Riders never really know how badly injured they are until they get on a MotoGP bike and try to ride. That was what happened to Valentino Rossi at Mugello on Friday. He had expected to have a lot of pain breathing from the exertion of hustling a MotoGP machine around Mugello. "This track, Mugello, with a MotoGP bike, with this temperature is already very difficult physically even if you are at 100%," Rossi said.
It turned out that it wasn't the pain from the chest and abdominal injuries which were giving him the most problems in the morning. "This morning, I had a problem with my arm, especially in acceleration. When I open the throttle and I had to hold onto the handlebar with all my strength, I had a lot, a lot of pain," he said.
When you open the throttle on a MotoGP bike, though you push yourself forward on the balls of your feet as hard as you can, you still need to hang on to the handlebars with every ounce of your strength. The battering Rossi's body took in the motocross crash just over a week ago took its toll, and made him suffer. "Sincerely, I didn't expect this, maybe I expected something else."
Painkillers and physiotherapy, the paddock's magic medical mix, made a big difference in the afternoon. Doing much more than five or six laps was still beyond him, but the improvement on Friday left Rossi optimistic. "Usually, Friday is the worst day. After that, your body adapts to the temperature, to the stress, and we hope that I can improve." He will almost certainly race, and he will almost certainly exceed any expectations he may have had a week ago. But it won't be easy.
Times are tight
Rossi's injury, combined with a lack of confidence in the balance of the bike, cost him some speed. The Movistar Yamaha rider ended the first day at Mugello well down the order as fourteenth in combined overall times. His position belied the closeness of the times, however: Rossi may have had thirteen riders ahead of him, but he was just over six tenths slower than the quickest man of the day Cal Crutchlow, and less than half a second off third. In fact, two tenths separated Jorge Lorenzo in tenth from Jonas Folger in third. On a track as long and as fast as Mugello (where a quick lap is 1'47), for so many riders to be within half a second or so is a sign of how astonishingly close the field was.
Though a Honda ended the day as fastest, it had been a morning of Ducatis, with Andrea Dovizioso and Michele Pirro topping the timesheets, Jorge Lorenzo in sixth, behind Hector Barbera in fifth. Factory men Dovizioso, Lorenzo, and Pirro had all tested just a couple of weeks ago in preparation of Ducati's biggest race of the year. But by the afternoon, that advantage had dissipated, a more diverse field forming.
Crutchlow was fastest, with Dovizioso taking second spot, while the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha riders took third and fourth, Jonas Folger pleased to stay ahead of his teammate Johann Zarco. But Folger admitted that while he had been quick on a new set of soft tires, Zarco had strung a whole sequence of laps together on the soft rubber, an indication of the Frenchman's pace.
Making the early running
That pace was good enough to match anyone else in the paddock. Three riders were a cut above the rest in terms of race pace on Friday: Zarco, Dani Pedrosa, and Maverick Viñales. All three were running consistently in the low 1'48s, and could string long runs together. Andrea Dovizioso had similar pace to that trio, they the Ducati man was putting in much shorter runs of just three or four laps. But Dovizioso, along with Viñales, Zarco and Pedrosa were all quick both morning and afternoon. Marc Márquez pronounced Pedrosa as the favorite for the race on Sunday, while Cal Crutchlow named Dovizioso as the man to beat.
To do so, though, they will first have to beat Maverick Viñales. The Spaniard had excellent pace in both FP1 and FP2, but suffered a huge crash in the middle of FP2 which lost him a fair chunk of practice time. The blame for the crash lay mainly on Viñales himself, the Movistar Yamaha rider running out wide on the kerbs and losing the front over the bumps. "The crash is because I was on the limit on the kerb, no? It's a critical point but anyway I think much better with the soft compound," he said.
He had tried the medium front, the asymmetric tire with a harder compound on the right of the tire, but that didn't give him the feedback he was looking for. "I didn't have the best feeling in the front, especially on the right side," he said, and that was how he ended up tumbling through the gravel, and bruising his forearms in the process. Viñales' aim for Saturday was to try to make the soft front tire work over long distances, to see if it was a viable choice for the race. "Tomorrow I'm going to work with that, see if I can use it in the race, because anyway the bike works better with the soft compound, there's more grip in the front." As the soft was the tire which Zarco had been doing long runs on, that should not be much of a problem.
Viñales was not the only rider to crash. Both Aleix Espargaro and Sam Lowes managed to crash within a couple of minutes of each other, and both pretty close together. It had been a major problem for the two Aprilia men, as the Italian factory had finally brought an upgraded engine with considerably more horsepower. That was the engine the two riders crashed on, however, and they were left to ride with older spec engine for the rest of the afternoon session. They were both relatively happy with their performance, but frustrated to have lost time on the new engine.
Are the tires to blame? (Hint: No, the tires aren't to blame)
What had caused the crashes? The fact that the MotoGP field had switched to the new '70' construction front tire meant that an obvious scapegoat was available. But none of the crashers wanted to blame the stiffer front tire, Viñales putting it down to pushing the limits of adhesion on the kerbs, the two Aprilia men not really having a clear idea of why they went down.
The crashes meant that the controversy over the stiffer front Michelin kept refusing to die down. The MotoGP grid was once again split into several factions. There were the convicted opponents, such as Jorge Lorenzo; there were the riders struggling to find the right setting to deal with the different rubber, such as Jack Miller and Scott Redding; there were the enthusiasts, such as Marc Márquez; and there were those who were indifferent, for whom the tire did not make enough difference, such as Andrea Dovizioso and the KTMs.
Old wounds reopened
For someone who opposed the stiffer tire, and voted against it, Jorge Lorenzo got on remarkably well with it. "Today to be honest the tire works quite well," Lorenzo said. "Some little vibration in some braking, but in general the 70 is working well in warm weather, so it's not a problem." Warm weather helps put heat into tires, and negates the downside of a stiffer tire, the Spaniard explained. "The more rigid the tire, it has less edge grip. I said before, with warm weather, you have less edge grip, but you can manage. The problem will be with cool conditions, when the tire will be too rigid to gain the grip in the corner." That won't be here at Mugello, but it could well be an issue one morning at Assen, or Sachsenring, or especially Silverstone or Aragon.
The riders who struggled with setting were the ones who were most surprised about the stiffer front. Both Miller and Redding reported a general lack of confidence in the tire, and a feeling as if it were about to fold underneath them all the time. Miller felt the tire was sliding too much, where Redding worried it felt like he was about to crash in every corner.
"It is sliding," Miller explained. "Turn 4 is a classic case, you just go up there and there's a couple of little very small bumps, right there, right before you change over, and it sort of goes away from you just at the last moment. It just gives you an uneasy feeling, you don't really know whether you can trust the front."
Things were even worse for Scott Redding. With the medium front tire, it felt as if the tire was bouncing over the bumps in some corners, which went away with the harder front. That tire, however, also had a downside. "It wants to fold, it wants to close, so there's nothing in between," Redding complained. "When I was doing the last time attack at the end, going down Turn 7, as soon as I went on the left side, because it's an asymmetric tire, it's just bump, bump, bump, all the way through the corner. Ideally I should have stayed with the hard, but if I'd had the hard, I would have crashed, so it's a bit of a difficult thing to organize at the moment."
Hard to recognize feedback sometimes
Alvaro Bautista felt this feeling of the tire imminently about to fold was a good thing. It meant he was getting far more feedback from the front end, and had a better understanding of what was going on between tire and road. "There is a small difference between the old and the new spec," he explained. "The new one has a more harsh feeling, is more rigid, you feel more the track, but also, this can be good because you feel more the limit. With the old one, you felt good, and then you crashed and you don't know why, because you did exactly the same as the lap before. But with this tire, it's like you feel the limit of the tire more. It's more harsh, you have more contact with what is happening in the track."
As is so often the case, Bradley Smith had the most eloquent explanation of how the new tire worked. "Basically it’s stiffer: the carcass, the sidewall and whatever else," Smith said. "What happens is that if you have the load on it in the right way then it’s brilliant and if you don't have that in the right way or the right time then you’ll see crashes like today. They came from ‘unloading’ areas or places when you are coming from acceleration into a quick ‘load’ and then pushes and slides away as such. That is where the negative comes from with this one but it is also better for braking and you can squeeze it all the way to the apex without bouncing all over the place."
The real problem, of course, is that the tires are being changed less than a third of the way into the season. "If you introduce a new tire after five races then the riders have already set-up everything for the old feeling and it goes to something new," Smith said. "It is never smart to make this kind of change during the season but I think we had to for compound reason because we were going so high with the other tires. We’ll always have teething problems on the first day."
Adapt or die
In reality, there are some teams and riders who have adapted to the new tire more quickly than others. Some teams already have a decent idea of how to get the best out of the stiffer tires, and some riders have had an extra test, such as at Barcelona or Mugello, to get used to the feel of the tires, and adjust their styles accordingly. Others have not done so, and are struggling a little more.
It is hard to feel too much sympathy for the riders, though. It is they who forced through the switch back to the '70' carcass, and so it is they who will have to learn to live with the consequences. They made their bed when they pushed through a tire switch in a highly unusual decision taken though very strange channels. Now they will have to lie down in said bed, and deal with it.
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