For the past couple of years, it has seemed as if there is some kind of unwritten law which states that any MotoGP weekend must be accompanied by rain. The weekends without the threat of rain or some other form of ill weather have been few and far between, so it is both a relief and a joy to come to Jerez and have the prospect of a full weekend of stable and dry weather. That's not to say that no rain has fallen: this morning, as we walked to the car, we felt three or four large drops, but that was all. From the forecast, this looks like the entire quota of rain for the weekend, and the paddock is duly grateful for small mercies.
A consistently dry track still posed problems for the riders, however. The last time MotoGP was here, back in March, conditions were far from ideal. It rained, every day, with plenty of sunshine in between, leaving the track treacherous and difficult, with low grip levels and a patchy surface. Though the teams collected plenty of data at that test, very little of it is usable this weekend, with much higher temperatures and better grip. Until the afternoon, that is, when the warmer temperatures meant that grip levels started to drop again, a perennial problem at Jerez. The bumps, too, are an issue, with many riders running wide after hitting them as they braked for the hairpins at the circuit.
Despite the fact that the conditions are better, times so far have not been faster than at the test. Quickest man on the first day of practice was Jorge Lorenzo, the reigning champion picking up where he left off at Qatar before the rude interruption of Austin. His advantage is small - just over a tenth over Dani Pedrosa, a fraction more over Cal Crutchlow - but his race pace is impressive so far. Lorenzo put a lot of laps on a single set of tires, testing tire wear, and getting ready for the race.
Though he is clearly fastest, the top five are looking very close indeed. Less than a third of a second separates the factory Yamaha of Lorenzo and the Repsol Honda of Marc Marquez, with Pedrosa, Crutchlow and Valentino Rossi all between them. It looks like these five men will run at the front for most of the season, their form at Jerez building on results at the two previous races.
The closeness of the top three illustrates the battle between Yamaha and Honda all too well. The two bikes are very different, and require very different styles, yet they both end up lapping at around the same pace. Even the tires the two bikes will probably use on Sunday are different: the Hondas can make use of the harder of the two rear options, while the Yamaha men will have to run with the softer tire, because of a lack of edge grip with the harder option. Only if the temperatures rise significantly will the Yamaha men be able to consider using the harder rear; Valentino Rossi was the only one to try it, and he discarded it almost immediately.
The difference between the bikes was explained in some detail by Bradley Smith, who spent some time explaining to reporters just where he is struggling with the Yamaha. "I'm used to pushing 100% on 125s and Moto2 bikes, to try to squeeze everything out of it," Smith explained. When he tried to do the same on the Yamaha, he said, he just ended up making mistakes and going slower. The trick was to be as smooth as possible in the transitions, and to use the power of the bike to help slow the bike into corners. "Lorenzo is rolling off before me, but he's still getting to the apex faster than I am," Smith said, perplexed. "When I try to do that, it feels like I'm out for a Sunday ride to the shops." Corner entry was where speed was to be gained, by keeping the wheels in line. That is the diametrical opposite of a Moto2 bike, Smith said, where you used the clutch and rear tire to help slow the bike and get it turned. A lack of electronics on a Moto2 machine meant that subtlety was lost on corner entry, but this was precisely what was needed with the Yamaha. "It's like a 250 horsepower 125," Smith explained, where being smooth and keeping the wheels in line was all that counted.
The Honda may have been easier to bike to switch to coming from Moto2, Smith opined. That looks like a bike which you had to push harder to get the best out of, judging by the way the riders treated the Honda. Brake hard, pitch the bike in, stand it up and get on the gas. This is obvious if you go and stand after one of Jerez' hairpins: you see the Hondas turn the bike faster than you would believe possible, then physically push the bike up as they exit the corner, to get up on the fat part of the tire. This is why the Hondas can use the harder tire, as edge grip is much less of an issue. With the Honda, you spend as little time as possible on the edge of the tire.
Not so on the Yamaha, which is much more of a machine for sweeping majestically through corners carrying a terrifying amount of lean angle and corner speed. Master of the game is Jorge Lorenzo, and this is turning into a disadvantage for the other riders. Every time Lorenzo wins a race, Yamaha's decision to design the M1 around Lorenzo's riding style is vindicated. The trouble is, nobody can really duplicate Lorenzo's riding style. Both Crutchlow and Rossi are used to braking harder and later, and not carrying quite so much lean angle, as when they do, they inevitably crash, according to Crutchlow. Valentino Rossi finds himself in an unenviable position: after spending two years on a bike designed around another rider, he returns to his beloved Yamaha to find himself on an M1 designed around another rider. At least he can be competitive on this one.
But first, he and his team will need to find a solution to the balance problem he is having. The front tire is pushing, he said, while the rear was sliding under acceleration. This left him worried about his race rhythm, though his crew have some ideas to test in the morning.
Though it should surprise no one that Marc Marquez is up front, the difference with the test was marked. In March, Marquez had struggled here, but a radical modification to the geometry had made all the difference, he said. It was something his team had worked on before arriving at Jerez, and after going out in the morning with the original setting from the test, Marquez had quickly switched to the new geometry and made a big leap forward. Marquez is undoubtedly a great rider, but his adaptation to MotoGP is clearly being helped by having one of the best pit crews in the business.
The biggest surprise on the timesheets - and promising to make qualifying intriguing - is the presence of two CRT machines in the top ten. Hector Barbera on the Avintia Blusens FTR Kawasaki bagged 9th spot, a couple of thousandths ahead of Aleix Espargaro on the Power Electronics ART machine. Barbera's presence in the top ten was, as you might expect, down to getting a tow, latching on to the back of Cal Crutchlow to get into the 1'40s. Crutchlow was impressed by Barbera's ability to post such a fast lap on the FTR Kawasaki, but he was less impressed by Barbera loitering on the outside of the hairpin waiting for a tow. "We're on the limit in every corner here," Crutchlow said. If anything went wrong, they could find themselves wiping out all those waiting for a tow. At least it was off the racing line, but it was still remarkably dangerous, as all of the riders had discussed in the Safety Commission at Austin.
In contrast to Barbera, Espargaro is capable of running 1'40s under his own steam. The Spaniard has been impressive all throughout this year, and could easily slide into the main Q2 qualifying session at the first attempt.
Qualifying promises to be a little less fraught than in Qatar and Austin, the riders agreed. With a significantly shorter lap, the pressure to get out and post a fast lap as soon as the lights go out is reduced. If you want a clear track, there is no need to do as Jorge Lorenzo has done for the past two races, stand waiting at pit exit for the lights to go green like a teenager in a hotrod cruising the strip. There is time to wait for the track to clear, and those lingering for a tow to give up and hit the track of their own accord.
That does not mean that the riders can take it easy, however. "The first two laps will be crucial," Cal Crutchlow believes, as after that, the tires start to fade. But a free track and a short lap should give Valentino Rossi a chance to get onto the two front rows. At both Qatar and Austin, the Italian had struggled with the new qualifying format, hitting traffic and getting held up. With more time available to him, he should be able to find some free track, and post a time good enough for the top five. With the five fastest men of the weekend on the front two rows, and so very little between them, the race at Jerez could well turn out to be a genuine thriller. First, though, they all have to get through qualifying.