2014 Qatar MotoGP Thursday Round Up - The Open Revolution, Bridgestone's 2014 Tires, And Moto3's Mixed Bag
The old adage about not judging a book by its cover seems particularly apt after the first day at Qatar. Fans and followers were hoping the changes made over the winter might shake things up a little, but they weren't expecting a revolution. At the top of the timesheets in MotoGP sits Aleix Espargaro on the Open class Forward Yamaha, nearly half a second ahead of the rest. In second place was Alvaro Bautista, not on an Open bike, but on a satellite Honda. Bautista, in turn, was ahead of three other satellite machines, Tech 3's Bradley Smith leading Pramac Ducati rider Andrea Iannone, with the other Tech 3 bike of Pol Espargaro behind.
The first factory rider (that's factory rider, not Factory Option) was Dani Pedrosa in 6th, over a second behind the Open class bike of Aleix. Valentino Rossi in 7th, on the factory Movistar Yamaha, could only just hold off former teammate Colin Edwards on the other Forward Yamaha. Even Nicky Hayden was just a tenth off the pace of Rossi, despite the Drive M7 Aspar rider being on the production RCV1000R Honda, a bike which was giving away over 12 km/h to the M1 of Rossi.
Has the revolution finally arrived? Has the Open class turned MotoGP on its head? Not really, though that didn't stop the bookmakers from shortening the odds of an Aleix Espargaro win from 51/1 down to 11/1. The first page of MotoGP's 2014 chapter is deceptive, as the Open and satellite bikes all have a head start. At the notoriously dusty and low-grip track, it takes time to get the bikes dialed in, and the factory riders, fresh from testing at the ultra-high-grip Phillip Island circuit are suffering a Qatari culture shock. The satellite and Open bikes have already spent three days testing here, and have both the setup and the feeling of the track under control. Bradley Smith explained that having tested at the track, they already have the feeling of riding in those tricky conditions, while the factory riders are struggling to cope. With two more session to come on Friday, the factory men should soon be up to speed.
Whether that means they will be able to match the pace of Aleix Espargaro remains to be seen. All of the factory riders were complaining about a lack of grip, the Yamaha and Ducati men more so than the Hondas. For Yamaha, and especially for Jorge Lorenzo, the situation is dire. Every time he came into the pits during FP1, the first person Lorenzo headed for was not his crew chief Ramon Forcada, but Bridgestone's head of motorsports Hiroshi Yamada. And when he wasn't being harangued by Jorge Lorenzo, Yamada found himself being buttonholed by Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis, making the same points as Lorenzo, though probably in more diplomatic language.
Lorenzo once again labeled the new 2014 tires as 'dangerous', saying the bike had no grip, and the rear was spinning up as if the traction control wasn't working, despite data showing that it was cutting in a lot. While the word dangerous went a little too far for Valentino Rossi and Cal Crutchlow, neither was particularly impressed with the performance of the rear tire. They had similar problems to Lorenzo: no rear grip on the edge of the tire, and the tire spinning when they opened the throttle. Crutchlow said he felt the extra heat layer added to protect the tire from overheating was entirely unnecessary at most tracks. The 2013 tire had worked for everybody, so why Bridgestone had switched to the heat-resistant tire for all of the tracks in 2014 was incomprehensible.
Valentino Rossi believes conditions will improve as the weekend progresses, with the track cleaning up and more rubber providing more grip. Once that happens, the factory men will resume their rightful place closer to the top of the order. For Lorenzo, his main aim will be to keep Marc Marquez behind him, and if not behind him, then at least in sight. Marquez found the going on his healing leg tougher than expected, riding the first session of practice without painkillers. Pushing hard in Qatar's many right handers had proved more painful than he had thought, and so on Friday, he'll use something to ease the pain. If that doesn't work, then he'll have to experiment with combinations of therapy and rest, and hope for the best.
With the two main protagonists gone from the Moto2 class, the timesheets look a little different to last year. After two sessions of practice Takaaki Nakagami leads on the Idemitsu Kalex, the Japanese rider showing he has made another step forward over the off season. Nakagami took the top time in the second session with a last minute flyer, edging ahead of Tito Rabat, who had taken the lead from Nakagami a couple of minutes earlier. Rabat is still as determined as ever to try to top every session, but Nakagami was not prepared to roll over for Rabat.
Maverick Viñales is making the kind of impressive debut which many had hoped, the Spaniard taking 4th spot at the end of the day. The 2013 Moto3 champion ended just behind the 2012 champ, Sandro Cortese having also made strong progress after his first year in the class. A couple of Swiss riders follow in the wake of the youngsters, Dominique Aegerter just ahead of Tom Luthi. But the Moto2 field is as close as usual, with fifteen riders all within a second of Nakagami.
In Moto3, the field is as mixed as had been hoped, with Romano Fenati leading the way in both sessions. The Italian leads Czech rider Jakub Kornfeil, drafted in to ride the Team Calvo KTM vacated by Maverick Viñales. Jack Miller set the 3rd best time, ahead of Gresini's Niccolo Antonelli.
But the Moto3 class is not the KTM whitewash that it was last year. The Hondas have found a burst of the speed they were missing last year, the top speed of Alex Rins just 0.2 km/h shy of the quickest KTM. They were capable of converting that raw horsepower into lap times, too, Alexis Masbou putting the Ongetta Honda into 5th, just ahead of Alex Marquez on the Estrella Galicia bike. The results of the Honda NSF250RW will be encouraging for HRC, and will make life tougher than KTM will have been hoping.
At last, the wait is over, and bikes are turning laps in anger, not in the long monotonous run of testing. That the riders were keen to get underway was clear in the pit lane, with fines being handed out left and right for speeding in Pit Lane. Their eagerness should be forgiven: it was something we all felt just as keenly. The 2014 season is finally here. The revolution continues tomorrow.