2016 Misano MotoGP Friday Round Up - Big Surprises, Fast Yamahas, On-track Disputes, and Retired Riders

Every day that sees MotoGP motorcycles circulating in earnest is an interesting day, but some are more interesting than others. Friday at Misano was one of those days which last, throwing up surprises and shattering preconceptions. We found out that we need to throw overboard a lot of the things we thought about the current state of the MotoGP championship.

First, to the things which were not a surprise. That Yamahas should top both sessions of free practice, and establish themselves as favorites for the race was entirely to be expected. That Valentino Rossi should impress is no surprise either: Misano is his home race, and a win here is his best chance of getting back into the championship. Jorge Lorenzo finding his feet again, and laying down a withering pace raised one or two eyebrows among those who had written him off. But the real shocker was Pol Espargaro topping the second session of free practice, and ending the day faster.

Have Yamaha smuggled a few go-faster bits into the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha garage? The answer to that question is quite simply no. Espargaro's pace has a very simple explanation: the Spaniard has been strong throughout this season, the switch to the Michelins playing to his strengths. "This is a track where I am fast," Espargaro told us. "If we add here the new tires which are really grippy on the rear and quite good performance on the front, I feel like I can ride in my style, aggressive and opening the throttle really early with full lean angle. I feel really comfortable riding the bike."

Plus, of course, the small matter of time gained by using another fast rider as a target. "For sure, I was behind Márquez, and it helped me two tenths more or less." Taking away two tenths of a second would put him third rather than first, but as he was second fastest in the morning, Espargaro's time in FP2 was no fluke.

Look out world, Yamaha is coming

Espargaro may be the fastest single lap, but it is the two Movistar Yamahas which set the most impressive pace. Valentino Rossi got off to an outstanding start, dominating the timesheets in the morning in race trim. Rossi suffered in the afternoon, though. With track temperatures 15° higher than in the morning, the hard rear tire was not working as expected, and Rossi ran into problems with tire life at the front. Where others improved their pace by three or four tenths in the afternoon, Rossi's pace stagnated.

"We have a lot of work to do, especially with the balance of the bike," Rossi told us after FP2. "We will try to improve the performance of the front tire because the race will be very long, 28 laps. We need to find the way to improve the feeling with the front." The weight may need to go more towards the rear, to spare the front tire a little, and create more pressure on the rear. Rossi has returned to the older chassis, after racing the new one at Silverstone, the differences being too small, and Rossi and his team preferring to use the weapons they are more completely familiar with.

A set up change is what helped Jorge Lorenzo. After a string of five bad races, punctuated only by a podium in Austria, many inside and outside the paddock had started to write the reigning world champion off. That, as ever, proved to be premature. Lorenzo can still command the same intensity and focus, but in the past few races, had been unable to translate that into speed.

Lorenzo finds his mojo

That all changed at Misano. Lorenzo was off to a reasonable start in the morning, but in the afternoon, the old, relentless Lorenzo was back. In the middle of the session, the Spaniard's pace was devastating, pounding out one mid-1'33 after another. His decision not to fit a new tire at the end of the session, where most others did saw him drop down the final order to fourth. But Lorenzo was clearly the fastest man on Friday, two or three tenths quicker than the rest.

Lorenzo's wasn't the only revival of fortunes. All of a sudden, Dani Pedrosa is also back at the front. Had the much higher track temperatures than we have seen in recent weeks helped? "I think this is one factor which is positive," the Repsol Honda rider said. Higher track temperatures meant that Pedrosa could get heat into the tires, and with heat comes grip and feeling. At Silverstone, the Spaniard had been stuck with the softer tires due to the colder temperatures. At Misano, he can use the extra support of the hard tires, without sacrificing grip.

Suzuki surprises

The Suzukis were another surprise on the first day of Misano. In theory, higher temperatures mean less grip, especially in drive out of corners, which is historically where the GSX-RR has suffered. But Suzuki have made big steps on that front, much of it coming at Silverstone. Maverick Viñales used the hard rear for most of the afternoon, and had strong pace, putting in the fastest times through the second sector, before everyone slung a new tire in and pushed for a lap time. The softer tire was not working for Viñales, the rear spinning up as it had done in the past. The ability to get the harder tire to work could turn out to be Maverick Viñales' magic bullet.

Aleix Espargaro was almost as quick as his teammate. The ECSTAR Suzuki rider had not used a new tire at the end of FP2, meaning he dropped down the order and just out of the top ten, and Q2. But his final lap had been a 1'33.741, set on an old tire which had some twenty-odd laps on it. 1'33.7 is the pace of the podium battle, the times which Valentino Rossi, Maverick Viñales, Dani Pedrosa, and Marc Márquez showed on Friday. Right now, Lorenzo looks unbeatable, with a strong group likely to be chasing him. But it's only Friday. Much may change tomorrow.

A question of perspective, and actually having some

Aleix Espargaro also managed to draw the ire of Valentino Rossi. On an in lap, Espargaro was slowing down just a little too close to the racing line, as Rossi flew by on a hot lap. The Movistar Yamaha rider was irate, his reaction informed perhaps more by the intensity with which he wants to win his home Grand Prix, rather than the severity of Espargaro's crime. Rossi gesticulated at Espargaro, and Espargaro responded in kind. "I say to him, ‘What are you doing?’" Rossi told us. "And he say to me 'va fanculo'", an Italian phrase which is usually translated by a similarly pithy two-word phrase in English, the second word of which is "off".

The incident got blown a little out of proportion, as is common when such things happen to Valentino Rossi at his home Grand Prix, fans taking sides one way or another (though to be frank, the vast majority were taking sides one way, rather than the other). Espargaro was unrepentant. Race Director went down to Aleix Espargaro's garage, to have a quiet word in the Suzuki rider's ear. Espargaro was unimpressed. "It's not normal, because he never comes to the pits, he always calls you to go there. But I imagine, since it's Valentino, he came to the pits."

Espargaro's version of events differs from Mike Webb's. "He told me to be more aware, but I asked him if they checked the video," Espargaro told us. "[Mike Webb] said 'yes, and you are not in the middle, you did not disturb him'. And he said, 'but anyway, be more aware', and I said, 'I will not be more aware if I didn't disturb him.' I repeated three times to him, 'I disturbed him? Did you check the video?' And he told me no, I didn't disturb him."

The other view

I asked Mike Webb about it later that day. There was clearly some kind of misunderstanding, Webb told me. He had told Espargaro that although it was a long way from being the worst example of interfering with another rider, he still needed to be aware of other riders on fast laps behind him.

Espargaro also seemed to be unaware of Webb's routine: the Race Director will commonly go down to the garages of MotoGP riders (though not for Moto2 and Moto3, the youngsters are summoned to Webb's office to make a greater impression on them) to talk about incidents that did not warrant a penalty, but did need a friendly warning. Webb told me that this year, he had been down to see both Repsol Honda riders, showing no fear nor favor in dispensing cautions.

The similarities with events here last year had also come up. During qualifying in 2015, Rossi had been riding slowly in almost exactly the same place as Espargaro, and had slowed Jorge Lorenzo on his final fast lap. Rossi had been awarded a penalty point for that offence, while Espargaro's infringement had gone unpunished, beyond a few hard words from Webb.

Why the difference? "The middle of FP2 is very different from the last lap of qualifying," Webb explained. Espargaro was not sitting right in the middle of the racing line, causing a real danger, but he was impeding Rossi on a fast lap. But Rossi's fast lap had no direct influence on the outcome of qualifying or the race, and so having to slow up fractionally had little impact. The 2015 incident may have prevented Lorenzo from posting a faster lap, though Lorenzo had already set a time fast enough to be sure of pole.

The crew chief shuffle

While the action on track is intriguing, things are also starting to hot up off track and behind the scenes. Silly season for the riders is over, and now it is crew chiefs who are the center of attention. Two riders triggered the crew chief reshuffle: Jorge Lorenzo's move to Ducati meant he needed a new crew chief, and Cristian Gabarrini – currently with Jack Miller – has been hired back to Ducati to work with Lorenzo. At Repsol Honda, Dani Pedrosa has not gelled with Ramon Aurin, and has been fishing around for a replacement. He had a refusal from former Nicky Hayden crew chief Juan Martinez, as the Spaniard is too content working for Spanish TV. Now, Pedrosa has poached Scott Redding's crew chief Giacomo Guidotti. Aurin is to replace Gabarrini in Jack Miller's garage, though Pedrosa would like to see him return to his duties as data engineer for the Repsol Honda rider.

I will be writing much, much more about this in due course, as there are a lot more changes going on up and down the grid. But it is a subject which needs time and space of its own: the complexities of the rider-crew chief relationship cannot be captured in a few sentences.

On retired racers

Finally, I ran into Ben Spies at Misano, the former World Superbike champion coming down from his home in Lake Como to see old friends in the MotoGP paddock. We had a long and illuminating (and private) conversation, in which I learned a lot about what motivates riders. The greater pleasure (and perhaps surprise) of that meeting is experiencing how the relationship of journalists changes once they retire.

While a rider is still active, you cannot be friends with them as a journalist. There is a conflict of interests which cannot (and should not, if you want to write objectively as a journalist) be reconciled. When they retire, that barrier tumbles, and exchanges can be more frank and open, with no fear that riders are having to conceal the truth to comply with instructions from their team, nor that journalists will seize upon an off-the-cuff remark and blow it up into a headline story.

Spies is now happily retired, and back riding enduro bikes, though his shoulder injury prevents him from pushing too hard. His business interests are well looked after, and he spends his days with his wife and young daughter. As it is for all former racers, the first few months of his retirement was hard on him. But Spies looked relaxed and happy. Having seen just how much they give to succeed at racing, the physical and mental pain, the sacrifices, the monomaniacal pursuit of hundredths of seconds, it is nice to see that weight fall away from them. Though the fire, the ambition and competitiveness still burns inside them. They may hang up their leathers, but racers remain competitors till the day they die.


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Comments

I met Ben with Kevin Schwantz in the lobby of the Hyatt in College Station. He is and will always be a true gentleman, top-notch guy and bad-ass racer. Cheers to Ben!

Last 7 race winners...

Lorenzo
Rossi
Miller
Marquez
Iannone
Crutchlow
Vinales
________ - Pedrosa? P.Espargaro? It is possible that we could have 8 different winners in 8 races. Lorenzo looks the man to beat, Rossi and his crew can find set up for some 10ths tomorrow, and Marquez can still gift the championship a DNF at any point. But the possibility is there. "History is rewritten!"

Hey Ben, I still think warmly but confusedly of your GP years. Here's to hoping you consider your WSBK time at least as much as your (what descriptive word goes here?!) time on the factory Yamaha MotoGP bike. Both were a wonder, of unbelievable contrast. I am telling you, I attribute the latter to some kind of disruptive subtle process that isn't you/yours. Your garage...exorcism? I could joke that you made a deal with malevolent forces to trancend human limitations in WSBK that were held at bay with Herve but backlashed diabolically when your dreams peaked. Or HRC and Repsol succeeded in securing a mole within your Yamaha garage who wreaked havoc. Or maybe a force working for all the smaller manufacturers first meddled there, then in HRC to make their bike unrideable. Ridiculous, yes. But SHEESH you had more bizarre adversity than makes sense. Still holding you in highest regard. Write a book maybe?
;)
Eyes peeled this weekend!

shaking my head at people that wish riders have a DNF, even if it creates a closer competition to the title it still a petty thing to wish upon someone and the amount of people still hoping, in this manner across various motorcycle websites, is thoroughly amusing. 

"...An Italian phrase which is usually translated by a similarly pithy two-word phrase in English, the second word of which is "off"."

Great stuff!  I had to read it out loud to the wife and, yes, it was worth the eye-roll I got as a response for subjecting her to motorcycle talk. (Had it been about whom is running which tires I would be sleeping on the couch.)

I'm happy to know that Ben is at the races. I would buy his book when, and if, it is published. There might be something to the theory that Yamaha may need periodic exorcisms.  See Lorenzo's ridiculous helmet issues of last season. Not quite on the same level as having a shock linkage come apart, but still the work of mischeivous little gremlins, perhaps?

Thank you for the report David. I'm still traveling with very bad wi-fi and seeing very little of the action.... your report becomes a very valuable and enjoyable source of information. I'm already excited at the prospect of reading your article on crew chiefs
Just a quick remark on the espargaro/rossi incident: how is it possible that a rider and race direction have such a conflicting position? I mean this is not two people recounting an event .... if a rider misunderstands race direction to such an extent is rather worrying IMO
I saw some images of the "incident": do I need glasses or Espargaro was even attempting a timid wheelie? I understand the track is rather narrow and entrance to pit lane is very close to the racing line but in this stance I think Espargaro should have paid a little more attention...or at least not to tell Rossi in Borat's words "to go and make love to himself"....
Very interesting to see Pedrosa fast again
One question: some Italian news were reporting that MM said his crash was basically "planned" to test the limits of the front wheel .... I'm puzzled. And would love to hear more about it
Can't wait for race day

David, do we get to hear more of your chat with Spies?

 

David,

Genuine question if I may but is there substance to Webb's comments that he does the 'unofficial/impromptu' (my words) chat to riders in MotoGP if he feels that there has been a borderline incident?

Asking as in the comments he makes mention of having chatted to both Repsol riders but I cannot recall any reports and find it interesting that he states this as a practice only after Aleix publicised it (and I do mean that Aleix was the one who bought it to attention).

On an associated note, what are his reasons for not having similar with Moto2/3 as whilst it is stated that the aim is (in some way) to impress upon them the improtance of the issue by calling them to Race Control, is it not a case of not treating all equally by not doing similar with MotoGP?

I would expect that every time a rider is called to Race Control for a purpose there should be an official type of record of the rider/s, purpose and outcomes but by these unofficial chats it just becomes a he said/she said type of open slather interpret how your bias wants.

The thing about informal chats is that they are informal. So they tend not to get reported. If Aleix Espargaro had not mentioned it to us, we would not have gone and talked to Mike Webb. But other riders have also remarked that they had a visit from Webb previously. So yes, Webb does this often. But only for the MotoGP class.