Interview: Kevin Schwantz on the 2016 MotoGP season

1993 500cc World Champion Kevin Schwantz previews the 2016 MotoGP season, and expects the new tires will shake up the order. However, as he tells David Malsher, the reigning champ is in prime position right now.

Interview: Kevin Schwantz on the 2016 MotoGP season
Kevin Schwantz
Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing
Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team
Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing
Valentino Rossi, Yamaha Factory Racing
Dani Pedrosa, Repsol Honda Team
Andrea Iannone, Ducati Team
Jack Miller, Marc VDS Racing Honda and Tito Rabat, Marc VDS Racing Honda
Andrea Dovizioso, Ducati Team
Danilo Petrucci, Pramac Racing
Danilo Petrucci, Pramac Racing
Andrea Iannone, Ducati Team
Scott Redding, Pramac Racing
Danilo Petrucci, Pramac Racing
Eugene Laverty, Aspar Team
Maverick Viñales, Team Suzuki MotoGP
Dani Pedrosa, Repsol Honda Team
Bradley Smith, Monster Yamaha Tech 3
Pol Espargaro, Monster Yamaha Tech 3
Detail of the 2016 Yamaha YZR-M1 of Jorge Lorenzo, Yamaha Factory Racing
Aleix Espargaro, Team Suzuki MotoGP
Alvaro Bautista, Aprilia Racing Team Gresini with grid girl
Hector Barbera, Avintia Racing
Loris Baz, Avintia Racing
Danilo Petrucci, Pramac Racing
Stefan Bradl, Gresini Racing Aprilia RS-GP 2016

Are you excited about the season ahead or are you worried Jorge Lorenzo is going to run away with it?

Yeah, as always I’m looking forward to it. But Jorge so far looks like he’s figured out the new Michelins better than anyone. I think [Pramac Ducati’s] Danilo Petrucci will be strong and Scott Redding has been amazing in most of the tests. So I think as far as contending for podiums goes, we’re going to see a mix of riders we haven’t seen that high before.

But that’s just in normal conditions. In adverse conditions, it’s anybody’s. The wet testing at Phillip Island was pretty inconclusive because you’re never sure how wet is wet, and how hard people are pushing.

What is it that has given Lorenzo what appears to be a considerable advantage?

What I understand is that Lorenzo likes tires with lots of edge grip, and when Bridgestone brought an average tire that was decent everywhere but not great anywhere, Rossi would outrace him nine times out of 10. But when the tires had good grip deep into the race, Lorenzo was basically the faster guy and beat Rossi more often than not. So I’m not sure if the Bridgestone-to-Michelin change has gotten rid of that vagueness Bridgestone had and given Jorge a Michelin more to his liking with grip right on the edge.

It’s hard to tell because outright edge grip is what Marc Marquez also really enjoys, but of the factory teams, it seems like Honda’s struggling the most right now.

Marquez said he’s got no confidence from his bike. Pretty astonishing to hear him, of all people, say something like that. And on a more basic level, I’m also surprised that Honda seems to be one of the teams that’s struggling, even if tires doesn’t explain all their deficit.

Any time I hear a rider say he’s lacking confidence it means he’s got no feeling from the front end. When all you can do to get the front end to bite and turn in is brake hard and stand it on its nose to transfer the weight forward, then that’s what you have to do. But you don’t want to have to do that because then the rears deteriorate twice as fast, because you’re having to use the power harder from the apex to counteract the front-end washout. So it’s not a suitable tactic for a whole race.

In that test, Marquez made a late improvement which moved him up the leaderboard, but he was still half a second from Lorenzo.

We’ll have to watch the first race and see what riders do over the course of a whole race. Then we’ll know a little more, although Qatar won’t give us all the answers because it’s run at night, so it’s cool.

I realize testing doesn’t reveal everything, but it’s sad for Pedrosa that at the end of last year he quite often could match Marquez … just in time for the tires to radically change. Now he’s looking way off his teammate again.

You’re right, he did make a big strong case for himself at the end of the year – ‘Hey, this is why you should hire me again!’ And he’s always been able to really raise his game for assorted races although never for an entire season. But I’ve got to say, he’s always seemed to be the least adaptive of all the top riders. If something’s a little different or a little bit new, it takes him longer to be able to deal with the changes than a Lorenzo or a Marquez. So with these new tires, he’ll still be trying to feel his way forward and get back into the groove.

Rossi’s contract is up for renewal at the end of this year, and he’s looked nowhere near Lorenzo in testing. Could this be Valentino’s final year?

It’s a very good possibility, but I think when it comes to racing, we’ll continue to see what we saw last year: when others don’t have it entirely right, Rossi’s there to take advantage. He’s 37 this year and I’m not sure what the sport would be like without him – still great competition, but not so sure on attendance!

As far as renewing his contract is concerned, it will all depend on how competitive he is. If Rossi and his crew figure out what it is that Lorenzo is doing that’s making him so much faster, and they’re able to do the same, then I think he could keep going.

Also remember that, however much Dorna thinks it has control of the situation, Michelin has the capability of evolving its tire compounds that could send things in a different direction and alter the momentum of the season. Out of the box, yeah, Michelin will do everything it can to just build a good competitive tire. But once they get to know the riders and the bikes and the tracks better, I’m telling you, there’s always an opportunity for change at any point in the season.

It could be that there’s a tire that comes out that favors riders beyond Lorenzo, or can suit a different manufacturer. And I’m telling you, if Honda stays as uncompetitive as it’s been in testing, I bet something will change with the tires, because Honda still carries a pretty big voice around the paddock.

Why have Redding and Petrucci on Pramac Ducatis – last year’s bike but obviously this year’s tires – been so fast relative with the works Ducatis with a new bike, presumably developed around this year’s tire?

Well… I wouldn’t say that. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of the works Ducatis yet. Andrea Iannone is coming off an injury and Andrea Dovizioso’s testing form is never worth basing an opinion on. In a race, he’s a completely different rider. And to be honest, I don’t know how you can develop around a guy who’s only at 90 percent in testing but gives 100 percent in the race. It’s that last 10 percent that can turn a bike that was really good at 90 percent into a bag of shit at 100 percent.

You know, for me, I could ride one second off my ultimate pace and it was like riding to the grocery store. It was in that last second that I was busting my ass trying everything to hold onto the bike and pushing it and the tires. That’s where you discover the ultimate handling of your bike. And since we’re on that subject, that’s also one of the Yamaha team’s great strengths – their riders are digging hard and trying 100 percent throughout testing.

So to get back to your point, I think the works Ducatis could be very strong. The point is, it’s an unknown because of the riders and the way Dovi approaches testing. We’ll find out soon enough.

Looking at Suzuki, last year I wondered why everyone raved about Maverick Vinales. Even though he was a rookie, I thought he should have beaten Aleix Espargaro more often than he did. But testing seems to have been showing you Vinales fans to be right…

Yeah, and I’m pretty excited, because I think both these guys have great skills and they’re going to push each other more and more. I don’t think Aleix is quite the racer Maverick is but he’s smart and quick enough to hold on. But I think the seamless gearbox is really helping Maverick, and I think that’s also helped Suzuki close the gap on the teams ahead. They should surprise people this year. I still don’t know whether they’ve recovered any of the top speed that they were missing, but there are tracks where that is less of an issue.

Aprilia hasn’t really shown any strong form yet. Could they also spring surprises?

Hmmm… You know, I hope so, because we really need them out there. If they’re consistently at the back, it would be so easy for them to be disgruntled and want to pack up and go home. And I think the more manufacturers involved, the better the sport’s going to get. As a brand, Aprilia are capable, because you look at World Superbike; they stepped in and last year were all-but championship-winning. But in MotoGP, they need to figure it out because the swimming pool they’re in only has a deep end.

Will Tech 3 Yamaha benefit from the knowledge that the works team has acquired regarding the tires?

Well they don’t seem to have benefited yet! I’m really surprised at that, and I’d like to think that once the season really gets going, what’s been learned from the top team will filter down to Hervé [Poncharal] and his boys at Tech 3. But so far, Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro haven’t been that quick; they’ve usually been behind the Ducatis – works and non-works – and now the Suzukis, too.

So I hope Tech 3 can be more than just consistent, knocking on the door of the top five. As riders, they’re both good quality and Hervé runs a pretty tight ship. He’s a bit emotional, and I’m not sure as a rider I would have responded well to seeing replays of my team owner shaking his fist whenever I made a mistake! But he’s great for the sport and like I say, he has a good team.

Talking of feedback from other sources, is Cal Crutchlow – as the only rider on a single-bike team – going to struggle most in a year of change?

Well you’ve got to wonder if the works Hondas are struggling so bad, does LCR really want their feedback?! It’s a difficult position they’re in, and last year there were times where you’d see Cal shine, and then other days when you’d forget he was in the sport. The one thing you can’t doubt is that he is as dedicated to racing as anyone out there, and his fitness regime and diet have made him as well prepared as anyone could be. As a competitor, he’s one of the toughest out there, but it’s down to LCR and him to get a grip on that bike and what it can do.

As LCR has gone down to one bike, the Marc VDS team has expanded to two. Has it overstretched itself or will that in fact see it flourish? And if so, can we see Jack Miller – who I know you’re a fan of – really make his mark in his sophomore season?

Well as a rookie, I don’t think Jack surprised us as often as I thought he would, but again you don’t know how strong LCR were. At Marc VDS, he’s got to find some confidence in that bike but you worry when you hear that even the works Honda guys can’t find that confidence. I think Jack can get into the top 10. Beyond that, I don’t know. I think you’ve nailed exactly the question mark over that team – spread too thin now, or benefiting from having a second bike?

Some of these questions will be answered, to some extent, this weekend. But some will take a whole season to get answered. And we’re gonna look real smart or real dumb.

MotoGP 2016 season preview: Let the games begin (again)

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