MotoGP's weird and wonderful Argentina trip continues to confuse, with qualifying turning out as topsy turvy as ever. Or perhaps not quite as topsy turvy as yesterday: though the front of the MotoGP grid still contains more than a couple of surprise names (more on that later), there are the first signs that some semblance of normality is starting to creep back. That doesn't mean it's going to be 2009 again any time soon, when the grid basically predicted the finishing order, bar accidents, but bookies everywhere are worrying less about the chance of a rank outsider staging an upset. On Friday, all bets were off. On Saturday, they were hedging their bets again.
Oddly enough, part of that was down to the weather. It was a peculiar day in terms of weather, the morning starting cool and dry, but rain starting to fall at the end of MotoGP FP3. It dried out again after that, allowing Moto3 to start their qualifying session on a dry track, before the rain returned with a few minutes to go. MotoGP FP4 took place on a wet track, but the rain lifted and the track started to dry during qualifying. Q1 was wetter than Q2, and tire choice became crucial. Vacillating between the soft and the hard tires cost more than one rider passage through to Q2.
By the time Moto2 took to the track, a dry line was starting to form. Andrea Iannone had gambled on going out on slicks during Q2 but came straight back into the pits when it turned out to be impossible. The Moto2 riders went out on wet tires at first, but were quickly able to switch to slicks. With the track improving with every lap the riders put in, pole position was changing hands just about every time a rider crossed the line. In the last 22 minutes of qualifying, the pole time was slashed by eight and a half seconds.
The Flying Scotsman
In the end, there was one man in each class who proved to be unbeatable. John McPhee was the first to take the honors, setting pole convincingly in Moto3 with time to spare. The Scotsman may have got lucky with the timing of his run, but that does not do justice to his pace. McPhee was fast throughout qualifying, and set his pole lap on a race tire which already had 10 laps on it. If the rain had held off, it is conceivable that McPhee would have had pole anyway: the British Talent Team had held back one more tire for a final assault on the front row.
McPhee leads a field heavy with talent. Nicolo Bulega and Jorge Martin join him on the front row, while Aron Canet, Fabio Di Giannantonio, and Romano Fenati line up behind him. The big loser from Moto3 qualifying was Joan Mir, who had dominated free practice. Mir had been saving a tire for a push in the final few minutes. That proved to be a misjudgment: the rain came and stopped him, leaving him stuck down in sixteenth.
The good thing for Mir is that this is Moto3, of course. With a decent start and some smart riding, a strong rider can quickly work his way forward. Mir's riding exuded confidence on both Friday and Saturday, so he should be back at the front in the race. But Nicolo Bulega at Qatar provides a salutary lesson: if you don't manage that, you're lost.
Austria + Portugal = Winning
Moto2 was even more exhilarating, as the track dried out so quickly. The pole swapped hands eighteen times in 45 minutes, but just as in Moto3, Miguel Oliveira's lead proved to be unassailable at the end. He took great chunks out of the competition, and though Franco Morbidelli closed to within a tenth at the end, he couldn't do enough.
Oliveira's pole, his first in Moto2, is a rather remarkable achievement. In just its second race, the KTM Moto2 machine has secured pole. Coming on top of a fourth place in the first race, it looks like the KTM is a very complete package right from the off. The steel trellis frame has already conquered Moto3, and looks set to do the same in Moto2. That bodes well for MotoGP, though there is still a very long way to go.
The biggest factor in KTM's first Moto2 pole is, of course, Miguel Oliveira. The Portuguese rider is back and fully integrated with the team he left just over a year ago when he moved up to Moto2. Oliveira's ability and maturity is marking him out as an exceptional talent. With the Portuguese rider aboard, KTM's first Moto2 victory cannot be far off.
Tricky tire choices
If qualifying for Moto3 and Moto2 were exciting, MotoGP was absolutely packed with drama. It started with Q1, where it looked like Andrea Dovizioso was a sure bet to go through. In the end, the factory Ducati man missed out by less than seven hundredths of a second, Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa finding their way through. Dovizioso's error was a common one: choosing the wrong tire at the wrong time.
Dovizioso had gone out on the hard wet tire for his first run, then fitted a soft rear wet for the second run. On a slowly drying track, that proved to be exactly the wrong way round. "We didn't try the soft rear tire in FP4, so we have to do one run with the hard and one with the soft," Dovizioso said. "So we decide to start with the hard, I did a good lap time but I was able to be a little bit faster, and the second run I put the soft, but it didn't work. It was too soft. The water was very low so the movement was too much."
Tire choice in Q1 wasn't the real cause of Dovizioso's problems, however. His weekend had gone wrong on Friday already, when he failed to set a quick time. "What happened yesterday is something bad, it mustn't happen again, we can't be out of the top ten on Friday. The feeling yesterday was quite bad. We didn't have a big problem on the bike, but a few things together created a bad feeling on the bike, so I wasn't able to be fast at the end of the practice." They had fixed the problem on Saturday morning, but by then, conditions were against the Ducati rider improving enough to go through to Q2.
Valentino Rossi, Wizard of the Wet
For Valentino Rossi, going through to Q2 helped rescue a difficult weekend. The problems he is having with the front end continued in the wet, just as they had in the dry. "I have the same feeling in the entry," he said. The way the tire responded was preventing him from turning in the way he wanted to, but Rossi was starting to come round to the idea that the problem was not so much tire as bike related. "Last year I was stronger. The old bike for me was more natural. With this one I have to force more. It is something more difficult. But I think working on the balance, on the setting, we can improve."
Starting from seventh puts him in a much better position than he had expected at the end of the first day, though. His Movistar Yamaha teammate was unsurprised, however. "Valentino is like the wizard of the wet," Maverick Viñales proclaimed, "he's always in the front."
Viñales starts from sixth, just ahead of Rossi, and that came as something of a relief to the young Spaniard. All through 2016, Viñales was worried in the wet, unable to figure out whether his lack of speed was down to him, or down to the Suzuki GSX-RR. In Argentina, he got his answer. "I found [the answer], because I'm first Yamaha." He had a good feeling with the front end of the Yamaha, though he was now struggling with a lack of traction.
Viñales put that down to the electronics setup on the Yamaha M1. "We have to work on the electronics, because it's just the first time on wet with my riding style, but for sure it's going to be totally different than Jorge's style." With more work in the wet, Viñales was confident of showing the same kind of speed he has shown in the dry.
It's the bike
Seeing Viñales slow must have come as something of a relief for the rest of the paddock. For the first time since he jumped on the Yamaha, Viñales looked human. No longer topping the timesheets in every session, the Spaniard looked profoundly mortal in FP4, finishing over a second off the fastest man Marc Márquez. However, if Viñales is confident that he and his crew can fix the traction issues in the wet, then normal service will quickly be resumed.
Confirmation that it had been the Suzuki all along came from Andrea Iannone, after his first outing in the wet on the GSX-RR. The Italian was less than impressed. "The feeling with the bike is very bad, especially because we have too much movement from the tires," he explained. "Also in the angle, also in the braking point the feeling was very bad. I don’t know. It’s the first time I have this feeling in the wet conditions. In general last year I was first in the warm-up and I ride this track very fast in the wet conditions. But this year it’s completely the opposite. I don’t understand why but we’ll try to understand from this situation." Coming from the Ducati, which is outstanding in the wet, jumping on the Suzuki came as something of a shock.
It was perhaps the Hondas which benefited most from the difficult conditions. Although the top Honda riders would object to the use of the word "benefit". It is more a question of not losing as much as the other bikes when the grip goes away. The RC213V lacks traction in the dry, so when it goes away in the wet, it doesn't have much to lose. The Yamaha, on the other hand, lives and dies by rear traction, so when it's wet, it loses one of its strongest points.
Mr Nine Lives
It also helps when the bike is being ridden by a man with the reflexes of a praying mantis. Márquez is already managing the bike at the very limit in the dry, and so his job gets even easier when the grip goes away in the wet. His superiority on a wet track was simply astounding. With his first fast lap, he put a second over the field. Pedrosa closed to within half a second, and then Danilo Petrucci cut his advantage to just over a third of a second.
That was only a brief respite, however. Seconds later, Marc Márquez crossed the line to open up a huge lead again. Karel Abraham was the closest man to Márquez, but even he was over three quarters of a second slower than the Honda man. And the only way he had achieved that lap time was by sticking to Márquez' tail for the entire lap.
The rich kid belongs
Still, tow or no tow, Abraham's second place in qualifying is impressive. He still had to follow the fastest rider in the world in the wet, a feat precious few are capable of following. Abraham's quick laps have mostly been set behind other riders, but the Czech rider is proving a lot of the naysayers wrong. After his return to MotoGP from WorldSBK, there had been much muttering that he only got the ride because he has a rich father. Even if your father was Bill Gates, he still wouldn't be able to buy you a front row start on the MotoGP grid, though. Karel Abraham rightfully belongs in MotoGP.
Cal Crutchlow completes the front row, making it two Hondas out of the first three. Add in Dani Pedrosa in fifth, and it's three Hondas in the top five. Crutchlow was only a few thousandths slower than Abraham, but the LCR Honda rider had set his best time on his own. Come race day, Crutchlow will be slugging it out with Márquez, was Maverick Viñales' prediction, though Viñales pointed to the fact that the LCR Honda rider never seems to show consistent pace in practice, only to pull it from somewhere during the race.
Jorge Lorenzo had a difficult qualifying session, yet finished the day happy. Like his teammate, he had chosen the wrong tire, though his mistake was selecting the soft front wet tire. That was too soft for the conditions, and he was losing the front for most of the lap.
Despite qualifying sixteenth, his worst grid position since his rookie MotoGP season in 2008, Lorenzo was remarkably upbeat. "I think we found something important today," he said. "It's a modification we made in the ergonomics of the bike, especially in the seat of the bike, because when I first tried the bike in Valencia, I felt the bike was quite high compared to my previous bike, so I wanted a little bit lower seat, and this was probably a mistake. We have to reconfirm in the future, but we probably chose the wrong way. We missed a lot during many months, went the wrong way. Now with this position and some modifications we can do in the future, I think we are going to get again weight in the front, and it will improve the feeling. At least to stay closer to the other Ducatis in general, but also to the other riders."
The issue appears to be on Lorenzo's position on the bike. By raising the seat, his body position on the bike is changed, allowing him to put more weight over the front end with less physical effort. "I will not go out of the bike like I used to do, I will get less tired, and my pace will be more constant. I will be faster and more consistent."
Historical precedent for radical change
This is the natural consequence of such a radical change of machinery. The Ducati and Yamaha are polar opposites, and require a very different approach. If Lorenzo has finally understood what is needed, then his optimism will be justified. But on the basis of a single weekend, where he is yet to be significantly closer to the front, it is far from a settled affair.
The whole issue is reminiscent of Casey Stoner in 2010. That year, the Australian had struggled to perform on the Ducati, lacking confidence in the bike. He played around with forks and triple clamps, but the real breakthrough came at Aragon, where his crew chief Cristian Gabarrini raised the rear of the bike by 2cm. A huge change, where normally changes are measured in millimeters.
The change worked: Stoner won the race at Aragon, and then went on to win three of the final six races, and finish second in another. But he still had two DNFs. It is unlikely that Lorenzo's fortunes will be transformed so radically, but it is a sign of the complexity of motorcycle vehicle dynamics. Bikes move in many different axes, and the rider is an integral and mobile part of the entire equation. You never quite know where a change might come from.
Tinfoil at the ready
If riders are the most important factor in motorcycle racing, then tires run them a very close second. The combination of the two is almost magical, each rider requiring a special mixture of properties from a tire to get the most from their riding style. The problem with having a single official tire supplier is that such tailored tires become an impossibility. And when a single tire design is used, accusations of favoring one rider over another are never far behind.
Another tire conspiracy theory achieved major proportions in Argentina. Although to call it a single tire conspiracy is to misunderstand how conspiracies work. Each faction had their own particular explanation for the Mystery of the Additional Front Tire, all of which proved to be wildly inaccurate, exactly as you might expect.
What are the facts? A brief chronology:
- When the 2016 title was settled so early, Michelin proposed to the teams that they bring the new profile front tire for 2017 to Valencia, for everyone to try. With the championship not at stake, there would be more time for experimentation, and this would give Michelin a head start on their 2017 development.
- The new profile was a big hit at Valencia, and so Michelin went ahead with this design. But there were also several reports of chatter, especially once the tires were being tested after the winter break. The new profile was slightly stiffer than the 2016 tire, so Michelin changed the carcass of the tire to make it less stiff, which helped cure the chatter.
- The Phillip Island and Qatar tests were not entirely conclusive, but for all but a handful of riders – Valentino Rossi, Andrea Iannone, and to a lesser extent Alvaro Bautista – it seemed to work well. Tire development with a single tire is led by the majority, so Michelin started working on the basis of the less stiff tire.
- At the Qatar race, a number of riders changed their minds. This is hardly surprising: racing is different to testing. Riders are pushing harder, and also taking more risk and braking deeper when overtaking. The front tire takes a bit more punishment, and that stressed it too much, especially for Honda riders such as Márquez, Pedrosa, and Crutchlow.
- In response to that, Michelin decided to test the Valencia tire once again, and decided to bring it to Argentina. But they did not have time to build a custom race tire, and only had the soft compound tires from previous tests. That tire was too soft to race on, but it could be used in the cooler conditions of the morning, and that would give enough feedback for Michelin to start making a decision about the stiffness of carcass to use.
- Then, two things happened. Strikes in Argentina delayed the delivery of the new spec tires – shipped separately, after a late decision – to the track. They arrived on Friday evening, too late to be used for practice. The Saturday weather forecast was for rain, and so the chance of the tires being tested and used was slim to nonexistent.
- As a result of all this, the fourteen riders who attended the Safety Commission on Friday evening decided not to allow the extra tire to be used. It was not a tire they would race. It was not a necessity forced on them in the name of safety. It would only increase the confusion over tires (three fronts and three rears made it hard enough to choose), turning the weekend into "a tire test" to use the words of Marc Márquez.
- Valentino Rossi did not attend the Safety Commission, preferring to spend his time with his crew in a technical debrief, trying to find solutions for the problem he is having with the front end of the Yamaha. Consequently, he had no say in the decision on the tire.
Put all of these facts together, and the fans – and several prominent journalists, especially in Italy – came up with some seriously tinfoily conspiracy theories. The theories fell broadly into two camps:
- Dorna had forced Michelin into bringing a special tire for Valentino Rossi. If it hadn't been for Rossi, the tire would never even be under consideration.
- The "Andorra Mafia" of Marc Márquez and the Espargaro brothers bullied the Safety Commission into banning the use of the special front tire, because they are afraid of what Valentino Rossi could do on it in the race.
Both theories are nonsense, of course. Michelin only decided to bring the additional tires when the Honda riders added their voices to Rossi and Iannone after Qatar. If riders from Honda (Pedrosa, Márquez, Crutchlow) joined Yamaha (Rossi), Suzuki (Iannone) and Ducati (Bautista) in wanting the new tire, that meant that four of the six manufacturers wanted the new tire. It is worth testing, but if it is to be tested, it needs to be done properly.
And it wasn't the "Andorra Mafia" which banned the use of the additional tire. The supporters of this theory claim that Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Iannone said they had already tried the tire on Friday. That is impossible, as the tire wasn't at the track. What is possible is that both Lorenzo and Iannone were confused. The two men are both blisteringly fast, and have outstanding feel for a bike, but neither is renowned for their deep understanding of technical details. They can tell you exactly what works or what doesn't, but they are not to be trusted in explaining exactly what was used and why it worked.
You want to know the truth? You can't handle the truth!
Occam's Razor suggests that the truth is to be found in the bare facts: with little dry practice time on the cards, there was no point in trying a tire which was never going to be used. To ensure it was safe to be used, all of the riders would have to put a certain number of laps on it, and the riders and teams had far better things to be doing with their time than using a tire which will not be raced.
Michelin will now bring the test to a later event. Not Austin, as that circuit is too demanding on the tires. The most likely scenario is that the new spec tire will get a proper run out at the post-race test at Jerez. With eight hours of track time, and usually decent conditions, the riders can put the tire through its paces properly and provide real feedback without cutting in to valuable set up time.
That won't convince the conspiracy theorists, of course. But then again, conspiracy theorists don't want to be convinced, they want to have their biases confirmed. Unfortunately for them, the world doesn't work like that.
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