If you thought that Barcelona could be a track to throw up a few surprises, the first day of practice proved you right. Not in Moto2, of course: Tito Rabat's dominance was crushing, making Marc Marquez' earlier reign of terror look like a close fought battle. In Moto3, Finnish youngster Niklas Ajo topped the timesheets, putting the Husqvarna name at the forefront. That was unexpected, though given the fact that the nominally Swedish Husqvarna is nothing more than a rebadged KTM straight from the factory in Mattighofen, Austria, it should be less of a surprise.
The biggest surprises were perhaps in MotoGP. That Aleix Espargaro would be quickest in the morning is to be expected, especially as he put on the super soft tire available to the Open bikes to set his time. But for Bradley Smith to go fastest in the afternoon was a major change of fortunes, and just reward for the effort Smith and his crew have been putting in over the past few weeks. His fast time was set with a fresh soft tire, but given that this compound – Bridgestone's medium tire, the hard being the other option available to the Factory Option teams – has real potential to be the race tire, it is not quite as simple as Smith having pushed in qualifying trim.
Smith's time, and the way he set it, was emblematic of the conditions at the track. It was warm in the morning, but in the afternoon, track temperatures rose to their highest of the year, reaching 55°C. It made the track treacherous to ride, front and rear wheels sliding out everywhere. The circuit was already in far from ideal state, with riders complaining about the bumps left by Formula 1, and the surface showing more signs of wear. Throw in extreme temperatures, and there is very little grip at all. All of the riders complained of the drop in tire performance after two to three laps. To put in a fast lap, you had to put in a new tire, and go as fast as you could. After that, it was just a question of hanging on, and trying not to let the times drop too much. If it doesn't rain on Sunday – something which is looking increasingly likely – the race could be a real war of attrition.
Barcelona did turn out to be a Yamaha track, but the factory Movistar Yamahas of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi are not the YZR-M1s at the front. Lorenzo was the better of the two, just a few hundredths slower than Marc Marquez. But he was far from happy: the bike, he said, was nervous, requiring a lot of effort to control. In the punishing heat, that was not easy at all, and though his fitness had improved, the bike still needed to improve. The M1 was fine with a new tire, but after a couple of laps the rear started pumping and moving around. If they could improve their stability, Lorenzo said, he would be in with a chance.
Valentino Rossi was struggling with corner entry. That left him off the pace, he felt, and in search of a change in set up to fix the problem. Race pace was a concern, especially given the state of the track. Trying to control a sliding M1 in the blistering heat was tough, Rossi describing it as very demanding physically. If Rossi was not confident in his pace, his teammate was, Lorenzo opining that he, Rossi and Marquez had the best pace for the race.
At Honda, Marc Marquez was struggling with the layout of the track, more than the surface. The high kerbs at the Montmelo circuit make it impossible for all of the riders to hang off the inside of the bike as much as they would like. As the rider with perhaps the most physically excessive style, Marquez is having more trouble than most. He was being forced to change his lines, he said, searching for a compromise between moving further away from the inside of the corner to try to create more room for him to hang off. But, he pointed out, you still need to hit the apex, and so it there was always a point in the corner where he found himself caught between the high kerbs and the low Honda. It did not stop him from being fast, but it certainly negated his advantage.
Teammate Dani Pedrosa was struggling more with grip than with riding style, and still has some improvements to find. Pedrosa's arm is standing up well to the punishment meted out by the Barcelona circuit, but he had still only put in a few laps at a time. On Saturday, he would try to do more consecutive laps, to see if the arm had recovered from surgery. Meanwhile, Pedrosa finds himself way down the timesheets. He has a lot of work to do if he is to remain with the trio who have dominated recent races.
At Ducati, it is a question of hanging on and hoping for better times. The Desmosedici still resolutely refuses to turn the way it should, despite the many improvements made so far this season. The solution for the chronic understeer will only come at the end of the season, leaving both Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow to gamble on whether to stay or not. They will not get a chance to ride the new bike which Gigi Dall'Igna is designing until after they have signed a new contract, so they will have to make a decision on faith. Either the belief that Dall'Igna will fix the understeer for 2015, or the belief that there best interests are served elsewhere (with 'elsewhere' the current code being used for Suzuki). The problem that both men have is their age. In their late twenties, both should be at the peak of their careers. They cannot hang on for results, like a young rider (such as Andrea Iannone) can. 'My career is now,' Crutchlow told the press. 'Last year, my career was going up. It's not going up any more.'
There is also a difference in attitude between Crutchlow and Dovizioso, based to a large extent on where the two men were last year. Crutchlow was on the Tech 3 Yamaha, a bike which he could get to turn if he carried enough corner speed. Moving to the Ducati was a shock to the system, the bike simply unwilling to respond as he wants. Crutchlow now wears the same air of resignation which Dovizioso bore for much of 2013. Dovizioso, on the other hand, rode the 2013 bike, and is enjoying the improvements of the new bike over the Desmosedici from last year. Dovizioso can brake later, and can get the bike into the corner far better than he could last year. Carrying corner speed to turn the bike is still not possible, but they have at least solved one part of the puzzle.
So both Crutchlow and Dovizioso are eying Suzuki with some interest, watching to see how the bike develops. They will get their next look on Monday – if it stays dry – when the entire field stays behind to test. So far, the bike looks like it will turn alright, but power and acceleration is still lacking. Throughout Suzuki's long history in Grand Prix racing, the factory has never seemed to invest enough to be successful. Their last two world titles – Kevin Schwantz in 1993 and Kenny Roberts Jr in 2000 – came when circumstances helped negate the disadvantages of the bike. Crutchlow and Dovizioso may find themselves tempted to leap out of the frying pan, but they should beware the fire.
Kevin Schwantz was a name being whispered whenever the injury to Nicky Hayden came up in conversation. Hayden's surgery was deemed a success, and his wrist was markedly less swollen than the last time I saw it at Jerez. Hayden's problem is continuing arthritis in the joint, caused by the many injuries which he has had. Bones have been broken, and as they have grown back, excess bone tissue has been formed in places it does not belong. This makes Hayden's wrist weak and painful, and limits his range of motion. For the moment, he has enough motion to ride, and can brave the pain to continue. But, he admitted, his wrist was probably never going to recover fully. Wrist injuries are the bane of motorcycle racers, having ended many a career. Hayden is optimistic he can continue, but it will never be the same as it was. He was not alone in his plight, he said. 'Most racers here don't have complete wrists, except maybe in Moto3.'
All of the riders have a lot of work to do on Saturday, before they prepare for qualifying, but that work may yet be in vain. Rain is set to arrive on Saturday evening, and will intensify again around 11am on Sunday, around the time the Moto3 race is due to start. The riders face the prospect of a completely dry weekend, including warm up on Sunday morning, only to go into a properly wet race. It will make for an intriguing race, but it will probably not reflect the real strengths inside the MotoGP grid. If the fans get an exciting race, they probably won't care.