Coming into the weekend of Jerez, we knew several things to be absolute certainties. 1. Jerez is a Yamaha track. 2. Ducati always does terribly at Jerez. And 3. The Hondas will struggle against the might of the Yamaha. After qualifying, a swift dose of reality has flushed those preconceptions out of our systems, showing them up for the fallacies that they are.
After qualifying at Jerez, we have an all Honda front row. Two Yamahas start from the second row, but their performance during both qualifying and free practice was far from convincing. The first Ducati sits on the third row, but during practice, Jorge Lorenzo made the Desmosedici GP17 fly, finishing second in FP3 and fourth in FP4.
Where did this shake up come from? The issue is mainly one of grip. After the rain on Friday, there is very little rubber on the track, and the warmer track temperatures have made Jerez its normal, greasy self. The Yamahas perform well when grip is high, whether that be in warmer or cooler temperatures. Extra grip merely helps the RC213V want to wheelie, something for which it needs little encouragement anyway. Robbed of its winglets, the Ducati needs extra rear grip to get good drive out of corners, and exploit its strongest point.
Less to lose, more to gain
So when the grip goes away, as it did on Saturday, this impacts the Yamaha and the Ducati more than Honda. The Honda's propensity to hoist the front wheel is reduced, actively making the bike easier to manage. With less grip, the Yamaha can't use its corner speed to help the bike to turn, and the Ducati can't get the rear to hook up on corner exit. The Yamaha and Ducati go backwards, while the Honda stays pretty much in place. It's not so much that the Honda is a good bike under low grip conditions, it's just that the others suffer more. The RC213V still retains its insane ability to stop on a dime and turn in faster than Sleepy the Dwarf after a double shift down the mine.
The truth is that the Honda has also gotten better, although Marc Márquez put it a little differently on Thursday. HRC has sacrificed some of its strengths to improve its weaker points, and this has created a better package overall. "This makes a better balance for all of the season," Márquez told the qualifying press conference.
In essence, though, the strength of the Honda has echoes of 2016. Last year, the Honda started off poorly, but HRC worked tirelessly to improve it, taking half a season to get the bike up to strength. This year, the new engine poses some problems, but also offers advantages, providing a slightly better platform as a jumping off point for the season. HRC have brought a number of minor parts to make the bike a little easier to handle, as well as the more visible new exhaust. Cal Crutchlow was charged with assessing that new and shorter pipe, after Dani Pedrosa had tested and then shelved it in Austin. Crutchlow complained that he had not had time to do any real setup work on the LCR Honda, but that hadn't stopped him from putting the bike into third place, and onto the front row.
Pedrosa's star rises
The real star of qualifying was Dani Pedrosa, however. Jerez is a track he loves, and the changes made to his training regime, his entourage, to the RC213V, but above all to the Michelin tires have made him competitive again. Pedrosa stamped his authority on FP3 on Saturday morning, laid down a withering pace in FP4 on Saturday afternoon, before scorching to pole position with a lap that his teammate couldn't match, despite attempting to get a tow.
Márquez had initially gone out for a three-run strategy, firing in a very fast lap on his first run, before swapping bikes and heading out for another shot at pole on his second machine. Having a lot of spare soft tires made this possible, but his attempt fell flat when he found that the Movistar Yamaha riders were waiting. He headed back into the pits for his first bike, then headed out of pit lane and quickly caught his teammate.
The reigning champion seized the opportunity to study his teammate in a couple of places where Pedrosa was faster than him. "When I saw that Dani was in front, I waited for him to try to see two or three corners that on data when I compare he’s faster than me. I understand a few things when I was behind him."
Pedrosa had by that time already secured provisional pole, but he wanted one more shot at a hot lap to put it beyond doubt. The trouble was, he had company, and he didn't feel like giving any handouts. "I looked to him and it was at this point I know if I improve he might improve behind me. But when I look to him I say, okay I take his challenge and go for it." Pedrosa put Márquez firmly in his place, keeping Márquez behind him by five hundredths of a second.
That didn't mean that Márquez wasn't trying. At Turn 12, a blistering right hander and one of the fastest corners on the circuit, the rear of Márquez' Repsol Honda stepped out, but Márquez caught it in his stride. He lost enough in that corner to keep him in second, and give Dani Pedrosa his first pole since Sepang 2015.
Pedrosa not only started that race from pole, but he also went on to win it quite convincingly. That race is not remembered for his utter command at the Malaysian circuit, but rather for the outburst of petulance that eventually cost Valentino Rossi the 2015 title. But Jerez could be Pedrosa's chance to make amends. Both Pedrosa and Márquez are fast, but they are fast in very different ways, and look set to approach the race from very different directions.
Their two approaches are dictated by the way the front tire handles their two different riding styles and weights. Márquez will likely use the same approach as in Argentina, charging hard early on to make use of the support from the new hard front tire while it lasts, then nursing it home while trying to maintain the lead he hopes he will have built up. Pedrosa, on the other hand, will take off a little slower, but manage a little better, his lighter weight and lesser reliance on hard and heavy braking taxing the front tire less. With hot temperatures expected and far fewer bumps at Jerez than Argentina, both men will hope to avoid the ignominious end they came to at the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit.
Crutchlow, meanwhile, will aim to get on the podium (at the least) by taking the same approach as he did at Argentina, which is to charge just a little less hard than Marc Márquez, and hope to manage his tires better.
Saturday is not Sunday
In Argentina, the two falling Hondas played into the hands of the Movistar Yamaha riders, Maverick Viñales going on to win, while Valentino Rossi took second. The Yamaha riders are struggling a good deal more at Jerez than they did at the Termas De Rio Hondo, however, the left side of the rear tire proving a concern for both men. The two are caught between a rock and a hard place: the medium rear spins the left side of the tire too much, which means it wears out too quickly. The hard rear tire is much better, but lacks the grip to run a consistently competitive pace.
Things may improve on Sunday, once the track gets more rubber on it, and that helps with grip. But the higher track temperatures expected may negate the benefits of more rubber, so rear tire choice for the Yamahas will probably only take place on the grid.
Both Viñales and Rossi are much quicker than their headline times suggest, however. Both Marc Márquez and Cal Crutchlow singled out Viñales' race pace as being better than it looks, Márquez expecting the Movistar Yamaha youngster to be in the battle for victory. Rossi too pronounced himself comfortable with the bike, despite still having issues with front end feeling, which he hopes will be fixed when the riders test the Valencia-spec front tire on Monday at the test again.
Just because he does not appear to have the pace does not mean you can rule him out, as usual. "Both of them have a good bike, and for Valentino, for example this track is one of his favorites," Dani Pedrosa told the press conference. "Looks like Maverick have a better pace than Valentino, but with Valentino you never know," Marc Márquez added. "Tomorrow he will be there. He will be fast."
Marc Márquez was not the only rider who tried to hitch a tow, as Jorge Lorenzo explained. Andrea Iannone had put in a very strong lap to blast through from Q1, but in Q2, he latched his Suzuki onto the tail of Lorenzo's Ducati. Lorenzo joked wryly and resignedly about riders such as Iannone, who felt the need to get a tow to go fast. "I'm used to it," he smiled. "It's always like that, it doesn't matter which bike I have, which bike he has. For me those riders are like a fly. Because it doesn't matter where you are, they are always there like a fly."
Lorenzo knew there was little he could do about it. "It's a thing that riders can do, it's not forbidden, so you have to accept it," he said, before taking a not-so-subtle dig at Iannone. "Normally, these kinds of riders who wait for other riders are not the strongest ones, cannot fight for a world championship, but you have to accept it. It happens. At that moment you get a little bit angry, but you have to accept it."
Iannone's tow probably cost Lorenzo a place on the grid, but would probably not have moved the Spaniard up to the next row. Indeed, it could have ended up bumping Valentino Rossi from the third to the second row, after the Italian finished just two thousandths of a second ahead of Lorenzo on the Ducati.
Wings matter more than you imagine
Despite his starting slot, Lorenzo was much happier overall with his performance. "Worse position than Austin, but better feelings, and closer to the top guys," was how he summed it up. The difference was the fact that the Ducati was missing its winglets less at Jerez than in Austin, Lorenzo explained. "In Austin we struggled a lot, because we lost the wings, and the wings in Austin were very important to keep more contact in the front on the acceleration. Here the wings are not so important," he said.
"And also, Jerez is one of my favorite tracks where I can go through the corners faster and take some of my speed into the corners," Lorenzo added. His improvement was down to "A little bit of everything, more kilometers on the bike, more confidence, more knowledge on the bike, so all this combination means we have been closer in pace to the top riders."
Lorenzo also admitted he had underestimated the importance of the winglets to the Ducati's performance. "I think the winglets were the best solution aerodynamically to put pressure on the front tire," he said "Without the winglets, it's very difficult to arrive at the same level of performance which the winglets gave us." That had surprised him. "I thought that the winglets cause less effect at most of the tracks. Here not so much, but I expected less difficulties."
Lorenzo's race pace was not bad either, though whether he can make the tire last and how long he can hang on to the leaders remains to be seen. Alvaro Bautista showed just how good the Desmosedici (or at least the GP16) is on old tires, by putting in a searing long run of 15 laps in FP4. He had used old tires for the session, and by the time he finished the run, the tires had 25 laps on them. His last lap was a 1'40.1, which is just about where race pace might be expected to be on Sunday.
Bautista's quick time contrasted with Johann Zarco. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider had a very fast run in the second half of FP4, but he had fitted a new rear tire to make it. Zarco starts from the second row at Jerez, and will almost certainly figure in the race once again. But he admitted he still needs to work on conserving his tires for the second half of the race, so the question will be how long he can maintain a fast early pace for.
Cal Crutchlow made several comments in the press conference about having lost time due to testing new parts for Honda, though at the same time, he made it quite clear that it had been his choice to continue testing Honda's new exhaust, rather than going back to the standard one and focusing on setup. Though he would not explicitly acknowledge it, the reason he lost time on setup was because of the time required to get the engine working correctly with the new exhaust. That entailed a lot of tweaking of engine maps, to extract the most performance from the new tailpipe.
Doing that is a deeply time-consuming business, but it was a sacrifice he was prepared to make. It may have cost him at Jerez, but the work he and his team put in here will pay off in the long run, Crutchlow believes. In three or four races time, the exhaust could be prove to make a valuable improvement to the engine character, making the bike easier to handle.
KTM starting from scratch
Crutchlow's comments about losing time to adjusting electronics were strangely echoed by Paul Trevathan, Pol Espargaro's crew chief at KTM. The spec electronics may have limited the advantage other factories may have gained from their own electronics, but Trevathan had been surprised by the amount of work necessary just to get started with the spec Magneti Marelli system. "The bike won't even run with the system as we get it from Magneti Marelli," Trevathan said. "It's completely empty, there's no data there at all." That meant going through engine testing and painstakingly working out engine maps, then revising, optimizing, and expanding on them at each circuit.
The vast amount of work which the KTM team has done since last year is starting to pay off for the Austrian factory. Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro finished seventeenth and eighteenth during FP3, around 1.4 seconds off the front. In FP4, Espargaro was ninth, less than six tenths slower than fastest man Márquez. The two KTM riders finished Q1 just a few hundredths behind factory Ducati man Andrea Dovizioso, and ahead of seven other riders.
The result of Saturday was a Pol Espargaro more elated and animated than I have ever seen. The Spaniard is always excitable, but at Jerez he looked like a hyperactive child who had been slipped a couple of cans of Red Bull instead of warm milk. He rattled off sentences at us like a Gatling gun. "To be 0.2 to Folger who is eighth in qualifying is honestly not bad and we are 0.4 from Jorge, on the factory Ducati. And it is our fourth race. We cannot ask for more. I'm really pleased."
Back in contention
He was particularly delighted with ninth place in FP4. "We were dreaming about that only a few days ago! For sure to be P9 is a little bit too much… but honestly it's amazing to be where we are after four races and where we were at the last race. It's unbelievable!"
The new big bang engine had played a role in the KTM's new-found speed, but having data from testing at the track was also a big help, as was the fact that KTM now has something resembling a baseline setting from which to start, Paul Trevathan said. They were no longer just taking a wild guess, they had a reference point for the bike settings, a point of departure.
If development continues at this pace, then KTM will catch up sooner rather than later. The Austrian factory is all in on the MotoGP project, and doing everything it needs to make up ground on the other manufacturers. That made for a fantastic atmosphere in the team and among the engineers, Trevathan explained, with no time for finger pointing. He joked that he was looking forward to reaching the point when engineers started blaming each other for small failures, as it would mean that they were at the stage where they were pretty much competitive.
Though KTM have tested extensively at several different circuits, realistically, that point will only come once they have completed a full year of competition, and have a year's worth of data to build on. Still, the project is only a little over a year old, a babe-in-arms compared to the almost ancient projects of Yamaha, Honda, and Ducati. Interesting times lie ahead for Team Orange.
Support class fun
As for the Moto2 and Moto3 classes, the Moto2 race is looking ever more like an interesting prospect. Alex Márquez grabbed pole after a weekend of besting his teammate Franco Morbidelli, and appears to be on the cusp of his first win in Moto2. The Spaniard is working harder, but is simultaneously more relaxed this year. You get the distinct feeling that if he can get a first win under his belt, more will come. So far, he has been his own worst enemy, but he knows that this is the biggest problem he needs to address. A Marc VDS team battle could add quite the spice to Moto2.
It was an interesting grid in the intermediate class. Three chassis manufacturers in the top four, Domi Aegerter putting the Kiefer Suter into third, while Miguel Oliveira is once again fourth. Rookie Pecco Bagnaia is impressive in sixth, ahead of Xavi Vierge on the Tech 3 chassis. The big loser from qualifying is Tom Luthi, who will have to start from twelfth on the grid.
The Moto3 grid is another Honda lockout, with Jorge Martin taking pole from Aron Canet and Romano Fenati. Martin's quick lap was deeply impressive, smashing Jack Miller's pole record from 2014, and going over four tenths quicker than the rest of the field. Championship leader Joan Mir had a more difficult qualifying session, and will start from ninth. Meanwhile, third place man in the championship John McPhee had a nightmare, and starts from 26th on the grid. McPhee damaged his hand in a crash on Friday, but whether that is what is slowing him down remains to be seen. Moto3 promises to be as entertaining as ever, but there could be some big shifts in the championship by Sunday night.
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