If you had put money on Bradley Smith being the fastest man at the end of the first day of practice at Le Mans, you would probably be a very happy camper this evening. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider does not often top a practice session – the last time was nearly a year ago, on the Friday at Barcelona – though he often shows plenty of speed. But there has always been one thing or another to prevent him from converting speed through a particular sector into a really fast flying lap.
That's where the Jerez test helped. At Jerez, Smith, along with several other riders, tested a new front fork set up which made a huge difference to his riding. The aim of the change had been to absorb more of the force in braking, and allow the front tire to retain its shape. By limiting the deformation of the front tire, the new fork allows Smith to brake later and enter the corner better. The tire keeps its shape, giving the rider confidence to release the brake and enter the corner fast. The bike is smoother, and Smith has benefited.
They also found improvements in engine braking, which helps the bike to turn. Better engine braking means a more stable bike entering the corner, crucial to extracting the maximum speed out of a Yamaha. Putting it all together gave Smith confidence, and with confidence comes speed.
It was a perfect afternoon for Smith all the way up to the final corner of his final lap. Smith was very fast on that run, moving up to third spot before heading the timesheets with a lap of 1'33.179. He was on course for another quick lap, but ruined it with a rookie error. Aleix Espargaro crashed in front of him, and he ran wide following the Suzuki. Trying to get back on track, he crashed, but it was a very weird crash indeed, he told reporters. He ran over what looked like a rock or a lump of rock in an asphalt join, and it flipped the bike up. A shame, but the speed he had shown before was encouraging.
Smith was fast, but was he fast enough to match the front runners? To match the pace of Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Márquez would take a little more rear grip, but they were already at the limit of their range of settings to improve that. There was no more room in bike geometry to improve. Then again, Smith said, being first was not his normal position. His aim was to be top satellite bike. On the basis of the timesheets, Smith felt that slot was his.
The real battle for supremacy was being played out behind Smith, though. Jorge Lorenzo was demonstrating that his domination at Jerez was no fluke, pounding out a merciless string of mid 1'33s in preparation of the race. The Movistar Yamaha rider was impressive, but said that he was not yet at his full potential. He and the team were working on balancing the front and rear tires, the feeling at the front disappearing when the rear starts to wear. There was plenty of room for improvement, he said. A worrying message for his rivals.
Not for rivals with confidence, however, and at the moment, Andrea Dovizioso has plenty of that. The test at Mugello for the factory Ducati team had solved some problems with set up, allowing them to work through various settings and understand what works and what doesn't. Being immediately fast at Le Mans gave confidence, and matching the pace of Lorenzo was a sign he could be competitive, Dovizioso said. The speed is there, and now they can work on improving the details which will help make the bike consistently fast to the very last lap.
The Ducati's biggest problem is on corner exit, Dovizioso said. The bike needed a little more stability if it was to be fast for the full 28 laps. The power delivery was still too aggressive, and not linear enough, making managing rear wheel spin difficult, as well as keeping the front wheel down. But after a poor weekend at Jerez, Dovizioso is clearly bouncing back.
The same can't be said for his teammate, though that has everything to do with the shoulder he dislocated at the Mugello test. Andrea Iannone struggled on bravely in both sessions, but needed painkilling injections for the afternoon, never a good sign for a rider. Braking was extremely painful, but Iannone was also struggling with mobility. It is going to be a very long, very painful race for the Italian on Sunday, and you have to question whether there is much point even risking it.
Marc Márquez is the third rider with strong race pace, the Repsol Honda rider getting into his stride in the second session of practice. The first session did not go entirely to plan, being forced to stop his Honda RC213V at the exit of pit lane at the start of FP1, in a scene worryingly similar to qualifying at Austin. This time, he could push his bike back to the pits, but it did not venture out again during that session.
Does this mean a serious problem for Márquez, already missing an engine from his allocation of five for the season? The reigning world champion dismissed the idea out of hand. It was merely a small electrical problem, he told reporters, apparently unaware of the irony of the phrase. In the past, HRC have used the words "electrical problem" to cover a multitude of sins. Such as the time Nicky Hayden's factory Honda detonated at the Sachsenring, spraying conrods and pieces of crankcase all down the main straight.
Márquez' problem was clearly less dramatic, the bike cutting out underneath him. How serious the problem is will only come clear once the lists of engine usage are published. If Márquez has to start using a fourth engine, then that may be a sign of real trouble. If I were to speculate for a moment, however, there is a chance this may be less of a problem than it appears. Márquez' engine cut out on its first flying lap out of the pits, suggesting a problem occurred very early on. Could it be that Márquez' team decided to try to run the engine which had failed at Austin? The motor had been sent back to Japan for inspection, but the problem is that they cannot run such engines on a dyno. When engines in current use leave the circuit, they are sealed – either exhaust or inlet ports – by the scrutineers. That means the engine cannot be run on a dyno to see whether there is a serious problem. The factories can use the kind of tools used in microsurgery to inspect engine internals, and as they are designed as prototypes, you would expect inspection access to engine internals would be one of the design briefs. The factories can rotate the crank and turn the engine over, but they cannot actually have it running. If the inspections doesn't pick up any physical problems with the engine, the only way to see if the engine will run is to bolt it into a bike before a practice session, fire it up, and take it out on track. If the engine fails again, you take it out of the allocation. You have lost almost nothing by trying.
Is this what happened to Márquez on Friday morning? I think it is an interesting theory, and it is certainly something I would have considered, if I were in HRC's shoes. We will only find out on Saturday evening, when Dorna publish the engine lists. If Márquez' #2 engine saw action in FP1, then we know this is what they did. I will admit it is unlikely, but it's fun to speculate.
After Márquez' problems, he was soon up to speed. Márquez was running mid 1'33s along with Lorenzo and Dovizioso, though it took him a little longer to get there. Márquez was testing a new swingarm, one with modified flexibility in the pursuit of more rear grip on corner exit. He was happy with it so far, saying it was working well. The problem for Márquez is that he likes to slide the rear into the corner, but that leaves him running out of room to get it back, and that is where he is losing time. The improvements on corner entry which HRC have made to the RC213V have come at a cost, the better front end allows faster entry, but the rear is now the limit.
And what of our championship leader? Valentino Rossi got off to his usual slow start, made worse by an engine blowing oil over a rear tire, thereby rendering it useless. It meant he had was forced to use an old tire on Friday afternoon, limiting his options for chasing a fast time. There is reason for optimism, though: his team found a setting which worked much better before his final exit, Rossi dropping into the mid- to high 1'33s. Rossi was relatively pleased with the day's work. "For Friday, it's not so bad," he said.
That kind of pace is out of reach for Dani Pedrosa at the moment, but the Spaniard is just happy to be able to ride again. It had been over six weeks since the operation to fix his arm pump, and his recovery had bee prolonged. Getting back on a MotoGP bike did prove to be a surprise, however. He had forgotten just how fast a MotoGP bike was, he told reporters, struggling to control the bike's eagerness to wheelie everywhere. He had struggled in the morning, but by the afternoon, he was back up to speed.
Just how strong Pedrosa can be during the race remains to be seen. Though he had not had any pain while riding, he had suffered a real lack of strength in his arm. That was normal, given that he had not been able to train while his arm healed. There was some swelling, but that can be treated with physiotherapy. Pedrosa was very positive after practice, feeling vindicated by his decision to take enough time to recover properly. It will still be a few races before he is at 100%, but at least he knows he can ride a MotoGP bike again.
In Moto2, the old Tito Rabat was back. The Marc VDS rider was fast in the morning, then ran a full race simulation in the afternoon, grinding out a fearsome pace. Other riders got close to his times, but nobody appears to have the pace of the reigning champion.
Much the same is happening in Moto3. Danny Kent is once again dominating, pounding out strings of fast laps on an empty track, without the help of a tow. Clever riders – RW Racing's Livio Loi proved to be the smartest of the bunch, hitching a ride with Fabio Quartararo – were using tows to match Kent's pace for a single lap, but Kent was clearly happy to grind it out all day. The Englishman is acting as if he owns every track the series goes to. That is the attitude of a champion.