After the fickle weather which has dogged the first three European rounds of MotoGP, the first day of practice at Barcelona weekend got off to a dry, warm and sunny start. It was just what the teams and riders needed, some dry track time to work on the issues they face: for Honda, the chatter which they have suffered since the introduction of the RCV213V in the middle of last year, for Ducati, the lack of rear grip and poor drive out of corners, and for Yamaha, well, nothing really, it's a pretty good bike as it is.
Conditions were pretty near ideal, though the blazing afternoon sun made the track a little too hot to get the best out of the tires, and it showed in the times. In the MotoGP class, Jorge Lorenzo posted a time well inside the race lap record, while in Moto2, Thomas Luthi obliterated the outright lap record in the morning session. Only Moto3 lagged behind, the brand new four-stroke class still a way off the times set by the 125cc bikes which they replaced.
In Moto3, the honors were shared between Maverick Vinales and Louis Rossi, the Frenchman showing that his win at Le Mans was no fluke. Sandro Cortese, the man Vinales looks set to fight for the inaugural Moto3 championship, is not far off the pace of the Spaniard, and the race is looking promising. For Rossi - the name is loaded with significance in motorcycle racing, but we really are talking about the young Frenchman here, rather than his illustrious namesake - Friday was the first time he had topped a session in the dry, another key step in his progression. A French journalist friend tells me that Rossi (L.) is truly multitalented, having played chess to a very high level, competed in show jumping on horseback and even been a ballet dancer. Grace, balance and intelligence are all key components of riding a motorcycle very fast, so his varied past is standing him in good stead.
In the Moto2 class, it is Thomas Luthi who is dominating. The Swiss rider crushed the outright Moto2 lap record in the morning session, then did it all again in the afternoon. More significantly, he was at least four tenths faster than his nearest rival in both sessions. Pol Espargaro and Scott Redding are the only two men who look capable of living with Luthi, though the gap is still significant. Marc Marquez is way down the order, the Spaniard struggling with a tendon injury in his right thumb. Tendons are bad news: bones heal quickly, muscles not quite so quickly but still at a decent pace. But tendons take a long, long time to get back to normal. Marquez needs to recover quickly if he is to stand a chance in what is turning into a much more competitive Moto2 championship than was expected.
In MotoGP, the timesheets do not tell the whole story, or at least that is what several people would have you believe. That Jorge Lorenzo is blisteringly fast is beyond question, and the remainder of the Yamaha squadron are pretty quick too. At one point during the afternoon session, Yamahas occupied 4 of the top 5 positions, with only Dani Pedrosa spoiling the party in 3rd. But while most of the rest of the paddock tried the softer of the two rear options in the latter part of FP2, significantly improving their time, the two Repsol Honda men, along with Valentino Rossi, elected to keep working on the hard rear tire to find a setup that will work at the end of the race, as the tires wear. Both Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa were having problems with chatter, the Australian admitted afterwards, but the biggest difference had been in the tires. The chatter was causing him to run wide in some of the tighter corners, he said, and will be the main focus of HRC's testing program on Monday at Barcelona and Wednesday at Aragon.
Stoner was also asked whether he believe that heat was a factor, or whether it was specific to the Ohlins suspension being used, as Alvaro Bautista, who uses Showa suspension on his San Carlo Gresini Honda, has not reported any. The heat, and probably the extra rubber being laid down by Moto2 and Moto3 bikes was clearly a factor, Stoner said, but he rejected the suggestion that the main difference was between Showa and Ohlins. Bradl had also not reported any chatter, the Australian said, which suggested to him that the problem only occurs at the higher pace set by himself and his factory teammate Pedrosa.
Valentino Rossi also believed that the timesheets did not show the Ducati's real position, but he was a lot less optimistic than Stoner was. The changes which had worked at Mugello had not worked out as well at Barcelona, both Rossi and teammate Nicky Hayden admitted. The electronics had been the biggest improvement, both men said, making the response much better at the first touch of the throttle, but the new aluminium swingarm which Rossi was using had not given the advantage which it had during the test at Mugello. Both Hayden and Rossi were struggling for rear grip - mechanical grip, Rossi clarified - and so were losing out on acceleration. All attempts at improving grip at the rear sacrificed feeling at the front, and that was a sacrifice Rossi was unwilling to make. This is an old refrain, one of the issues which has dogged the Ducati almost from the start: every time Rossi's crew try to create more rear grip by shifting the weight back or lengthening the wheelbase, Rossi loses the front end feel he relies on to go fast.
Salvation may come in the form of rain. While Friday was a beautiful sunny day, and Saturday looks set to be even better, rain is forecast for Sunday from around 11am onwards, and quite a lot of it. Fresh from his best result at Le Mans in the wet, rain on Sunday could inspire Rossi to shoot for one better than his Ducati-best in France. But even a win in the rain would be deceptive: the problems with the Ducati remain, and the mildly-detuned engine due to be introduced at Silverstone has been rejected, the engine offering no benefits. Instead, Hayden and Rossi will wait until Laguna Seca, when a major upgrade is expected, requiring a whole new set of mappings, Hayden let slip. Hayden will probably have to spring for an engine earlier than that, though, one of his engines is getting a little long in the tooth and starting to burn oil, as demonstrated by the puffs of smoke appearing, especially at the end of the straights.
There was also much talk of silly season, or rather, journalists started to question some of the riders about their future plans. Jorge Lorenzo deflected such queries by deferring to his manager, saying that he was a rider, not a manager, and reiterating that his first priority was to stay with Yamaha - a status reinforced when Lorenzo's manager Marcos Hirsch was spotted in discussions with Yamaha racing boss Lin Jarvis on neutral territory in the Alpinestars hospitality unit. But he was also keen to suggest that he would have no problems adapting to the Honda if he did decide to switch, saying that bikes are just "two wheels and an engine."
Cal Crutchlow was also questioned about his future plans, and though he remained vague, he did reveal that he has an offer on the table from "another team". Whether that was with another factory or not was another question altogether, and not something he was keen to reveal. When questioned specifically about whether he would consider going to Ducati, he said he was not worried about it. His style was the closest to Stoner's, Crutchlow affirmed, giving him confidence he could tame the bike, though he was also quick to concede that Stoner was also a second a lap faster at some races.
Until Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi sign contracts, Crutchlow opined, there was not much point thinking about it. He was talking to several people, but all hinged on where Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi ended up.
Crutchlow was also asked about the new brakes he had had fitted to his Yamaha M1, and the British rider was keen to downplay the difference. Performance-wise there was not that much in it - "I've always said we won't win races with the brakes," he said - but the feeling and safety margin was improved. No longer would he threaten to run into the back of other riders as he struggled to get the bike stopped. The feeling was fairly similar, but the big difference was in the amount of brake lever travel, giving a more consistent feel.
On the subject of brakes, IRTA, the association of private and satellite teams, had a meeting on Friday to discuss their position on the choice between staying with carbon brakes and going to steel brakes ahead of Saturday's Grand Prix Commission meeting. There was no real consensus on using one system or the other, but what everyone was clear about is that the costs of the braking systems have to be reduced. Whatever the GPC decides to do about it, IRTA will be pressuring to reduce the cost of brakes and other components, as they upgraded parts seem to cost more and more each year.
The teams are in part a victim of their own and their riders' conservatism. One crew chief recently remarked that riders were more focused on having what everyone else had rather than worrying about how well their own equipment was performing. "If another rider has one brand of suspension, then your rider will always want to have that brand," he said, "regardless of whether his own suspension is working well."
This also holds true for brakes. With the exception of the Gresini squad, everyone in MotoGP uses Brembos, because Brembo is perceived as having the best equipment - which they probably are, but the perception is much more important than the reality. Riders push their team managers for brake parts - or in the case of Tech 3, riders buy their own upgrades - and so teams feel they have no option but to buy the latest offerings by Brembo. The Italian brake manufacturer knows this, and having a virtual monopoly on the situation in the paddock, prices brakes accordingly. After all, who can blame them? They have a product on offer, and teams are willing - or perhaps feel obliged is a better way to put it - to pay for that product, almost irrespective of the asking price.
Brembo is not really to blame for this situation, but it is one which cannot continue. If they can be persuaded to reduce their prices, then the debate over carbon or steel brakes will cease, as the most important factor is the affordability. Dorna has ways of pressuring companies such as Brembo into drastically cutting their prices: the tire situation is a case in point. By pointing to their solution for the spiralling cost of tires at the end of the tire wars (Team KR was said to be spending 50,000 euros a race weekend on tires alone) Dorna can make it clear that there are alternatives to allowing one company to exploit its monopoly position. A spec braking solution is unlikely, but it is entirely feasible, and could be done on the cheap without compromising safety. If Brembo want to stay in MotoGP - which they definitely do - then they could well be persuaded to push through some significant price cuts.
Brakes and their materials is one of the issues under discussion for the rule packages to be discussed in tomorrow's Grand Prix Commission, but major changes will also be under discussion, as MotoGP's rulemaking body draws closer to finalizing the future rules of the sport. Where previously, the new rules looked like being introduced in 2015, it is now looking more likely yet again that 2014 will be the major year of change, and once again, a spec ECU and a rev limit between 14,500 and 15,000 RPM is under discussion. Imposing those two changes would save enough money to make a one-bike rule or a switch to steel brakes irrelevant. It is nearly crunch time for the rules in MotoGP, and more should become clear in a few weeks time. Once the rules come out, then we can get on with the business of racing once again. If we haven't been completely diverted by the madness of silly season that is ...