Every race track has something special, but each is special in a different way. There are the tracks which are notable for the speed, such as Mugello, Termas de Rio Hondo, or Phillip Island. There are tracks which have a spectacular setting, such as Phillip Island, Mugello, or Aragon. There are tracks which are notable for their layout, either fast and flowing like Assen or Brno, or tight and treacherous such as the Sachsenring. And then there are tracks which are so unlike anywhere else that motorcycle racing goes to that they have a character all of their own. Like Indianapolis.
What makes Indy such a unique challenge? "The special thing about this track is that during the weekend, the grip is improving a lot, so this is one point you must understand during the weekend how the grip improves," Marc Márquez said. Understanding this, that the track you roll out onto on Friday morning bears no relation to the track you will be racing on come Sunday, presents a very specific challenge. It rewards riders and teams who understand how a track matures and changes, can anticipate what is coming without getting ahead of themselves and paying the price for overestimating the available grip. A number of riders did that on Friday morning, especially in Moto3. Getting it wrong in the afternoon was worse, as Pol Espargaro demonstrated by opening the gas just a little more than the tire could cope with, and finding himself being spat off his Monster Tech 3 Yamaha and onto the hard, unforgiving tarmac. The fault was all his, Espargaro said.
Before the track was resurfaced, he would have had something else to blame, but the changes mean that the tarmac is much more predictable, with a single type of asphalt all around the infield. "Consistent" was the word used over and over again by rider after rider when asked to describe grip levels. They meant around the track, rather than all day, however. Because the road course at IMS sees so little use, it is dusty and green when MotoGP rolls into town, needing sweeping and some rubber laid down on it. That takes the best part of the first day, with the added complication of drastically rising temperatures from morning to afternoon.
Who managed best on Friday, the day on which conditions always change the most? Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez held a clear advantage, both when riding in race trim and when chasing a faster time. By the end of the day, they were separated by just three thousandths of a second, and that was after previously lapping in exactly the same time. Their race pace was consistent low 1'33s, with little to set the two apart. On the basis of the first day, Indianapolis has all the makings of a titanic duel between the two Spaniards, a prospect made all the more attractive by the obvious antagonism between the two.
Lorenzo and Márquez did not hesitate to point to one another as their main rivals, and both expect a fight. "For sure, [Márquez] will try to recover points, risking a lot and going very fast," Lorenzo said. "Now I would prefer a race like Germany," said Márquez, referring to his easy escape at the Sachsenring, "but with Jorge, he's a rider that always gives everything." If it came down to a straight battle, there would be no easy victory. "In every close battle you learn things," Márquez told reporters, when asked if he thought Lorenzo would have learned enough to be able to counter his tactics. The surface at Indy makes fighting for position there even more difficult. "If you leave the racing line, you slide a lot."
Tires will be key, though the combination of choice for both Márquez and Lorenzo was the hard front and the hard rear. That Lorenzo would be strong with the hard rear at Indy is an indicator of just how complex the equation is when it comes to tires and their behavior. Because of the harsh demands placed on the tires at Indy, Bridgestone brought the tires without the special edge treatment. Normally, that is the tire which Lorenzo struggles with, as he did at Assen and the Sachsenring. Not here, though. Here, Lorenzo looks his usual, formidable, imperial self.
Why the difference? "Assen and Germany haven't been good for me," Lorenzo explained. "After some laps, the tire is spinning too much in acceleration, and I couldn't take profit of my riding style. But I don't know why, this tarmac from the last two years is quite grippy, quite constant on the track, and even if the tire is the same as Germany and Assen, I don't feel so much the difference between this tire and the one I used in the four victories." At other tracks, it has been Valentino Rossi who has used the hard rear tire, while Jorge Lorenzo has preferred the medium. At Indianapolis, the tables appear to have been reversed.
So comfortable are Lorenzo and Márquez with the tires Bridgestone have brought that they did not even bother fitting a new tire at the end of FP2 to go chasing a fast time. They didn't need to, they were already fast enough. The same is true of Dani Pedrosa, who was also fast on old tires, and decided against using an extra tire at the end.
Pedrosa's final position on the timesheets – seventh, half a second behind Lorenzo and Márquez – belies his pace. "I don't mind really the position today, because I know some other riders changed to a soft tire and then they improved in the last laps. But I was working on my rhythm, trying to know the tire, especially the hard front and rear." He was still coming up just a little bit short – a tenth per sector, by his own reckoning – but if they could find a little bit more grip on corner entry and on corner exit, then he was confident of being in the mix.
The two factory Ducatis are right in behind Pedrosa, and not far off his pace. "Our pace is quite good, even though we have a few problems," said Andrea Dovizioso. In his case, it is braking where he is suffering, and vibration at Turn 7, the middle of the complex before heading onto the back straight. Andrea Iannone was happier with his one-lap pace, but less so with his race pace. The Italian felt like he was losing the front everywhere, a worrying and uncomfortable feeling. With a little bit of improvement, Dovizioso could challenge Pedrosa. Iannone needs something a little bigger.
Something big is also what Valentino Rossi needs. After what he described as probably his worst Friday of the year, the championship leader was left severely worried. He had no confidence in the front end, especially under braking. They had tried several small changes, but to no avail, what was needed was a more radical change, a modification to the weight distribution to try to get some of the missing feeling back. They would look at the data tonight, Rossi said, and try to come up with a solution in the morning.
If they can't find one, then Rossi is in real trouble. Lorenzo and Márquez were easily fastest without having to throw a fresh set of tires at it, while Rossi had been forced to come in for medium tires in order to chase a spot in the top ten. Making things more complicated is the fact that Saturday morning is likely to be the fastest session of the weekend so far. Cool conditions will give a lot of grip, while the track should be nicely cleaned after the first day of practice. If Rossi and his crew don't have a good bike in FP3, they could easily find themselves forced to go through Q1, and having already used up one his medium rears, that would leave him woefully short for Q2, should he make it through. Rossi's 13 point lead over Jorge Lorenzo is starting to look vulnerable.
It could be even worse. Asked about the races to come, at tracks where Bridgestone will be using their standard tire, the one Lorenzo likes so much, the Movistar Yamaha rider was quietly confident. "We can maybe be a little bit more competitive," Lorenzo said. Given that he is top of the pile at the moment, that would make him competitive with a class of exactly one. The 2015 title race is still a very long way from having run its course.
While all eyes were on Honda, Yamaha and Ducati, interesting developments were afoot at both Suzuki and Aprilia. Suzuki's new partnership with exhaust maker Akrapovic seemed to be paying dividends off the bat, the Suzukis finding some of the top speed they had been missing. At Austin, the fastest Suzuki was down 14 km/h on the fastest Honda. At Indianapolis, where top speeds are very similar, and where a slow corner leads onto a long, fast straight, they had cut the deficit in half, to just 7 km/h. That was to the Hondas and Ducatis; the gap to the Yamahas was almost negligible: Maverick Viñales was just 2 km/h slower than Jorge Lorenzo, and actually quicker than Valentino Rossi. That top speed couldn't help either Viñales or Aleix Espargaro to a decent time, but it is one more area where a small improvement has reduced the deficit Suzuki has to the leading manufacturers.
At Aprilia, things were also looking up, albeit on a limited scale. The arrival of Forward Racing refugee Stefan Bradl brought a new optimism to the team, the German replacing the little dark cloud that was Marco Melandri. Bradl took one session to sort out the basics of his seating position, then ended the second ahead of his new teammate Alvaro Bautista. The German did run into the limitations of his injured scaphoid, his wrist causing him a little more pain than he had hoped, but he could at least ride fairly easily with it. Bradl's arrival is a demonstration of just how important the mental side of racing is, how a positive mindset – and escaping from a suddenly bankrupt team can seem like a liberation – can give a rider a boost, and that boost can carry forward into the team. Aprilia are going to need it; they still have a lot of work to do.
There were developments in the series' silly season on Friday, some expected, some a total surprise. Pol Espargaro's contract extension with Yamaha was announced, while Bradley Smith's extension with Tech 3 wasn't. Smith had plenty of praise for his team, but strong words for Yamaha. Strong words, that is, in a very British way. "With the manufacturer in general, it's something I'm a little bit disappointed with," Smith told reporters. As a Briton myself, I can assure you that the more mildly phrased the criticism is, the more ferociously it is meant.
The most surprising news came out of Fabio Quartararo's garage, when Spanish broadcaster Movistar TV broke the news that the French prodigy was considering leaving the team at the end of the season, and switching to the Leopard Racing team. There, he will be reunited with Cristian Lundberg, the man who discovered him and helped develop his talent. Both Estrella Galicia 0,0 and Leopard Racing denied that any such deal had been agreed, but their denials were couched carefully, to allow that the move could happen.
The move may appear strange from the outside, but there is reason to believe it is well thought through. At Estrella Galicia, Quartararo is under the wing of Emilio Alzamora, and Alzamora does not have a reputation for being particularly easy to work with. Though the Monlau / Marc VDS partnership offers a pathway from Moto3 all the way through to MotoGP, the same could soon be true of Kiefer, who run the Leopard Racing program. With financial backing from Leopard, Kiefer is believed to be moving up to Moto2 for 2016, taking Danny Kent and possibly Efren Vazquez along with them. They could even move up to MotoGP, taking over the seats from Forward Racing, though they will need to hurry if they are to negotiate to lease bikes from Yamaha. What is clear is that Leopard, too, will soon be able to offer a path from the Spanish CEV championship all the way through to MotoGP. That makes Quartararo's choice look a little less bizarre, and a little more considered.
Of course, first, we have to find out how much truth there is in the story. There definitely appears to be some there. Whether it is completely true may take a few more races to uncover. It certainly adds a spot of intrigue. Indy appears to be good for that.
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