Scanning through reactions on social media and forums during the first day of practice in Argentina, and there is one phrase that seems to be popping up everywhere. "What is going on?" cry fans everywhere. Or a variation of that phrase, with an Anglo Saxon word or two thrown in for good measure, along with capital letters and a handful of exclamation marks.
Why the fans' confusion? A quick glance at the results answers that question. That Maverick Viñales should be at the top of the timesheets is hardly a surprise, in fact it feels like it is on the verge of becoming an iron law. Nor is Marc Márquez in second anything which would normally raise an eyebrow. But Karel Abraham in third? Sure, the Ducatis are quick, and the Czech rider got a tow behind his Pull&Bear teammate Alvaro Bautista, who has proven to be quick throughout testing.
Look further, and you see Danilo Petrucci, Loris Baz, Cal Crutchlow, Jonas Folger. The next factory rider is Aleix Espargaro on the Aprilia in ninth, followed by Suzuki's Andrea Iannone in tenth. Of the twelve factory riders in MotoGP, only six of them are in the top fifteen. Dani Pedrosa (29 MotoGP victories) is in thirteenth. Valentino Rossi (7 MotoGP titles, 88 MotoGP wins)? Sixteenth. Jorge Lorenzo (3 titles, 44 wins)? Eighteenth. The world has gone mad.
Topsy turvy world
So why are so many of the best riders in the world so far down the timesheets? There is an element of coincidence here, conspiring to keep good riders down. There are unusual factors bringing surprising names to the fore, and holding the big guns back. But there is also the first hint of a new reality in MotoGP, of changing times. And of course, the rule changes Dorna has managed to push through for MotoGP since the fallow years of the 800s have played an enormous role.
But first, we must sort the wheat from the chaff. A place at the top of the timesheet is not necessarily representative of genuine speed. "Many riders are very fast to do a lap time, but that is not too important," Andrea Dovizioso reflected, the Ducati rider languishing in fourteenth. "What's important is to work in the right way for the race, to be in the top ten and be in Q2 like always." Dovizioso, along with the others further down the timesheets, had been concentrating on the former to the detriment of the latter.
Cal Crutchlow also expected to see a slightly different set of names at the front come Sunday. "I think you're going to see some other guys, like Zarco – Zarco's faster than Folger, sure – but you'll see Zarco there, because he has a really good package, and he has a load of grip. But Dovi will be there also, but the other factory rider there is definitely not going to be there. Someone like Petrucci, I think can go quite well. Abraham and Baz, as you saw, they're just doing their normal tricks and they've got fast bikes."
Plus ça change
Crutchlow was confident of his own pace, but he stated once again that the Honda RC213V remains a handful to ride. "This afternoon, we thought we'd make a big step with the new tires, but it would seem quite difficult. The track temperature went up a lot, and the Honda was struggling as usual, with locking, with floating, with spinning, fighting with the bike, we have no speed in the straight. We're all near the back. Difficult day. But I think that as I've said time and time again, the riders are overcompensating for the situation. And as I've also said time and time again, Honda are still working."
The reason for their difficulties was easy to identify. "It's not easy coming to these circuits with three different engines in three years," Crutchlow said. In 2015, Honda was using the same engine configuration which had been in the bike since it was launched in 2011, when the 1000cc bikes made their return, a 90°V4 with a typical screamer configuration, with a light crankshaft to allow the bike to rev, and a crank which span forward. In 2016, Honda made the crank heavier, or so rumor had it, and had the engine spin backwards to make it less prone to wheelie, adding a jackshaft to transfer power between crank and clutch. This year, they have a completely revised firing interval, switching from screamer to big bang. Each different engine requires a different engine mapping, and a different approach.
So who is genuinely fast? Crutchlow's list is a good starting point. Viñales is obviously quick, both on a single lap and in terms of race pace. Márquez is not far behind, though the Repsol Honda rider would object to that. Crutchlow's pace is respectable despite his protestations, and Johann Zarco and Alvaro Bautista are also fast over a longer run. Jonas Folger is not far off the pace, neither is Danilo Petrucci. Dani Pedrosa, too, is almost certainly quicker than he looks.
But there are several confounding factors at play. The track is in much better condition than expected, as the times being set made plain. Riders were lapping about a session ahead of last year, with times from FP1 matching those of FP2 in 2016, and this year's FP2 times matching FP3. A cleanish track in the afternoon under the hot South American sun had raised track temperatures, wreaking havoc on grip levels in an unexpected direction.
Then there were the tire permutations. Riders were told they had to do at least five laps on the hard rear tire on Friday, to assess whether it would be safe to use in the race. But with three rears and three fronts to assess, they had a lot of decisions to make and a lot of laps to get through. The choice left Marc Márquez' head spinning. "One of the most difficult points is that we have three different rear tires, three different fronts, and to try all the options to decide what will work for the race or what will work for one lap – we don't have enough time."
It would have been worse had the additional front tire actually turned up at the track. That tire, the prototype tire used at Valencia for both the race and the test, uses the 2017 profile but with a stiffer construction. It is a tire Valentino Rossi is keen to get his hands on, as he struggles with the front end of the 2017 Yamaha M1. But so far, there has been no sign of it, as the tire is stuck in customs, held up by a strike by workers there.
In rubber we trust
Despite the fact that the construction of the tire suits Rossi better, he believes, he fears that the rubber may still be too soft to fix his woes. "We are in big, big trouble," he told reporters. The problem was the same as he had had during testing and at Qatar. "I always have a lot of movement in the front, but especially I am not able to enter the corner fast." He was not sure whether it was the tire or the bike, but that question could only be answered by trying the tire.
Other riders were held back more by a single factor, rather than by a serious problem. Andrea Dovizioso had run into an issue with the bike, though he wasn't sure whether it was electronics or clutch which had been the culprit. Jorge Lorenzo had wanted to use the medium front tire at the end of his run, but his team had sent him out with the soft front. That had left him struggling for grip in the hot conditions, the front end wanting to wash out continually.
The dawning of a new era?
Does all this mean that a new era is upon us, a changing of the guard? It would be just a little premature to leap to such a conclusion on the basis of a single day of practice, though there are some interesting signs that change could be ahead. Maverick Viñales has melded perfectly with the Yamaha, and can lap fastest almost at will. Rookies such as Johann Zarco and Jonas Folger are immensely talented, but have also encountered a bike which is working extremely well. Perhaps, with a 2017 engine in a 2016 chassis, better than the 2017 bike. At least, for anyone not called Maverick Viñales.
Above all, though, this is a direct result of the rules Dorna have spent the best part of ten years trying to put in place. Since the switch to 800cc four strokes revolutionized racing, putting the emphasis on the development of electronics to manage tire wear, engine braking, and corner speed, Dorna has played a long game, exploiting opportunities as they have come along. The switch to a control tire meant the end of special treatment for favored riders, cutting the gap from front to rear.
The real prize, however, was spec electronics, and it took a mixture of threats, blackmail, and bribery to achieve. When the grid shrank to 17 bikes, Dorna pushed through a switch back to 1000cc machines. At the same time, they created the CRT class, reviled by fans and insiders as inferior, but they served their purpose well enough, to make the point to the factories that MotoGP could survive without them, though the resultant product would not necessarily be pretty.
That gave Dorna the leverage to push first for a spec ECU, then spec electronics, and finally for a price cap on satellite machinery and an obligation to supply last satellite teams with bikes. The effect of each is limited: factory teams still have an army of engineers going over the data with a fine-tooth comb, optimizing and perfecting the engine and bike behavior, while satellite teams have to make do with far fewer people and end up with a bike that is only in the general area. Factories may be limited on what they can charge teams directly, but there are always indirect channels to supplement their income.
And of course there is Michelin, which is an entirely more user-friendly tire than the Bridgestones ever were. The bikes are now ridden more with the rear than with the front, where the Bridgestone required the ability to place unimaginable loads through the front tire, and the blind faith it would stick. With the Michelins, the front gives sufficient feedback but limited grip, while the rear has plenty of drive and feel.
So the tires are easier to understand and use, the electronics are the same across all manufacturers, and the level of the bikes between the teams is much closer. Add in a dose of fresh talent, and a burgeoning field of riders who are capable of something special, and you create the conditions where magic can happen. When the differences are small, shaking up the field becomes deceptively easy.
That, after all, is the real story from Friday in Argentina. As Jorge Lorenzo explained, "you know, we are eighteenth but we are very close. The last seven are very close. With the right front tire for sure we would be much better in the classification." That may sound like an excuse, but the difference between eighteenth and tenth is three tenths of a second. The difference between eighteenth and sixth is less than half a second. Just over a tenth separates sixth from tenth, and another tenth separates eleventh from fifteenth. It's starting to look a lot like Moto2 already. Or, heaven help us, even Moto3.
It's a good time to be watching MotoGP.
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