The day did not start well. It was not just the high winds and the rain which created problems at the Circuit of the Americas. An absence of track staff – apparently, a lack of medical marshals when the first session of the day was due to start – meant that FP1 for the Moto3 class was delayed by three quarters of an hour. Conditions were pretty miserable once they got underway, but, it turned out, things could be worse. That became apparent when the MotoGP session was red flagged, after a stray dog ran onto the track – that's on the track, not along the side, but actually on it. It took a good fifteen minutes to chase the dog off the track and towards safety, making the old cliché about herding cats seem strangely inappropriate.
By the time practice resumed, the original schedule had gone to hell. The qualifying session for the MotoAmerica Superbike class was rapidly dropped, and the lunch break dispensed with, getting the event quickly back on track.
Despite the weirdness, it turned into a good day. The rain all morning meant the track was at least consistently wet for all three FP1 sessions, as well as FP2 for Moto3. Rainfall stopped towards the end of that practice, with MotoGP starting on a wet track, but the surface drying rapidly, bar a stream of water crossing the back straight. That was a little unsettling, several riders finding themselves in trouble with aquaplaning through it. Overall, though, the consensus was that the track offered pretty reasonable grip in the wet.
The mixed weather conditions generated some real excitement during FP2 for MotoGP. With rain forecast for Saturday morning – at least at that point in time, the forecast having changed since then – the teams realized that it was imperative to set a good time, and ensure passage into Q2, without having to pass through the shark pool of Q1. That meant that the last ten minutes of FP2 turned hectic, the top ten constantly being shook up right to the end.
It was of course Marc Márquez who ended the day as fastest, the Repsol Honda man having a good dry set up for the track. But he had not been fastest in the morning, pipped to the post by Andrea Dovizioso. Any fears that the GP15 may have sacrificed performance in the wet for the speed the bike has in the dry were unfounded. "The braking and the rear grip in the GP14 was quite good," Andrea Dovizioso told us, "so we can still improve the GP15." But the fact that the GP15 turns, its understeer banished, more than makes up for that. The Ducati GP15 is just as good in the wet as it is in the dry. An unsettling thought for Yamaha and Honda.
The GP15 still has teething problems, however. Andrea Iannone ran into a problem with a gearbox sensor, which slowed him up and messed up the electronics during FP1. A replacement sensor fixed the issue in FP2, going from 19th in the morning to third in the afternoon.
Second fastest in the afternoon was Cal Crutchlow, the LCR Honda man now at ease on the Honda RC213V. It remained a difficult bike to ride, he said, but not so difficult that he could be faster than everyone bar Marc Márquez. The time was something of a personal victory for the Englishman, coming to a track where he had, in his own words, the worst crash of his career. Last year, he had highsided at Turn 2, breaking a bone in his hand. It was not so much the severity of the injury, as the suddenness and the viciousness of the crash which had spooked him. "I spent all day being scared through that corner. Last year it was probably the biggest crash of my career," Crutchlow said.
Was Crutchlow helped by the fact that he had a new chassis? He felt it was unlikely. The Englishman had been given two bikes with the new chassis, basically a seat unit with revised seat mounting points, which gave a different feel, Repsol Honda team principal Livio Suppo explained. The chassis was basically identical except for the seat mounting points, but those mounting points and the carbon fiber seat unit gave a different feel. It was hard to identify, however. Without the ability to run a back-to-back test with the old bike, it was hard to say just how much difference it had made. Allied to the fact that Crutchlow only managed eight laps in the dry on the new bike, and he was uncertain where the improvement lay. "Of course it's better, because the factory wouldn't be riding it if it wasn't better," Crutchlow said. But he also pointed to the fact that he was over a second slower than last year, despite ending the day in second. "I look at the lap before I crashed [in 2014] and I did a 2'04.0, which is 1.1 seconds faster than what I went today. But you have to ride to the condition of the track, and we did, so that's the position we are in today."
Valentino Rossi may have only finished the day in sixth, but he was more than happy. They had found a better set up in the wet, which improved his feeling with the rear. Though Rossi seems particularly fast, all of the Yamahas did surprisingly well. The newer bike – the 2015 YZR-M1 for the Movistar Yamaha team, and the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha M1, which is basically the bike used by Rossi and Lorenzo at Valencia last year – gives much better rear grip in the rain than the bike at the beginning of last year. Rain was particularly tough on the Tech 3 riders. "I was happy with it considering that this time last year, every time I rode in the rain, I wanted to pack up and go home," Bradley Smith quipped. "The bike is better on grip in the rear, especially entering the corners," his teammate Pol Espargaro agreed. "You need that a lot with the Yamaha."
Odd man out was Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard struggled all day on the first day of practice, ending the day in 11th and missing out on direct entry into Q2. Lorenzo eventually left the circuit early without speaking to the press. He has a mild case of bronchitis, according to Yamaha's press release, and though that will not prevent him from riding on Saturday and Sunday, it is far from ideal preparation. His early departure from the track left us with some questions unanswered: Lorenzo had two slightly different bikes at Austin: on the wet setup bike, he was using the old exhaust, the one slightly longer version introduced mid-season last year. On his dry bike, he had the current exhaust, the much shorter and highly stylish slash-cut version of the pipe. Yamaha staff would say only that they were running tests to compare the two bikes. It may mean that Jorge Lorenzo wanted something different in terms of engine response to Valentino Rossi.
There was a lot of discussion around Honda, their decision not to let Casey Stoner replace Dani Pedrosa, and the performance of their Open class machine. A small group of journalists waylaid HRC bosses Shuhei Nakamoto and Livio Suppo, and grilled the pair on why Stoner was not replacing Pedrosa. It had been Stoner who had volunteered to replace Pedrosa, Nakamoto admitted, wanting to help Honda and support Dani Pedrosa. But after consultation among HRC staff in Japan, they had decided against giving Stoner the shot. The problem was a lack of testing, and a lack of a decent structure to put Stoner in. He had lapped 1.5 seconds off his own record time at the track, Nakamoto said, a respectable time given that he was brought in to test the bike, meaning no time was given to set up, and to adjusting the bike to suit him. Stoner's fastest time was still 0.8 slower than the new record set by Marc Márquez in February. That mounts up to a sizable gap.
Nakamoto and Suppo feared that the gap would be too large for the Australian, and he would react badly to being so far off the pace. "For HRC Casey is quite important. He is a VIP. For us, if Casey race again in MotoGP at least he has to fight for a podium. This is our target." That was not possible under the circumstances. "Casey needs a good set up machine. For this we could not find confidence," Nakamoto explained. "Cristian is working with Jack Miller, Ramon [Aurin] is a good engineer but never worked with Casey," Nakamoto added.
Nakamoto and Suppo also glossed over the problems with the Open Hondas, disregarding the issues the bikes have had with electronics. The Open class software is still a long way behind the stuff being used by the factories, and is unlikely to close the gap any time soon. The issue was that the electronics were not behaving consistently, causing Eugene Laverty to pull in at one point while they looked at his bike. The spec Magneti Marelli electronics were causing havoc with the RCV-213V-RS. The bike was fast, Nakamoto emphasized, being last year's factory RC213Vs with the Open class software.
It is the software which is causing the problem. Eugene Laverty and Nicky Hayden both suffered with issues at the track, Laverty finding himself with traction control which was too aggressive in left handers, and no traction control a few corners later. Such an issue is all about standards, and the manpower the teams have to engage the data. Satellite teams have data engineers to help them figure out electronics strategies, and map the electronics to particular corners. The Open class teams do not have such resources at their disposal, and therefore have a good deal more difficulty to set up the electronics. If the 2015 Open software is performing badly, it should not be regarded as a harbinger of what is to come. The factories have hijacked the rule making process, and the procedure for submitting electronics changes to the ECU. When 2016 comes around, the bikes will be as complex as ever, with HRC, Yamaha and Ducati lining up to provide software to the new software for the spec ECU. The haves will still lead the have nots by a significant amount. It was ever thus.