The first day of practice at Brno turned out to be a day of two halves. The morning was glorious, sunny and relatively warm. Clouds began gathering shortly after lunch, and the first spots of rain started to fall just as FP2 for the Moto3 class came to a close. The rain grew steadily heavier for the first half of the MotoGP afternoon practice session, easing up and stopping with some ten minutes to go. By the time the Moto2 bikes took to the track, the circuit was already drying, though it only really dried out completely towards the end of Moto2.
The two halves of MotoGP practice showed the same picture, however. Marc Marquez is fast in the wet and fast in the dry, and clearly looking comfortable on the Repsol Honda. Teammate Dani Pedrosa is also quick in both conditions, though a little closer to Marquez on a wet track than on a dry track. In the dry, Jorge Lorenzo is very close to Marc Marquez, but in the wet, both he and Movistar Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi are a second off the pace of the Repsols.
Speed in the morning had given Lorenzo confidence he could be competitive with Marquez, and his pace in the wet was not a worry, he said. Everyone had started slowly in the wet, and Lorenzo was no exception. For Rossi, the second they are giving away to the Hondas in the wet is an issue, but losing track time to the rain was more of a problem. Rossi had been fifth in the dry, just a quarter of a second off Marquez, and after FP1, he and his crew had some ideas to improve turn in and enter the corner faster, right where he is losing out to the others. The rain meant he did not have a chance to test it, and with the chance of rain on Saturday, Rossi was concerned he would not be able to try it out before the race.
I spent the afternoon session walking around the track, watching at certain key points. The climb up the hill from turn 10 all the way up to turn 13 at Brno is always revealing, showing just how strong each particular bike is. In previous years, the Hondas had a clear advantage up Horsepower Hill, as Julian Ryder and Toby Moody christened it in their commentary. Today, that advantage had disappeared, the Yamahas holding station with the Hondas. Part of that was down to the conditions – the production Hondas were not losing too much ground either up the hill, traction rather than horsepower being the limiting factor – but Yamaha have made a big step forward. "For me, Yamaha have worked very strong and achieved some good results in acceleration," Rossi told the media in the afternoon. "Now, our engine is very fast, we are very close to the Honda in acceleration. Sometimes the Honda is two or three kilometers faster on the straight, but it is not like in the past."
The difference was down to many things, engine efficiency and power, but a large part could be laid at the door of the seamless gearbox, Rossi said. Yamaha's engineers have coped extremely well with having a liter less fuel at their disposal, while maintaining engine reliability. The only deficit now is in braking, where the ability of the Honda to change gears down the box seamlessly gives an advantage. Yamaha are hard at work on this, but it was simply not yet ready. "We push a lot for the seamless in braking like the Honda, because me and Jorge both think we can improve a lot." It is unlikely to come soon, however. "I think this year will be difficult, but not impossible."
The wet weather was met with mixed feelings in the Ducati camp. Andrea Dovizioso had been very fast in the dry, just over a third of a second off the pace of Marquez. Teammate Cal Crutchlow had suffered, however, telling reporters that this was a problem he always had. It was "a usual Friday morning," coming to a new track where he hadn't ridden the Desmosedici yet, and finding his way around on the bike. On the one hand, the fact that FP2 was wet was a shame, as it meant he couldn't try the changes his crew had put together after FP1, and which Crutchlow hoped would give him more confidence.
On the other hand, a wet FP2 meant that he could show the fans and himself that he was still capable of being fast. "You don't lose your talent in just one year," Crutchlow told reporters. The Englishman had set a new pole record at Brno in 2013, but had not felt confident on the Desmosedici. But the Ducati was a totally different proposition when it is wet. "The bike feels good in the rain," Crutchlow said. It had grip in the corners, which was down to the Ducati's electronics, he believed. "Ducati's electronics in the rain are one of the best in the world," Crutchlow said. It had been the same in World Superbikes when he raced there, the Ducati always performing well when the other bikes were struggling for grip. What he was looking for most, Crutchlow said, was to build the same level of confidence in the dry as he had in the wet.
The fact that it rained, and made the track completely wet, was a good thing for the MotoGP rookies. Neither Pol Espargaro nor Scott Redding had spent time on a fully wet track, previous races suffering half-wet, half-dry conditions. In FP2, there was water on the track all the way round the circuit, giving them, and substitute rider Leon Camier a taste of Bridgestone's wet weather tires. They were astounded at the grip they gave. Camier told reporters he had been astonished to get his elbow down in the wet, something that was impossible on the Pirellis in World Superbikes. "The only place I get my knee down in the wet is at the Hairpin at Donington Park. Anywhere else and I just crash!" Camier said. Pol Espargaro was similarly surprised, saying that he couldn't believe the rear grip. In Moto2, rear grip in the wet had always been a problem.
Redding, too, had managed to scrape his elbow while riding a wet weather tire, and had been heartened by his pace in the wet. Or at least, he was once he realized that he was checking the wrong time. He was looking at his lap timer, and comparing it with the 2'04 lap set by Andrea Iannone. It was only once he returned to his pit box that he realized that Iannone had set the fast time right at the start of the session, when the track was only damp. Comparing his time with riders in similar conditions, Redding was a second off the time of Lorenzo, just behind Stefan Bradl and ahead of Andrea Dovizioso, both on factory option bikes.
Off the track, discussions continued over the future. Leon Camier told us that his performance at Indianapolis had generated a lot of interest. He had someone coming in to Brno to help him with negotiations, and a long list of people to talk to. The performance of the Open bikes – and especially the performance boost expected for the Open Honda next year, when the bike will get the 2014 factory option engine, minus the seamless gearbox – had made the move more attractive. Previously, Camier said, he had been afraid of ending up on an uncompetitive bike, and without the right equipment, it was impossible to show your ability. Camier was generous with his praise for the Aspar team, crediting them with helping him get up to speed so quickly. "The team had a good plan to get me up to speed at Indy," Camier said. That plan was basically to give him time to get comfortable with the bike before looking at changes which would allow him to push.
Leon Camier isn't the only rider from WSBK in the paddock at Brno. I ran into Eugene Laverty while rushing from one spot to the next, the Irishman also looking to make the switch to MotoGP. He had been talking to plenty of people. "I have to keep charging my phone," Laverty joked. There was nothing concrete he could share, however.
At lunchtime, a special press conference was held with the bosses of the three factories present in MotoGP. When it was announced, it generated a lot of speculation as to what big announcement would be made there, but that was not the reason it had been convened. Dorna had wanted to give more presence to the technical side of the sport, and to some of the most important people behind the scenes, and not just focus on the riders. So Shuhei Nakamoto, head of HRC, Kouichi Tsuji, Yamaha's YZR-M1 project leader, and Gigi Dall'Igna, head of Ducati Corse, faced a grilling from the assembled press. The press conference was a rather uncomfortable affair, but was judged a partial success. The three factory bosses hadn't divulged as much information as the reporters had hoped for, but they had probably given away more information than Nakamoto, Tsuji and Dall'Igna had intended.
What did they say? That they would start the first tests with the Michelin 17-inch tires soon. They will start with test riders, the contractual situation of the MotoGP riders putting them in a difficult position. Currently, all of the MotoGP riders are contractually forbidden to test other tires, but this is a situation which will have to be resolved next year, if the succession is to be successful. Honda will run their first test with Michelin tires with a Japanese test rider at the end of August, Yamaha will test in Japan in September, most likely with Colin Edwards, and Ducati will return to Brno in September with test rider Michele Pirro.
The new 2016 software was not yet ready for testing, but an MSMA meeting was planned for this weekend to make some progress on that issue. Yamaha had been using the Forward team to gather some data on the current spec of software, but how close that software will be to the system used in 2016, and developed together with the factories is not yet clear.
The point of these new rules was of course to make the series cheaper. But did the factory bosses think that this would actually happen. Yamaha's Tsuji was most optimistic, saying that he hoped the new rules would actually succeed in cutting costs. Gigi Dall'Igna said whatever the outcome, the most important thing was to make the bikes cheaper for the satellite teams, as costs were paramount for them. Only HRC boss Nakamoto disagreed. "We think keeping regulations as they are now is cheaper." To the extent that each rule change means a major investment in the short term, he has a point. How the new rules will stack up over a long period of stability remains to be seen.
The arrival of new manufacturers was also universally welcomed. More manufacturers meant more competition, and more competition was good for the sport. MotoGP was like a garden, Dall'Igna said, and the more factories, the greener the garden would be.
Dall'Igna also spoke about the Desmosedici he is designing for next year. It was, he said, 'a new concept', which should help cure the chronic understeer the bike suffers. But it will not be ready at the Valencia tests, the GP15 only making its appearance at the first tests in Sepang, in February. The bike would be late because he only wanted to do the job once, Dall'Igna said. "I prefer to start late and do it better."