With everyone slowly recovering from the shock of the announcement that Bridgestone is pulling out of MotoGP at the end of the 2015 season, it is easy to forget that we are here for a motorcycle race. The roar of Grand Prix machinery hurtling around the beautiful Circuito de Jerez on a glorious Andalusian morning soon dispelled thoughts of 2016, and concentrated minds on what is to come on Sunday.
The heat of the afternoon, though, made thinking tough, and riding even tougher. Track temperatures rose to over 50°, robbing the circuit of even more grip, and making it greasier than ever. Rider consensus was that the track was in pretty good shape, but when it's this hot, the already low-grip surface of Jerez becomes very difficult to ride. That meant that the number of riders who managed to improve their times in FP2 in all three classes were limited.
Moto3 had the best of the conditions, taking to the track in the early afternoon, before temperatures started moving outside of the operating range of tires. That meant that around half the riders managed to better their times from the morning, with a good mix of machinery at the top of the timesheets. Jack Miller and Miguel Oliveira were the biggest benefactors of the afternoon session, jumping from 12th and 31st up to 4th and 3rd respectively. But it was Isaac Viñales who topped the timesheets, three tenths quicker than Alex Marquez in the morning, who ended the day fastest Moto3 rider.
By the time the Moto2 riders hit the track, after 3pm, track temperatures had increased so much that improvement was nigh on impossible, leaving the Marc VDS riders on top, Rabat in the lead, Kallio in 2nd, with Jonas Folger in 3rd and Xavier Simeon in 4th. The Belgian is carrying his strong form from Argentina back to Spain, ending the scorching afternoon session as fastest, though still a few hundredths off the time he set in the morning. The afternoon session was not devoid of interest, however: Sandro Cortese, 5th fastest overall, tangled with Dominique Aegerter, causing the Swiss rider to kick out at the German. The incident did not result in a penalty, but Race Director Mike Webb paid a visit to both men to give them a stern talking to.
It was a similar story in MotoGP. Hot temperatures in the afternoon had made improving difficult. That meant that Aleix Espargaro's fast time in the morning was good enough to top the timesheets overall. It also meant that Jorge Lorenzo ended the day as 2nd fastest, a boost after the Spaniard had struggled in the early part of the season. Though Lorenzo was pleased, he was entirely realistic. 'The feeling of the tires is the same as Qatar,' he said afterwards. Despite the problem in corner entry, it was the most positive weekend of the season so far.
It was an even better day for Valentino Rossi. Rossi ended the day 6th fastest overall, but he was confident that he had the pace to run at the front. Taking a close look at the lap charts, Rossi does indeed have race pace on a par with Marc Marquez, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa. Rossi was fast in all four sectors, though working on a race rhythm was hard in such high temperatures. Most importantly, however, was the fact that the lack of braking stability which had plagued the Italian in 2013 was gone, thanks to changes over the winter, and a couple of set up changes. 'I can brake 20 meters later,' Rossi said.
His improved competitiveness meant that his intention to stay on for two more seasons after 2014 had been strengthened. Even the fact that Bridgestone was pulling out had not changed his mind. 'Our sport will change a lot when the new tires come,' Rossi said. No other manufacturer could match the performance and quality of the Bridgestones, meaning that bikes and riding styles will have to be adapted. It was a challenge Rossi was prepared to face, he said.
At Ducati, Andrea Dovizioso was happy with 5th overall, but realistic about the potential in the race. The soft tire had propelled him to the top of the timesheets, but that was not his race pace. In the kind of heat experience at Jerez, the lack of the harder rear tire available to Honda and Yamaha could be a problem, Dovizioso explained. The bigger problem was at the front, however. All three options brought by Bridgestone were not stiff enough to cope with the Ducati, the bike really needing an even stiffer construction to handle the conditions. That tire is not available, and so he and his team would be working with the hardest of the fronts available, and trying to make it work.
Teammate Cal Crutchlow was happy just to be able to ride. The Englishman's broken hand had stood up better than expected, though he was still suffering some pain. Not, as he had expected, in braking, Crutchlow managing to squeeze the brake with the outer three fingers – middle to pinky, the forefinger being too short to reach the lever – as before. He was missing a little bit of initial bite, but at least he could brake fully and safely. Crutchlow's problem was in the change of directions, especially turns 2 and 3, and 6 and 7, where he was having to pull on the bars with his injured hand. Braking protected his injured knuckle, but pushing on the bars meant using the part of his hand which was so painful. Crutchlow will ride on Sunday, and ride without painkillers.
After three big, fast circuits, MotoGP rookies Scott Redding and Pol Espargaro were struggling with just how small a MotoGP bike made the circuit. Both men know the circuit intimately, having put in thousands of laps in testing in both 125s and Moto2. But they were having to relearn it on a MotoGP bike, the acceleration drastically shortening the feel of the circuit. 'It feels like a kart track,' Redding exclaimed on Saturday afternoon. What Espargaro had found hardest was the nature of a MotoGP. He had been trying to push for a lap time, but the harder he pushed, the slower he went. This is the nature of MotoGP, Espargaro confessed, something his teammate had told reporters in his first season. The smoother you are and the less you push, the faster you go. The paradoxical nature of MotoGP bikes – especially the Yamahas – made it hard for rookies to get their head around it.
The heat is set to remain for both Saturday and Sunday, with race day as hot as practice on Friday was. That offers an intriguing prospect, with the top four all on the same pace, and no real sign of dominance. Marc Marquez has never won a Grand Prix race at Jerez, and would like to remove that blemish from his otherwise spotless record. Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi will be doing whatever it takes to prevent him from winning. We could have a real race on our hands.