Could there be a ninth winner in nine MotoGP races? On Thursday, the massed ranks of MotoGP riders had elected Andrea Dovizioso for the role. "I'm happy they said my name," Dovizioso told us journalists on Friday, "but they have put a lot of pressure on me. Because I have to win this race, and today wasn't the best day for me to try to think about winning..."
The Ducati rider had struggled with a lack of grip on the track, adding to the fact that this is not a great track for Dovizioso. "This track doesn't have the best characteristic for my style," he said. Dovizioso's strength lies in hard braking and quick turning, and there is not enough of that to suit the Italian. Add low grip to that, and he faces an uphill struggle.
Dovizioso also faces Aragon with a new teammate. Andrea Iannone has once again been forced to withdraw, the T3 vertebra he injured at Misano causing him too much pain to continue. He could manage three or four laps, before needing to return to the pits and get some rest. With 22 laps coming up on Sunday, Iannone quickly understood that would be too much. Michele Pirro was already on standby, and once FP1 made it clear that Iannone would not be able to ride, Ducati's test rider was put on the bike.
Low grip means managing tires
Low track grip threw everyone a curve ball. Though times dropped in the afternoon, most riders felt track conditions had worsened. The culprit? Overcast skies keeping temperatures lower than expected, and teams trying to figure out how to get the best of the Michelin tires. The general consensus on the rear tires was that the allocation had erred on the soft side, the softer of the two compounds being used up in the space of three or four laps, while the harder tire would last, but would still need careful management.
Tire management, you say? One name springs to mind. In the afternoon session, I headed out to the side of the track to watch the bikes, standing at the Bus Stop section, to see the entry of Turn 12, the bikes through Turn 13, and how the bikes went out of Turn 15. That vantage point also offered a view of Turn 2 and Turn 3. That's a lot of corners, with a fair few short straights in between. You get a good idea of what the various riders are doing there – hence John Laverty, brother and rider coach of Eugene, having taking up position there.
Both Movistar Yamahas looked smooth through there, though both Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo were circulating at speed. Rossi, in particular, looked slow, despite his name being near the top of the timesheets. His lazy style belied his hustle, Rossi running a taller gear through Turn 13 to try to conserve the tire. "We are quite fast but we suffer a bit after some laps, because we stress a bit too much the tires and we lose some grip and performance," Rossi said after practice. The rear was spinning a lot, and Rossi had been working on reducing the amount of wheelspin. "I think the tire can last all race, but it is a problem of lap time. It will be crucial to lose as little as possible, especially after seven or eight laps."
The Repsol Menace
It was the Hondas which Rossi was most worried about. "We have to try to improve, because the race pace for the Hondas is strong," he said. Rossi's own race pace was not so bad: in his first run on old tires he lapped comfortably in the low 1'49s. But that was about the same pace as Dani Pedrosa, the Repsol Honda rider also hitting that pace on old rubber. When new tires went in at the end of the session, it was Marc Márquez who took over on race pace, stringing together a long run of laps in the mid- to high 1'48s.
That time put Márquez into second, behind Dani Pedrosa and ahead of Cal Crutchlow, making it three Hondas in the top three, with just eight hundredths of a second separating Crutchlow from Pedrosa. Márquez was keen to point out that while he had used a new tire to set his fast time, it had been set using the harder of the two rear options. "Dani and Cal put a new soft at the end [of FP2]," Márquez told us. "I also put a new tire, but the hard one, which always has less grip."
If Márquez was keen to imply that he was faster than others might think, Cal Crutchlow seemed to be taking the opposite approach. He spent his debrief complaining about a lack of acceleration, describing how he was losing three and a half tenths of a second out of Turn 15 and along the back straight to Dani Pedrosa. He had tried everything, he said, including holding his breath. "This is how sickening this sport is," Crutchlow said, "I even tried not breathing down that back straight, so my body never went up. So as I came out of Turn 15 I breathed out, and I didn't breathe in again until I braked into the next corner. I don't know how many seconds it is, but I felt like I was turning purple under the helmet, and it didn't gain a millionth of a second."
The lady doth protest too much, methinks
In Crutchlow's case, he seemed to be making a little too much of his disadvantages. This is not the first time he has done this, and it raised suspicions among some of us. A look at Crutchlow's race pace further confirmed out suspicions: on used tires, Crutchlow was about as fast as Pedrosa. When Crutchlow starts to underplay his performance, it is time to have a quiet bet on the LCR Honda rider. Beating the Repsol Hondas might be hard, but it would be no surprise to see Crutchlow complete a Honda lockout of the podium.
While Valentino Rossi is the most likely candidate to crash the Honda party, his Movistar Yamaha teammate may be capable of spoiling the fun as well. Jorge Lorenzo suffered vibration with the two medium front tires (labeled medium or hard, and referred to by Michelin as the V and the K), and wanted to work with the soft front, or P tire. But with Michelin bringing so many fronts this weekend – as well as the soft and the two mediums, the French tire maker has also brought an asymmetric front tire, which is softer on the left but much harder on the right – Lorenzo has been forced to save his allocation, and had gone out on an old soft tire in the afternoon session, one which already had 20 laps on it.
A new front would have been worth three or four tenths, Lorenzo said, putting him right in the middle of the Hondas. Despite that, he and his team still had their work cut out for them. The rear tire was sliding a lot on entry – that was easily visible at Turn 13, Lorenzo sliding both front and rear tires through that corner – and Lorenzo said he was struggling with braking for corner entry.
There was work to do for Maverick Viñales as well, though his sixth position was very much part of the game plan. The Suzuki rider had spent all day working on race set up, waiting to chase a really fast lap on Saturday, when his thoughts would turn to qualifying. It is an old strategy adopted in the recent past with some success. First, focus on race set up, before turning your gaze on qualifying. The race, after all, is where it all counts.
Aleix Espargaro was particularly concerned about tire life. Both tires were too soft for him, he said. "The soft is destroyed after three or four laps," Espargaro told us, leaving the hard as the only viable rear option for the Spaniard. Suzuki is getting the rear wheel spin which has plagued the GSX-RR under control, but that came at a price.
"The compromise between spin and pumping is really thin," Espargaro said. "It depends what you prefer, you adjust the electronics in one way or another, to let the bike spin more, or if you don't like the spin, you put more traction control, and because the power is on-off, you have a bit more pumping." That was visible on the exit of Turn 13, where Aleix had the rear tire moving around a lot on one exit, then the rear wheel spinning on the next. "I prefer a bit more spin," he said, "because I'm smooth with the throttle, so I prefer to spin a little bit, because I never destroy the rear tire. But tomorrow it will change a little bit, I think it's going to be a bit hotter, so we'll see."
Electronics, old and new
A similarly stark choice faced the Aprilia squad. In FP2, the Aprilia RS-GP was hoisting the front wheel on a regular basis out of Turn 15. That had been a conscious decision, Alvaro Bautista revealed. In the morning session, they had been using a lot more anti wheelie control, but that had made the bike feel dog slow out of that tight last corner, Bautista said. With the anti wheelie turned off, the bike had a lot more drive out of Turn 15, but it did mean that Bautista and Stefan Bradl had to work a lot harder to keep the front down.
Nicky Hayden also made his return on a MotoGP bike, riding carefully and sensibly on the Marc VDS Racing Honda RC213V. Hayden finished the day dead last, though he had closed the gap to the front by half a second in the afternoon. His comments after practice were illuminating. The rear Michelin felt immediately familiar and comfortable, and had required little adaptation, Hayden said. But he was still struggling with the front, trying to figure out where the limit was without crashing. It is a common problem for MotoGP riders, though the regulars have all had the best part of a year on the French rubber, and time to adapt their riding style, and for the teams to figure out a better set up.
How did the RC213V compare to the Open class Honda Hayden rode in MotoGP before he left? This bike was an awful lot smoother, the spec electronics working a lot better than the Open class electronics from last year. Hayden was making steady progress, upping his pace every session, but he is still a long way off the pace of the front. The chances of Hayden being the ninth winner are just about inconceivable. But there is some rain forecast on Friday, specifically around race day. So don't write off Hayden just yet. Improbable? Definitely. Impossible? Nothing is impossible this year.
Racing is for humans
Nothing, except the gesticulating at other riders who are in your way, it seems. An FIM directive went out to all of the riders, warning of fines to be handed out to anyone who got into arguments on track with other riders and starting using expressive hand signals (whether obscene or otherwise) to show their discontent.
Cal Crutchlow – that most expressive of riders – expressed his severe disappointment with the decision. "It adds a bit of spice to it," Crutchlow said. "I liked it when Casey blew his head in Le Mans. I think there’s nothing wrong with it. I liked what Rossi did in Misano. Why not? At the end of the day it’s what you feel at the time. It’s no different to saying it on live TV. Remember when Fenati were kicking each other on the slow down lap. As long as nobody’s hurt."
Crutchlow has a very good point. Gesticulating – especially of the NSFW variety – is part and parcel of motorcycle racing. The great glory of the sport is that it is so visibly human. Riders perch atop a motorcycle, rather than hiding away in a tub, as is the case in F1. Riders' body language is immediately visible, their irritation is plain to see. Allowing them to vent at each other shows the fans at home just how much the riders care, just how much it matters. It brings emotion to the sport, and gets those feelings across to the casual fan.
By banning all such gestures, the FIM is shooting itself in the foot. The reason fans watch motorcycle racing is to see the greatest riders of all time, racing on the best bikes. They want to see human emotion, and that can mean anger, irritation, short-temperedness. Take that away, and you have robots racing each other. And nobody wants to watch that.
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