When you lose the first day of a MotoGP weekend to rain, the remainder of practice becomes incredibly hectic. FP3, especially, becomes insane. Teams and riders are trying to force 90 minutes of practice into half an hour, and then throw soft tires at the last 15 minutes in an attempt to avoid Q1.
Unfortunately, the constraints of temporal physics make it impossible to put the best part of race distance on the different compounds of tires, try different bike balance and electronics settings to measure their effectiveness, try to follow a rival or two to figure out where you are stronger and weaker than they are, and finally throw a couple of soft tires at a quick lap, all in just a single session of free practice. Sure, there's another 30 minutes of FP4 to try to figure things out, but usually, that is where you are trying to nail down the fine details, not evaluate radically different bike setups.
So on Saturday evening, when riders are asked what their strategy is and which tire they will be racing, there is a lot of shrugging of shoulders. Andrea Dovizioso was a case in point at Aragon. "Still we don’t know," he said. "Still there is a lot of work to do about setup and also the decision of the tires, because we didn’t really have time to work on them. The temperature was so cold in FP3, and in the afternoon the temperature change a lot. In the morning you can’t work on the tires. We have only 30 minutes in the afternoon to try and understand something. I think for everybody, the decision is not clear. Still we have to study a lot of data and take a decision about the tires and the set-up. Maybe all three are an option but I don’t know."
Bonus practice time
The key is to start from a strong base, and figure things out quickly. If you can't, then you are stuck. Though even then, a poor FP3 can prove to be serendipitous. Jorge Lorenzo, for example, was slow on Saturday morning, down in 11th and over a second off the pace. He made a big step forward during FP4, but his slow pace in the morning meant he was forced to go through Q1, and attempt to make his way through to Q2 via that second chance option. "It was good to be in Q1, because it gave me 20 more minutes to push and to understand more things," the factory Ducati rider said. By the time he got to Q2, he was ready to go chasing 1'47s.
Since he first got the wings on the front of his Ducati GP17, Lorenzo has seemed on the verge of a breakthrough. He is still having to adapt to the radically different riding style the Desmosedici requires, but his times show that it is something he is capable of. More time on the bike means more progress. "We were very far away this morning, a little bit because yesterday we couldn’t practice on the dry," Lorenzo told the press conference, "so I need still some more practice with this bike to understand all the ways I have to ride this bike to get the maximum. That’s why I struggled so much this morning. But little by little and also with some modifications each practice we’ve been better and better."
Lorenzo ended on the front row, but more impressive was his pace in FP4. The downforce from the aerodynamics package has given him the confidence he needs from the front end, and that has given him speed. In terms of race pace, Lorenzo is better than his factory Ducati teammate Andrea Dovizioso, and just a little behind Repsol Honda man Dani Pedrosa, who was relentlessly quick in FP4.
When first we practice to deceive
The only rider capable of going faster than Lorenzo was Maverick Viñales, who ended precisely a tenth of a second faster than Lorenzo, taking his fifth pole position of the season. Anyone predicting a Viñales pole in the first ten minutes of FP4 would have been laughed out of the room. The Movistar Yamaha rider was languishing near the bottom of the timesheets, a couple of seconds off the pace.
That was not his real pace, it turned out. That was Viñales putting in laps on some very used tires indeed, to assess how the medium would hold up at the end of the race. When he put a new soft tire in, his pace dropped a couple of seconds, and he ended FP4 as quickest. He carried that speed into Q2, eventually toppling his teammate to grab pole. Viñales trails Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso by 16 points in the championship. Viñales has put himself in a very good position to grab back some points from his rivals.
If the mixed conditions benefited anyone, then ironically, it was the injured Valentino Rossi. The rain on Friday meant that Rossi could ease himself back into riding a MotoGP bike, not pushing too hard right from the start and causing his pinned right leg to start to swell up. Rossi figured out the right riding position on Friday – his normal one, not the modified position with a raised seat and lower footpeg to try to create more space for his crocked leg – leaving him one less thing to worry about on Saturday.
Free from worry, Rossi worked a minor miracle on Saturday, taking provisional pole at one point before slipping down the order to finish third. But nobody would have predicted that he would have even made Q2 before Friday, let alone that he would be starting from the front row. To break a leg, with displaced fractures in both tibia and fibula, then put a MotoGP bike onto the front row of the grid 22 days after having surgery, is nothing short of an astonishing achievement.
There is reason to put Rossi's amazing front row performance into perspective, perhaps. MotoGP fans and media are obviously comparing this accident to his previous broken leg, back in 2010. Yet they were two very different injuries, the break in 2010 being far more severe. "Last time I was able to go the toilet alone after five days. This time already after one," Rossi joked. "A lot less pain also after the surgery. In 2010, I stay in hospital one week. This time two days." His leg had had much less swelling, and caused much less pain than in 2010. Clearly, this was a far less severe injury.
The experience from 2010 also helped Rossi cope with the situation. He had started rehabilitation immediately, working to help heal his leg as quickly as possible. "I learned that in this occasion if you are able and you don’t have a lot of pain, you have to attack a lot the injury." Rossi told the press conference. "The first step was make the surgery after some hours just in the first night because the doctor come from Bologna to Ancona."
Getting better faster
The next step was to start intensive rehabilitation as quickly as possible. "In the next day already I started to put the foot on the ground. After from that moment I work very hard. Minimum two times a day every time physiotherapy and especially a lot of work… Put the feet on the ground, very active. Start to move the knee, start to move the ankle. I think also for that reason, and also because I was lucky because the leg don’t suffer a lot the surgery. The surgery was made in a perfect way, so was not big. Have a lot of blood, but after the work don’t increase, don’t make too much pain."
This becomes a virtuous circle, speeding up recovery the more Rossi trains. Keeping active increases blood flow, including to the injured areas, and the more blood that flows through the injuries, the faster it heals. The right diet – rich in minerals and protein – helps speed recovery. And of course, the financial wherewithal to be able to afford the very best care and physiotherapy also makes a difference.
Above all, perhaps, Rossi's recovery time was shortened by the process between his ears. Rossi's first thoughts after breaking his leg must have gone back to Mugello and 2010, and memories of how long and painful that recovery period is. But within a day, he could put weight on the leg, where seven years ago, it had taken several days. An Enduro crash at a couple of km/h means there was a lot less soft tissue damage and bruising than in 2010, when he fell off at Mugello at over 220 km/h. Only his leg needed to heal, not the severe bangs, scrapes, and bruises a tumble through a gravel trap inevitably entails.
Everything is a contest
Understanding that he was starting in better shape meant that Rossi turned his injury into a kind of challenge. Each benchmark from 2010 presented a challenge, his objective being to recover much faster than before. "It's like a lap time," Rossi explained. "If you are ahead in the T1 you try to push more also in the T2 and try to make shorter time."
This is how professional athletes motivate themselves, presenting themselves with fresh challenges every day. Being told that they will need a given number of days to recover makes them determined to do it in far fewer days. Saying they will need x amount of physio causes them to try to do twice or three times as much, in the hope of recovering faster.
Rossi has come to Aragon in surprisingly good shape (good enough, that in the more insane corners of Italian social media, the tinfoil brigade are postulating that he never broke his leg in the first place). He was able to ride pretty much as normal, both the riders who followed him and the photographers – who have a keen eye for detail – could attest. He can't quite put his right leg in the correct position to brake as normal in left handers, but that is a small detail.
Of course, qualifying is one thing, but 23 laps of Motorland Aragon is a very different beast. This track is tough enough even for fully fit riders, but race distance with a pinned tibia will be a massive challenge. "I expected him to be fast but not like this," Andrea Dovizioso said when asked about him. "He’s in a good moment. But we have to see the race because I think especially in Aragon the race is completely different to the practice. When you put the soft tire with low fuel and you push 100 percent the riding style is completely different, or is a bit different compared to the race – more here compared to some other tracks. His pace isn’t bad in FP4, but a lot of riders did a good lap. To make a good lap and make a good race is a different story."
While Valentino Rossi was garnering attention for his heroic front row, Marc Márquez' absence from the front row was perhaps more significant. Márquez has started from pole at Aragon since he first came into the MotoGP class. Yet a crash in the last couple of minutes of Q2 put paid to any hope he may have had of extending his run.
There are signs that Márquez is not quite there with the Repsol Honda RC213V yet. He hinted at this when explaining his crash. "I'm not happy today, because it was my mistake. I tried to be faster than what I feel. Just pushing to what I feel would be enough to be battling with the pole, but I pushed too much. On that braking point, I was a little bit wide, and I tried to turn in anyway."
The good news, Márquez said, was that he was fast despite not feeling great on the bike in the morning. "The most important thing is that this morning I was fast, but I didn't feel good with the bike. This afternoon I felt much better. Honestly, it's really difficult to understand how race pace is, which is the best tire. Because today we tried setups, tires. We were a little bit unlucky that from FP3 that yes, I was fast, but I didn't have the feeling with the bike, the setup wasn't working like we expected. So then we made a few big changes for the afternoon. It was easier to keep the pace."
Into the unknown
That has left Márquez perplexed, though his experience here in previous years gives him some hope. "The race will be very long, and again, it's really difficult to understand what the pace will be. But I start from fifth, I think it's important to understand the track, understand the limits. Last year I started from pole, but after three or four laps, I was sixth because I made a mistake. So the plan of the race doesn't change a lot, but now it's so difficult to think about how the race will be, because still we don't know the pace of each rider."
This was a point echoed by Andrea Dovizioso: the Ducati rider had not been able to sit behind some of the other quick guys, and see where they were stronger or weaker. You may feel fast, and the lap time might be good, but things are very different in the race. Being quicker in theory than the rider in front of you doesn't help if you can't pass them in the corners.
So Aragon will be a race into the unknown. Tires will start to drop off quite quickly, and from there, it is who can manage their tires best all the way to the end. The timesheets suggest that Pedrosa, Lorenzo, Dovizioso have obviously strong and consistent pace. There is reason to suspect that both Viñales and Márquez will also be quick. Valentino Rossi's miraculous recovery makes him a hard man to judge, but you would expect that 23 laps would be too far for him to figure in the podium. But it is easy to make firm proclamations on Saturday, when reality has a tendency to shatter such statements come race day.
KTM, Kallio, Confidence
The topsy-turvy conditions saw a pleasing shake up of the grid. Several times throughout FP3 and FP4, there were Aprilias and KTMs featuring at the front. Aleix Espargaro is a known quantity, quick enough to surprise, though his problem has been more bike reliability than anything else. But Pol Espargaro is looking more and more like a top 10 finisher on the KTM, and Mika Kallio's wildcard is almost as stellar as his performance in Austria at the moment.
Kallio's performance is in stark contrast with permanent rider Bradley Smith. Smith has struggled through 2017, his mind stuck firmly in development mode rather than trying to concentrate on the races. That needs to change soon, yet his job looks to be safe. Senior KTM staff were talking about Smith in terms that indicated he would be riding for the factory team in 2018, rather than being replaced by Mika Kallio as had been mooted by some of the same senior staff after Austria.
Kallio has certainly outperformed Smith so far this weekend, as has Pol Espargaro, but the comparison is a little more complex than that. As is the case with Aprilia, where Sam Lowes is on a different spec machine to Aleix Espargaro, and stuck with the older, ineffective aerodynamic fairing, Smith has not had the upgrades which both Kallio and Pol Espargaro have had. This weekend, Kallio and Pol both have a new chassis, which is meant to make the bike easier to turn. This, in turn, eases the stress on the rear tire, as the riders can pick the bike up earlier and get it on to the fat part of the tire. That means the tires last longer, the edge being consumed at a lower rate. More tire at the end of the race means much better lap times, and a much better look.
So the good news is that KTM are making amazing strides forward in their development. The bad news is that such rapid strides are not being shared equally among the team. Bradley Smith needs to grit his teeth and bear down. No one can hear a rider's complaints from the back of the grid. Smith is capable of better. But being capable isn't enough: he also has to deliver.
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