Bikes are on track, and the roar of racing four strokes is filling the desert skies in Qatar. We can check our moral compasses at the door, sit back and once again revel in the glory of Grand Prix racing. The fog of testing is lifting, exposing the reality which lies beneath. We don't need speculation any longer. We have actual timesheets.
Conclusions from Day One of 2016? We learned a lot. Some of it confirmed what we already knew: the Yamahas are quick, especially Jorge Lorenzo; Maverick Viñales can be competitive; Hector Barbera is going to surprise a few people; the Hondas are still juggling the electronics in search of the right set up; there is a clear elite group in Moto2, which includes Sam Lowes and Alex Rins; the rookie group in Moto3 is exceptional this year.
Some of it surprised: MotoGP silly season is already in high gear, with reports that Johann Zarco has already signed for Suzuki, and talk about Tech 3 for next year; Zarco's poor times in testing were anything but representative; Livio Loi is in deadly form at Qatar, opening up a gap which shouldn't really be possible in Moto3; the rubber left on the track by the different tire brands is affecting Moto2 far more than MotoGP, instead of the other way round, as it was last year.
Carrying off where he left off
First things first. Jorge Lorenzo ruled the roost in MotoGP, just as he had done during testing at Qatar two weeks ago. If you were wondering if Lorenzo would change his approach because of the Michelins, you got your answer: Lorenzo went out to do one longish run of six laps, followed by two shorter blasts of two laps. He was fairly consistent, despite conditions not being quite ideal for MotoGP, some dust still on the track. He was pushing hard on his out lap, though the Michelins clearly needed handling with more care than Bridgestones used last year. In 2015, Lorenzo was usually up to race pace by the third or fourth sector of his out lap. In FP1, Lorenzo was still a couple of tenths off his strongest pace in sector four, and a tenth or so off in the first sector of his first flying lap. Then again, comparing the very first session of free practice of a new season with major changes to the technical regulations against an entire season at the end of a long period of relatively stable rules is perhaps not an entirely fair or valid comparison.
Lorenzo may have been fastest, but there was still good news for Valentino Rossi. The Italian was second fastest in FP1, a quarter of a second behind his teammate. In comparison, Rossi was eighth in FP1 last year, four tenths behind his teammate and nearly nine tenths behind the fastest man, Marc Márquez. That was a major step forward from last year, when he was often well down during practice and qualifying, then forced to make up places in the race. Was that the difference between winning and losing for Rossi? Hard to say, especially as he won two of his four victories starting from eighth on the grid. But it surely makes things a lot easier.
Could the tires be part of the difference? Rossi certainly liked the Michelins more. He has previously described them as a more "normal" tire. At Qatar, he compared the French rubber favorably against last year's Bridgestones. "[The Michelins] are different to the Bridgestones, which had incredible performance, but forced the rider to adapt to them," he told Italian media. "You can play a bit more with the Michelins, choose different lines and keep your own style. I like them, they're fun."
A brace of Ducatis followed the Yamahas, Andrea Iannone on the Factory Ducati Desmosedici GP leading a surprising Hector Barbera aboard the Avintia Ducati GP14.2. Or is it really surprising? The Ducatis have shown very strongly during testing, and both riders come into Qatar highly motivated. The opposition can now also no longer point to the Ducati having special soft rubber: from this year, everyone is on the same tires.
That may actually prove to be an advantage for Ducati, in a couple of ways. In 2015, the Ducatis may sometimes have benefited from the harder of the two rear tire options, the hyperpowerful Desmosedici burning through tires. That was borne out by the fact that Iannone spent his entire session on the medium rear Michelin, the harder of the two available options, while Lorenzo stuck to the soft, as has always been his preference. Of course, with Michelin now supplying the tires, that situation is not directly comparable to 2015. Different tires react very differently, and the way the softer and harder compounds react may change riders approaches completely.
Usually, when you see Hector Barbera at the sharp end of the timesheets, it means he got a tow from someone. That isn't entirely how he set his best time at Qatar. The Avintia rider did ride in a group at the end of FP1, following Valentino Rossi at a small distance. But then again, Rossi was also following Maverick Viñales in the same period, the three circulating at high speed led by the Suzuki.
Master and Maverick
Rossi was particularly impressed with Viñales after spending several laps following him, telling the media to keep an eye on the young Spaniard. "Maverick rides very well," Rossi said. "He has very good lines and a very good way to use MotoGP and I think he will be one of the riders that can win in MotoGP." Rossi then used some of the same language he had used to describe Marc Márquez when the Repsol Honda rider first arrived in the class. "He is a great talent, he is f*****g young – too young!" Viñales' time was set on the 2015 chassis and using the old version of the seamless gearbox, with only seamless upshifts. The Spaniard is set to work on the fully seamless gearbox tomorrow. If he can get that to work, he could be a real threat.
While the Yamahas, Ducatis and Suzukis – or rather the Suzuki of Maverick Viñales, Aleix Espargaro languishing well down the order in sixteenth – did well, the Hondas struggled. Dani Pedrosa was the fastest of the Hondas in seventh, Marc Márquez following close behind. The set up tweak Márquez had used during the test hadn't worked, because the track conditions had changed – more on that later. They had changed the electronics again, and it hadn't worked, Márquez said. "We expected the effect would be very small, but it was really big on the bike." That left him doing lots of short runs, rather than the longer runs he had planned.
The problem Honda face with the electronics is that they still cannot get them to work predictably. That can't really be blamed on the common software – the Yamahas and Ducatis have no problem, but they have a lot more experience with the old Magneti Marelli Open Class software. "The engine was not consistent," Márquez explained. "One lap, you arrive and the engine brake was good, the acceleration was good. The other lap, it was completely out." There is still a lot of room for improvement for HRC.
Cal Crutchlow faced similar issues. "We seem to have some strange things going on with the engine braking on corner entry," the LCR Honda rider said. "The rear keeps coming round for no real reason." The electronics problems were not the reason Crutchlow was only twelfth fastest, however. That was more about being a little cautious in the sector where he crashed during testing, and the rear wheel came down between his legs. "I was losing four tenths every lap in the corner where the bike landed on my balls!" Crutchlow joked. But he had not tried to push, and was confident of improving on Friday.
Where the rubber meets the road
Tires were a hot topic of conversation on Thursday, for a number of different reasons. Michelin had brought a new front tire, a modified version of the hard front tested two weeks ago. That helped the Hondas, as the RC213V is very hard on front tires, asking a lot of them from braking and turning. That had been a problem, Cal Crutchlow explained. "The tires are softer and we were already complaining that we were overheating the front tire in the braking," he said. That had been a problem with the rock hard Bridgestones, so the less stiff Michelins were making things worse.
It wasn't just the tires mounted on wheels which were the issue. It was also what they left on the track when used in anger. This was the first time the MotoGP riders had used the Michelins on a track where the Moto2 bikes had left the Dunlop rubber. Fortunately, the season opener at Qatar meant a different running order for Thursday, meaning that MotoGP followed the Moto2 class immediately, instead of the more normal schedule where Moto2 comes after MotoGP. Yamaha team boss Wilco Zeelenberg has complained consistently in the past on race day, saying that the Dunlop rubber laid down by Moto2 changed grip levels and the way the track responded.
There seemed to be a change for the Michelins on Thursday, once they came in contact with the Dunlop rubber put down by Moto2 the session before. There was certainly a spate of comments about how track conditions had changed since the test, and it felt a little different. There are several reasons for that, but the fact that Moto2 had already ridden is surely a factor.
Surprisingly, it seems that the MotoGP tires are now returning the favor to Moto2. Speaking to MCN reporter Simon Patterson, Sam Lowes reported he noticed a mark increase in grip in the evening after MotoGP had been on the track. More grip out of corners, allowing better drive and acceleration. With practice spread over four days, and the sequence of the classes changing a number of times, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Silly Season and Suzuki
From time to time, MotoGP's Silly Season kicks off extremely early. That happened in 2013, when Cal Crutchlow learned at Qatar that Pol Espargaro was to take his seat in the Tech 3 team for 2014. It now appears to be happening again. First, there were the remarks made by Jorge Lorenzo to the Spanish press on Wednesday, expressing mild disappointment that Yamaha would not offer him a contract to sign before the first race, and hinting that it gave him some time to consider other options, should they be presented to him. It still seems a safe bet that Lorenzo will stay, but Yamaha's gamble to delay may end up costing them more money.
The real surprise though was the news from the French magazine Moto Journal that Johann Zarco had signed a contract with Suzuki. Suzuki boss Davide Brivio tried to downplay this, saying that Zarco had only signed a contract to test the GSX-RR during 2016, and that nothing was settled for 2017. Moto Journal – normally an exceptionally reliable source, especially when French riders are involved – are adamant that Zarco also has a contract for 2017. Whether that is in the factory Suzuki team or not is still open to question: Dorna would dearly love for Suzuki to also run a satellite team, though Suzuki are reluctant. A satellite team would make sense, but only if Suzuki retain Maverick Viñales. That relies on just one thing: making sure the GSX-RR is a competitive package.
Zarco to Suzuki does open up opportunities at KTM. Zarco's name had been penciled in at KTM by most pundits, given the close relationship between the Ajo team and the Austrian factory. With Zarco gone, KTM would be looking for two riders, at least one of which is likely to be either Dani Pedrosa or Bradley Smith. For Pedrosa, he would only head to KTM if he was forced out at Repsol Honda. The rider most likely to make that happen would be Maverick Viñales.
Talking Tech 3
Bradley Smith was much talked about at Qatar. On Wednesday, Smith said he had been told by team boss Hervé Poncharal that there would not be a seat for him at Tech 3 in 2017. On Thursday, Poncharal tried to walk back that perception with the press, insisting that he had only told Smith that there might not be a seat for him next year. The situation was the same for Pol Espargaro, Poncharal said.
The Tech 3 situation will depend on a few things. Firstly, what Yamaha decide to do with Alex Rins, if Rins signs for them, as is widely expected. If the Movistar Yamaha seats remain filled, then Rins would be slotted in at Tech 3 on a Yamaha contract, just as Espargaro was. Secondly, it will depend on how Smith and Pol Espargaro perform. If they perform well, they stand a chance of retaining their seat. If they don't, then Jonas Folger is waiting in the wings.
Silly season has kicked off, and it is only going to get sillier from here.
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