What did we learn from the first day of practice at the brand new Termas de Rio Hondo track in Argentina? We learned that Marc Marquez and Jack Miller learn tracks very quickly indeed. We learned that Moto2 is tight as ever. We learned that South America has been crying out for a round of MotoGP almost since the moment the series left Argentina for the last time in 1999. And we learned that a brand new track always faces teething problems the first time it appears on the calendar. In Argentina, the biggest problem is a dirty track, covered in sand, wreaking havoc on the tires. That, though, is a relatively easy problem to solve: a few more sessions and a grand total of 90 different bikes circulating will clean the track up very quickly.
If anyone was in any doubt as to whether building a circuit in a small town in the middle of the Argentine pampas was a good idea, the crowds lining up to get into the circuit on Friday morning should have dispelled their fears. Reports were that the fans were queuing to get into the track at 7am on Friday. That is quite unheard of in Europe, where the first day of practice is always a good day to spend at the track if you want to explore it and see the action from various points around the circuit. The Argentina round is reportedly already a sell out, with 70,000 tickets sold and only VIP passes left on the open market. This bodes well for the future of the event, and justifies the investment made by government in the facility. If the aim is to attract tourists to Termas de Rio Hondo, and put the town on the map, they have clearly already succeeded.
The riders paid the price of a visiting a new circuit, though. Every rider asked about the track said the same two things about it: the layout is wonderful, the track surface and preparation leaves much to be desired. Stefan Bradl was particularly vehement, telling the MotoGP.com website: 'The people at the track didn't do a good job of cleaning the track.' There was a lot of sand on the track, making the surface simultaneously very slippery and extremely abrasive. Tires were being destroyed within just a few laps during the first sessions of free practice for all three classes. Conditions improved massively for the second session – 90 bikes and 90 sets of tires will do that, full grids making for cleaner circuits and laying down more rubber. In Moto3, Jack Miller improved his best time by 1.6 seconds between sessions. In MotoGP, Marc Marquez took 3.5 seconds off the time set by Jorge Lorenzo in the morning. Moto2 – the last class to practice both in the morning and afternoon, and so benefiting both times from the clean up done by Moto3 and MotoGP – saw times drop by less than a second.
The condition of the track makes drawing conclusions from the times rather difficult. Riders hadn't even been able to really work on tire choice. Lap times improved drastically whenever they put a new tire in, whether that tire was the harder or softer of the two options available. The new tire itself was worth a second or more, fresh rubber providing the grip, rather than a particular compound working well or not. Riders went out on both the soft and the hard compounds, and both tires behaved the same. (All tires are 2014 spec, for the record, as they will be in Jerez. A modified version of the medium rear will be available from Le Mans onwards, with more edge grip.)
Results in each session were also dictated by strategy. The Movistar Yamahas, for example, used up tires in the first session of practice in the morning, putting Jorge Lorenzo on top of the pile in FP1. The Repsol Hondas went for new tires in FP2, putting Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa on top, while the Yamaha men worked on assessing the life of old tires. Two different teams, two different strategies, and two very different results. Where that will leave them on Sunday is anybody's guess.
Despite the question marks over tires, two men do stand out. Jack Miller is starting to tighten the screws in Moto3, taking the momentum he has from winning the two first races of the season, and cranking up the pressure on the rest. Miller went virtually unchallenged in both sessions, though his advantage of three quarters of a second was cut to just over a quarter of a second in FP2. Marquez' reign of terror continues apace in MotoGP, seizing control of FP2 and beating his teammate by over a second, and the rest of the grid by the best part of two seconds. Though Lorenzo was fastest in the morning session, by the afternoon he was realistic about his chances. The Hondas were in front, but if the track cleans up a little more, he felt he could give them a run for their money. Rossi was less optimistic. 'The Hondas are too fast for us,' he told MotoGP.com.
Ducati also showed well in terms of results, but they made a more spectacular impression in terms of engines. In the afternoon, Andrea Dovizioso suffered a very smoky and very expensive looking engine blow up, saving the bike only by pulling in the clutch as white smoke billowed out the rear of the bike. Andrea Iannone also suffered an engine failure, though his was less public and less visible.
So it is difficult to draw conclusions from the first day of practice at Termas de Rio Hondo, other than that the Argentinians – and many other South Americans – are mad keen to see MotoGP. The real strength of the riders is still hard to judge, conditions confusing the results on the track. By the end of Saturday, we should know more, once some more practice and a full session of qualifying has taken place. For now, though, we will have to wait to see how it all unfolds.