Is the Motorland Aragon circuit a Honda track or a Yamaha track? On the evidence of Friday, it is first and foremost a Marc Marquez track. The reigning world champion may not have topped the timesheets – the two de facto factory Ducati riders, Andreas Dovizioso and Iannone did that – but he set a scorching race pace that only his Repsol Honda teammate could get close to, though Dani Pedrosa was still a couple of tenths off the pace of Marquez.
"This is one of my favorite tracks," Marquez said afterwards, adding that he was happy with his rhythm and he had really enjoyed his day. The Spaniard may have lost any chance of wrapping up the title at Aragon with a win, but that didn't make him any less determined to take victory here. The crash at Misano made no difference to his attitude. Was he afraid of crashing? "No. You can't race and be afraid of crashing." Marquez was pushing to the limit once again, laying down a marker for others to follow.
If the mood in Marquez' garage was elated, things were different in the Yamaha camp. Though the gap to Marquez in terms of pace was not huge, it was still significant. Jorge Lorenzo was concerned. "We are slower than last year," he told the media, "we are slower than at the test [in June]." They had started the weekend using the set up which had worked well enough over the last four races for Lorenzo to finish second, but it simply was not working at Aragon. The plan was to revert to the set up used before Indianapolis, he said.
The problem for the Yamahas is grip, especially at the rear. Valentino Rossi was suffering the most of the Yamaha riders. "I'm not very satisfied," Rossi said, "it was a difficult day." Aragon was always a hard track for the Yamahas, Rossi explained, as the rear grip made it hard for them to maintain their corner speed.
The track is a tricky one to master. The asphalt provides a lot of grip, but getting the tires to work was tough. For the first five or six laps, the tires work well, but after that, grip drops drastically. Finding the right balance between front and rear grip, between getting drive while the rear spins and losing it all when it spins needlessly was hard.
As so often, Bradley Smith provided an eloquent explanation. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider has an analytical mind, and the ability to explain himself clearly. Whether he is fast or slow at a track, he is capable of understanding the reasons, and putting it into words for us poor journalists.
When asked why the Hondas do so well at Aragon while the Yamahas struggle, Smith answered "I don't really know what the answer is. But there certainly is a lot of grip, and the track seems to allow you the possibility to brake later here." It was the type of grip that was key, he explained. "There seems to be more rear grip here than at other tracks, especially in the brake areas. So where sometimes you see the Honda skating around on the brakes, here they're able to brake late anyway. If you have a look at the race in Misano, Marc was able to take five bike lengths out of Valentino at some points. But that ability to do that is even more exaggerated here because the rear grip allows them to do it."
That ability to gain in braking was where the Hondas were benefiting most, Smith said. "There's not a limiting factor for them, almost, they're able to brake that much later, and that favors them at this race track in terms of lap time. I think that's the situation that we have, that we're not able to brake that late and still make the corner. We're trying to carry the corner speed. Usually, if the track grip's a little bit low, the Honda will skate into the corner, they won't be able to pick up the throttle as much off the apex. So it's swings and roundabouts, because we can carry the speed through the middle of the corner, and we'll catch up. But where it has quite good grip and quite good rear grip in particular, they take five bike lengths, but they still keep two-and-a-half. We never get back what we gave away. And that's the reason for me, why we struggle as a manufacturer here."
The strange grip of the track benefited the Ducatis too. Especially the Ducatis of Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone, who used the soft tire to set their fastest times. Both men tested the Desmosedici GP14.2, comparing it against the GP14.1, the updated version of the bike with a new engine and chassis they have been using since earlier in the year. The overall impression of the GP14.2 was good, though both Iannone and Dovizioso were keen to emphasize that the difference was not huge. The bike is narrower, especially in the mid-section of the bike. The bike has been cinched about the waist as if corseted, the lower section of the frame visibly narrower, the seat narrower, the rear part of the engine slimmer, the distance between the footpegs smaller.
Iannone was most positive about the changes. The bike being slimmer meant he could move about more easily on the bike, especially important in the flowing combinations which the Aragon track is rich in. It also meant he could lean off the bike more, which made the bike a little easier to ride. The understeer remained, though Iannone felt it might be fractionally more manageable.
But the comparison was not a complete success for Iannone, with the GP14.1 and GP14.2 he was riding fitted with different swingarms. That meant that he needed to use more force on the brake lever to get the bike stopped, making it harder to ride. For Saturday, the Pramac Ducati team was set to switch the swingarm over from the GP14.1, to see if it helped Iannone with the braking issue.
Andrea Dovizioso was less convinced. For the factory Ducati rider, the biggest problem had been switching between the two bikes. Having to adapt between the GP14.1 and the GP14.2 made it hard to concentrate on getting the best out of the bike. The difference in physical size between the two bikes had been confusing for Dovizioso, rather than liberating. But it was at least a step in the right direction, the Italian said.
Though the two Ducatis topped both sessions on Friday – Iannone FP1 in the morning, Dovizioso the afternoon FP2 session – it was just for a single lap. The race pace of the Ducatis was a good deal slower than the Hondas, making a repeat of Dovizioso's strong result at Misano seem extremely unlikely. The drop in grip with a used tire was especially bad on the Ducatis, Dovizioso said, making it much more difficult to be competitive. The way to get the bike to turn was to use more lean angle and big sweeping lines, but when the tire started to wear after five or six laps, it was simply impossible to maintain the same amount of lean. That meant going through the corners slower, and a much slower lap time.
Seeing the two Andreas get yet more updates was starting to rankle with Cal Crutchlow, though he did his best to disguise it. He was down on power compared to the new Ducatis, and Crutchlow estimated he was losing 0.4 seconds down the back straight alone. Add in another 0.3 which the new chassis gave, and the gap between him and the two Andreas was not so large, he said.
Crutchlow's mood was perhaps conditioned by what happened in the morning. He had had three different technical issues with his Desmosedici – the same bike he started the season on, more or less – causing him to return to the pits three times to allow his crew to fix it. It meant he lost most of the morning session, and only really got underway in the afternoon. Despite his setbacks, he felt he was reasonably satisfied. The more time he spends on the Ducati, the more he is starting to adapt. Just in time to leave and go jump on a different bike in 2015.
But Cal Crutchlow's problems with the Ducati were minor compared to those of Hector Barbera. The Avintia rider was delighted to be back on a Desmosedici, but his joy lasted for about two thirds of the morning session. At that point, the GP14 caught fire as he was riding it, leaving him to abandon ship three quarters of the way around the lap. It was not quite the flammable situation of Colin Edwards on the infamous Aprilia RS3 Cube, but it was as spectacular as it comes. If the point of giving Barbera a Ducati running the Open class software was to see how the Desmosedici worked with that software, Ducati Corse got their answer: apparently, it catches flame. With just one bike in his garage, Barbera was forced to sit out most of the afternoon session.
Nicky Hayden was happy not to have to sit anything out. The American got his first chance to ride a MotoGP machine after his long lay off recovering from drastic wrist surgery. His verdict was surprisingly positive, and the wrist did not look swollen when we spoke to him, a half an hour or so after the session. It had gone more or less as expected, and he had not had much pain at all. The wrist was strong, but he found he was lacking strength in the fingers, hardly surprising given just how hard MotoGP riders need to brake, and just how little exercise Hayden had been able to do. The range of motion was pretty good, a huge difference from when he last rode the bike before having surgery. "For sure it is a lot more fun to ride the bike than when I left," Hayden said, "I was miserable the whole time." Recovery would take time, something which Dr Mir, MotoGP's favorite surgeon, had explained to Hayden at lunch.
Hayden was as optimistic as I have seen him in many months, clearly pleased with his results. He was off the pace, but in the same ballpark as the other Open Hondas, the riders he has to compete against. The nature of the Aragon track certainly helped, with little hard braking or pressure on the right wrist. Hayden had found that he had to alter his style a little to deal with a different wrist position in right hand corners, but the difference was not as big as he had feared.
Can he make a full recovery? Frankly, we will know more once Hayden's wrist has had a night to digest a day's riding on the bike. He was wise to test his wrist at Aragon rather than Motegi: the Japanese track's combination of many right hand corners and extremely heavy braking would have been soul-crushing place to have to test out a recuperating wrist. As it is, Hayden can take positives from Aragon to Motegi, only taking a step back after taking a couple of steps forward first. But three races back to back, kicking off at Motegi is hardly the way to treat a recovering wrist. In reality, we will probably only see Hayden's true potential next year, once he has had a winter to fully recover and work on his strength. But the first signs are all positive.