After the drama of Argentina, the first day of practice at the Circuit of the Americas was pleasingly normal. The track was not perfect, but it was the normal kind of not perfect, Friday-green-track-not-perfect. A week ago, a filthy unused track left everyone struggling for grip and worried faces. On Friday, there were a few concerns over tire wear, especially on the right-hand side, but they were minor compared to Argentina. It was just another Friday in Texas.
And just like any other Friday in Texas, Marc Márquez was slaying the field. The Repsol Honda rider was fastest both in the morning and in the afternoon, and though Jorge Lorenzo kept Márquez honest in FP1, FP2 saw him go seven tenths of a second quicker than anyone else. His gap over the rest made the gaps look massive, just six riders within a second. Take Márquez out of the equation, and a second separates places two and fourteen. The field is actually quite close, as long as you disregard the man out in front.
Márquez vs The Rest
How does Márquez do it? Other Honda riders complain of a lack of acceleration, a problem reflected in their positions: Dani Pedrosa is eighth, well over a second behind Márquez, Cal Crutchlow tenth, and the two Marc VDS Hondas right at the bottom of the timesheets. Does Márquez not have the same issue? "In acceleration when I compare data with Dani his is better," Márquez said. He was making the time up elsewhere, though. "In the end you must gain in the corners when you lose in the acceleration."
The gains Márquez made were perhaps related to the style required by the new engine, with the counter-rotating crankshaft."It looks there is less stopping in the first gear corners," Márquez explained. "You must use more Yamaha style, you go more wide in the corners, and prepare well the exit. In these tight corners I was able to turn quicker but now I need to go wide and come back. So I change a little but the riding style but still it is good at this circuit."
That had an effect on the speed of the bike. "The speed is more related to the exit of the corner. We are struggling but in the first corners, using this line and coming more back, we are losing less. This is one thing. Then in the change of directions the bike looks slightly better. Last year was maybe faster changing direction. This year is slower but you can more keep the speed. It’s strange. It’s the character of the bike." The change of lines required more confidence on the front, Márquez said, and that is something the Repsol Honda rider has in spades.
Is the advantage Márquez has a reflection of the real state of play? Jorge Lorenzo was not convinced. "Our potential was much better than fifth," he told the media, explaining that an issue with the engine on his number one bike had slowed him down, putting him on the number two bike, which used a different setting. He expected to be much faster on Saturday, once they put everything they learned together, and tried to set a lap time. "I don’t know as fast as Marquez, because it looks like he loves this track and he is really fast," Lorenzo said. "I don’t think it is the Honda making the difference, it is him; he loves the track and is very comfortable with it."
Perhaps most impressive of all was Maverick Viñales, the Suzuki rider finishing in third sandwiched between two Ducatis, a tenth behind Andrea Iannone, and just ahead of Scott Redding. Once again, Viñales was over three quarters of a second faster than his teammate. "I think that Viñales demonstrated today that he can stay with the top guys for all the season," opined Valentino Rossi. "Because we go in a very different track, and in three tracks, the Suzuki with him is very strong. I think he rides so well, he's a clever rider, and he understand the way to use the MotoGP. So I think him together with his bike, they are growing up a lot."
The discussion was relevant, because Viñales is looking increasingly likely to be Rossi's teammate next year. Consensus in the paddock is that the Spaniard is set to leave Suzuki at the end of 2016 and switch to Yamaha, to take the place of the departing Jorge Lorenzo. Such speculation is based on solid evidence: one source indicated to me that Suzuki staff were already regarding the battle to retain Viñales as lost. The deal is not yet done, but it will be, soon enough.
Out of the frying pan ...
What did Rossi think of Viñales as a teammate? The Italian handled such speculation characteristically well. "It's not a big difference if Lorenzo remain, or Viñales come, or also Iannone, or also Pedrosa," Rossi told the media. "It's true for sure that with Viñales will be very hard, because he is very young, and he have a good talent, and I think that he will become one of the top riders of MotoGP very soon."
Prominent among the leaders were the Ducatis. Half of the top twelve were Ducati riders, with Andrea Iannone the fastest of the bunch, the rest not so far behind. Scott Redding was once again impressive, and confident of maintaining his momentum throughout the weekend. Loriz Baz was also extremely fast, ending the session in seventh, two tenths behind Valentino Rossi.
An uncanny insight into the future.
I went out to watch FP2 from trackside with John Laverty, brother and manager to Eugene, and the man who also acts as spotter for the Irishman, watching Laverty and his competitors, comparing riding styles and looking for strengths and weaknesses. His first thought while standing near the top of Turn 1, following the riders as they sweep right into the long, fast section of right-left combinations, was that most of the Ducatis seemed to be struggling with the front pushing wide. How did he know? Laverty demonstrated what he meant by craning at the neck, leaning up and out from the bike in an attempt to try to make it go where he wanted. In what felt like confirmation of John Laverty's observations, Eugene crashed at Turn 2 about five minutes later, pushing the front too far, and not being able to reel it back in.
The only rider not to be pushing the front so hard through Turn 2? Loris Baz. The Frenchman looked comfortable, and was rewarded with a decent lap time.
If the front of the field was interesting, the rear of the field was positively fascinating. That Tito Rabat should be 21st should come as no surprise: the former Moto2 world champion is yet to find his goal in MotoGP, and is lapping at a distance behind the rest of the field.
All is not necessarily what it seems
But the names near him gave pause for thought. Jack Miller suffered a big crash in FP2, which set the Australian back considerably. Bradley Smith, best satellite rider of 2015, was way down in 19th, far lower than he had any business being.
Smith is determined to do something about that, he said, and talked of making radical steps to make an improvement." We're struggling, but I knew that that would be the case today, Smith told reporters. "We're reinventing our whole setting and our whole way of trying to make this motorcycle work, because we weren't finding it where we were. We were lost and nothing seemed to be working, so completely reinventing everything I've learned in the last 24 months. We did that in the afternoon, so I was actually quite pleased I went as well as I did. We changed a lot of things, from riding position to suspension to geometry, so today was the first day of preseason testing.
"That's what we're doing at the moment, because we're not getting closer. We're constantly fighting for something that's not there and not working. So I decided, it's time to scrap everything that we've done so far and try something different."
It seemed to make a difference, Smith told reporters. "The bike seems to react better to me, I seem to be able to make it do more what I want it to do, it makes more logical sense when we're making changes, so I feel that we're in the ballpark. It's just going to take a little to figure it out. Maybe it won't be this weekend, but I hope to figure it out in the next couple of races. Whereas I saw no potential with the other setting. It's a brave move to do, but I scraped two eighths in the first two rounds, and it certainly wasn't going any better, so it was time for a change."
Smith's issues reflect the difficulty the riders and teams face in MotoGP. The Monster Tech 3 team may have had the data modeled, but such plans rarely survive their first contact with reality. The changes affect everyone, from Honda to Aprilia, from big team to small, up and down the paddock. New tires new electronics, and more: there is a lot of work still left to do for the teams. At least conditions permit that in Austin.
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