The pinnacle of motorcycle racing reaches a tipping point, as a new generation of spec electronics is enforced in an effort to shrink costs. Add to the mix a new tire supplier and wings designed to keep these motorcycles from flying, and we have the recipe for an excitingly unpredictable year.
When the 500 cc GP class became MotoGP with the introduction of four-stroke 990 cc machines in 2002, a lot more than just lap times changed. From the factory two-strokes that cost up to US$1 million in 2000, just a few years later the four strokes would amount to several times as much. Numbers kept spiralling upwards in the years to come, with the development of electronics and some technological marvels like the seamless gearboxes – for its innovative transmission alone Honda allegedly charged up to US$340,000 per year to lease to other teams.
The switch from 990 cc engines to 800 in 2007 did little to help the situation. Rather to the contrary, this move entailed high development costs for the new generation of bikes and eventually ended up in shrinking the grid even further. Losing several deep-pocketed sponsors due to restrictions on cigarette advertising only made things worse.
Dorna Sports, the Spanish company that holds the rights to both Grand Prix and World Superbike racing, reacted by introducing a series of measures aimed at gradually reducing costs for the teams in an effort to make MotoGP appealing to more manufacturers. Aprilia, Kawasaki, KTM and Suzuki had all abandoned the championship's top class, while BMW had considered joining in at some point, but soon opted to direct its efforts towards more promising fields. Another secondary target would be to bridge the gap between factory and satellite teams. The last time a non-factory rider won a GP it was Toni Elias aboard a Gresini Honda at Estoril, Portugal, way back in 2006.
Results reveal some success, as Aprilia and Suzuki have both returned with brand new motorcycles, and KTM will also return next year with a new V4. Evidently the spec Electronic Control Units (ECU) and the limitations on costs (engine development freeze, limited engines per rider, sanctioned testing schedules) do indeed offer some hope of developing a competitive ride without necessarily engaging in a spending frenzy against the might of Honda and Yamaha.
Two major updates mark the 2016 MotoGP season: tires and electronics.
Since 2009 the championship had relied on a single supplier, Bridgestone. After the Japanese company announced it would withdraw from MotoGP racing at the end of the 2015 season, Michelin promptly took over the job.
As all MotoGP motorcycles had evolved over a course of six years solely on Bridgestone's tires, the shift to new rubber unavoidably comes with an inherent level of uncertainty. Michelin is no stranger to Grand Prix racing, but it will definitely require some time before coming to par with a breed of racing motorcycles that have evolved considerably since the last time Michelin-shod bikes won races back in 2008.
We should also not forget that Dorna's spec ECU wasn't available for testing until last October, so at least one year of tire development was essentially carried out with the previous generation of factory electronics. Are five months adequate to come up with a product at this level of sophistication, especially if it has to perform faultlessly on several different motorcycles?
During the first testing sessions ahead of the new season several riders – among them Ducati's Andrea Dovizioso – noted that even identical-spec tires would occasionally display different traction characteristics.
Then came Loris Baz's horrific accident at the Sepang MotoGP test last February. When his rear tire came apart while his Avintia Racing Ducati was travelling at 290 km/h (180 mph) on the Malaysian circuit's home straight, Michelin immediately withdrew the specific compound for the rest of the Malaysian test.
Although the first race of the season in Qatar was rather uneventful as far as tires are concerned, the events of the Argentinian GP proved to be the exact opposite. A disintegrating tire on Scott Redding's Octo Pramac Ducati prompted Michelin to withdraw all the soft and medium compound tires. Literally at the last hour, Race Direction announced shorter race duration and included a compulsory pit stop for fresh rubber to ensure no rider would find himself in Redding's place during the race. Perhaps serving as proof of the inconsistencies that Dovizioso pointed out, Valentino Rossi's team still cannot understand what was that made two identical motorcycles with the same setting and same tires perform so differently before and after the mid-race bike swap.
Tires are quintessential in determining the outcome of a race, and it is clear that Michelin's rubber is still in development phase. This practically means that unforeseen problems are bound to arise and it will not always be a safe bet to rely on tire performance when designing a race strategy.
As far as electronics are concerned, the issue raised by Dorna in 2012 – when it started talking about enforcing a spec ECU – escalated to a heated bargaining process behind closed doors. The Manufacturers' Association (MSMA) finally conceded after drawing its own red lines, starting with a five-year freeze on the class' regulations.
The spec ECU is made by Magneti-Marelli, but this does not include all the hardware. The teams can still use their own sensors and acquisition devices, including the Inertial Measurement Unit, provided that they have been submitted for homologation to Dorna. This is essential in order to ensure there is no foul play, like a second ECU masqueraded as a sensor – as Ducati's Luigi Dall'Ignia pointed out.
Based on the ECU that was used by the Open teams during the last two years, the new electronic management is designed to make things a little bit more even. The new Aprilia, Suzuki and KTM bikes have been designed and developed with this very ECU from the onset, while Ducati ran its team last year under the Open class rules. Honda and Yamaha opted to employ their satellite teams to gather data of the specific ECU on their bike.
Several other rule changes introduced for 2016 include 22-litre (5.8 gallon) fuel tanks for all motorcycles, 17-inch wheels instead of 16.5, a total of seven engines per rider for the whole season and setting the minimum allowed bike weight down one kilo from last year to 157 kg (346 lb). The engine development freeze is still in force, as well as testing limitations that allow factory contracted riders to test their bikes only on specific official events.
There are exceptions designed to favor new teams and those that haven't met success during the last three years. Factories that haven't scored a win (in dry conditions) since 2013 enjoy the privilege of running 12 engines per rider, can test freely with their contracted riders and are also allowed to develop their engines. As soon as they start visiting the podium though, concessions are gradually lost.
And finally there are the winglets. Ducati was the first to use them in MotoGP's modern era in search for a solution to the front-end problems that have marred the Italian bikes ever since they ditched the steel frames. Initially the aerodynamic wings were all but laughed at, yet seeing them on Jorge Lorenzo's championship-winning Yamaha M1 and occasionally on Honda's factory bikes means that they actually do work.
Their task is to generate downforce that will help the front tire find more traction, but they are also at the epicenter of some controversy as they are considered to pose a certain risk in case of an accident. Dorna responded by banning winglets in Moto2 and Moto3, but didn't follow suit in the queen class – probably because of the rule freeze that was part of the MSMA deal.
The 2016 MotoGP Season starts with a number of unknown variables that could unpredictably take center stage at any given point. Add to these the fact that almost all the main riders' contracts end this year, so a lot of interest will inevitably deviate from racing itself to who's going where. As yet the only confirmed rider is Valentino Rossi who just inked a two-year extension to his Yamaha contract. With Lorenzo rumored to have in his hands an astronomical offer from Ducati – next to an extension offer from Yamaha – things are looking very intriguing. And we still haven't heard from Honda.
Now let's take a look at the manufacturers and their weapons of choice for this year.
There is no question that Yamaha has the best motorcycles on the MotoGP grid at this time. Its two factory riders, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, monopolized the 2015 championship, culminating in a dramatic decider at the very last race in Valencia.
For 2016 both riders are expected to be among the main title contenders, but their fragile relation is also an important factor in this year's equation, especially when the matter comes to contract decisions.
The YZR-M1 is powered by an in-line four cylinder motor with crossplane crankshaft, housed in an aluminum deltabox frame, and coupled with Brembo brakes and Ohlins suspension. Yamaha also came up with its own version of a seamless gear box, which debuted last year and immediately was deemed effective by the team's riders.
The M1's main advantage is maneuverability, showing its best face in corner entry and exit. It is no surprise that the best satellite team of the championship is consistently Monster Yamaha Tech 3, with its two very talented young riders Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro.
During recent years the M1 was losing in terms of absolute power to Ducati and Honda, as both factory Yamaha bikes faced a considerable gap in top speed. Apparently it didn't keep them from dominating the 2015 championship, while the new rule allowing for 22 liters of fuel should help make up for lost ground – Yamaha was running a 20-liter tank last year.
In 2013 and 2014 Honda's RC213V was the motorcycle to have, with the new star rider Marc Marquez breaking every record that involved the words "younger" and "rookie" on the way to two consecutive world titles.
Problems started surfacing early last year, with Marquez falling in several races. As it turned out, Honda's updates on the RCV engine and a new frame made the bike too nervous. Marquez can perform miracles under any circumstances on a qualifying run, but to his own admittance keeping up with the Yamahas over race distance meant riding constantly on the limit and taking too many risks – evidently explaining why he dropped out of six races in 2015. As the rules do not allow manufacturers to further develop their engines throughout the year, Honda had no other option than to look to the frame, suspensions and electronics for a solution.
This year seems to start like a repetition of 2015. Marquez can still deliver outstanding results, but insists that his bike is "restless, aggressive, nervous". Less freedom to play with the electronics equals less possible solutions, so it will be very interesting to see whether Honda can turn tables around. There's no question that both Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa will win races, but whether their bike will display the consistency required for the title in a season with critical new variables coming into play remains to be seen.
The 2016 Honda RC213V relies on a V4 engine in a twin-spar aluminum frame, equipped with the championship standards: Brembo brakes and Ohlins suspensions. Honda's seamless gearbox debuted in 2011 and was a trend-setter. Reportedly it allows for smooth gear changes that do not unsettle the bike, giving its riders a small advantage in corner exits. In a championship where a tenth of a second per lap can make all the difference in the world, this turned out to be so important that all manufacturers eventually developed their own versions. The secrecy behind this gearbox is such that only specialist HRC (Honda Racing Corporation) engineers service it behind closed doors – not even the riders' engineers are allowed to see it.
The Italian factory arrived in MotoGP in 2003 and was the first manufacturer to work with Bridgestone. This cooperation eventually gave Ducati a very big advantage that helped Casey Stoner win the 2007 championship. As soon as Bridgestone started developing tires also for Yamaha and Honda, this advantage began to wither.
Then Ducati made things worse by dropping its steel frame for the carbon monocoque unit (strategically designed as a double novelty, featuring also in the Panigale superbike) that effectively plagued Valentino Rossi's two years on the Desmosedici.
After several dry years, and despite Audi's ill-fated efforts to run the team under German leadership when it bought Ducati, the keys were handed to a certain Mr. Luigi Dall'Ignia. The man who led Aprilia to World Superbike stardom was employed last year to bring Ducati back to the top and his work brought immediate results.
The latest iteration of the Desmosedici GP features a V4 (or L4, as Ducati describes the 90-degree V4 layout) engine in an aluminum twin-spar frame and the expected names of Brembo and Ohlins. As of last year Ducati also relies on its proprietary DST_EVO seamless transmission.
The all-Italian line-up of Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone were frequent podium visitors last year, but neither managed anything higher than second place. The elusive win is this year's target, as the Desmosedici GP appears to be more competitive than ever.
Until last year Ducati enjoyed the concessions granted to new coming and Open class teams, so having 24 liters of fuel at its disposal meant that it could make up for lost ground in the straights, while Honda and Yamaha were constrained to just 20 liters. According to the 2016 rules all the bikes run on 22-liter tanks, so the top speed edge was expected to be lost.
Despite theoretical predictions, in this year's first race out of the top six bikes with the highest maximum speed five were Ducatis, with Valentino Rossi's Yamaha breaking the trend in third place. The gap between Dovizioso's Ducati and Lorenzo's winning Yamaha measured consistently around 10 km/h (6.2 mph), with the Italian clocking a maximum value of 349.8 km/h (217.4 mph).
Suzuki withdrew from MotoGP racing at the end of the 2011 season, having battled without much success with the V4 GSV-R since 2007. Noting financial constraints, Suzuki opted to pull out of the championship with a clear intention to return soon. As it turns out, Suzuki was probably waiting for more favorable conditions to prevail before bringing its new GSX-RR racer to MotoGP.
This time the engine is an in-line four, with all the typical specs that fill the grid of MotoGP – twin-spar aluminum frame, Brembo and Ohlins. Suzuki had been developing this new machine for at least four years, and designed it around the electronic package that is now enforced by Dorna throughout the field. The fact that both Suzukis were capable of finishing consistently in the top ten in their first year is more or less unsurprising.
Having secured the services of Davide Brivio, the Italian team manager that played a pivotal role in luring Valentino Rossi to Yamaha in 2004, Suzuki hired one of the most talented young riders, the Spaniard Maverick Vinales, next to Aleix Espargaro. Vinales has already shown some fragments of his talent, with a sixth place in the first race of 2016 and falling while chasing Valentino Rossi for second place in Argentina.
The Italian company carries a huge tradition in Grand Prix racing, especially in the smaller classes. In MotoGP Aprilia has been present during the last years in the Open class, with motorcycles derived from the RSV4 superbike. Last year though Aprilia partnered with Gresini Racing and formed a factory squad that would prepare with an underpowered bike while waiting for the brand new RS-GP bike that was introduced this year.
The new engine is described as a narrow V4 in an alumimun frame, with all the typical gear that we've learnt to expect – Brembo and Ohlins anyone?
The RS-GP is still a rather unknown quantity, although having both placed in the top-10 of the Argentinian GP is a very good result. We're talking about a bike that Aprilia's riders, Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl, first tested on February.
The Austrian factory is no stranger to MotoGP as it was present during the first four-stroke years. KTM quickly withdrew from the highest class, but has remained as a main contender in the smallest Moto3 category.
As of next year, KTM returns to MotoGP with a brand new bike called RC16. Information is rather scarce, but we do know that it is a V4 and it will be the only prototype on the grid with a tubular steel frame and WP suspensions.
So far KTM is testing with ex-GP riders Randy de Puniet, Mika Kallio and Alex Hofmann, while for its debut year it has already contracted the talented Englishman Bradley Smith.
With Red Bull as the main sponsor, KTM is expected to make its racing debut this year in August as a wildcard entry at the Austrian GP, which will take place at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, Austria.