A growing sense of, not panic, perhaps, but certainly concern is enveloping the MotoGP paddock in Qatar. The ever unstable weather is forcing the series organizers to make contingency plans for every possible scenario the conditions in the desert may throw up. Heavy rains which have been sweeping across the peninsula have made it uncertain how and when the race is to be held. It could be Sunday night in the wet, it could be Sunday afternoon, it could even be Monday.
Despite the bizarre weather – hailstones fell in the afternoon, then a downpour flooded the country in the night – practice has been pretty much unaffected. The advantage of rain in the desert is that it dries up pretty quickly when it stops. The track was a little dirtier when the MotoGP bikes took to the track for FP2 at 6pm, but it was still dry when FP3 ended, nearly four hours later.
The downpour only started at 1am, and stopped an hour later. Which suggests that the weather is weird enough for all of the emergency planning being made to be in vain, and qualifying and the race will take place as planned, in the dry, with no disruption. Still, not preparing for the possibility is a sure-fire guarantee that it will rain.
A big box of surprises
A dry track was a blessing for all concerned. Above all, for those of us left hungry for more after just a single session of MotoGP action on Thursday. The weird schedule of Qatar, stretching the event over four days instead of three, means that Free Practice sessions get split up unevenly over several days, but Friday brought us a double helping of MotoGP. And quite the sessions they were. There was something for almost everyone.
It started at 6pm with FP2. That session gave hints of an intriguing year to come: Maverick Viñales had his first crash in Yamaha service – though there some reports that the Spaniard fell at the private test in Sepang – putting an end to his run of seeming invincibility. The crash was entirely his own fault, he explained. "I was totally off line. I just braked late and said, 'OK, I will go into the corner anyway.'" Too much lean angle on a dirty part of the track meant that down he went, and up he came again unhurt.
But FP2 managed to get even more interesting. With rain forecast for the evening, most of the grid decided to chase a lap time to get through to Q2. By the end of the 45-minute session, Scott Redding was left atop the timesheets, ahead of Andrea Dovizioso, Jonas Folger, and Johann Zarco. Three satellite bikes in the top four, two of the MotoGP rookies. A mouth-watering prospect for the rest of the season.
Rain, rain, go away
The rain which many feared would fall during FP3 never materialized, so everyone had another shot at a quick time at the end of the evening. Stronger winds, and the first hint of the evening dew coming earlier than expected meant several riders went down while chasing a time. Including Scott Redding, pushing a little too hard on a tire which wasn't completely up to temperature, and Cal Crutchlow at Qatar's notoriously treacherous Turn 2.
When the dust settled at the end of the session, there was much to mull over. Maverick Viñales remained fastest, not having improved upon his blistering time from Thursday. Andrea Iannone had come out of nowhere to lay claim to second ahead of Marc Márquez, who also hadn't improved from FP1. Both Tech 3 rookies had made it through to Q2 in their first ever MotoGP event. Valentino Rossi had only just scraped through, taking tenth place a couple of hundredths ahead of Danilo Petrucci. Jorge Lorenzo came up just short, finishing twelfth just 0.047 slower than Rossi. This is not your normal MotoGP weekend.
Dig into the times and it tells a slightly different tale. Maverick Viñales is comfortably fast, but Marc Márquez is not far off the pace of the Movistar Yamaha rider. Andrea Dovizioso looks to have similar race pace on the Ducati to Márquez. While that trio look capable of circulating in the mid (Viñales) to high (Márquez, Dovizioso) 1'55s, there is a pretty sizable group of riders who are running low 1'56s. They include Valentino Rossi – despite his difficulties – as well as both Tech 3 riders, Dani Pedrosa (who may even be a little faster), Cal Crutchlow, and possibly Alvaro Bautista.
Too early for conclusions
Marc Márquez was not entirely convinced he would be able to stay with Viñales easily. "If I can get away with him, it will already be a good result!" he joked. But there was still plenty of time left. "The race is on Sunday, now we are only on Friday. We must improve, see what the conditions are." He had been struggling with a lack of rear grip, despite the fact the new engine was meant to address that. "In the bottom end, we don't carry the speed, so on the top end, you try to open even more aggressively, because you don't have the speed, and then it's spinning more," Márquez said. This is a problem which will be fixed by electronics, he expects, but not until a few races in. Until then, it is a question of just managing.
While Márquez has a reasonable hope of staying with Viñales, Valentino Rossi was less optimistic of being able to match the pace of his Movistar Yamaha teammate. He had been much more comfortable in FP2 than in FP3, because the track had even less grip due to the rising humidity as the evening progressed. When he went for a fast lap at the end of FP3, he had to come straight back in again, as there was a problem with a suspension sensor. That necessitated a rapid fire shock change, which was set up differently to the unit he had planned to go out on.
Rossi complained once again of a lack of feeling from the front end, laying the blame on Michelin's front tire. "I always suffer with the new front tires because the new front tires have a casing that is a bit softer. In all my career, I always like the front very hard to have good stability. So for this reason, I suffer."
He had made some progress, though. "Compared with yesterday, the problem was always on the entry, but now we have some different problems. This is less frustrating, because it's like we start to understand in a different way." Slowly but surely, Rossi and his crew are edging to a setup which he can use to be competitive. But they are still not quite there yet.
Progress was also being made by Jorge Lorenzo. On the face of it, Lorenzo's situation looks bad: out of Q2, and forced to try to qualify through Q1. But the Spaniard was remarkably upbeat at the end of the day. "The result can look disappointing, but I think we are better than yesterday," he said. "Yesterday, we have only been competitive with a better track and for one or two laps. But today with a much worse track, a track that doesn't suit very well the Ducati, with a lot of wind, and not very grippy, we've been very consistent, quite consistent."
A setup change had helped him, making the bike less physically demanding to ride, and allowing him to conserve his energy. The change made it easier on corner entry and corner exit, but had sacrificed speed in mid corner. The goal for qualifying and FP4 was to find a compromise that would retain better entry, while improving mid corner speed.
Lorenzo's dilemma was in deciding which tire to race. He had assumed that he would have to race the medium rear, but his first run on a used soft tire had gone much better than expected. "We started with an old soft tire, and I imagined it would drop more, and it was not bad. But I guess for this time, the soft is too soft. It's the best tire for us if the tire would keep its life for the whole race, unfortunately it looks like it is not like that." Racing the soft would allow him to be competitive, but he will only really have an idea of whether it can withstand race distance after FP4.
Reading the tea leaves
Lorenzo's upbeat tone was in stark contrast to his demeanor in the pits. The TV cameras captured him depicting all too graphically how the bike was reacting to his crew chief Cristian Gabarrini. Then at the end of the final session of the day, he came into the garage and walked straight out of the back. Generally, not a sign of a happy rider.
Trying to decipher such behavior is a risky business, however. Lorenzo, like many riders, is a very intense man, especially in the heat of a race weekend. Mechanics, and especially crew chiefs, learn to deal with outbursts, tantrums, and very animated discussions, extracting the important information and discarding the emotional content. TV footage also tends to pick up and broadcast the drama, ignoring the moments of calm in a garage. The viewers are there for the excitement, not to watch people calmly discuss the facts like adults.
While the first two days of practice have been intriguing, the need to post a fast time has distorted the picture a little. Riders have rarely posted runs longer than four or five laps, making it hard to judge genuine race pace. FP4, the final session of free practice, and the only one where teams get to focus solely on setup, should teach us a great deal more. If it stays dry, of course. Otherwise, we head into the race with everyone trying to second guess themselves. That produced some fantastic racing last year, so who are we to complain?
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