Silverstone was its glorious best on Friday. The sun shone, fans wandered round in t-shirts and shorts, and bikes bellowed their way around a magnificent circuit. It was a good day for motorcycle racing. "First of all, riding the MotoGP at Silverstone with this incredible weather is great," Valentino Rossi summed up his day. "I enjoy it a lot, because this track is fantastic and this weather is a big surprise for everybody."
So good has the weather been that it has given the small contingent of British journalists in the MotoGP paddock a new hobby. A conversation overheard on Friday afternoon: "I've just been over to taunt some Italians about the sunny weather." "Ah yes, I was just doing the same to an Australian." Two weeks ago, we English speakers were getting stick about having to pack winter coats and rain gear for Silverstone. Revenge is all the sweeter when served up under blue skies and radiant sunshine.
The good weather complicated tire selection for the MotoGP teams. Many a rider was out trying the hard rear much earlier than expected, trying to judge how it would hold up over race distance. The warm weather has pushed the temperatures to the upper range of the Michelins' operating window. The tires are still working, but everyone is having to go a step harder than expected.
Hotter for the rubber
That is more of a problem for some than for others. "This afternoon we used the harder [front tire] and it was too soft because the track temperature went up;" Cal Crutchlow grumbled after FP2. "Last year it was twenty degrees and this year forty, so of course it is too soft. It’s all we’ve got, and we have to try and make them work as well as possible."
There was another risk with the sunny conditions. The tires still needed a lap or two to be brought up to temperature before they could be pushed to the limit. Those who ignored that did so at their peril. Marc Márquez was one of them, and found himself in low earth orbit in FP1. "It was my mistake. I saw it was sunny here in Silverstone and we were able to push from the first lap and it was not like this! My tire was still not at the correct temperature."
It was a crash Márquez walked away from, but it was big enough that he had to take a moment to collect himself after getting to his knees. "If that was anyone else he’d have two broken legs and a dislocated shoulder!" Cal Crutchlow said after FP2. "I have no idea how he gets away with them. His crash was massive. I was going into Turn 2 and I looked up and thought ‘what the **** is that?!’ and in the distance it was him flying through the air. It was big…but I’m glad he’s OK."
How does Márquez get away with it? Cat-like reflexes certainly help, but above all, it's lots of stretching. The reigning world champion devotes a significant part of his training schedule to stretching exercises. That means that when he falls, his body is more flexible than many other riders'. That is the difference between walking away with bruises and being out for the weekend with broken bones or torn ligaments.
It was precisely that thought which made Márquez so angry at himself. The crash had badly damaged his first bike, which meant the carefully drawn up plan for practice had to be abandoned. But he had also risked severe injury at a crucial point in the championship. "I was angry at myself and not only because of the plan, but we are fighting for the championship and we need to control the risk," Márquez said.
The Repsol Honda rider had a second crash, but this time it was relatively harmless. "The second crash I can understand because I was pushing and this was normal. For the first one I needed to take care of the cold tires; maybe I was too confident and didn't consider we were at Silverstone with the cold tire, and it was sunny but not hot like in other races."
This is what epitomizes the approach of Marc Márquez: pushing to the limit, and sometimes over it, but in a controlled way. But only rarely finding himself in big trouble and crashing so hard he risks serious injury. Is this a viable long-term strategy for racing? The more you crash – even small crashes – the bigger your chance of injury. And Márquez has already dislocated his left shoulder sufficiently often that there are concerned over stretched ligaments. Márquez is certainly pushing the envelope in pursuit of more wins and more titles. But he is also pushing his luck.
Best Brit? Best rider!
Still, Márquez ended the day in good shape, though the crashes could be a sign that the Honda is vulnerable over the bumps, as it was in Argentina and Barcelona. Yet Cal Crutchlow ended Friday on top of the timesheets, proof positive that the Honda is definitely quick at Silverstone. He took strength from his home Grand Prix, and from a strong weekend here last year. But the bumps were definitely a factor. "Turn 9, watch the Moto3 bikes there," Crutchlow said. "I could not even watch the screen. When you are on it you just have to deal with it."
The real winners of the first day were arguably the two Movistar Yamaha riders. Valentino Rossi was second quickest in FP2, while Maverick Viñales had been fastest in the morning FP1 session. Rossi was pleased because the bike had been quick as soon as they had rolled it out of the garage. "I have a good feeling with the bike from the first, like happen a lot of times during the season," Rossi said. "Sometimes I have a very good feeling with the bike and with the tires, some other times I suffer more."
With a good setup from the off, Rossi had been able to concentrate on tires, and analyzing which would be the best compound for the race. He had put three quarters race distance on both the medium and the hard, and not suffered a drop in performance, a hopeful sign for race day. Making it an even better result for Rossi was the fact that he had started his day feeling severely under the weather. He had been troubled by stomach problems, and had barely slept on Thursday night, waking up with a feeling he had to vomit. Fortunately for him, the feeling passed quickly, and he was close to full fitness in the afternoon.
The same could not be said of Jonas Folger. There appears to be some kind of stomach bug going round the paddock, and Folger clearly had it worse. When he turned up to his daily media debrief, he looked as pale as a ghost, and we were limited to asking just two questions in English, and two in German. But a single look at his wan complexion told you all you needed to know about his day.
Maverick Viñales is in a similar situation to his Movistar Yamaha teammate. They turned up, and the bike just worked, leaving them to focus on tires. "It’s only Friday so we have to be ready." Viñales said. "For sure it’s really good to start like this – feeling good on the bike, already with a good setup. You know, the pace was there. I was really comfortable on the bike. It’s nice to start like this and we’ll try tomorrow to improve."
Close at the front
The Ducatis feel like they could be a factor as well. Jorge Lorenzo was impressive, second fastest in the morning, then sixth just behind Marc Márquez in the afternoon. The Desmosedici GP17 was tougher on his forearms than he had expected, but it wasn't as tough on the rest of his body. The new fairing made riding a little bit more physical, but it was a price worth paying for the increased confidence Lorenzo had gained. "I'm riding well compared to the other Ducatis, I'm braking well," Lorenzo said. This could be the weekend he finally demonstrates the progress he has made. He feels he is close to the pace of the leaders so far. Whether he can maintain that is another question.
Aleix Espargaro was also impressive, the Aprilia RS-GP a clearly improved bike in the second half of the season. At the Misano test, Espargaro had tested a new engine with different internals, which had helped with power delivery, but more important had been an electronics upgrade. That may be helping here, but Espargaro has a bigger problem. While racing a kart, he damaged a ligament between his ribs, and that is causing him problems breathing when his heart rate gets very high. He has been unable to ride more than a few laps at a time, which does not bode well for Sunday.
His brother Pol put in yet another impressive performance on Friday, putting the KTM RC16 into seventh place a couple of tenths behind Jorge Lorenzo, and a fraction quicker than big names such as Johann Zarco, Andrea Dovizioso, and Andrea Iannone. The bike is clearly improving, and Pol Espargaro is riding exceptionally well. There is a contrast with Bradley Smith, who has a new crew chief, and has a completely new schedule during practice. No longer is Smith chasing times, but instead, he was forced to put full race distance on both the medium and hard tires. It is a methodical approach to rebuilding his confidence, and hopefully his competitiveness.
No solution for the insoluble
At the end of FP2, the riders all tried the new bike swap procedure, which involved setting up the two bikes at 45° to the pits, riders coming in on one bike then running forward to get onto their second bike, and only exiting once given the all clear by a mechanic holding a lollipop, F1-style. There were changes to the entry procedure as well, riders guided in by tape on the floor, rather than a mechanic waving them into the right spot.
There were a lot of comments, some positive, and some negative, though overall, the riders felt the change was a viable alternative. Not necessarily an improvement, however. "It's possible that we can use this, it has something good and something bad compared to the old one," Valentino Rossi said. "I think more or less we are there, I'm happy with both. But if this rule was made to fix the problem of the incident between Iannone and Espargaro, for me it won't fix anything, because it doesn't change anything, we don't see the other bike anyway."
Other riders had similar comments on the new system. "It's hard to say, in practice it's one thing, no one is in a hurry, no one is winning a race, so everything ran smoothly," Scott Redding commented. "But I think in race conditions when there is more pressure, it could get a bit messy. There's not really much room for a mistake, and there are split-second decisions to be made in such a short period of time. "
Dani Pedrosa praised the new system, but also highlighted a problem with using stickers and tape on the pit lane surface to mark the point where each rider has to turn in. "For me, what is not good is the little stickers on the floor, because it is very difficult to see which one is yours and difficult to remember if you go after or before," the Repsol Honda rider said. "You have to be looking at the floor when you should be looking at your mechanic. You need to look down and then quickly up and find your mechanic." The fact that his tape and stickers would be the same color as his teammate's was another possible source of confusion.
What this illustrates is exactly how difficult it is to come up with a system which is a clear improvement on the current situation. Each modification has a downside: lower the pit lane speed and engines may be quicker to bog down, or riders may try to hustle through pit lane quicker, or they may be tempted to stay out in treacherous conditions out of fear of losing too much time with a bike swap. Try to guide riders to their bikes with tape on the ground and they end up looking at the floor instead of other riders. Change the bike swap position to the system tested on Friday, and a rider losing the front coming into the pits could end up wiping out and seeing his bike slide into their mechanics, and possibly also the garage complete with guests.
For each new proposal, there is a compelling counter-argument that it is not a material improvement. The riders will have discussed this in the Safety Meeting which took place on Friday evening, but they are as unlikely to reach a conclusion as they did in Austria. This promises to be an extremely durable thorn in Dorna's side.
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