There are a lot of reasons to visit Barcelona. It is one of the greatest cities in the world, a triumph of the architectural movement known as Modernisme, a vibrant center of culture, a place where you can eat, drink, and sleep well, after a day spent gazing mouth agape at some of the most remarkable buildings created by human hands, and human minds. Once upon a time, the Montmelo circuit was also a good reason to visit the city. A track full of fast, sweeping corners challenging riders and bikes in equal measure.
That was before the aging asphalt turned the track greasy in the summer heat, and the repeated abuse from fat F1 tires left the surface rippled and bumpy, cracked and patched. Tragedy struck with the death of Luis Salom – probably the victim of a wayward bump sending him flying towards a patch of gravel-free run off – and the Safety Commission (consisting of MotoGP riders, Dorna, and the FIM) decided to neuter the second half of the track, removing one of the fastest and most furious final sections on the calendar. There is little left to love about Montmelo.
I asked several riders whether it would be possible to race in Montmelo next year if the track had not been resurfaced. The response was unanimous. "No." Worse than that, Bradley Smith explained how the Safety Commission had grown impatient with the circuit, which has been singularly unresponsive to their requests to adapt the track to make it safer. Hopefully, MotoGP would not return, Smith told us bluntly. "That's finally what it comes down to. This is the only track on the calendar that's not actually reacting to Safety Commission / rider / organizer's requests. So at some point, you have to give them an ultimatum, and I think that this is the last year that they'll be in that situation. We have enough people that want us to go race there, we don't have to come here."
Less Spain, equal racing
In many ways, the loss of Barcelona would kill several birds with a single stone for Dorna. Firstly, they would be able to drop a Spanish race from the calendar, restoring some semblance of balance to the schedule. (The counter point to that is that Dorna's offices are just a few kilometers away, on the other side of Barcelona). Losing Barcelona would free up room on the calendar for another race, with the Buriram circuit in Thailand set to be added to the schedule next year. And it would serve as a warning to other tracks who were reluctant to make the changes the riders demanded. Look out, it would say, we are more than prepared to walk away unless you give us what we want.
The shenanigans surrounding the new chicane were indicative of just how difficult the situation is at Barcelona. The new-for-2017 chicane was tried out on Friday, found wanting, then dropped after a meeting of the Safety Commission. From Saturday, the track reverts to the F1 chicane adopted in 2016 after Salom's tragic accident. Yet neither is particularly ideal.
A solution making things worse
For Valentino Rossi, the new chicane was a worse option than the old one, mainly because of the changes in asphalt between the old track and the newly laid section to join the inner and outer parts of the track. "I don't like this chicane," Rossi told the media. "For me, a chicane like this is not at the level of a MotoGP race, because it's not track, it's just a piece of asphalt put between two tracks. I already saw the layout, and if you do the F1 track, it's worse than the normal track for sure, but it's the track. This means that you have one type of asphalt that follows the chicane. The chicane is tight but it has all the banking so you can ride the bike more naturally."
The new chicane is not like that, but rather a separate strip of asphalt connecting the two parts of the track. "This chicane is not the track. For me, it's dangerous, because if you have the crash, the bike cuts the chicane, but also it's very bad. For me it's not a MotoGP track like this. So I agree, I hope that everybody can be agreed."
Rossi's Movistar Yamaha teammate concurred. "For me, it’s dangerous," Maverick Viñales told us. "Also, now, it’s FP1, FP2 and if you see a bike is in the middle of the track, you cut the grass, OK. Slow down then you don’t do your lap. In qualifying you’re not going to slow down, you’re going to push because you are coming for the hot lap. The rider is in the middle of the track, the bike is in the middle, the marshals are in the middle. It’s very strange. If you crash in the second corner, you stay in the middle of the track for sure. If you crash in the first corner of the chicane, you go in the middle."
Worse, but still safer
Others fundamentally disagreed. For Marc Márquez, this was the only possible option. "I already said yesterday, the old layout was more natural but of course the change that we did was for safety," the Repsol Honda rider said. "It’s the only way. At the end the layout only changed one corner. A lot of riders complain a lot but the layout remain the same as last year. Only one corner changed. It’s different. But when you take a good rhythm then it’s even fun."
Bradley Smith was even more adamant. "For me, it's the safest option we have right now," he said. "Of course it's an ongoing discussion about what we can do with this race track to make as it is, but given the circumstances of circuit, organizers and the Safety Commission, I think that we're in the safest option that we can do right now. At least it's slow speed, all riders can see it. It's not like we're coming round a blind corner and a bike's in the middle of the track. Everybody knows when they get there, you can see the bike in the middle, you have options to go left and you have options to go right, and you can go straight over the chicane, so if there's a bike in the middle of the track, you can cut the chicane and at least avoid it. And it's at a slow speed that riders can avoid that sort of thing."
The new chicane already caused confusion in the morning session of MotoGP. Jack Miller had to be black-flagged for missing the new chicane and using the old one for several consecutive laps. That left even the old hands in the paddock scratching their heads. We can all remember black flags in the past, but all of them have been in races, and nobody was able to recall having seen a black flag in a practice session. What did it actually mean, and what effect would it had? One of the senior IRTA staff in pit lane explained to me that it meant that Miller had been called into the pits for a stiff talking to, to explain what he should and shouldn't be doing. After a minute or so in his garage, Miller was sent back on his way again, this time sticking to the correct layout.
Miller's problem, he explained later, was that he had been one of the first riders to go out on slicks in the morning, while the track was still damp from overnight rain. That meant he was concentrating on warming up the tires, and worrying less about exactly where the track went. "As I was doing that, just caught up in the moment I guess, just starting pushing on the track I knew and it was the wrong one," he explained. It was only when he saw Marc Márquez and Cal Crutchlow take the correct line that he realized he had made a mistake.
Chicane or no, the track was certainly causing problems for a fair few riders, and offering hope and opportunities to others. The loss of the morning session to the weather made finding the right setup more complicated than usual, with the advantage lying with the riders who were here for testing after Le Mans. Grip levels once again proved to be decisive, with the Hondas and Ducatis working well, while the Yamahas were struggling for grip. Or the factory Yamahas, at least, the two Tech 3 Yamahas capable of posting at least one quick lap.
Leader loses out
Worst of the Yamahas was Maverick Viñales, the championship leader ending the day way down in 16th, and 1.3 seconds off the pace. He was a picture of quiet frustration. "This morning with the soft tire I was feeling quite good, not at maximum but I was quite good. The bike was working good. This afternoon with the medium was impossible. I could not ride that bike. If I do the race, I crash for sure. I do a 1m48s and I feel like I’m going to crash. The first exit was impressive, the bike, I put gas and in fifth, sixth it was spinning with new tires. I really don’t understand."
It was the medium tire which seemed to be causing all the problems for the Yamahas. "Today has been complicated and difficult with the medium tires," Johann Zarco agreed. "We were struggling and the bike was moving a lot but then we have some very positive points on some corners so we need to find the best comprise."
At the other end of the spectrum are the Hondas. Cal Crutchlow and Marc Márquez can only use the hard front tires, the other two choices being too soft to do them any good. At the test, Michelin had brought a medium front that worked even better for them, Márquez said, but that tire was not available this weekend. "In the test we had one compound that was working really good on the right side – that’s the medium tire that we have here. But the thing is on the left side it was harder. And what we have here it’s too soft for us. For that reason I go to the hard one. Maybe you have less feedback but it looks like the support is a little bit better. You can have some small chatter but you can have limited tires so we need to learn tomorrow to see which on is the best for us."
The Ducatis appear to have hit the sweet spot on the tire choice, with Jorge Lorenzo ending the day as second fastest and Andrea Dovizioso not far behind in fourth. Lorenzo was fast at the test, and has carried his speed through to the race weekend, and though he still believes he has a lot of work to do, he is at least quick out of the box. Cal Crutchlow is already tipping Andrea Dovizioso to take a back-to-back win here at Barcelona, the Italian certainly showing strong pace.
The question is, of course, who – or indeed, whether – the riders' pace will be affected by the new chicane. In theory, it should not make much difference, as the larger part of the layout remains unchanged. The chicane is just a few fleeting seconds flicking from right to left to right. But those few fleeting seconds could have serious consequences for the result. Anyone who saw last year's race will be able to confirm that.
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