Silverstone, like so many British racetracks, is built on the site of a former World War II airfield. Though that fact may appear to be largely irrelevant, the location makes a massive difference to conditions at the circuit. To allow the lumbering RAF bombers to take off on their nightly runs to Germany, the airfield was set up on the flat top of a hill. The combination of altitude and ubiquitous wind gave the bombers as much help as possible at take off.
Though the bombers are gone, the wind remains, and it played havoc with all three Grand Prix classes on Friday. The blustery wind blew the bantamweight Moto3 bikes all over the track. It hammered the heavier Moto2 bikes from all sides. And it robbed the precious warmth from the MotoGP bikes' Bridgestone tires, draining heat and reducing the grip. The mixture of strong winds, major cloud cover and low temperatures made it difficult for everyone during free practice.
As the heaviest and most powerful of the three classes, the MotoGP bikes suffered the least directly. It was not so much a question of being blown about, Bradley Smith explained, as having to concentrate on your braking markers and take more care when accelerating. With a headwind in one direction, you could find yourself able to brake a little later, the Tech 3 Yamaha man said, while a couple of corners later, when you had switched direction, a tailwind would blow you into corners faster, meaning braking a little bit earlier than normal. Getting on the gas could be tricky: if the front wheel lifted too much, then you could find yourself off line and running wide. Having bikes weighing 160kg meant they were not easily overpowered by the wind, but the more subtle changes made it all the more treacherous.
The real problem caused by the wind was its effect on tire temperature, however. The wind dropped the temperature of the track, giving the surface itself less grip. It also blew across the tires as the bikes negotiated Silverstone's straights, sapping any heat the riders had managed to get into the tires in braking and entry into the preceding corners. Despite the vastly improved warm up of Bridgestone's tires, they can still be critical to temperature. Leon Camier, still learning his way around the Bridgestones, said it was like 'riding on ice', with the tires just not giving the grip he hoped. It was a vicious circle, with tires cooling as he rode, robbing the confidence needed to hammer the tires into the corner, which would in turn provide the load and stress on the Bridgestones which they need to get up to temperature. Even Dani Pedrosa complained of the tires cooling after a few laps, the Repsol Honda rider normally no stranger to handling the tires.
Pedrosa's biggest problem, however, was the bumps, a problem shared with almost every other rider. Pedrosa joked with the media over his language use last year. "I think it was here last year I used that word gnarly," he said, referring to the 2013 British round of MotoGP. Pedrosa's use of Californian surfer and Supercross slang had caught the media off guard. Pedrosa's English is excellent, if slightly formal. To suddenly hear the word gnarly interjected into his speech had surprised us, and made us laugh. On Friday, Pedrosa referred back to that incident, when asked whether the track had got worse. "What is even more than gnarly?" he asked. The track had got worse, especially at Copse Corner, which had been resurfaced before last year's race. Vale, too, was even bumpier than last year, as was Abbey and Farm. This is a natural consequence of running Formula One on the same track. The cars rippled the pavement under braking, generating a wave of bumps right in the points on the track where the bikes are turning into the corners.
"Vale is like a whoop section," Bradley Smith joked, referring to his background in motocross. The bumps made finding a decent set up extremely difficult. What you wanted was for the front of the bike to follow the bumps, to flow over them. Getting the bike right to do that was hard, however. The natural tendency was for the front to bounce off the bumps, making turning into corners a slightly anxious affair.
Just how hard it was to find the right set up to cope was abundantly clear from the timesheets. Where MotoGP's four fastest riders had dominated at Brno, the first day of practice at Silverstone saw Dani Pedrosa manage only the ninth fastest time, while both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo were outside of the top ten, and risk being forced to go through the Q1 qualifying session on Saturday if they cannot find a solution to their problems in FP3. For Rossi, the problem had come in the afternoon, when his crew had chosen the wrong direction in weight distribution. The aim had to gain confidence in the front on turn in, but the changes had had exactly the opposite effect. Their failure had been instructive, however, and left them with a clear direction for tomorrow. They would try something radically different on Saturday, Rossi said. It was a gamble, but one they had to take, he said.
While Rossi and his crew had a lot of work to do on Saturday to improve, his Movistar Yamaha teammate gave the impression of being a lot more helpless. The problem, Jorge Lorenzo said, was down to just one factor: the tires. Bridgestone had reverted to the tires which they had brought to the earliest races this season, including the disastrous race at Qatar. That left Lorenzo struggling down in eleventh, and nearly 1.4 seconds off the pace of the front. The problem was simple, and the same for all Yamaha riders, Lorenzo claimed: no grip, not on corner entry to get the bike stopped, not in the middle of the corner to carry corner speed, not on corner exit, the rear tire simply spinning without providing forward motion.
Lorenzo had arrived at Silverstone full of confidence after his performance at Brno, but had been unaware of which tire Bridgestone had brought. He had only realized it when he first went out on the track, and returned to ask his crew chief Ramon Forcada about the tire. Forcada told Lorenzo that Bridgestone had brought the tire with the slightly harder edge, which is the tire which Lorenzo simply cannot get the edge grip from his style requires. It had been brought because last year, the tire had shown some signs of excessive wear on the edge of the tire, Lorenzo said. The situation left him in despair. His only hope was a massive rise in temperature, to give him back the edge grip he craves. Sunday is looking better than either Friday or Saturday, but the kind of heat Lorenzo requires is unlikely to emerge.
The one man entirely unaffected by the conditions was of course Marc Marquez. The reigning world champion was both fast and comfortable from the off, and led the field by over half a second in both sessions. His secret was simple: the faster you go, the more heat you get into the tires, and the more confidence you feel. "The wind was a problem, especially when you go out on the first laps, but when I pushed I felt it less," Marquez told reporters. "When I was aggressive I didn't feel it."
The fact that tires were so critical to the results was evident from the timesheets. Where the factory bikes struggled – with the exception of Marquez – the Open bikes and the Ducatis thrived. The softer tires meant they could get heat into their tires more quickly, and push harder. Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone on the Ducatis, Yonny Hernandez on the Open Ducati, and Scott Redding on the Open RCV1000R Honda all finished ahead of Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Rossi. The time set by Redding was particularly impressive, given the horsepower deficit of the production Honda to the other bikes in the top ten. Redding finished ahead of two factory option Hondas, including his teammate Alvaro Bautista. Redding clearly thrives on the pressure of his home GP, no matter what machinery he is on.
Remarkable too is the performance of the satellite riders. Stefan Bradl is in second spot on the LCR Honda, while Bradley Smith is the fastest Yamaha, in fourth. Where the factory riders struggle, both Bradl and Smith are doing well. That did not mean they did not have any problems, however, but they were simply handling them better. Smith had made a big step forward at the test on the Monday after Brno, and carried that progress on to Silverstone.
What Smith, Bradl, and the other factory option riders were concerned about was qualifying. The softer option tire of the Open class bikes and the Ducatis meant that they would be very hard to beat over a single lap. It was a situation which needed remedying, Smith said, and promised to raise it at the next meeting of the Safety Commission. The problem is that the riders don't really have a voice in the rules, and so have only limited input. Dorna, the factories, the teams and the FIM all have influence over the rules, with the factories having the biggest say over technical matters like tires. The riders, however, do not have a direct say, but can only exert influence through their teams. Given that both Dorna and IRTA are very keen on the soft tire for the Open teams, as it allows them to compete much more effectively. As long as they are not winning races, then the Open teams will continue to keep the softer rear tire.
Perhaps the biggest benefactor of the soft rear tire is Ducati, with Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone both posting very strong times. Dovizioso denied that the soft tire gave him an advantage, however. "I made my lap time with the medium tire," the Italian said, the medium being the harder of the two options available to the Ducati riders. The improvement in Ducati's competitiveness was more down to improvements in the bike than on softer tires. The bike had been improved in most places, Dovizioso said, in braking, in corner entry, in corner exit. The big problem remained, however: the understeer remains. Getting the bike turned remains a chore.
This was also the reason why Cal Crutchlow as struggling so badly, he told the press. To get the best out of the Ducati, you had to brake late, turn the bike in as hard as possible and get the turning done, then get on the gas as early as possible. Crutchlow had spent the last three years doing the opposite: braking early, carrying as much corner speed as possible, and riding a nice clean arc through the apex, before exiting with oodles of corner speed and getting on the gas again. Each new circuit they visited, Crutchlow had to spend his time unlearning everything he has spent the last three years trying to perfect. It was a problem with his riding style, Crutchlow admitted with some humility.
Dovizioso also admitted he was still struggling with the Ducati. He had been able to improve a lot, but getting the bike turned remained a huge problem. His hopes were on two developments: a new bike at Aragon, and the 2015 machine due to make its debut at Sepang. The new bike at Aragon would feature a new engine and modified chassis, which should provide another step forward in getting the bike turned. But the real test would come at Sepang in February next year. There, the GP15 will make its debut, a bike Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna described as "a new concept". That is the bike on which the fortunes of Ducati ride, and with it, the hopes of Ducatisti around the world. They have to get it right one day, and that day cannot come soon enough for Andrea Dovizioso.