The weather at Aragon is a fickle thing. The weather forecasters had predicted rain all day, but the rain lifted during the morning and stopped falling completely before lunchtime, leaving only threatening skies looming over the track like a slate-grey cloak. The track dried surprisingly quickly, the Moto3 riders going out on rain tires and with a wet set up once pit lane opened for the first of the three qualifying sessions on Saturday afternoon, only to return straight away for slicks and stiffer springs front and rear, the dry line appearing on the track now wide enough to push very hard.
It stayed dry for Moto3, MotoGP and Moto2, more or less, but there is more to going fast than just having a dry track. It was cold and overcast, and the chilly track temps caught a lot of riders out, especially on the finicky Bridgestone tires which, while vastly improved, still give problems in very cold conditions. The combination of the track temperature, a stiff breeze and the lack of right handers mean that the right side of the tire soon loses temperature, and the few right handers there are at Aragon are not turns which you spend braking into, loading the tire and generating heat, Andrea Dovizioso explained.
That explained the plethora of crashes which plagued MotoGP and Moto2 especially. Turn 2 was one favorite spot to go down, the other being turn 13. What both have in common is that the are the first right handers after the bikes have just spent long periods of time on the left-hand side of the tire. The list of riders that went down is long, and includes both factory Ducati riders, Dani Pedrosa and Yonny Hernandez. All crashed due to the same cause: a cold right-hand side of the tire.
Tire choice tomorrow will be crucial, and all eyes will be on the thermometers. If track temperatures are the same as they were on Saturday, then most riders - especially Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo - will run the softer front tire, as advised by Bridgestone. Fitting the hard front and crashing out while trying to get it up to temperature is just too big a risk to take.
Riders with less to lose will take that gamble: the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha men have both said they would prefer to run the hard front, as that tire proves the extra stability they need under braking while leaned over. Andrea Dovizioso was "about 80%" certain to run the harder front, while Cal Crutchlow was prepared to risk it, in part due to his experience earlier in the year. "In Jerez when we were all advised to run the soft, I ran the hard and I was a second and a half away from the winner," Crutchlow explained. "That's the best any satellite rider has been all year." Crutchlow's plan, he explained, is to try to stick with Lorenzo and Pedrosa in the early laps, and then hope to still be close at the end.
With dry weather, and more importantly, some sunshine to warm the track, the hard front will become an option for those prepared to take the risk. With all of their set up data gained on the soft tire, most riders, and especially the front men, will be sticking with the soft and dealing with the consequences.
Those front men will almost certainly once again be Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo. There is nothing to separate the two, and picking a winner is anyone's guess. Hopes are high for another thriller like Brno, but with so little track time and so little data to go on, whether this will materialize or not is anyone's guess. If both Dovizioso and Crutchlow can get near to the two title contenders, the race might even get more interesting at the front. "I think you will see more battles than normal," Dovizioso told reporters on Saturday.
If the Monster Tech 3 men do manage to stick with Pedrosa and Lorenzo, then Yamaha will be faced with a dilemma. Jorge Lorenzo's 38 point lead looks pretty comfortable at the moment, and the factory Yamaha man can afford to lose 5 points every race to Pedrosa. But if Dovizioso and Crutchlow intervene, then his loss of points could go from 5 points to 12, cutting his advantage over Pedrosa to just 26 points. That should theoretically be enough over the final four races, but it is a very long way from being comfortable.
Under ordinary circumstances, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha men can be relied on to do the right thing by Jorge Lorenzo. But with Andrea Dovizioso departing for Ducati at the end of the season and Cal Crutchlow badly wanting to prove that he should be on a factory bike, the odds are tipping against the unspoken assumption that the Monster Tech 3 boys will help the factory Yamaha out. Given the level of both Pedrosa and Lorenzo, though, just sticking with them will be demanding enough.
The question is whether Ben Spies will be able to join the fun, and indeed whether Stefan Bradl will tag along for the ride as well. After a solid result in Misano, where he started a little too conservatively, but finished a race without incident or making a mistake for the first time in what seems like forever, Spies is gunning for a little bit more. As for Bradl, the German has been extremely impressive in his debut year on the LCR Honda, gradually gaining speed as the season has progressed. Bradl has benefited from the extra test here a month ago, and is feeling supremely comfortable on the bike. Though he qualified six tenths off the pace of Pedrosa, he could yet pull out a surprise at Aragon.
As for the Ducatis, the test at Aragon is the biggest influence on their performance. "It is the opposite of Misano," Valentino Rossi said, where he had got an outstanding podium at a track he had tested at two weeks' previously, after a weekend where much of the practice was lost to rain. At Aragon, where Yamaha and Honda tested but Ducati did not, the lack of track time was hurting Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden, while Yamaha and Honda had some data to fall back on. Not that such data was necessarily all that useful, Johnny Rea warned, pointing out that temperatures were at least 20° centigrade warmer when they tested here.
The biggest problem was the lack of data with the new chassis. Valentino Rossi was most confident, believing that with a few tweaks in the morning warm up to improve traction and acceleration, he should be much closer to the front. But with so little time spent in the dry, "it is difficult to understand my rhythm and the rhythm of the guys around me," Rossi explained.
The new chassis posed an even bigger challenge for Nicky Hayden. His first experience with the frame had been at the test on Monday after Misano, where had put in just a few laps to compare the old and the new chassis, before the pain in his broken hand had caused him to stop. Though the feeling with the new frame had been better at Misano, at Aragon, he felt no such benefit, Hayden said. The bike was not turning as he wanted once he left off the brake in the corners, Hayden said, and the front of the bike was probably a little too stiff. That was mainly due to a lack of set up time, however, with the rain having meant that Hayden had not had a chance to follow his original plan of testing the old and the new chassis against each other once again. The solution is simple, but not available to the American and his team: "We just need time to set it up," Hayden said.
After qualifying, it emerged that Dorna is studying proposals to change the qualifying practice. Losing qualifying tires and reducing free practice from 1 hour to 45 minutes meant that a large part of the 1 hour MotoGP qualifying practice was also devoted to working on set up. Qualifying only really gets interesting in the final 20 minutes or so, once the riders start to push for a fast lap. With the whole hour-long session currently televised, more excitement was needed during qualifying, both for the TV audiences and for the fans who come to the track.
Several different proposals are being studied, the schools of thought being divided into some form of knock-out format, such as employed by Formula One or World Superbikes, or a divided qualifying practice run under the current rules. Though the knock-out format has many advantages, there are concerns in the paddock that it would be seen as copying WSBK. So the idea of splitting qualifying into two separate sessions, a 30-minute free practice 4 session and a 15-minute qualifying dash, with a 15-minute break in the middle, looks to be gaining the most traction, according to Jorge Lorenzo. The proposal at the moment is only to introduce the changes for the MotoGP class, though the change could be made as early as next season.
Whether a change to the qualifying procedure would change the outcome is extremely doubtful. But having a relatively minor change would greatly benefit the excitement. The reintroduction of super-soft qualifying tires is simply not an option, simply because of the extra costs involved. However much the fans would like to see it.