The weather has not been kind to MotoGP in 2016. At the nine events since Barcelona, it has rained at some point or another at five of them. At two more, Austria and Motegi, it was the cold rather than the rain which was a factor. Even Sepang, where in most years, it only rains once the riders have finished practice, has seen the rain ruin riders' plans.
Heavy rains overnight left the track covered in damp patches, despite the resurfacing of the circuit which was done to address the issue of standing water in some corners. More rain at lunchtime meant the afternoon sessions were done on a wet track that dried slowly, despite the tropical sun beating down.
The track should have been dry in the morning, after the sun had had four hours to burn off the water. But patches remained at various points around the track, most away from the racing line, but there were some spots where the water remained on the racing line.
"The dampest part of the track is turn three –that’s the slippiest," Scott Redding said. "Turn three still had a lot of patches. Turn four had some too, especially on that acceleration point. There were a few into turn 14. The angle that you have most, where Zarco went down, it was just everywhere around there. You had to work out a line, the way through there, without hitting any puddles."
Bedeviled by compromise
The standing water was a real concern. According to Jarno Zafelli, whose Studio Dromo oversaw the resurfacing, the cause was a mixture of (relatively) low temperatures, cloud cover and high humidity. Though it was bright and warm, the overnight temperatures had been very low, reducing evaporation. Without direct sunshine, and with humidity of over 90%, the water on the track was not clearing. The track has also been designed to handle the tropical downpours which are common in Malaysia, in which many centimeters of rain can fall in a very short space of time. To prevent the drains from clogging with excess water, track drainage is carefully managed. In the exceptional conditions of Friday, that created problems with drying. The track's saving grace is its very high grip levels.
What made the situation worse is the new surface still being very dark, making it hard to spot the dry line when it appears. This is a common problem with newly resurfaced circuits, needing time for the bitumen used to bind the aggregate (jargon for small stones) to wear away and expose the color of the stones. When MotoGP returns here next year, the track will be a good deal lighter, making spotting where the wet patches are much easier.
Faster, smoother, weirder
Damp patches on the track surface aside, the changes to the track were almost universally praised. The grip was vastly improved – always a problem with the previous asphalt – and the bumps in the braking zones all gone. They should stay that way for a while too: the main culprit for creating bumps is Formula One, the F1 cars literally dragging ripples into the surface over time. The Sepang circuit is looking to back out of its F1 contract, unable to sell tickets to the event. MotoGP, by contrast, is a sellout every year.
The reception of the revised Turn 15 was mixed, some liking the new off-camber turn, others less enthusiastic. The difference in lines was already visible, as riders chose different points at which to cut back towards the exit. The Ducati appeared to take the widest line, while Marc Márquez and the other Hondas cut back earlier towards the inside. Surprisingly, it was Pol Espargaro who appeared to take the most radical line, turning back and hugging the inside of the exit on his way through the corner. The consensus was that the extra grip of the new surface was what made it interesting. On the old surface, such a steeply banked corner would have been a recipe for disaster.
Managing the conditions
With MotoGP FP1 affected by damp patches, and FP2 starting on a track that was nearly fully wet and then drying, there was not much that could be deduced from the times. With FP1 the only dry session of the day – and if it rains on Saturday morning, potentially the only dry session of the weekend - tire choice and timing was a major factor in determining the order, and possibly passage to Q2. Those who got out at the end of the session on the soft tire made good times, while those who stuck with the hard tended to suffer. Those choices mean that riders such as Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso are currently outside of the top ten, and potentially on their way to Q1.
FP2 was instructive more for the way the track dried, and the possible combinations of tires. By the end, almost every possible combination of tires had been tried, from wets to slicks. Intriguingly, riders were also going out with carbon brakes and wet tires, a combination not normally seen. The carbon disks need to get up to temperatures of over 200°C to start working, something which is impossible when there is spray on the track. There was virtually no spray at the end of FP2, and the teams were fitting disk shrouds to keep temperatures in the disks up. It worked well, though the softer front tires were not as supportive for the braking forces generated by the carbon disks.
Two fast men only rode in the morning. Marc Márquez was still suffering from gastroenteritis, picked up during a sponsor visit to Indonesia. Márquez rode in the morning, setting the fastest time of the session, but became dehydrated. After treatment at the Clinica Mobile, he was sent back to his hotel to recover. He should be fitter on Saturday, and strong enough to race on Sunday.
Andrea Iannone was perhaps the biggest surprise of the day. That he was happy to be riding again was apparent as soon as he exited pit lane, pulling a massive wheelie while heading out for FP1. The factory Ducati rider ended FP1 as fourth fastest, and happy with his pace. In the tricky conditions of the afternoon, Iannone and his team decided it was not worth the risk of crashing, and sat out the session.
Paddock rumors run wild
If there was not much happening off track, there was plenty of drama happening off the track. After rumors emerged earlier in the week that Dani Pedrosa was considering retiring after his crash at Motegi, the Repsol Honda rider tweeted from home that this was not the case. "These [sic] news are groundless and I can’t wait to be back on track!" Pedrosa posted.
On Friday afternoon, Cal Crutchlow (who had been rumored to be the potential replacement for Pedrosa in Repsol Honda) and HRC boss Livio Suppo dispelled the rumors as well. "The rumor is not true," Crutchlow told the press. "It’s typical stuff. Like I said when Dani crashed, it’s disappointing that people jump to conclusions. They start sending you messages, tweets, whatever it is that say I’m going to be on the bike at the next race before his feet have landed on the floor, before the helicopter has even taken him out of the circuit. One, it’s disrespectful to the riders. And two, it’s never in my plan, or in Livio’s plan as such."
Pedrosa had no intention of retiring, Crutchlow said. "A broken collarbone is a broken collarbone. People break collarbones all the time. It’s not like a really threatening injury, luckily." Livio Suppo strongly condemned the rumors. "There should be no need to comment on these kinds of things. I’m really sorry sometimes journalists write totally wrong information. It’s not the first time it has happened this year. With Dani. With Honda. With me. With Nakamoto."
Pedrosa is working hard at being fit for Valencia, Suppo said. It was still not certain whether he would be fit in time for the last race of the season, but with the first official test of 2017 directly after the race, it was obvious the Repsol Honda rider would want to be back on the bike in time for that. "It seems to me he’s quite optimistic," Suppo said. "But of course you cannot be sure. I see him very motivated. When you speak with him you feel it. Of course I didn’t see him but Dani on the phone seemed to be quite positive."
A lesson from history
Where did these rumors come from? Talking to a range of sources with knowledge of the matter, Pedrosa took the crash at Motegi badly. He was in poor spirits directly after it, and was reported to be quite dejected before surgery. This is hardly surprising, given Pedrosa's history at Motegi. The Spaniard broke his collarbone there in a crash in 2010, and the plate fitted to fix that left him with a lack of strength and feeling in his right hand when he was riding.
After several months, he was finally diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome caused by one of the screws holding the plate to his collarbone pressing against the subclavian artery, which provides the main supply of blood to the arm. That was hard to diagnose, as it was only happening when he rode a MotoGP bike. Pedrosa's confidence returned once new surgery removed the wayward screw and fixed the problem. Then, the every next race, Marco Simoncelli knocked him off, and he broke his collarbone again.
So it is hardly surprising that a crash at Motegi where he broke his collarbone should be so traumatic for Pedrosa. But several sources with knowledge of Pedrosa's mood report that he is now remarkably cheerful after surgery. The Spaniard is, from what I have been told, keen to make his return at Valencia, and start riding again. He may have had a few bleak moments before surgery, where he wondered if it was all worth it, but that darkness has passed, and Pedrosa is looking forward once again.
The more curious part of the Pedrosa rumors were that Cal Crutchlow was being named as a possible replacement. Though Crutchlow is clearly the best satellite rider at the moment – and arguably a good deal faster than several factory riders – the Englishman is not a good fit in the Repsol Honda team. At 31 years of age (as of Saturday, 29th October), Crutchlow is as old as Pedrosa, so HRC would be more likely to look to someone younger.
They already have such a rider on their books: Jack Miller is on a full Honda contract, and being kept in the Marc VDS team for HRC. It would be contractually simple to shift him out of Marc VDS and into Repsol, though it would leave them with a seat to fill at Marc VDS. Though most Moto2 riders are already signed up for 2017, it should not be difficult to find a competitive young rider to put on the bike. Shifting Alex Márquez into the Marc VDS team would make it easier for brother Marc to accept Miller alongside him in the factory team.
At the moment, such a scenario is looking extremely unlikely. If Pedrosa is not back at Valencia, he will almost certainly be fit for either the test at the track, or at the private test to be held at Jerez a week later. Should he not be able to race at Valencia, then it would not require a great stretch of the imagination to put Nicky Hayden back on the Repsol Honda again. Hayden's World Superbike duties end on Sunday night, with the season finale at Qatar, and he has easily outperformed test rider Hiroshi Aoyama.
On the bounce
Finally, a word on Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard admitted to journalists that he does not always wear an airbag in his suit, a fact which became apparent at Motegi, when he suffered a major highside. The reason for not wearing an airbag is simple: the airbag takes up too much room and restricts his movement. Though Lorenzo never looks like he moves much on the bike, his movements are swift, changing from one position to another almost unnoticed. That requires flexibility, and Lorenzo feels the airbag impedes him.
The Spaniard told reporters that he chose to wear the airbag only when there was a greater risk of crashing. If he was confident in the conditions, then he opted to go without, preferring to ride unhindered by the airbag. But he acknowledged that this would have to change. From 2018, airbags will be compulsory for every rider in the MotoGP class. Lorenzo is already working on getting used to the feel of airbag by wearing it more often, and knowing his leathers sponsor Alpinestars, no doubt they will be adapting the suit to his requirements.
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