MotoGP: Grand Prix of Aragon Preview

Jorge Lorenzo leads the MotoGP World Championship to Motorland Aragon, with second-place Dani Pedrosa still fighting for his first title.

Ben Spies and Alvaro Bautista

Grand Prix of Aragon Preview

Yamaha's Jorge Lorenzo leads the points by 38 over unlucky Dani Pedrosa, whose Honda was bunted out of the San Marino GP at Misano two weeks ago. Yet, based on the lap times from a September 4-5 test at Motorland Aragon, and on the finish orders of the 2010/11 MotoGP races at that venue, Pedrosa could earn back some of that difference.

Motorland Aragon is a new track in Spain’s northeast, added to the MotoGP calendar for the first time in 2010. The track is a public project designed by Hermann Tilke, and it was put in a hilly rural area (where, no doubt, the necessary land was affordable). The initial lack of hotels obliged teams to commute some distance.

In outline, the 16-turn, 3.321-miles-per-lap track resembles an old-time bicycle wrench, with three different-sized indents in its long sides. The long, .6-mile straightaway has allowed bikes to reach 205 mph. Originally, that straight ended in a slow hairpin that has since been replaced with a more normal left-hander. Events run counterclockwise, with considerable elevation change and a variety of fast and slow corners.

Two-time race-winner Casey Stoner has commented, "Here, almost all the corners, you brake all the way in on the edge of the tire." Last year, Bridgestone's race preview noted the number of downhill braking zones. Bridgestone engineer Hirohide Hamashima has called the fine-grained surface "relatively smooth and slippery, similar to Misano." He noted the necessary compromise: Normally, grip on such a surface would be improved by softer rubber, but "there are also some long corners and some downhill braking points, which require greater stability and thus harder compounds."

Local terrain is bare and stony, so dust blows onto the circuit. When laboratory rubber researchers wish to test only mechanical grip, eliminating the “molecular adhesion” aspect of rubber friction, they apply fine dust to the test surface. At Qatar and Aragon, Mother Nature performs this function. The resulting increased front-end “push” requires greater rubber tensile strength that comes with harder compounds. Tire provision last year was therefore soft, medium and extra-hard fronts, and soft and medium rears (a soft front is usually provided for its ability to grip during possibly cool morning practices). Because this circuit heats both sides of the tires relatively equally, only symmetrical tires have been used to date.

Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo

Aragon MotoGP Preview

At the recent two-day Bridgestone test at Aragon, the two Yamaha factory riders (Lorenzo and Ben Spies), two Repsol Honda men (Pedrosa and Stoner stand-in Jonathan Rea) and LCR Honda's Stefan Bradl participated. Pedrosa set the fastest time of the test (1:47.983) on Day 1, while Lorenzo's quickest lap (1:48.244) came on Day 2. The real business of the test was not lap times but rather evaluation of a new rear tire, of which Lorenzo said, "I think the rear tire was a little bit worse than the ones I tried across the two days. Something was wrong because I had much more chattering and a bad feeling on the corners."

Normally, any increase in rear grip places added burden on the front, possibly forcing it into chatter. But who knows?

Like the others, Lorenzo did a long, 22-lap simulation (the race is 23 laps), after which he said, “During the last laps, dropped a lot.” Teammate Spies also made long runs “to find the best setup for the last laps.”

This is the hard lesson of experience. Like so many young riders, Spies in his earlier years concentrated on setting fast time, but with crew chief Tom Houseworth and mentor Kevin Schwantz adding their voices to his hard-won experience, he came to appreciate the value of having his bike “come good” in the final laps, just as other men’s setups are giving up.

Pedrosa tested a new exhaust system intended “to have a better delivery.” Honda’s biggest problem over the years, and still today, is to make controllable the extra horsepower with which it constantly stuff its engines. Harsh power reduces rear grip, so Pedrosa noted, “We also tried a different rear suspension unit to increase the grip.” Rear grip is at a premium at Aragon, and Honda horsepower only makes that more difficult! Rea commented that his biggest problem is learning to trust the tires.

Here are the results from the past two Aragon MotoGPs:

2010 2011
1. Casey Stoner Casey Stoner
2. Dani Pedrosa Dani Pedrosa
3. Nicky Hayden Jorge Lorenzo
4. Jorge Lorenzo Marco Simoncelli
5. Ben Spies Ben Spies
Fastest Lap 1:49.521 (Pedrosa) 1:49.046 (Stoner)
Top speed 204.7 mph 205.4 mph
Weather dry dry
Temp (air/track) 66/79F 66/79F

See any pattern here? Shall we call it “horsepower over all”? We see the traditional horsepower bikes, Honda and Ducati, pushing the “rideability” bikes, the Yamahas, into lower finishing positions. That long straight may just be one of the fabled “Honda lanes,” but as Stoner has said earlier this year, Yamaha has replied with more power of its own. In the test, Pedrosa’s best time was 0.261 second faster than Lorenzo’s, but fast time wasn’t the goal of those two test days. Fast time with how much fuel on board? Fast time on a new tire or on a tire that’s just done 20 laps? It’s like comparing apples and donkeys.

Lorenzo knows his points lead affords him some cushion; he doesn’t have to scratch for every advantage. Pedrosa has said he is not finished with this year.

At the Canadian 500 GP in 1967, Mike Hailwood (Honda RC-181) knew that Giacomo Agostini (MV Agusta Triple) would be champion unless something unusual happened. In an effort to get things happening, Hailwood devoted several laps in the race to buzzing around Ago like an annoying fly. When he saw that nothing could penetrate Ago's serenity, Hailwood cleared off to win, giving us all a good look at high-speed weave or what riders today call "pumping."

MotoGP is full of surprises.