Honda have won four of the five last races held here at Brno. Casey Stoner has won one race, Marc Márquez has won one, and Dani Pedrosa has won two of those races between 2011 and 2015. After the first day of practice for this year's race at Brno, Marc Márquez sits atop the timesheets, with a lead of a tenth of a second over Andrea Iannone, and a shade more to Jorge Lorenzo. Does that mean that a fifth win for Honda is on the cards?
For the answer to that, see Marc Márquez' improbable save during FP2 at Brno. As he turned in for the penultimate corner at Turn 13, he lost the front of his Repsol Honda RC213V. With the steering at full lock, he hung on to the bars as his right foot slipped off the peg, trying first to lever the bike up with his elbow, then with his knee. Eventually the front slipped sideways, gripped, and the bike jimmied itself off the horizontal. It had lost just enough speed for Márquez to regain control, and buck it back to the outside of the corner, and head straight into the pits.
Was it Márquez' biggest ever save at Brno? "Still the 2014 save was bigger," Márquez laughed, "But this one was very long. I leaned 67.5°, in 2014 68.3°." Even Valentino Rossi was impressed. "He tries a lot, is his position on the bike, and is his ability," the Movistar Yamaha rider said. "first he tried with the elbow, then with the knee, and at the end, he saved it. So it was quite impressive. I don't know if I can do the same. But I go slower, so I don't lose the front!"
Why did you even need to save it?
Which is very much the point. The Hondas are in just as much trouble as usual with acceleration, the rear spinning and the front wheelying without the bike actually getting any drive. To make up, they must do it all on braking, on corner entry, and in turning. "Of course he’s riding at the limit," Jorge Lorenzo said of Márquez. "He’s riding very well, very aggressive and very fast. He’s putting maybe a little bit more than the bike." "That means we are riding on the limit," Márquez said of the near-crash. "We are pushing to find our best."
A disconsolate Cal Crutchlow was much more forthright. Of course he had been impressed by Márquez' save, but at the same time, he knew it would merely add to his pile of woes. "The problem is, you'll see Marc save things that are impossible, and all we'll hear from Honda is, 'did you see that save from Marc? Fantastic wasn't it!'" Crutchlow said. "Not looking at the reality that he's nearly on his head again, because we are on the limit in the braking zone, or we're having to try to ride around."
The issue is clearly with the bike. "How many times do you see a Yamaha like that?" Crutchlow asked rhetorically. " How many times do you see Marc Márquez, or me, or Dani on the floor or doing that? They need to look at the reality. The situation is they need to build a bike that everybody can ride. Because at the moment, there's one guy who can ride it in the world."
Fast for one, or fast for all?
So while Marc Márquez topped the timesheets, there is some skepticism over whether the Spaniard is quick over just a lap or two, or whether that really is his race pace. "Well, we saw a very good last run from Márquez," Jorge Lorenzo opined. "We have to see tomorrow if he can keep five, six or eight fast laps in a row in this high 55s."
Valentino Rossi was similarly uncertain. "A big question mark for Márquez," the Italian said. "Because this morning was not so fast, and this afternoon he suffer a lot all the practice. But at the end, he put the right tires, he changed the front tire, he changed the rear tire and he did two fantastic laps. So now we need to understand, but I think that if he did those two laps, with that setting on the bike he can be faster also on the race pace." Rossi cautioned against reading too much into the lap times. "But I think it's just Friday, it's a long way to Sunday, it will be very important to make the right work and the right choice."
Leave aside the headline times, and the overall impression tells a different tale. There are five or six riders who are capable of lapping in the low to mid 1'56s. The two Movistar Yamahas, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo, with the edge going to Rossi. Andrea Iannone, fresh from victory in Austria, and perhaps the fastest of the lot. Maverick Viñales, though his rhythm is uncertain - "Maverick is the unknown, if the Suzuki can keep a constant pace in the race," Jorge Lorenzo said. Dani Pedrosa is not that far off, putting in a good run at the end to finish at the end.
A test of nerve
Marc Márquez, on the other hand, put in two outstanding laps at the end of the session, but struggled throughout the early part. This may be just down to needing to regain his composure, after an amazing save which would otherwise have seen him sliding fast through the gravel. It may be that Márquez just ran out of time at the end of the session. Or it may just be that Márquez extracted the maximum from a new tire, just to make sure his name was at the top of the timesheets.
Márquez himself seemed to suggest it was the latter. "It's like I remember in Austria on Friday I finished tenth, and I said it's not my real position," the Spaniard told the media. "Today I was first but it is not my real position. Yeah I could push and be there for two or three laps. But we must improve on used tires because it looks like both Yamaha riders can keep a good pace. Also Iannone and Viñales, so we need to work hard for tomorrow." Where the Honda was losing? Where do you think? "We expect that here we would lose less on the acceleration, but we are losing a lot. You can see on the times, all the Hondas. We must improve in some areas. T2 is where you don't need acceleration and we are first, two or three tenths faster. In the other sectors we are losing but we will try to improve on the brake points."
The strength of Iannone and Viñales could pose a real problem for the championship leader. Viñales, in particular, is interesting, because the Suzuki rider and his team have changed tack for Brno, going back to concentrating on race pace, before switching objectives and ensuring he is in the top ten, and will go straight through to Q2. "I’m happy because even if I didn’t use the last soft tire I’m into the top ten," Viñales told us.
The change of strategy had come as a result of the race in Austria. "For the first laps I had no problems," Viñales said. "I was following the first riders. Then in the middle of the race when the grip was down you really need to ride and I had to control the gas and the brakes. If now I can get used to this then in the race I can go faster."
The point is points
If all of these riders can maintain their pace, and Márquez' quick lap is just a one-off, then the Repsol Honda rider could come under a lot of pressure come Sunday. In Austria, Márquez had settled for fifth place, knowing there was little more he could do without risking a crash. That bitter pill was made more palatable by the fact that the two Ducatis led, and his main rivals were fighting for third and fourth, and stood to gain a handful of points over him at most. In Brno, Márquez may find the Ducatis not ahead of the Yamahas, but between them and him. All of a sudden the Ducatis and perhaps Viñales are no longer taking points off of Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi. They are taking points off of him.
So far, Marc Márquez has shown exceptional maturity in looking at the long game and taking the points on the table. It has given him a 43 point lead in the championship. Can he maintain that attitude when the Yamahas are slashing his lead by 15 points instead of 5? It will be a true test of his mettle. It is a test Márquez will need to pass. If he doesn't, the Yamahas could be cutting his lead by 25 points instead.
What is helping the Yamahas – and the Ducatis, and the Suzukis – is the new rear tire which Michelin have brought to Brno. First tried in the post-race test at Brno, the V11 casing provides more traction and better compounds. It gives Jorge Lorenzo the edge grip he needs, Valentino Rossi the traction he seeks, and the Suzukis help in reducing the lack of grip on corner exit. "It feels like it's working, and giving you drive," Bradley Smith told us. The only factory it isn't helping is Honda. Because even a tire with more grip can't help the RC213V.
Electronics? Not so certain
What is the problem of the Honda? In a press conference with three of the other factory bosses – Aprilia's Romano Albesiano was missing, for complicated reasons having to do with the status of the Gresini team – Shuhei Nakamoto insisted that the problem Honda was having with acceleration was entirely down to the spec software introduced from this year. This claim was met with raised eyebrows by some people with familiarity with the Honda. They remained silent as the red lights on our recorders blinked, however. That, too, spoke volumes.
What came out of that press conference, featuring Shuhei Nakamoto of HRC, Yamaha's Kouchi Tsuji, Suzuki's Kan Kawauchi, and Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna? The discussion was too broad, and with four factory bosses, too unfocused to provide the real kind of in-depth information the assembled journalists were seeking (leaving aside whether those journalists, including your humble scribe, had the technical background to actually understand what they were being told). Yet still there were some interesting tidbits.
First and foremost, what came across was Ducati's anger at the banning of winglets. The agreement was that if the MSMA could find common ground and submit a unanimous proposal, the Grand Prix Commission would accept it despite the reservations of the FIM, Dorna and IRTA. But Honda was implacably opposed, and the proposal put forward put was for winglets of a centimeter wide. That was entirely unacceptable to Ducati. Dall'Igna insisted that the aerodynamics knowledge gained through the use of the winglets would be a benefit for road bikes.
"Aerodynamics are really important," Dall'Igna said. "For sure not as much as cars, but the motorcycle industry does not have the knowledge at the moment to work on aerodynamics at the high level. So to ban the winglets is a problem for the motorcycle industry because we don't develop in the future and the knowledge of aerodynamics will not increase as much as I think is necessary."
Is he right? Shuhei Nakamoto was skeptical. Nakamoto may even be right. If aerodynamics is to make inroads into production bikes, it is most likely to happen as an integral part of the fairing, rather than as add on winglets. The banning of winglets may yet force the factories to concentrate on fairing design. That, in itself, would be progress. And exactly the kind of R&D you might expect from a prototype series.
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