The media is a fickle beast. Normally, journalists and TV only have eyes for the top half of the timesheets. Or more realistically, the top half of the top half of the timesheets. As Valentino Rossi once joked one weekend during his time at Ducati, when only four or five journalists turned up to speak to him, rather than the thirty or forty he used to see at Yamaha, "So this is what it's like to finish seventh."
If media interest beyond tenth place is sparse, it is absolutely nonexistent for last place. Normally, the rider who finishes last has no visits from journalists, nor will anyone come to speak to their crew chief. But Friday at Valencia was anything but normal.
A brand new manufacturer joining the grid is anything but normal, however. And even when the rider on the new bike finishes last, the media crowd waiting outside the garage is seriously impressive. The back of the KTM garage was thronged with journalists, first to speak to Mika Kallio about his day on the RC16, and then to grill Kallio's crew chief Paul Trevathan about the bike, and the problems they encountered.
Notes from trackside
Having been out trackside during FP1, to see the bike in the flesh, it was surprising to see Kallio finish so far down the timesheets. For part of FP1, Kallio was caught in the middle of a pack of six or seven riders, and managed to hold his own. Watching from Turn 12, where you can see the bike braking in a straight line, turn in for the right hander and then being flicked hard left for the start of the endless and glorious Turn 13, the KTM RC16 looked pretty good. It was stable in braking, and turned in well for Turn 12, though it was obvious Kallio was having to use a lot of force to get the bike back over for Turn 13. Whether that was the bike or Kallio, however, it was hard to say.
I then moved to Turn 13 and round to the entrance to Turn 14, watching the bikes as they stream down the hillside, heeled hard over and the rear stepped out. The KTM looked solid through Turn 13, though it would occasionally show a spot of blue smoke from the rear tire as a sign it was being worked too hard. That smoke had been spotted by Bradley Smith, who is due to take his place on the bike on Tuesday morning. It meant the rear was spinning up too much under acceleration, he explained.
Rear grip does not come from wheelspin
That was exactly what Mika Kallio complained of when he spoke to us on Friday afternoon. "For some reason there was no grip with the rear tires. Even if we changed different settings, and the soft and the hard on the rear, I always faced the same problems," Kallio said. "It was spinning and basically I lose the contact of the rear going into the corner. It never comes back so we lost a lot of time there. I started to lose the grip at the point when I was flicking into the corner. Then when I was picking up the bike I lost too much time there. "
The lack of rear grip had come as something as a surprise to Kallio, after he had been eight tenths quicker at a test here back in October. "We were here one month ago and we were faster," he said. That’s why we were expecting more. We are not too far from the temperature when we tested. In the afternoon we realized that it was the same. I think there is something else at the moment. "
One sign of the problems KTM were having was the fact that Kallio's top speed was well below what was expected. Kallio was third slowest in top speed along the straight, clocking around 312 km/h, or 10 km/h slower than Andrea Iannone on the Ducati. As the engine is not short of horsepower, the low top speed was being caused by a lack of acceleration, rather than anything else.
That issue had taken KTM rather by surprise, but this is basically the difference between testing and racing. Paul Trevathan, crew chief to Kallio and from Tuesday, for Pol Espargaro, explained they hadn't been expecting this to be a problem, as it had never been an issue they had been concerned with during testing. "It's clear from when you start riding with the other guys, that it wasn't a point that we were so aware of," the New Zealander said.
The issue was not one of electronics, Trevathan said, but rather one of basic chassis design and geometry. "It's not actually the electronics side, it's more mechanical, and we have to figure out a way of getting around that in a short period of time," he said. "Mechanical grip, the feeling from us and him is that it's this, so we have to try to fix this. How to load the tire in a different way and try to understand it. But again, it's something that we hadn't realized that it was a problem. We've been fine when we're by ourselves."
Good engine, good braking, now the details
There were also plenty of positives to be taken from the day, both Kallio and Trevathan insisted. The engine character was good, and it produced plenty of horsepower. Having an engine with a manageable power delivery also meant less work for the electronics, Trevathan said. But KTM still had work to do, to help the bike turn in a little better.
The difficulty Kallio had been having flicking the bike from right to left had not been entirely down to Kallio's size, the Finnish rider one of the smaller, lighter riders on the grid. "There comes a point that there is a limit of what a rider can do by leverage. And the bikes are heavy. They're not as light as people like to think," Trevathan said."I think it's still a point we have to work on, it's not the strong point of the bike, absolutely, so we have to find ways around it. But when you're smaller, these things are difficult, especially at high speed."
Kallio ended the day three seconds off the pace, and eight tenths slower than he had been during the test a month previously. He had expected to be two seconds slower than the fastest riders, as he had been at the test in Austria."OK, it’s a completely different track but I think this is the minimum that we need to do," Kallio said. "We need to improve one second to be close to the others." Qualifying on Saturday could be a bit of a problem, but race pace should be much closer.
Edge grip for all
At the other end of the timesheets, it was Jorge Lorenzo who was making the running. The Movistar Yamaha rider was back on song after a tough series of flyaway races – despite Lorenzo's podium at Sepang, his gap to the winner Andrea Dovizioso had been worryingly large. The explanation was simple: the rear tire Michelin have brought uses a less stiff carcass than the tire they had at the flyaways, to cope with the demands of a tight circuit.
"The tarmac here is quite grippy," Lorenzo said. "Also the Michelin carcass here is the same as Brno, Misano and another track that I can’t remember. It’s not the same as the last three races where they bring harder carcasses to avoid overheating. With this carcass and this tarmac I felt very good. The feeling with a couple of the tires is very good and the grip is good. So I felt great from this morning from the first laps."
With his feeling from the edge of the tire restored, Lorenzo was chasing down track records once again. By the end of the afternoon, the Movistar Yamaha rider was just four tenths off the lap record, and if he hadn't been distracted by Yonny Hernandez crashing ahead of him on his hot lap, he may even have done better than that. Track records look set to fall, and the first lap under 1'30 could be set on Saturday. If records do tumble, they will likely fall to Jorge Lorenzo.
The improvement in times is not just down to the Michelins, or down to extra performance by the riders, but also to a resurfacing of part of the track. Turn 1 had become rather bumpy, especially on the way into the corner. Those bumps had now been smoothed out, and the bikes were entering Turn 1 with a lot more confidence, and capable of carrying more speed.
Lorenzo's advantage was considerable, nearly a quarter of a second to Marc Márquez. Maverick Viñales follows close behind, the Suzuki working exceptionally well around Valencia, while Pol Espargaro was the second Yamaha on the timesheets.
Riding through the paddock..
Valentino Rossi had been expecting to be second Yamaha, and a very good deal closer after practice. The Italian had been quick in the morning, even after he had decided to use the hard rear tire. He had not been able to replicate that as much in the afternoon, however. Rossi, like so many other riders, was struggling for rear grip, which just would not come in the afternoon. The soft front and rear tires brought some improvement, but the balance of the bike was still from perfect, Rossi said. He was struggling in too many corners to be competitive, he explained.
The morning had gotten off to a strange start for Rossi. His bike stopped unexpectedly, Rossi rolling back through the paddock on his M1. "My mechanic left his wallet in the airbox," Rossi joked. The real issue had been a warning light on his dash, he said, which had caused the engine to cut off to save any damage. He had been forced to sit on his bike as he rolled through the paddock, an unusual experience for a MotoGP rider.
Yonny Hernandez' crash was the only fall in the premier class on Friday, an unusual occurrence during 2016. The lack of crashes was put down to good weather, of course, keeping the conditions perfect for racing. But the new front Michelin may also have helped, the new tire providing a little bit more feedback from the front.
Bigger can be better
The reception among the riders was mixed, though nobody was truly negative. This was a tire they had tested after Brno, where they were given a choice of two different profiles, with this one proving to be the clear favorite. The theory is that the "bigger" tire, as Cal Crutchlow put it, would provide a large contact patch, and therefore more feel and feedback for the riders. But the enthusiasm sparked by riders at Brno had mostly dissipated. Few could feel much difference between the standard tires and the new tires. Yet most ended up preferring the new tire, despite avowing ignorance of the difference between the two.
The new profile is rounder and larger, more of a V shape than the tire from earlier in the season. This gives a little larger contact patch at full lean, and that in turn provides more feedback. More feedback means fewer crashes, or so it would seem.
On Saturday, some of the interest in the KTM will wane, as the novelty of the new manufacturer begins to wear off. Instead, the attention of the press will turn to qualifying, and the action out at the front on the track. KTM's day in the sun will come again, when the full time riders Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro make the switch to the Austrian factory. Then, work begins in earnest.
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