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.

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Not sure how to feel about this. On one hand, the racing or "show" is set to be very intriguing. On the other, I can't help but feel like the truly fastest riders have been arbitrarily handicapped with restrictive rules and tires far inferior to the open bikes. It feels.. rigged.

The most restrictive rules of all have been:

1. Fuel. These bikes should have 24 liters, not 22, 21, or 20. 20 liters is a punishment to the taller or larger riders.
It's not like bikes consume the fuel of a F1 car during a race.

2. Engines

So if you want to talk restriction I'd say you start there.


Great screen name btw!

I'm not sure how you can say the truly fastest riders have been handicapped - there is surely part of their 'alien' status that is down to being on the best bikes with the best support etc. He is undoubtedly brilliant, but what would Marc Marquez 2013 season have been like if he'd been put on a Tech3 bike, like Spies had to, or on Bautista's ShowaShod Honda?

It has been impossible for years now for anyone other than a top factory rider to compete not because the rider isnt good enough but because they dont have the fire power. The proverbial knife taken to a gun fight. It's why beating your team mate has always been so important to a rider. It's the closest you can get to genuine evidence you are truly fastest.

Perhaps, what we are seeing now is the equivalent of all the riders on the grid in the late 1980's being given the best "A" tyres or everyone in the late 90's being given a full factory Honda or Yamaha.

Do you remember the West Honda Pons 500's? In the first season of MotoGP 4 strokes those guys stayed on 500's and were given the Rossi spec bikes from 2001 - and I remember both riders commenting almost immediately "now we know how Rossi was able to go so fast".

The results have always been "rigged" in that sense. It's just the direction of that rigging is (hopefully) changing in favour of racing teams instead of motorcycle factories.

If only we didn't have the feeling that Dorna might well render all the results meaningless with even more rule changes if todays results turn out to be more than a Day 1 blip.

Marc wouldn't have won the championship on a satellite bike last year, but his moto2 championship win on the Suter, which was considered inferior by most others, shows that he's a step above most of the competition.

Smith, although improving, wasn't the better rider in his team last year. Dovi, although a solid rider, was almost always the slowest of the honda riders.

I think the only real unknown is Aleix - because we know he's good, but we're not sure just how good he is on a truly level playing field.

I agree that these early results are showing a skewed picture, and likely aren't representative of the standings on Sunday, nor do I think they're representative of rider's ability.

Let us also remember that the so-called prodigies also have top flight crews that a talented no-name mid pack rider would not have either. At least some part of Rossi and Marc's seamless transition to the MotoGP class can be attributed to Rossi inheriting Doohan's crew, and Marc Casey's.

I have to agree. I'm still not sure how to take the whole rule change thing. Forward is doing the exact same thing that Ducati was going to do, but everyone threw a fit about Ducati going Open but no one (apart from Honda, and they really complained about Yamaha violating the spirit of Dorna's request for production racers) really seems to care that Aleix is running a bike that was 4 points from the championship last year using the spec software and softer tire and is well into the front and will likely continue to be there. In fact, everyone thinks its exciting. Which it is, to me too - it's good to see what one of these bikes can do with lesser electronics and a capable rider. But I still don't get the application of the rules. It's a 2013 M1. It's a factory prototype running under Open rules. The engines are maintained by factory techs. It's OK for them but not for Ducati. Why. Apply the rule fairly to everyone.

Well, like it or not, this is the first time in a looong time one of the aliens is NOT topping the time sheets on any dry FP ever.

I think that the open and satellite bikes are going to qualify and start well and then get passed by the usual suspects as the race progresses. At least there should be more action. Keeping my fingers crossed that we will be screaming and jumping around during the race!!

I would say the reference is still the pace of the satellite teams. Given the three extra days of practices they are ahead of the factories. By Sunday the top guys will be more or less half a second faster than them. The only anomaly and unknown is the pace of Aleix and to some extent the Ducati boys.
I suspect Aleix will be fighting in that second group after the leading 3 or 4.

I know how misleading year-on-year comparisons can be, but I found this fascinating... Jorge Lorenzo is unhappy with the fuel reduction to 20 litres, and the new Bridgestones are "dangerous," and yet he did the same time in FP1 as last year (when he led the session).

The 2013 times for JL99:

FP1 1:56.685 earned P1 in the session.
FP2 1:56.745 was P2 to MM93
FP3 1:56.085 was P2 to MM93
FP4 1:56.140 was P3 trailing Crutchlow and Marquez
QP2 1:54.714 was pole position (1.97 seconds quicker than his FP1 time)

So last year JL99 improved his pace from first practice to pole position by nearly 2 seconds, but this year he starts off 1.5 seconds in-the-hole. Hard to see him qualifying at the front this year IMO.

The practice management chess game is going to be hard to understand this year. I suspect that the Factory bikes are horrible to ride in race trim with their 20L of fuel. So most of practice has to be taken up with trying to make them manageable. But they can't allow themselves to drop out of the top 10 because of QP1 so at least in FP3 and possibly FP2 and FP1, they must also go for a qualifying lap. With no fueling restrictions, the bikes will feel very different. Each team will manage this differently so expect to see Factory team riders apparently really slow, while satellite Factory riders may choose to go for qualifying laps early given that they know they'll be less competitive in the race anyway.

Meanwhile Aleix doesn't have to worry about any of this. He can keep banging in the laps on a full fuel bike and his race check is just that the harder tyre works and the bike is ok on a full tank. And note again, he may well be able to use the soft tyre that is not available to the Factory riders. So while Lorenzo complains about a lack of rear grip, Aleix is revelling in it.

Note also.
- Rossi is doing his debriefs in his native Italian? He certainly seems a little more voluble.
- Puig is as forgotten as Burgess.
- The Ducatis are still slow, except for Iannone who doesn't care. Factory 2 may well turn out to be completely irrelevant.
- Redding with two broken machines?

I know i should've paid more attention, but IF AE41 wins does that mean Forward Yamaha lose fuel and the tire? Or is that only for Ducati?

Open bikes stay Open. Ducati are Factory Option bikes which haven't won in 2013. It's Ducati which lose the fuel, and then the tires.

This is a treat, an apt redux to 2012 when the Honda riders were declaring the tires were unsafe. Did Bridgestone respond with new tires? No! Now that Yamaha is suffering it will be very interesting to see what Bridgestone's response will be.

I read an interview where Aleix was asked about his M1 and he said it was almost identical to the M1 Lorenzo rode in 2012. So, it's not a 2013 M1 and it doesn't have the trick transmission that the Factory and Tech3 riders have this year. Makes his brilliant performances shine a little brighter, doesn't it? Also, Aleix went to great lengths about the softest tire saying that it's too soft to race on at most circuits although it will be useful in qualifying.

A minor point, but still important. Forward is indeed using the "spec" Dorna/MM software, but that software's settings can be modified in a wide variety of parameters. As far back as last August, Forward was talking publicly about the fact that Yamaha factory engineers were working with that software suite and adjusting it to the Forward bike's needs. So it's not like they're just running some standard "out of the box" software that they uploaded, started the bike and went racing on. Yamaha's factory race technicians have carefully tweaked the "spec" software to maximize the potential of the bike and rider.

This, by the way, is why chasing parity through machine specification is doomed to failure. You don't have access to the factory, you don't get to maximize whatever thing you are talking about.