Well, what are we seeing? One popular theory is that MotoGP rookie phenomenon Marc Marquez has redefined everything, but clearly, his Repsol Honda teammate, Dani Pedrosa, has other plans, as the race finish this past weekend in Jerez, Spain, was Pedrosa, Marquez and Jorge Lorenzo (with Marquez dramatically bouncing off Lorenzo in the middle of the last corner on the final lap).
Another theory is that the Hondas and Yamahas impose different styles on their riders, and what we are seeing is the interplay of this with the various racetracks—Lorenzo on top at the Losail Circuit in Qatar, Marquez the hero at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, and now, Pedrosa, master of Jerez.
I remember Casey Stoner saying that he and Pedrosa ride a dirt-track-derived style and were forced into the corner-speed mold by the nature of the current Bridgestone tires, but that Lorenzo’s basic style is corner speed. I also remember Kenny Roberts’ two-pronged criticism of corner speed: 1) When using all your tire grip for turning, acceleration must be delayed; and 2) using corner speed, risk is high all the way through the corner, while point-and-shoot exposes the rider to limited grip for a much shorter time.
And then, I thought of the plight of those who rode Honda’s NSR500V in 1997: That V-Twin had just enough power to be very fast, as long as its tires had grip enough to support a corner-speed style. If the tire faded or the track was slippery, they were sunk.
In 2000, five-time 500cc World Champion Mick Doohan told me that corner speed was the faster style while the tire was young, but as grip faded, point-and-shoot became necessary. On Saturday, Pedrosa said, “We need to keep working on this in order to get the bike more stable, both on the entrance and exit of the corners. That would allow us to ride at a faster pace.”
Late, hard braking, getting turned early, lifting the bike and getting quickly on throttle seemed to be working marginally less well than Lorenzo’s pole-setting round, smooth corner-speed style. Yet, there was Crutchlow, topping FP3 on a satellite Yamaha without being Mr. Corner Speed. This makes it seem that there is, after all, a place for the Superbike style in MotoGP.
On Saturday and Sunday, high track temperatures reduced grip and accelerated tire fade. With less grip, Lorenzo’s corner speed was becoming a weaker play than the styles of Pedrosa and Marquez, who abruptly push their machines up when they apply throttle, putting the load on parts of the rear tire solidly backed by carcass structure and taking it off the flexible “shelf of rubber” that is the edge of the tire.
After the race, Yamaha team director Massimo Meregalli said, “We … worked as hard as we could to improve tire life. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get what we were looking for.”
Stefan Bradl, who has yet to incorporate the lift-and-accelerate scheme into his riding, has to push his Honda harder on entry, and so he always has problems with front grip. At Jerez, he lost the front in Turn 9 on Lap 3 and was out. “Since the beginning of the race,” he said, “I could not push in the front, and this overall package did not suit my riding style.”
Wilco Zeelenberg, Lorenzo’s team manager, said, “After five laps, the tire had already dropped a lot, and Jorge was missing apexes here and there.” This refers to the first downward “step” in tire properties that normally occurs during its life. The 115-degree-Fahrenheit track temperature was doing its work.
Pedrosa acknowledged this, too. “I was able to ride the bike well,” he said, “even though it was difficult because the tires were really on the limit. I couldn’t push too hard because of that, so I had to ride carefully.”
Fifth-place Crutchlow added, “With a full fuel tank, I could not stop the bike, and I had no grip, so I lost quite a bit of time in the early laps.”
Dueling tire strategies. Advantage, Honda.