There is a move afoot among MotoGP riders to have qualifying changed. Or rather, to have the way the selection is done for Q1 and Q2. A lot of riders have complained about the current system of prequalifying using combined times from FP1 through FP3. The riders complain that they lose too much time to trying to set a fast lap in each session, just in case conditions change. The current counter proposal from the riders is to use just the FP3 times to select which riders go through to Q2 directly, and allow the teams to spend Friday focusing on setup.
Saturday morning exposed the weakness of such an idea. A combination of cold tires, strong wind, a bumpy track, poor tire selection on Friday night, and the narrow temperature working range of the Michelins saw eight riders crash a total of ten times in FP3. Alex Rins crashed so heavily he broke both the radius and ulna in his left arm, and put himself out of action for Austin and Jerez, and possibly for Le Mans as well. The rest escaped relatively unscathed, but with many a temper blazing.
Basing passage into Q2 solely on FP3 results was not without risks of its own, Valentino Rossi told the Italian media. "Today, that would have been a stupid idea, because we would have had to take a lot of risks in difficult conditions," Rossi said. If there had been a total of ten crashes in a session in which most riders hadn't pushed to improve their time, how many would have fallen if they had all been pushing to get through to Q2?
More to it than meets the eye
It is a fair point, but of course, if prequalifying were based on FP3 times only, then riders would have used different tires on Saturday morning, and that might have prevented a few crashes. Then again, there would have been more of them pushing harder, so maybe that would have balanced it all out.
Why were so many riders crashing on Saturday morning? It is natural to want to point to a single cause, but there was a combination of different factors at play. When asked in the press conference, Marc Márquez, Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi all had different, though complementary explanations.
"The thing is that for me this year we changed the casing, then the casing is quite soft. For keep the stability we go to the harder compound. For that reason when you have harder compound you have less warming and it’s easy to lose the front," was Márquez' reply. Viñales added two other factors. "Also it was not very normal, yesterday so hot and today really cold. More than the cold was the wind. It was so windy and the wind was cold. The back straight is so long, so it takes the temperature really down. It was a difficult situation."
Rossi added another reason. "I think that the problem was that the riders didn’t expect that the changing conditions would make such a big effect on the tires. In reality we had a softer tire, front and rear, so we can go also with the softer tire. But I was with the medium because I thought five or six degrees less than yesterday is not a big problem. We can try the medium tire or the other tire for the race. Maybe the problem was the wind, the cold wind. The tires don’t arrive to the temperature and after the bike is unrideable."
There is a little more to it than that. Firstly, the riders have to select the tires they are going to use the day before, so the MotoGP teams sent their wheels to Michelin for tires on Friday night. They have to make a judgment based on their testing program, most of which is aimed at figuring out what tires they expect to use in the race, and how to make them last for the duration. As a result, many teams had decided to go with the medium and hard front tires, and kept their soft rear tires for qualifying.
Cold, windy, bumpy
The medium tires were barely getting up to their operating temperatures, and even when they were, the long back straight meant that the cold wind had a lot of time to steal the heat out of them, as also commonly happens at Phillip Island. Cold tires on a bumpy track is a recipe for disaster. Add in the pressure of trying to get into Q2, and crashes start to happen.
Aleix Espargaro, who had what he described as "one of the worst days of my career, in 11 years of racing," was eloquent about the causes. "The problem is that the tarmac is super bumpy. So if on top of the bumps, the ground is cold, every time you hit the bumps the rubber has no grip and you lose the front or the rear. We saw the Márquez crash, he was super lucky, because it was clear that the bike never gripped again. Because the crash it was clear that it was a cold tire. The combination with a bumpy track makes our life super super tricky."
But there is more to it than just temperature, tarmac, and wind. Directly after practice for MotoGP, Moto2 had their FP3 session, in conditions which were pretty much comparable. In Moto2, just a single rider of the 32 in total crashed. Why were riders going down in MotoGP but staying upright in Moto2?
"I think the tire manufacturers are different," was Aleix Espargaro's rather arch reply." In the qualifying the time Marc and Maverick did was unbelievable, but obviously this morning everybody suffered. We know that the Michelin range of temperatures is super narrow, so this morning I think there was 8 or 9 degrees less track temperature, and the difference was super high."
His Aprilia teammate Sam Lowes had told us that tire temperatures had been 15°C cooler than Friday. That took the tires out of their operating range and made grip critical, especially at the end of the straight. One solution could have been a wider selection of tires, but that would be impractical, Espargaro said. "We need to work on it, because if they need to cover every temperature, they need to bring six tires every weekend."
Who is to blame? Conditions were bad, that is a given. A long straight followed by bumpy braking zones and corners means keeping sufficient heat in the tires to handle the bumps is very tricky. Teams chose the wrong tires on Friday night, knowing that temperatures would be colder on Saturday, yet not opting to go with the soft tire. And the Michelins are sensitive to temperatures, with a much narrower operating window than the Bridgestones had.
Narrow windows and lessons from history
This is nothing new. Michelin has long been known for making tires with a relatively narrow window of operating temperatures. A crew chief who worked with both Michelin and Bridgestone during the tire war era put it thus: "Which is better? Having five tires which have a five degree operating range, or having a choice of three tires which have a fifteen degree window?"
This difference is how we ended up with spec tires in the first place. When MotoGP changed the tire rules in 2007 to force teams to pick their tire allocations on Thursday night, thereby banning the use of the Saturday Night Specials Michelin used to ship in from their factory in Clermont Ferrand, the French tire maker lost their advantage.
Bridgestone, who had to ship their tires to Europe weeks in advance, made tires which could cope with a broader range of temperatures, and which therefore nearly always worked well. Michelin, on the other hand, would bring tires with a narrow temperature range, and their tires would either work spectacularly well, or not at all, depending on ambient and track temperature. Bridgestone riders started winning consistently, and Michelin riders abandoned the French tire maker for Bridgestone. The pressure caused Dorna to adopt a single tire rule.
Now Michelin are back, with better tires, but their underlying weakness remains. Their tires still have a narrow operating window, and if temperatures drop outside that, tire performance and feel drops significantly. To compensate, Michelin bring three choices to each race (and sometimes four, when conditions demand it), but if the teams choose their tires wrong, or conditions are much different to what was forecast, it can all still go very wrong.
Plenty of blame to go around
In other words, everyone is a little bit to blame. The Michelins need to have a wider operating range. The teams have to be more careful in selecting their tires for the following day. The Circuit of The Americas needs to fix the bumpy track surface. And the riders need to be aware that the long back straight is always going to be a problem when its cold and windy.
And yet the Moto2 Dunlops did not suffer the same problems, in very similar conditions. When asked about it in the press conference, Moto2 pole sitter Franco Morbidelli was blunt. "We went faster." And he is right: of the 32 Moto2 riders, 24 improved their times in FP3. Of the 23 MotoGP riders, only seven improved their times, and one rider broke his wrist.
Michelin boss Nicolas Goubert mounted a stout defense of his tires, while also acknowledging there was room for improvement. "Unfortunately there were too many crashes," he said. "The thing is a lot of riders were very confident and kept the same tire choices as they had as yesterday so they started with the medium tires – the front. It’s where a lot of them had a warm-up trouble. There were too many. When they went to the soft it was completely different because hardly anyone crashed with soft tires. This was reassuring."
"Honestly speaking we were surprised that it was difficult to warm up the medium. The medium, we had it in Argentina and even there, with quite low track temperatures it was OK. We were overconfident. And the riders as well. That’s why we didn’t tell them at the beginning, ‘Please go with the soft.’ We’re just still learning," Goubert said. As for the fact that the teams had chosen the medium tires on Friday night, instead of the soft, he was a little harsher in his judgment. "I mean the weather forecast was right."
Once qualifying was underway, all of that was forgotten. First, Jorge Lorenzo made his way through Q1 and into Q2, for the first time in his Ducati career (though to be fair, with qualifying canceled in Qatar due to the rain, that equates to a 50% hit rate for Lorenzo). Then, Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales fought out a scintillating duel for the pole, including a supporting role from Valentino Rossi. It had all the elements of high drama you could hope from qualifying.
It is clear that Viñales and Márquez are a cut above the rest: just over a tenth separates the two Spaniards, while well over nine tenths separates Valentino Rossi in third from pole sitter Marc Márquez. The same pattern has been repeated all through practice, with Márquez and Viñales setting far superior times, the rest all grouped together many tenths behind.
That offers an intriguing prospect for Sunday's race. Viñales' pace in FP4 was disappointing, but before that he had demonstrated his ability to be quick. Márquez' pace is quicker overall, but in general, slower than Viñales. Will the two riders escape together? They have very different strategies. Viñales has spent all weekend underlining the importance of the last ten laps, which suggests his focus will be there. Márquez, on the other hand, has always won this race by pushing hard from the start, then managing his tires all the way home. Last year, he ended with chunks out of his front tire, yet still managed to win.
Stoking the fires
What of Valentino Rossi? The Italian believes he has solved most of his front end problem by changing the weight distribution of the Yamaha M1. At both Qatar and Argentina, he was significantly quicker on Sunday than he was during practice. Márquez and Viñales have a big advantage in race pace, Rossi told the press conference, but "for sure tomorrow is another day". Staying with the two Spaniards will be very tough indeed, but it's Sunday, so you can't write Rossi off.
Saturday in Austin may well turn out to be the day that the real relationship between Rossi and Viñales was laid bare. Throughout the preseason, Rossi has been respectful towards his teammate, and Viñales has been the same, expressing admiration for the man who used to be his idol, without showing any deference. A brief encounter in Turn 20 may have ended the pretense of collegiality, however.
What happened was almost certainly an accident, Rossi taking a weird line through the final corner to maximize drive onto the straight at the start of the lap, in the hope of either getting a tow from another rider, or attempting a quick lap on his own. That put him right in the path of his Movistar Yamaha teammate, who was already on a flying lap. There was plenty of gesticulating from Viñales, though afterwards he insisted that his anger had been temporary, and that he accepted it had probably been accidental. Rossi, in turn, insisted that he hadn't seen anything behind him, and was surprised by Viñales' vociferous and demonstrative complaints a little later in the lap.
The matter was settled in Parc Ferme, with a brief discussion and a handshake. At the press conference, both riders insisted there was nothing wrong between them. Yet the body language at the press conference showed a perceptible change. Viñales may have forgiven Rossi, but he has also given up on receiving any help from his teammate. Rossi is out for himself, Viñales realizes. What he needs to realize next is that this is as it should be.
More to come from behind
If the front row is intriguing, the second row is pretty interesting too. Dani Pedrosa starts just behind Valentino Rossi, losing out to the Italian after giving him a tow. Pedrosa's joke on Saturday was that he hoped that Rossi would return the favor on Sunday, and help him to a podium.
Johann Zarco qualified fifth, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider continuing to impress, despite carrying a flu. Each practice further cements Zarco's status as a genuine threat in MotoGP: he is riding like a three-year veteran, and not like a rookie. What does that mean? Sam Lowes explained that he and Alex Rins were assuming a tucked position on corner exit, getting huddled into the bike as quickly as possible, a style dictated by riding a Moto2 machine. Zarco and teammate Jonas Folger are both staying hanging off the bike, pushing the bike upright and trying to drive forward before clambering back on board. That is what a MotoGP veteran looks like.
In sixth place came a very relieved Jorge Lorenzo. At last, the Spaniard was both faster than his teammate Andrea Dovizioso (finished seventh), and much closer to the front. It was a huge sigh of relief for the factory Ducati rider, who had gained benefit from having a relatively normal weekend on the Desmosedici using the revised seating position he had returned to in Argentina. "I wouldn't be happy in the last years finishing sixth, but knowing where we were before here, and the bad races in Qatar and Argentina, not an especially good preseason, finally a good result," Lorenzo said.
Does this mean that Lorenzo will finally be competitive? It is a little too early for that, Lorenzo said, but he was at least confident. "The important thing is that every day, I feel more connection with the bike," Lorenzo said. "I could be closer to the limit that the bike can offer me at the moment. That's a good sign. The new position on the bike is much better, but still, little by little, I will be better. From my side, every time I need to work more to get the maximum from the bike. From the side of Ducati, they need to improve the weak points they have now. "
In Moto2, the battle appears to between the two teammates, Franco Morbidelli taking pole from his Marc VDS teammate Alex Márquez. Márquez has been impressive all weekend again, yet when push came to shove, it was Morbidelli who got the job done. It looks like the winner will be one of these two riders, in a bit of a repeat of Argentina.
In Moto3, the problem is finding someone capable of beating Aron Canet. The 17-year-old Spaniard is over nine tenths faster than Joan Mir in Moto3, and has been consistently a second or more quicker than the rest of the Moto3 field. If Canet can get away, this could be the largest dry win ever by a Moto3 rider. He has little to fear from the riders he is fighting with, in Austin at least.
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