What did we learn from Friday practice at Barcelona? We learned that things are not quite what they seem. Does the fact that the Repsol Honda riders are second and third overall mean that HRC's travails are behind it? Certainly not. Do the two Suzukis in the top five – and Aleix Espargaro setting the fastest overall time – mean Suzuki have found the horsepower to match the Honda and Ducati? Absolutely not. Will the Yamahas' lowly positions on the grid put them out of contention on Sunday? Leaving aside the fact that it's just the first day of practice, with another full day on Saturday, definitely, absolutely, certainly not.
Are all these assumptions completely baseless? That's where it gets interesting. In fact, there is a kernel of truth underlying them all. The Honda is improved, certainly, but racing is not practice. The Suzuki is definitely quicker, but it isn't horsepower which is putting the Suzukis where they are. And the Yamahas are clearly having a problem, but it is not a problem which will trouble them much in the race.
The headline times are deceptive, at least in the case of the Yamahas and Hondas. The fastest laps of Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez are impressive, but both times they were one-off laps set on very short runs in qualifying trim, rather than times set in long runs using a race set up. Perhaps spooked by his experience in Mugello, where a prolonged focus on electronics and race set up left him stranded in Q1, and then failed to get into Q2, Márquez ensured that he had a fast lap under his belt at the end of both free practice sessions. Pedrosa did much the same, working on race set up early, then pushing for a time at the end of both FP1 and FP2.
In terms of race pace, the Hondas are much further off. Both Márquez and Pedrosa are capable of running constant high 1'42s, but that is half a second off the race pace of the really fast men. There could be more to come, though. Márquez tested a new exhaust on Friday, which helped the bike on corner entry a little, mitigating the very worst of his problems. "The new exhaust looks slightly better. On the entry I can control better. We still need to work but I am happier because we are closer. Especially with the new tires we feel really good," Márquez said. The feeling in corner entry was a little better. "Looks like it’s more in the way of last year. This year it’s sliding the rear a lot. There are very long slides. Still this problem is there and there are still slides but I can control better."
Márquez also has some electronics updates which could help with the problem, but he was reluctant to give those a try during practice. They lost their way at Mugello testing electronics, and that had left him wary. It had been a valuable investment, though, even though it meant starting thirteenth on the grid in Italy, as the bike was improved on corner exit. The full electronics package will be given a thorough test on Monday, when there is more time and a good deal less at stake.
Pedrosa has set Saturday aside for testing the new exhaust, focusing on testing tires and work on set up on Friday. Both hard and soft rear look possible race candidates on Sunday, especially if it is as hot as usual. The difference between the two is only marginal, however, with compounds between the two very close. In the end, the weather will be the decisive factor.
The compound selection for Bridgestone's tires is an intriguing process, and today I learned a lot about how the tires have developed over the years. I was fortunate to spend nearly half an hour talking to Shinji Aoki, the manager of Bridgestone's tire development department, and he explained that the huge steps made in electronics had forced Bridgestone to move towards ever softer compounds. As electronics have developed to control wheelspin ever more precisely, so the load on the tires has changed. A spinning tire heats the surface, causing only superficial degradation, and controlling spin meant that the bikes could create more drive out of corners. That actually loads the tire more, stressing it throughout the entire carcass, rather than just at the surface. Bridgestone have reacted to that by creating a carcass which is more resistant to those severe loads, including the addition of the heat-resistant layer. With load heat managed at a deeper level in the tires, via special constructions inside the tire, it has been possible to go softer in terms of compounds. That gives the tires more grip, allowing the electronics to control wheelspin even more precisely, contributing to the cycle even further.
While the lap times of the Hondas have to be treated with caution, the times of the Suzukis, and most especially, the times of Aleix Espargaro, are a genuine reflection of the pace of the bike. The new engine in the GSX-RR has provided more horsepower, but Aleix Espargaro was almost disappointed in the step they had made. "We gained about two or three km/h. We were always one km/h down on Bautista and now we are two km/h up. This is great but we need more. After five months Suzuki is working hard," Espargaro said. That change could be key during the race, however. "I think we are about three or four km/h down on Yamaha. With three or four km/h difference I think we can go with them in the draft. This is very important. In the race as soon as they open a gap of three meters they leave. If we are able to follow them in the draft it’s a big advantage."
The biggest change was not in speed or acceleration, but in the power delivery of the engine. "The weird thing is the power delivery is even better. The engine character is completely different. It’s a lot more smooth in the bottom which is great news. When they decided to bring the new engine I was a little bit afraid. Sometimes it can be too aggressive. It was really smooth in the bottom but also the electronics change, the engine brake change," Espargaro said.
The very lack of horsepower could be an advantage in Barcelona. The track is bumpy, with a lot of ripples left in the middle of the corner, and tar and rubber left on the way into the corner, all thanks to the cars, and especially the F1 cars, which test and race here on a regular basis. The additional horsepower of the Hondas and Ducatis make them hard to manage, their riders explained, perhaps giving the Suzuki an advantage. "The difficulty today was to manage the power and movement, because the grip is very low for everybody and the bumps from the cars are very difficult to manage," Andrea Dovizioso explained. "The cars create big bumps for us and MotoGP bikes have too much power, so we have to work on the set up of the bike but also a lot with the electronic side - the power and traction control - because you cannot use too much power in this condition. Especially this afternoon when the grip was worse. I think it is also the reason why Suzuki was very fast today." The lack of power means that the bike is less likely to be upset over the bumps by an aggressive throttle response.
That should take nothing away from the times set by Aleix Espargaro, though. "Espargaro is a really fast rider, especially in practice, and in this track he was also very fast last year," Dovizioso said. He was not just fast on a single lap with a soft tire, however, his race pace on the medium tire – the hardest tire available to the Suzuki riders, and the softer of the two options available to the Hondas and Yamahas – is deeply impressive. Espargaro did long and consistent runs in the low 1'42s, before upping the pace to take top spot with a soft tire. That kind of pace is good enough to be fighting for the podium, and perhaps even victory.
The real unknown for the Suzuki is how the tire will wear over the course of the race. Suzuki's electronics package is very sound, but not as sophisticated as the ones used by Honda and Yamaha. More importantly, the GSX-RR is still using a conventional gearbox, the fully seamless box still being tested in Japan. A seamless gearbox places less strain on the tires, load changes as gears are changed up or down taking place much more smoothly, providing more consistent wear.
Aleix Espargaro may be impressive on the Suzuki, but Jorge Lorenzo still looks like the man to beat. The Spaniard did twelve full laps in the afternoon, all of which were in the 1'42s, half of which were low 1'42s. He ended the day in only seventh place, but that was because he didn't push for a quick lap during either free practice, secure in the knowledge he was safely through to Q2, for the time being. Lorenzo has a very solid base from which to approach qualifying on Saturday.
Lorenzo's seventh spot was the best of the Yamahas, but their positions belie their pace. All four Yamaha riders – Lorenzo and Movistar Yamaha teammate Valentino Rossi, and the Monster Tech 3 pairing of Pol Espargaro and Bradley Smith – have strong race pace, but they cannot match the Hondas, Ducatis and Suzukis on single-lap pace. That, Bradley Smith explained with his customary incisive precision, was probably because of the way the Yamahas handle grip. "Yamaha seem to struggle on this type of racetrack, especially with low grip," Smith told us. "Although this track is perfectly laid out for our motorcycle, the actual grip coming from the circuit means that our strength is no longer really there. But I think over race distance, we have a lot less problems. When the grip goes away from the other riders, Yamaha for some reason keeps the grip a little bit easier and a little bit more friendly to ride. But we can't extract the most from it." The big fear for the Yamaha riders is that they have good race pace but will qualify poorly. "Tomorrow morning's going to be difficult, qualifying is going to be difficult," Smith conceded. "But we're trying to look at the big picture and be ready for the race."
That is precisely what Valentino Rossi has done. "I’m quite satisfied about the day, because especially in the second part of the afternoon we improved a lot the bike," he said. "I feel good. I have a good setting. The balance is not so bad. For sure we have to work a bit on small details for try to improve the braking, but I feel good on the bike. I have a good pace and it’s not so bad. I mean I think we are on a good way." There is, however, the small matter of qualifying. "For sure tomorrow will be very, very hard for us to start in a good grid position. Because have a lot of bikes very fast, especially for one lap and looks like the extra-soft Bridgestone help a lot also the Suzukis and for sure the Ducatis. So have a lot of bikes and riders faster than me, especially for qualifying."
Rossi agreed with the general consensus that the Yamahas have the best race pace, but are a way off in terms of one-lap pace. The Hondas are quick for a single lap, the Ducatis somewhere in between. Márquez, Smith, Rossi, Lorenzo, all shared this perspective. So do not read too much into the headline times on the timesheet. The truth is out there, but it needs a bit of digging to uncover.