marco Simoncelli and with six top-six finishes and a season's best fourth at Catalunya. Last season he was a disappointing 16th overall on the Pramac Ducati, but this preseason the Frenchman is riding well and his motivation is high. He will push the satellite bikes hard this year and set a standard that will challenge all CRT riders.
Texan Colin Edwards was only 17th and fourth of the nine CRTs. His Suter-BMW has been running since 2010 but Edwards was 1.472 seconds back of De Puniet. Something is wrong in the NGM Mobile Forward Racing team and Edwards and his team will have to find a way to fix it fast or this will be a long season for the winner of two World Superbike titles and 31 SBK races.
The New Bridgestones
The black art of building racing tires continues to introduce an element of randomness and unknown outcomes. The chatter that afflicted Honda riders in Malaysia was absent in Jerez, but like sharks off the coast, its absence was more worrying that reassuring to Stoner who believes it will reappear at other tracks and perhaps even at Jerez if conditions are significantly different for the Spanish Grand Prix in late April. Honda riders would rather have faced chatter at Jerez in order to be able to work to cure it. Now they wonder if it will be lurking in wait at Losail in Qatar.
Yamaha riders listen to chatter talk and shrug their shoulders. Something about the Honda seems to attract chatter while Yamaha riders are provisionally immune. It appears that initially the new Bridgestone front works better on the Yamaha than the Honda at Sepang, but Jerez did not produce the same phenomenon.
Ducati riders complained of corner entry problems and wondered if perhaps they simply weren't going in hard enough to find chatter problems.
The biggest complaint with the Bridgestones last year was that they did not warm up quickly. A season-long rash of cold-tire, early-lap crashes both in races and practice sessions (especially morning sessions) were blamed on this tendency to warm slowly.
This year's tires warm up quickly but some riders have complained that the trade-off is an early drop off in grip. Stoner, however, maintains that the big engines with all their mid-range torque are smoother and easier on the tires and that the proof of this is in the endurance of even the softer compound rears.
Ben Spies believes there is a tendency for performance to drop off, but he likes that, saying that his feel and confidence improve when the bike is loose and moving around. The Texan's biggest problem in his first two years in MotoGP has been finding the feel and confidence to let him push hard during the opening laps.
Although both Lorenzo and Pedrosa speak of early drop off in grip, their laps times on full-race simulations show that both men were as fast or faster during the final laps of their 27-lap runs. Lorenzo, as pointed out earlier, did his best lap on his 25th lap of the 27. Pedrosa recorded his best time from his race-length run on only his third lap, but did his second-best lap (just 0.022 slower) on his 27th lap.
Until now the riders have been running alone. The best evaluation of the new Bridgestones will come when the riders are running together and battling each other on the brakes and running different lines on corner entry and exit. Hopefully the combination of 1000cc engines and more forgiving tires will produce more overtaking, looser bikes, and a wider variety in racing lines.
The five years of 800cc racing, whether with the tire wars in '07 and '08 or the control Bridgestone over the final three years, produced only nine of 88 races that were decided by less than a second and precious few races with a last-lap overtaking.
But the statistics don’t tell the whole story. The final years of the 500cc class and the first five years of MotoGP 990 racing gave fans much more overtaking and uncertainly, while the recent half decade gave us races that, regardless of the actual winning margins, were often processional and predictable, with any slight advantage from qualifying simply multiplied by the number of laps.
The championship promoter, Dorna, has upset racing purists over recent months by stating that entertainment must trump technology in a televised spectator sport. The move to 1000cc and the very clear message from riders and Dorna to Bridgestone that tires need to warm up quickly even if they drop off later in the day, may produce the 'entertainment' that has been missing in recent years, but Dorna clearly intends to close up the field by slowing down the front.
This year there will be two races in one. At the front Honda and Yamaha will battle while Ducati struggles to close the gap. At mid-pack the best of the CRTs will chase satellite stragglers while the backmarker CRTs, running in some cases, hot-rodded long-stroke Superbike engines in less than ideal frames, will battle each other and, in some cases, be on the lookout for the dreaded blue flag during the final laps.
Change is not always pretty, but MotoGP needs change.