One statistic captured the state of play in Argentina after the first day of practice. Of the eighty-three (83!) Grand Prix riders who took to the track on Friday, just a single rider failed to improve their time from FP1 to FP2. That rider was Tatsuki Suzuki, and the reason he did not manage to improve his time was because he crashed early in the session, leaving himself too little time to go faster.
Why is this remarkable? Normally, there would be somewhere between four and eight riders who do not manage to improve their time between sessions on Friday. At Mugello in 2015, for example, there were six in MotoGP, five in Moto2, and eleven in Moto3, a grand total of twenty-two, and broadly representative of a normal race weekend. The fact that almost everyone managed to go faster illustrated the problem with the track perfectly.
The problem? The track is filthy, to put it simply. As a result of a lack of use, the dust and dirt which settles on any uncovered surface just settles into the asphalt, and is never swept from the track. With no bikes or cars circulating regularly, the track remains green, its virgin surface unsullied by the dark rubber of motorized monsters. No vehicles on track means no grip.
This is a tragedy, for several different reasons. Firstly, for a circuit as challenging and magnificent as the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit to go unused is an act of criminal neglect, like locking a Rembrandt away in a cellar. That is a result of its rather remote location: it lies in the Santiago del Estero province in the west of Argentina, in a sparsely populated region. There simply aren't enough people living close enough to fill the circuit's events calendar with track days and local racing,the mainstay of keeping a track in good condition. To paraphrase a line from a famous movie, they built it, but they did not come.
It also means that when MotoGP comes to town, they struggle badly, searching for grip which is simply not there. Lap times on Friday were several seconds off the lap record, rather than a few tenths. Making it worse, the slippery conditions caused a number of people to crash, though they all owned up to the error themselves. "If you don't race on the good line, you are lost, you crash," said Maverick Viñales, one of the many fallers during Friday. "It's better that sometimes you brake a little bit early and try to make more speed on the good line, not go wide, like happened to me when I crashed."
The tricky conditions have also shaken up the standings. After Qatar, there was much hand wringing over the plight of the Hondas. On Friday, the Hondas all picked up their beds and walked, a veritable miracle putting four Hondas in the top five of the standings. The two Repsol Hondas topped the timesheets, separated from Jack Miller on the Marc VDS Honda and Cal Crutchlow on the LCR RC213V by Maverick Viñales, the Spaniard inserting his Suzuki into the Honda melée. Valentino Rossi was the first Yamaha in seventh, nearly a second down on Márquez, while Jorge Lorenzo, the man who cruised to victory at Qatar and started the season as the hot favorite, could manage only the fourteenth time. How did that happen?
The Goldilocks Principle
A couple of years ago, a popular game I used to indulge with the venerable Dennis Noyes was trying to work out which tracks the Honda worked better at, and which tracks favored the Yamaha. We ran through all the permutations of track, temperature and conditions, before finally settling on what might be described as the Goldilocks principle: the Yamaha works best when the track and conditions provide what might be classed as normal grip. Outside of that window – when it is too cold, or the track is dirty, or the tires are not quite right – then the Honda has the upper hand. Through the last few years, the size of the "just right" window has varied, growing ever wider and handing Yamaha an advantage, but the window remains all the same.
Why should that be? The Yamaha is capable of exploiting edge grip, and traveling through corners faster than any other bike. When the grip is gone, the Yamaha loses its edge, and the Honda comes into its own. That is not necessarily a sign of strength, however. The fact that the Honda does well in poor grip conditions is more because the Honda simply never has grip, however good or bad the track is, and so they lose nothing when conditions are poor. While the Yamaha goes backwards, the Honda stays where it is, its riders seizing the opportunity cast into their laps.
Robbed of corner speed
Valentino Rossi confirmed this theory on Friday. "Especially you feel a little bit like on the wet," he told reporters. "You need to make the corner a little bit slower, because the bike slide very much front and rear on the edge. So also the angle is less than in the normal way." Lean angle, edge grip and corner speed are the holy trinity on which the Yamaha thrives, and without them, things become a lot more difficult.
Those difficulties pose major problems to the Yamaha riders. "We have to ride very smooth, also because if you make a mistake and go out of the line, it's very slippery," Rossi said. Bradley Smith summed it up with his usual precision. "It's very strange, because I don't really feel that bad in terms of grip and performance, but the lap time's not there and I always feel that I'm on top of the surface, I'm not actually in the tarmac. You just feel it constantly floating and adjusting."
Jorge Lorenzo, capable of exploiting edge grip and corner speed better than any other rider on the grid, suffered most. Ending FP2 in fourteenth, the Spaniard returned to the Movistar Yamaha garage simmering with frustration. Instead of sitting down to debrief with crew chief Ramon Forcada and the rest of his crew, Lorenzo went straight out the back of the garage, need first to work off his frustration. Speaking to the media afterwards, he had regained his composure, but the message was still the same: no grip, a slippery track, made much worse by very high temperatures, and a lack of confidence in the front end of the bike.
The perils of FP3
That could end up being a major problem for the reigning world champion. The weather forecast for the next couple of days is extremely unsettled, with rain likely to fall at any time. If it falls on Saturday morning, that will leave Jorge Lorenzo stranded in Q1, with a lot of work to do to qualify in a decent position. It would also leave him with less time to find some kind of solution to his problems, boding ill for the race. Then again, it is likely to rain on Sunday as well, turning the race into a lottery.
It is rain which the riders fear most. Apart from the effect on progressing to Q2 – Andrea Iannone, another rider who thrives on corner speed, is in the same boat as Jorge Lorenzo, and one position behind him – there is also the possible effect on the track. "From one point of view it's not so bad, because last year I was quite strong in the wet," Valentino Rossi told the press, putting a brave face on it. "But I'm very worried in this track in the wet, because it's very dirty and quite slippery, so in the wet, maybe the situation is difficult." Bradley Smith was a little more open minded. "I don't know if it would actually clean it, so it pushes the dirt to one side, or it makes it worse. We've never had rain here in Argentina, so nobody knows how the grip is going to perform or how it will be."
The real beneficiaries of the tough conditions were the riders who are used to sliding a bike around, especially those with dirt track experience. That Márquez should be fastest is not that much of a surprise, but Jack Miller's fourth-fastest time is an impressive achievement, coming in part from being able to slide the bike around and steer with the rear. It made the Australian a happy man: "going sideways through the corner, I had a smile ear-to-ear and a happy look in both eyes," Miller joked to the media.
Scott Redding was lapping up the conditions as well. "The track is in quite bad condition, but I'm having fun," the Pramac Ducati man said. "I'm enjoying sliding a lot. It's a positive way to go." Redding ended the day as sixth fastest, ahead of Valentino Rossi and as fastest Ducati. After the disappointment of Qatar, this was just the tonic Redding needed.
Conditions affected the Moto2 class as well. The running order had more than a few surprises, not least seeing Alex Márquez up in fourth spot in the heat of the afternoon. For the first time in a while, Márquez finished comfortably ahead of his teammate, showing some of the promise he had in Moto3 as well. Meanwhile, his arch rival, and the man who had shown him up so badly last year, Alex Rins languished way down in fourteenth, nearly a second off the pace of fastest man Johann Zarco. Rins was struggling for grip, while others just got on and rode.
Like Redding, Johann Zarco took his speed on Friday as a major corrective to a poor first race in Qatar. The Frenchman looked much more like the rider of old, leading the field comfortably. Takaaki Nakagami grabbed second, a rider who tends to blow hot and cold going for scorching heat under a withering Argentinian sun. But like Alex Márquez, Nakagami will need to prove himself in the race, rather than just in practice. Going fast is much easier without the pressure of a race.
In Moto3, the Italians once again led the charge, Enea Bastianini topping the timesheets ahead of Romano Fenati and Sky Racing teammate Andrea Migno. With Brad Binder, Jorge Navarro, Livio Loi, Juanfran Guevara and Fabio Quartararo behind them, the Moto3 grid looks the most normal of the three classes. But then again, the Moto3 machines are the least reliant on grip, being too light and too underpowered for it to be a major factor. Still, it is only Friday. A lot of things can change.
If you wanted drama, Argentina may answer your prayers. Changing conditions, a dirty track and a new tire manufacturer have thrown a whole innings worth of curveballs into MotoGP. We probably did not learn particularly much from Friday in Argentina, other than that we are in for plenty of surprises. For fans, that may not be a bad thing.
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