There are plenty of ways of explaining the results of qualifying at Phillip Island. Lack of set up time in consistent conditions make the qualifying order a bit of a lottery. Rain and wind coming in off the Bass Strait and the weather changing every minute or so meant getting your timing and strategy right was crucial. Changing track conditions and unpredictable weather meant that some teams gambled right on whether to have their bikes in a wet set up, on intermediates, or on slicks. Or even on the correct mixture of tires front and rear.
In reality, though, the main factor in determining the qualifying order was this: the temperature in the front tire. Riders who could generate it had confidence in the front and could push hard in the sketchy and cold conditions. Riders who couldn't, languished well down the order, unable to feel the front and unable to lap with any confidence or feedback from the tires.
That explains why Marc Márquez and Cal Crutchlow are on the front row of the grid at Phillip Island, while the factory Yamahas languish back in twelfth and fifteenth place (or "on the fourth and fifth row of the grid" as it is known in press release speak). The Hondas have a tendency to overheat the tires due to the way they brake and their geometry. The Yamahas lean heavily on the front tire to generate corner speed, and on the edge of the rear tire to maintain it. At Phillip Island, it was too cold and too windy to do either.
Honda's front tire at PI (repeat)
It is once again mildly ironic that Phillip Island should be the place where the Honda riders benefited from the tendency of the RC213V to overheat the front tire. It was Marc Márquez' behavior here last year, having to back off after overheating the front Bridgestone before putting on a charge to win the race, which led to Valentino Rossi's charges of collusion with Jorge Lorenzo to deprive him of the 2015 MotoGP title.
This year, the stress the Honda is capable of putting into the front tire is bringing it up to temperature fast enough to extract maximum performance from it in cold conditions. The Hondas have suffered when it has been hot, even the hard front not capable of handling the loads generated by the Honda's formidable ability to brake. (What is also worth noting is that the Honda manages to brake heavily without overheating their brake disks. Honda riders are often still using shrouds while other bikes have long since discarded them, or have switched to cooling ducts to the calipers. This is an interesting conundrum, and highlights HRC's engineering genius.)
So it was that Marc Márquez was the first rider to use intermediates in FP3, and the first to use slicks in qualifying. Able to generate the heat on a track that was still sketchy, with damp patches and very strong winds cooling the tires, the Spaniard completely outclassed the rest of the field. He led by 1.5 seconds at one point, Cal Crutchlow cutting the gap to eight tenths at the end of the session, and Pol Espargaro taking the final spot on the front row nine tenths slower than Márquez.
The lap of the gods
It wasn't just strategy that gave Márquez his advantage, though. The Spaniard was simply vastly superior to everyone else. Able to immediate find the limit of traction, and surf its edge as it changed in the wind and the sun, Márquez half skated, half powered his way to pole, setting ever quicker times. His last lap was a thing of fierce joy, his aggressiveness uncontained – as his rather rude pass on Hector Barber at MG witnessed. After winning the title at Motegi, Márquez said he would take more risks and ride more freely. At Phillip Island, he showed he was unleashed.
Joining Márquez on the front row are Cal Crutchlow and Pol Espargaro, the two satellite riders both riding superbly around Phillip Island. Both benefited from timing their tire swaps perfectly, though Crutchlow was disappointed he had not been able to swap his front intermediate tire for a slick. The intermediate was a little soft, and he believed he could have gone quicker on a slick.
Both Crutchlow and Espargaro are riders who rely heavily on hard braking, though Crutchlow's Honda is much more suited to that than Espargaro's Tech 3 Yamaha. But Espargaro has been the rider to struggle with grip on the Yamaha. Now, the circumstances seem reversed.
Movistar woes, continued
It is ironic that the front row sees the battle for first independent rider being fought out. After Motegi, we had expected to see the front row staging the battle for second in the championship. But that fight will take place much further down the field. Neither Jorge Lorenzo nor Valentino Rossi have been able to achieve any speed this weekend, both Movistar Yamahas struggling at a track where they are usually very strong.
They both qualified poorly, ending up having to go to Q1. It was the first time ever both Movistar Yamaha riders have been in Q1 at the same time, and a sign of how poorly they are going. Only Jorge Lorenzo made it through, along with Cal Crutchlow, Lorenzo getting the better of difficult conditions, while Valentino Rossi and his crew chose the wrong strategy, unable to change both front and rear tires from wets to intermediates. Rossi went out with a wet front, and could not improve beyond 15th place, his worst qualifying for five years.
Jorge Lorenzo may have advanced to Q2, but once there, his performance was frankly embarrassing. The Spaniard stuck with intermediates at first, then switched to slicks. Neither tire worked for him, Lorenzo lapping five or six seconds slower than the front runners. Just how much slower he was going was obvious when others blasted past him. Márquez rode around the outside on his way to a fast lap, Danilo Petrucci caught him at the Hayshed, and had to squeeze through to get past. At the end of the session, Pol Espargaro made him look silly, passing him as if he were a wildcard out on a MotoGP bike for the first time.
Lorenzo is still haunted by wet weather demons, but the memory of his massive highside at Motegi must also be playing on his mind. That happened on a dry track in cold temperatures, a slick tire coming round on him and biting him badly. Another big crash is the last thing Lorenzo needs.
Heat in the tires
The problem of being slow is not restricted to Jorge Lorenzo, though his travails in the very wet weather made it obvious just how badly he is suffering with the Michelin wets. Even in FP4, on a damp track good enough for wet tires, both Lorenzo and Rossi lapped at similar pace, a couple of seconds off the pace of the fastest riders in the wet.
The problem is simply the ability to get heat into the tires, especially the front. "We are in a lot of trouble with the front tire," Valentino Rossi said after qualifying. "We are not able to put temperature into the front tire. Me, Lorenzo, I don’t know exactly, but it looks at though in Q2 he don't have the feeling, same as me."
The balance and geometry of the Yamaha M1 – especially the 2016 version – is such that it does not load the front and generate temperature in it, especially in cold conditions. On a hot track, that's not a problem, as the ambient and track temperature takes care of that. But in the cold, and with a strong wind, it's hard to generate the temperature with the bike.
The way a rider would normally do that is by being aggressive, but you have to have confidence in the tires to be aggressive. If the tires aren't giving you any feeling, then it's hard to have confidence. Without confidence, you can't be aggressive. Without being aggressive, you don't heat the tires, and get some feeling. Round and round the vicious circle the Movistar Yamahas circle.
What does this mean for the race? It means that both Rossi and Lorenzo are in for a very long race. The track should stay dry for Sunday, but it is cold and there are some very strong winds at the circuit. Getting heat into the tires will be hard, keeping it there will be harder. Unless Ramon Forcada and Silvano Galbusera come up with a radical new direction for the Yamahas, this is not going to be pretty.
Who will succeed? It promises to be a fascinating race. The weather at Phillip Island has been awful, conditions changing literally every minute. Throughout practice, heavy rain flooded the track one minute, sun and wind dried it out the next. The only constant has been the temperature: cold.
Such mixed circumstances and a lack of practice have offered opportunity up and down the grid. Jack Miller put it succinctly: "It sort of helps us that we haven't too much dry time on the bike, because it helps us set up wise," he said. "If we all go out with the same set up and then push, I feel that's when we can excel a little bit more, when the bike's not perfect. Trying to get our bike to work perfectly, that's the hard thing."
Miller starts the race from fifth, behind Aleix Espargaro on the second row. The Australian felt he could have gotten more out of qualifying, but again, a gamble on the conditions did not pay off. His team believed that there was rain coming before the end of the session, and so didn't have his second bike ready on slicks. He came in directly after his out lap and swapped to intermediates, but found the limit of the tire. It held up better than he expected, he said, but it was a little soft. He still ended up circulating only a second off his best lap around the circuit.
There were strong performances up and down the grid. Aleix Espargaro was obviously delighted to qualify in fourth, though he too felt he could have been on the front row. Espargaro did not have time to swap his front intermediate for a slick, and the intermediate was a little too soft, making the bike hard to turn.
Danilo Petrucci starts from sixth, while Nicky Hayden starts the race from a very creditable seventh spot. Subbing for the injured Dani Pedrosa, Hayden was even fastest in FP4, getting out just in time before the rain came and soaked the track again. Phillip Island is a circuit where Hayden has always thrived, and though he has had little time on the bike and with the tires, things could fall into place for Hayden to have a good result.
Special mention also for Stefan Bradl on the Aprilia. Both Bradl and his teammate Alvaro Bautista are starting to shine on the RS-GP, now that Aprilia is starting to make strides with the bike. Both are riding well, underlining that the decision to drop them in favor of new riders had nothing to do with their performance.
Saturday was a strange day at Phillip Island. To recount everything that happened would take a week or more. The weather had a massive effect on Moto3, just as it had on MotoGP. MotoGP FP4 had to be stopped for half an hour, while a fierce and blustery rain storm blew across the island. Moto2 descended into a crash fest, with bike after bike being launched into the scenery in the rain shower which had been predicted for the last five minutes of MotoGP qualifying.
There is an old Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. Some of the paddock passed through China on the way to Phillip Island. They must have upset a Chinese sage along the way.
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