"It's just Friday, and is early." Valentino Rossi repeated his weekly mantra when asked about the speed of Andrea Iannone and Maverick Viñales at Silverstone. It is a point he makes every race weekend: a lot can happen between the end of practice on Friday and 2pm on Sunday (or in the case of Silverstone, 3:30pm BST on Sunday, two and a half hours later than normal, so as not to clash with F1 at Monza). The times set by the grid on Friday were, if not entirely meaningless, at best a very distorted image of the true balance of power on the MotoGP grid.
Maverick Viñales was a case in point. The ECSTAR Suzuki rider was fastest in the morning session, then second quickest in the afternoon. That is in part because the weather was cool, and the GSX-RR has plenty of grip when temperatures are low. It is also in part because the Suzuki rolls off the truck in good shape, and is quick from the off.
But Viñales is not laboring under any illusions. "We are nearly always the champion of the Friday, always first or second," he joked with the media. In the past, the rest of the field has gone quicker on Saturday and Sunday, while Viñales has stood still. But the Spaniard was adopting the strategy used at Brno again, focusing on race pace and only shooting for a single fast lap at the end of the session, putting in a new tire to secure his spot in the top 10, and in Q2 if the rain starts to fall on Saturday.
Andrea Iannone felt strong too, similar to the advantage he felt in Austria, where he won his first MotoGP race. He had used the soft tire for most of practice, following the same strategy as in Austria. The soft rear had extra grip, but the performance also dropped quite severely after a few laps. At least for the Ducatis: for the Suzukis and Yamahas, the hard tire was the tire of choice, providing good enough grip at the start, and not suffering the drop in performance of the soft tire.
The soft tire, strangely enough, had no grip in the colder conditions for the Suzukis. Aleix Espargaro was resigned. "Eleven years racing, and sometimes you realize that you understand nothing," he told us, with a look of pained confusion on his face. You just accept it, work with it, and try to extract the best possible result from a situation that is seemingly bizarre.
For Rossi, the speed of Iannone and Viñales did not come from their bikes or from their tire choice, but simply from their confidence and the way they had been riding. "Today, especially this afternoon, it is especially not the bike, but the riders Iannone and Viñales who are quite impressive. Because also with the hard tire are able to make very very fast lap times," Rossi said.
Rossi's conclusion was based on comparisons with Iannone's and Viñales' teammates. "I think that they are in a great moment of shape because also if you compare with Espargaro and Dovizioso the difference is quite big," Rossi explained. "That means they ride very well."
The biggest problem in assessing the relative pace of the riders is the fact that no one had put in a long enough stint to try to simulate wear during the race. "It's a little bit unknown," Jorge Lorenzo said on Friday afternoon. "Nobody made a long run more than five laps, and we cannot compare the pace of all the top riders."
From the viewer's perspective it was a waste of an afternoon. There is no real data to compare, Silverstone's long lap spacing riders out and making it hard to see what everyone was working on. Tire wear would be crucial, was the general consensus, but few riders had put more than half distance on the tires. What they need is for the track to stay dry on Saturday morning and preferably Saturday afternoon as well. There was much riding in and out of the pits as the riders experimented: new chassis for Rossi, which he liked, and new swing arm which he didn't. New swing arm for Lorenzo, having already decided against the new chassis at Brno. New parts for Aprilia, aimed at making the bike lighter and adding just a couple of horsepower. There was some testing going on, but it was hard to do a proper back-to-back comparison with the weather constantly changing and threatening to unleash its fury upon the circuit.
Fortunately for the MotoGP riders, it didn't during their session. Unfortunately for the Moto2 riders, the rain seemed to always follow through after the MotoGP men had made way for the support classes. In total, the Moto2 riders got little more than twenty or thirty minutes of proper, uninterrupted practice. The rest, they spent either in their garages, or else wobbling around on slicks in the wet, never a good feeling.
Moto3 were luckier with the weather, but they had their own set of problems. The very bumpy nature of the circuit would be a topic of conversation for the meeting of the Safety Commission on Friday. The Safety Commission would be repeating calls to have the track resurfaced, riders said, though they were not hopeful of a solution. For the moment, the Circuit of Wales is running the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, until the Welsh track is ready to start on construction. Whether that happens is still open to question, with financial backing for the project still not fully secured. But as long as the Circuit of Wales holds the rights to the British round of MotoGP, Silverstone will be loath to spend money on the track for an event they merely stage.
Though the Moto3 riders are welcome to attend the Safety Commission if they have specific issues to raise, they never do. If they did, they could make the case for the track to be resurfaced, as it is the lightweight Moto3 bikes which suffer most from the bumps. The finishing order reflected the issues KTM were having over the bumps in Moto3. There was just one KTM in the whole of the top 10, Brad Binder clearly the only rider capable of making the Austrian bike competitive. Binder lay stranded on a beach full of Hondas, with a couple of Mahindras thrown in for good measure.
The bumps played into the hands of the Honda riders, with Estrella Galicia's Jorge Navarro looking the most threatening of the bunch. Navarro announced his intention to move up to Moto2 next year with the Gresini team, to the seat vacated by Sam Lowes. That encouraged him to find a strong burst of speed in both practice sessions.
It was a bit of a lost Friday at Silverstone, all in all. Weather conditions were not playing ball, and nor were the conditions on the track. Anything the teams find for Sunday is more down to luck than judgment , with so little time spent on track. We must hope for better weather on Saturday. The forecast gives us little chance indeed.
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