At the recent test at Circuit of The Americas near Austin, Texas, some were ready to acclaim Repsol Honda MotoGP rookie Marc Marquez Master of the Universe and even dismiss Yamaha as “a spent force.” But as Yamaha’s Jorge Lorenzo said at the final preseason test at Jerez, “Every track is a different world.” At the end of three days at the Spanish circuit, three Yamahas were at the top, with the Hondas of Dani Pedrosa and Marquez fourth- and sixth-fastest.
Rain fell on Saturday and again on Sunday and Monday mornings. Lorenzo worked hard on wet settings all Saturday, but even when the track seemed to dry, it was a spotty result, with corners re-wetting themselves from the high water table.
The real stunner was that Valentino Rossi, newly back on a factory Yamaha after two disastrous seasons on a Ducati, went to the top of the list on Sunday and was only displaced by .014 seconds by a fast lap from Cal Crutchlow Monday afternoon on a leased Tech3 Yamaha. Here is the overall top-10 order at the end of the test:
1. Cal Crutchlow GBR Yamaha Tech 3 (YZR-M1) 1:39.511 (Day 3)
2. Valentino Rossi ITA Yamaha Factory (YZR-M1) 1:39.525 (2)
3. Jorge Lorenzo ESP Yamaha Factory (YZR-M1) 1:39.540 (2)
4. Dani Pedrosa ESP Repsol Honda (RC213V) 1:39.630 (2)
5. Stefan Bradl GER LCR Honda (RC213V) 1:39.975 (3)
6. Marc Marquez ESP Repsol Honda (RC213V) 1:40.130 (3)
7. Andrea Dovizioso ITA Ducati Team (GP13) 1:40.322 (2)
8. Andrea Iannone ITA Pramac Racing (GP13) 1:40.331 (3)
9. Nicky Hayden USA Ducati Team (GP13) 1:40.370 (3)
10. Alvaro Bautista ESP Honda Gresini (RC213V) 1:40.686 (2)
How did Rossi do this? First, he is himself—a nine-time world champion. Second, he has re-adapted to the Yamaha M1 in its current state. And third, he may have come to terms with how chassis must be set up to get the most from current Bridgestone tires. That may mean softer overall, the necessary basis of a corner-speed setup.
“Today’s test session was very positive for us,” he said. “I’m so happy, especially because we used a different style of setting. It is very important for us to understand this setting, which can help and affect my style to ride the bike in a better way and stay more constant, especially with good lap times on old tires.”
And how could Crutchlow be so fast on a leased bike that is sometimes described as “18 months out of date”? Tech3 boss Herve Poncharal said, “The Englishman is much smoother getting into and through corners, with much less effort.”
A common progression for riders is at first to achieve lap times only by rapid conscious action, in effect man-handling the bike to achieve the desired performance. Fast laps can be achieved this way but at a cost in fatigue. Over time, this effort can become unconscious, or as Pedrosa put it last year, “less mental,” allowing the rider to turn more of his processing power to higher-level tasks.
Third was Lorenzo, focused on the season-opening Qatar weekend, which starts April 3. “We proved when the track was drying up that we could keep the performance of the rear tire over race distance,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how fast you are in one lap. If you can’t keep the level over the whole race, you cannot win.”
Lorenzo was talking about the need to achieve a 20-lap setup to have enough tire left at the end to win. On the last day, Monday, he did a 22-lap simulation to verify that this had been achieved.
And the Hondas? Because the track never truly dried, conditions were greasy at best. The Bridgestone press release said, “Sunday and Monday afternoon presented a track that was mainly dry but with damp patches, with riders opting for the softer slick compounds during these periods for maximum grip and warm-up performance in the challenging conditions.”
In those conditions, Yamaha’s new smoothness worked, and Honda’s apparent clear advantage at CoTA evaporated. The Hondas were spinning instead of going ahead as before. Marquez searched for rear grip—every track a different world. This reminds us that the hidden contest is the race to achieve a workable setup. Whoever comes closest in the four, one-hour practice sessions has a big advantage on Sunday.
What about Ducati’s recovery plan? Andrea Dovizioso was seventh-quickest, just 0.811 seconds off Crutchlow. “The laptime is fast, the track is fast,” said Dovizioso, “but this is not a real gap where I can say this is what we can do. If we make the simulation of the race, we are not so strong. The main problem is the middle of the corner; the bike doesn’t turn. You can’t enter as fast as you want because if you make more speed, you [run wide]. I lose in that point, but we have good stability in the braking and also in traction we are quite good.”
Summing up? Crutchlow’s final thought was, “I think it is very difficult to beat the Hondas of Dani and Marc at the moment. I think their package is stronger. We are still working very hard with the Yamaha, but it’s going to be a big battle in Qatar.”