There was plenty to talk about after the first day of practice in Jerez, though none of the real talking points came from the action on the track. Rain in the morning proved that the track has great grip in the wet. On the other hand, a drying track in the afternoon proved that you don't really learn anything at all in sketchy conditions. Some riders pushed with a soft tire, some didn't. Some riders took risks to set a time, some didn't. The session was pretty meaningless, most riders agreed. Nobody had fun out there, with the possible exception of Pol Espargaro on the KTM. But more of that later.
Off track we learned a lot more. It looks like next year, LCR Honda will expand to a two-bike team, with Takaaki Nakagami moving up to ride alongside Cal Crutchlow, with backing from Moto2 sponsor Idemitsu. Rumors persist that the Sky VR46 team is to move up to MotoGP with two Yamahas, though Valentino Rossi denies it. The contract to supply Moto2 engines has been signed, though a few details remain to be wrapped up, meaning the actual engine manufacturer will not be announced until Le Mans. And all of these have various knock-on effects, which will effect the entire series in one way or another.
First, to the on-track action. For a circuit which is not supposed to suit the Honda, there sure were an awful lot of RC213Vs crowding the top of the timesheets, both in the wet and in the dry. The reason the Honda is good in the wet is simple, according to Marc Márquez: a wet track takes Honda's biggest weakness out of the equation, leaving its strongest points intact.
Like a Honda to water
"In the wet, it's a good bike," the Repsol Honda rider explained. "Already last year, with Honda you can manage well on the wet, you can find the grip. On wet, you cannot use all the torque on the exit of the corner. And then we lose zero in acceleration, because we don't have wheelie on the wet. The spin is the limit of the acceleration, not the wheelie. So for that reason, we are not losing in acceleration, and we keep our strong point, which is braking and turning."
But the Hondas were quick in the dry too. There were four Hondas in the top five in a wet FP1, Dani Pedrosa just edging Cal Crutchlow into second, with Jack Miller third and Marc Márquez fourth. In FP2, on a mostly dry track with a few damp patches, which caught several riders out, the Honda hegemony held, Pedrosa dominating this time, setting a time half a second quicker than Jack Miller, with Cal Crutchlow behind in third. Marc Márquez had decided to work on race pace, rather than chasing a fast lap, and ended in fourteenth place, but given the warm weather expected on Saturday, that should not pose an insurmountable problem. Pedrosa's best time was seven tenths off the race lap record, but Miller was 1.2 seconds slower than Lorenzo's best race lap of 2015.
Why was the Honda quick in FP2? The Honda deals well with a lack of grip, for much the same reason as it is good in the wet. In perfect conditions, the Yamahas disappear into the distance while the Hondas struggle to deal with the bike's desire to hoist the front wheel. But conditions are rarely perfect, and when grip drops, the Yamaha can't carry quite as much corner speed, slowing them mid corner and thereby lowering corner exit speeds as well. A lack of grip changes little for the RC213V, though, so the Hondas remain as quick while the other bikes get slower.
You win some, you lose some
Márquez admitted that the new engine had evened things out a little, making the bike a bit less radical than it was last year. "Last year in some circuits, we had some really strong points, like for example braking, turning really quick," Márquez explained. "Then on low grip, last year, it was not easy, but the bike was working well. This year we lose a little bit these strong points, but we compensate by having more speed in the middle of the corner." That had been visible by the difference between this year and last in Austin and at Jerez, he said. "This year it looks like in Austin, the others were closer, and here we are closer to them. So at the moment, this is working in the correct direction."
Jack Miller was a good deal more complimentary about Honda's new engine. When asked what made the bike better this year, the Marc VDS rider replied, "It’s a mixture of a lot of things. I feel working with Ramon and some fresh ideas in the box has definitely helped. Getting that new chassis has really suited my style. I’m enjoying riding that. The engine is definitely a lot nicer to ride, a lot more user friendly. Especially on a track like this, you can pick your lines, like [from turns] six to seven, which is quite tight and you have to get the bike settled and ready for turn seven, which is such a high speed corner, it’s just a lot easier. You can focus on the more on these points so we can get the right line. We’re able to do that rather than manage enormous pumping and spinning, like out of six and the thing isn’t getting settled going into seven. That’s helped a lot."
Construction vs compound – a tire thing
The biggest weakness at the moment is the amount of load which the Honda places on the front tire. The complaint remains the same: the construction of the current front Michelin does not offer enough support, and this forces teams (especially the Hondas, but also the Aprilias) to use the hardest front tire, compensating with compound inflexibility the lack of rigidity in the carcass. This makes the Honda a little too dependent on the compounds which Michelin brings to the track.
The biggest issue is that when temperatures rise, the harder compound becomes more compliant and offers less support. The tire was working really well, Jack Miller told us. "It has really good edge grip and it has quite good turning. The only thing is, when it comes to temperature it’s a little more difficult to get right, easier to crash."
Cal Crutchlow was a good deal blunter about it. The expected rise in temperatures on Saturday and Sunday would not be good for Honda, he said, because "the front tyre allocation is a joke compared to what we should be running here in those temperatures. I know what pressure we went to last year. Sunday will be even hotter and it will be difficult to manage."
That gave fastest man Dani Pedrosa a good shot at victory on Sunday, Crutchlow reckoned. "Dani has the best chance this weekend and one of the best chances all year to win because everyone else will be on the limit with tires and he won’t. We’ll see how competitive we are. It is good the Hondas are up there and give you something to write about."
Pedrosa put his improvement down to a range of factors working together to make the bike feel better. "The feeling on the bike is obviously different this year and is a bit better in general with a few upgrades, like engine, the bike and tires: they all make a picture that gives you more feeling. When you race this kind of bikes at this limit, the little difference of positives and negatives can make a huge difference in one lap." More feeling means a faster lap time, but also makes the bikes easier to manage over race distance.
Long faces at Yamaha
By contrast, the Yamaha riders were less than delighted. The afternoon session, especially, had been a concern. "The afternoon was difficult and I could not push as I would like and not like we are used to turning or on the exit," Maverick Viñales said, after an uncharacteristic crash at Turn 9. He had gone a little bit off line and hit a damp patch, and gone down in a fairly harmless crash. He was not alone: Aleix Espargaro and Loris Baz crashed in the same place.
Valentino Rossi was deeply concerned once again. The feeling with the front end which they had found at Austin had disappeared once again, with no easy solution in sight. "Unfortunately it's a very similar to the feeling in the first races," the Movistar Yamaha rider said. "Last year I arrived here with the old bike and was very strong from first practice and during the weekend we work but I feel always very comfortable with the bike. This year it is more like the other tracks, some more problem in the entry, more difficult to find the balance. The bike is a bit different from last year and we need a bit more time to understand."
What Rossi and the Honda riders would like is to use the new construction front tire which is to be tested on Monday. (Strictly speaking, it is not a new construction, but the construction raced at Valencia last year, which offers a stiffer casing.) That tire suits Rossi's braking style better, and offers more support while he tips the bike into the corner.
It's all in the back brake
Which begs the question as to why Rossi's Movistar Yamaha teammate was less concerned about the front tire. The secret to Viñales' style is his use of the rear brake, it appears. Viñales uses the rear brake to get the bike stopped more, rather than relying on just the front. That style is visible from the side of the track, Viñales moving his right foot twice during cornering, braking deep into the corner before moving his foot back onto the foot peg at the last moment, to increase ground clearance.
This would also explain why the Ducatis are less concerned with the new front tire. Using the rear brake is an important part of riding a Desmosedici, and one of the reasons Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo have thumb brakes fitted (or rather, levers which operate the rear brake fitted to the left handlebar). This was a skill which Lorenzo had taken some time to get used to, but he was gaining confidence with it and thereby gaining some speed. Lorenzo was fourth fastest in FP2, and the fastest Ducati rider.
Using the rear brake on corner entry was making the bike easier to ride as well. "I started using the rear brake already in Qatar but because it was new and I wasn't used to it, I didn't use it enough times in most of the races. Now I'm using it more and this helps a little bit more to stop the bike and to enter the corner more fluidly and a little less physical too," Lorenzo said. Using the rear brake helped slow the bike with the rear, which meant he was not being thrown forward and having to use his arms to support him, he told us. That made riding the bike much less tiring, which in turn, promised much for the race.
Of course, strange conditions on Friday will mean almost nothing on Saturday, when the weather is expected to be dependably dry. FP2 had been a pretty meaningless session, Aleix Espargaro said. "For me, this [practice] had no big meaning. Sincerely in my case, I was not pushing in many corners of the track because of the wet, you couldn't accelerate really aggressively because there were wet patches in the last part of the corner, so you don't know exactly the consumption of the rear, because you couldn't spin because of the wet. So for me, tomorrow in the first run we will improve the time."
Normally, mixed conditions like Friday spell disaster for KTM, as with so little data to go on, it puts them a long way behind. But fortunately, they had already had a test at Jerez, and had something resembling a base setting, despite the many changes to the bike since then. "Round here I think today it certainly helped that we’d been here already in the test last year," Bradley Smith explained. "We already have our gearbox and general maps. That's what helped me to get up to speed today."
Big bang boogie
Both Smith and teammate Pol Espargaro spent all day on the new big bang engine which KTM have brought to Jerez. There was a general feeling that the engine was better, with Espargaro being particularly positive. "The power is softer and smoother and easier. In that way you can put a little bit more power," he said. But it wasn't just the engine, the Spaniard insisted. "In Texas we tried the fairing that helps us so much with the front wheel."
Ever the empiricist, Bradley Smith was wary of being deceived by his ears. "The actual engine, it's the same but the concept is different. In terms of I suppose what you guys can hear, the bike is lower pitch, so that's also what we feel out on track. The noise is similar to what we had last year. Whether that helps us in terms in performance, I'm still not 100% sure, but it just makes it sound better, in the right direction." But he did not want to be tricked into believing the bike was better, just because it sounded like the Yamaha he had been much quicker on. "This is why the engineers are crunching numbers rather than the riders," Smith said.
Whether it was the new engine, or the new engine note's effect on his psyche, Pol Espargaro was certainly a good deal quicker on Friday. "In the beginning with Dovi and at the end with Maverick it was the first time I could follow them in a good way. They were accelerating a bit more than me but not hugely and I didn't lose them," he said.
Espargaro ended the session in tenth, 1.1 seconds off Pedrosa and just over half a second off Jack Miller in second. Rarely have I seen a rider so elated to be tenth, Espargaro celebrating his position in the timesheets as if it had been a win. "It is the first time that we feel we are with them and with the pack," he said, grinning ear to ear. "It is such a beautiful moment to come back and feel a normal rider and not the last one."
Rumor mill in overdrive
And so to events off track. As I explained at the start, it is looking increasingly likely that Taka Nakagami will make the step up to MotoGP for next season, taking an Idemitsu-backed Honda in the LCR team. This would suit many parties: Honda and Dorna are keen to have a Japanese rider in the premier class, while Idemitsu are looking for the greater exposure which MotoGP brings.
Nakagami is unlikely to be the only Moto2 rider to move up next year, however. If Franco Morbidelli wins the Moto2 title – and that remains a big if, despite the fact that he has won the first three races virtually unopposed – he is likely to be offered the second Marc VDS Honda alongside Jack Miller. Tito Rabat is in the second year of a two-year contract, but has so far failed to make enough of an impression to extend the contract beyond that. The logical thing for Rabat to do would be to return to Moto2, and try to win another title, acting as a gatekeeper for Moto2 talent along with Tom Luthi. They will act as a yardstick for talent wishing to make the jump to the premier class.
The Moto2 contract
If (or rather, when) Rabat returns to Moto2, he will also encounter a new engine supplier. At Le Mans, the contract for the new engine supplier is to be announced, a source informed me. The contract is already signed, but there are still a few final details left to be cleared up. Annoyingly, I was unable to confirm that the contract has gone to Triumph, though all the signs have been pointing in that direction for the past few months. Earlier this year, I learned that Honda had expressed renewed interest in the class, but they had come to the table very late in the day.
The electronics package is also to be changed, with Magneti Marelli to be granted the contract. That would seem to rule out Honda as engine supplier, as so far, the Japanese factory has insisted on using the Superstock HRC race kit electronics with the bike.
Kalex boss and lead engineer Alex Baumgärtel (the Alex in Kalex) was pleased to hear that an announcement was close. In Texas, he had expressed his concern that time was running short to both prepare the 2018 season and start developing a chassis to fit the new engine to be used in 2019. "We will manage, because we have to, but this favors the big factories," he told me in a veiled reference to KTM. "But especially for the small manufacturers, Speed Up and Tech 3, this is much harder."
VR46 to MotoGP?
Finally, to the rumors that the Sky VR46 team is to move to MotoGP in 2019, after Valentino Rossi's contract with Yamaha expires. Rumors have been floating around the paddock all weekend, which Rossi himself felt forced to deny. "Is not true," he told the press. "But was already last year like this. Carmelo said to me he would be very happy if I have a team in MotoGP. I'm very happy too, so thanks to Carmelo, but at this moment it is not in our plan. Because we are not big enough, we don’t have enough 'force'. Also our plan is to help the young Italian riders, so Moto3 and Moto2 is already enough. We don't have enough space!"
Well-informed sources suggest that this denial is more a matter of obligation than of fact. The official line is that no such commitment has been made: when I asked Mike Trimby, secretary of IRTA about it, he said nothing had been promised to the VR46 team, and that anyway, the grid was full. The only spare grid slot at the time is a second slot for LCR Honda (now likely to be filled by Taka Nakagami), but held by Lucio Cecchinello for his team. If the VR46 team wanted a place on the grid, they would have to take over the grid slots from an existing team.
That is not entirely unthinkable. The eternally cash-strapped teams of Aspar or Avintia could be persuaded to part with their grid slots if the financial inducement was sufficient. Alternatively, they could work together with VR46 in the same way that Gresini is now doing with Aprilia.
But there are a number of complications still to be dealt with. A Sky VR46 team would only come about if Valentino Rossi was no long racing. At the moment, Rossi is not thinking beyond the end of his contract, which runs through 2017 and 2018. But given his lust for competition, and his undimmed ambition, it is easy to imagine the Italian racing beyond 2018, though probably on a year-by-year basis.
The other complication comes from Rossi's long association with Yamaha. Once he does stop racing, Rossi will continue to function as a brand ambassador and spokesman for Yamaha, both sides benefiting from their relationship. That would mean that a VR46 team could only realistically run Yamaha M1s, but Yamaha have only ever said they would be willing to supply four bikes: two factory, two satellite. The Tech 3 team has a firm hold on those satellite bikes, and breaking Hervé Poncharal's long (over twenty years) association with Yamaha would be painful and difficult.
For the moment, the VR46-to-MotoGP story remains mainly in the realm of speculation and conjecture. But not so firmly that well-placed sources will not confirm the project. There is still a year or so before a decision needs to be made, and we will learn at last exactly how much of this story turns out to be true.
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