Eight years. That's how long it has been since a Suzuki last led two consecutive sessions in the dry. It was 2007, at Shanghai, when John Hopkins topped both FP2 and FP3 on the Suzuki GSV-R. Suzuki had a great year in 2007, spending the previous year developing the GSV-R ready for the start of the 800cc class. John Hopkins and Chris Vermeulen amassed one win (in the wet), seven podiums and a pole position that season, including a double podium at Misano. That Suzuki was a great bike, but sadly, it was the last time a Suzuki was truly competitive. It was pretty much all downhill from there.
Until today. Aleix Espargaro was fastest in the morning session at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit, but we put that down to the conditions. The track was still very dusty in the morning, turning the standings upside down. Marc Márquez was tenth fastest, behind Mike Di Meglio and Jack Miller, while Valentino Rossi was fourteenth and Jorge Lorenzo twentieth. It was a fluke, we thought.
Then came the afternoon, and Espargaro was fastest once again on the ECSTAR Suzuki GSX-RR. No excuses about the track this time: the combined assault from the fat rubber adorning the MotoGP and Moto2 bikes had cleaned the track up considerably. Moto2 FP1 had already seen Jonas Folger lapping under the pole record set last year, and Danny Kent was just a few hundredths off the Moto3 lap record in FP2. Espargaro's time on the Suzuki was half a second under the race lap record, and half a second faster than the rest of the field. It was just a straight up fast lap.
Nor was his time just a result of the softer rear tire – at Argentina, the Yamahas and Hondas have extra hard and hard rear tires, the rest, including Suzuki, have a hard and a medium – being used to better effect. Yes, he set his fast time on the medium, but he had spent most of the session on the hard tire, and been fastest for nearly all of FP2. His race pace is strong – mid 1'40s – and good enough to match that of Jorge Lorenzo and the two factory Ducatis. Only Marc Márquez is showing a quicker pace.
So could Espargaro be a contender for the podium on Sunday? It is way too early to tell. The bike is quick alright, and at a track like Termas de Rio Hondo, the GSX-RR's outstanding handling is of much greater importance than its lack of top speed. There are few places where the bikes are accelerating hard from a low gear, and a lot of places where turning ability is key. "Judging by their speed in sector four in Texas, that bike has good side grip and good turning ability," was Bradley Smith's verdict. Marc Márquez concurred. "When you ride behind them, you can see that it is a bike where the chassis is working really well," he told the Spanish media. "This is a circuit where the engine is less important, which is what they are missing."
In the race, it will come down to how well the Suzuki can make the tire last. At the moment, that is something of an unknown, but by this time tomorrow, we should know more. But where the Suzuki is a real threat is in qualifying. Though betting against a pole from Marc Márquez always seems rather rash – the Spaniard has 23 poles from 38 MotoGP starts, a rate of just over 60% - the likelihood of a Suzuki on the front row looks pretty high. That will be a huge boost for the Japanese manufacturer, in just its third full race since returning after absence.
Like the success of the Ducati, Suzuki's strong initial showing seems to validate Dorna's handling of the MotoGP series over the past few years. Yes, the rules are confusing, with Factory Option, Factory Option with concessions, and Open class bikes. But if the aim was to expand the grid and create a more level playing field, then their objective has clearly been achieved. Though Yamaha and Honda still dominate, Ducati have caught up with the two Japanese factories, and Suzuki are now well on their way. Aprilia may be suffering this year, but the freedom to test and develop their engines, while successful factories are kept in check by an engine freeze, means they stand a realistic chance of closing the gap. While Yamaha and Honda monopolize the best riders, the other factories have very little chance of wrapping up a title. But they do now have a much better chance of actually persuading Marc Márquez or Jorge Lorenzo (or even Valentino Rossi, if he was much younger) to take a leap of faith and join them. It may be messy, but it works.
The other big talking point at the first day of testing was tires, and especially what the race tire might be. The Suzukis and Ducatis have no choice, the medium tire unlikely to last the full distance under the punishment dished out by the Argentinian track. But the Hondas and Yamahas face a dilemma, choosing between the hard and the extra hard tire. The hard is the best choice for the riders, but it suffers a big drop after a few laps. The extra hard makes for a much slower lap time, but it is guaranteed to make it to the flag at a consistent pace. "With the hard tire, the bike become very difficult to ride, and the lap time is a lot worse," Valentino Rossi said. "But it looks like that tire is the tire that can provide the race distance. When you put the soft, the bike is a lot better in general, but after some laps, for me it is difficult."
The key will be to try to calculate the time lost in the early laps using the extra hard versus the time gained over the drop from the hard tire in the latter part of the race. That will also depend on the condition of the track, as well as the weather. Track temperatures were relatively cool on Friday, the sun hiding behind clouds for most of the day, with even a few scattered drops of rain at one point. Temperatures are expected to rise tomorrow, and if the sun comes out, the choice may well get easier.
Some light was shed on Ducati's fuel problems at Austin as well. In an interview with the Italian sports daily Corriere dello Sport, Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna explained that the problem was not running out of fuel, but due to cavitation preventing fuel from being pumped properly. When there is very little fuel in the tank, heat from the exhaust and engine caused the fuel temperature to rise rapidly, creating bubbles in the fuel and making it impossible to pump. The problem had been present on the GP14, and was less prominent in the GP15. The small air inlet on the left-hand side of the fairing had gone some way to mitigating the issue, taking cool air and leading it directly towards the tank, to remove the heat. But at very low speed – such as on the cool down lap after the race – it could still occur, as it did in Austin. No doubt that having just 22 liters in the tank instead of 24 made it a little more likely to happen, but the danger during the race is limited.
If there were surprises in practice in MotoGP, Moto3 looked like another repeat of Austin. Danny Kent dominated from the outset, posting fast laps on his own and easily outpacing the competition. He is a man on a mission, and is establishing himself as the favorite for the title this year. There is still a very long way to go, but there does not appear to be a rider who can consistently threaten Kent. Well, not until the astounding Fabio Quartararo gets up to speed, that is.
Moto2 looks a lot more open than it did at Austin, on the other hand. Jonas Folger led in the morning, while Johann Zarco was fastest in FP2, just edging out Sam Lowes and a mass of other riders. Eighteen riders ended within a second of Zarco, Alex Márquez falling just outside a second in nineteenth. Zarco, Lowes and Tito Rabat still look like the quality of the field, but it is a lot more open.
At least the Moto2 riders don't have to worry so much about their tires. A point raised by Bradley Smith. "The Bridgestones just work slightly differently around here," Smith said. "For some reason, the actual chemical reaction to the track is different to Dunlop. Dunlop don't seem to struggle as much with this type of surface. I don't know why, but that seems to be the way it is."
For Saturday, all eyes will be on the weather. A dry and warm track will give a clearer idea of just where the various teams lie. In MotoGP the Suzuki is clearly quick, but then so are the two Ducati Andreas, as well as a lot of the Yamahas. Both Cal Crutchlow and Scott Redding are fast on the satellite Hondas, and the Pramac Ducatis are not far behind. Even Nicky Hayden isn't too far off on the Open class Honda. It has been a promising start to the weekend so far.