2016 Qatar MotoGP Test Day 1: Problems at Honda?

Marquez still suffering mid-corner and at the exit.

Marc Marquez test action from Qatar at sunset

Triumphant at Sepang, Jorge Lorenzo was not so at the following Phillip Island test. There, he commented that, “The new electronics are going to change the performance of the bikes a lot on other tracks. Someone can have an advantage at one track and maybe they have more problems at another.”

In this he seemed to be saying what others were saying—that the new, less-sophisticated shared software turns each track into a new experience, like starting over.

At Qatar, several riders noted that putting on a new Michelin tire does not restore sparkling performance, and that the used tire is more reliable.

Because Qatar is always slow at first as the track surface is full of sand, the top times are minute-55s and 56s, not the 53s that best track condition has in the past made possible. Because of this it’s not possible to say whether the present order results from Lorenzo and the Yamaha being fast or from Marquez and the Honda being slow.

Another point is that Qatar places the Hondas at a disadvantage.

Marquez said, “…our potential … is the braking point. You can brake late. Here you can't because all the corners are quite big and you must float on the bike on the track. We are trying to improve this area.”

The “V-shaped line” that the Honda men use allows them to get turned early, lift, and accelerate. Usually, commentators speak of this as “Honda acceleration,” but it actually depends on getting turned quickly to allow acceleration to begin early.

Marc Marquez test action from Qatar

Marc Marquez says that the problem with the Honda right now is that the bike is hard to turn mid-corner. This means the rider has to stay leaned over longer at the exit to finish the corner, which heats the tire and causes quicker wear.

Marquez said, “The main problem is mid-corner turning and exit. The main thing is it is like a consequence. The entry of the corner is not so bad but mid-corner it's hard to turn. Then in the exit you use too much banking because you can't turn in the mid corner.”

Tom Sykes’s engineer Marcel Duinker spoke of the Kawasaki Superbike’s early problem (2013) being similar—that because it wouldn’t turn in mid-corner, the rider had to remain at high lean angle longer to complete the turn. As a result, Sykes would overheat his rear tire and go backwards toward the middle of a race.

When I spoke with Dani Pedrosa at Valencia, he said of the high-lean-angle phase of the Hondas’ turning that, “We’d like to stay down longer, but if we do, the tire won’t finish the race.”

There are possible explanations for what is going on here.

1) If the rear tire doesn’t creep sideways on throttle as the Bridgestones did, the rider can’t make the bike turn with the throttle.

2) If the front tire gives a “closing feeling” (Marquez’s words from Sepang) as the rider applies throttle, he cannot accelerate. If there is this closing feeling, it could come from the tire itself or from a slight change in front/rear weight distribution.

3) Honda’s big advantage has been strong, late braking, but in 2015 Marquez said changes in the engine compelled him to do most of his braking with the front, overworking the front tire (Crutchlow fell from getting too much heat into the front on Wednesday evening, leading to a “bouncing feeling”).

When Honda manager Shuhei Nakamoto stated during the 2015 season that the problem was definitely not the engine, Marquez moderated his critical remarks but the problem did not go away. This suggests that if a similar problem remains at this moment, it is discussed only in private.

This is the outsider’s perpetual problem. You look at the video and you either talk to riders or collect their quotes, and you try to make some elemental sense of them. What is happening? I can only speculate, and hope that if my ideas are wrong, someone who actually knows will tell me I’m an idiot and set me straight.

In this sense, MotoGP is a kind of black hole. Let’s hope for a few rays of “Hawking radiation” to leak out so that our curiosity can be at least partly satisfied.