The rain in Japan is separating the sheep from the goats. There are bikes that work well in the rain, and they are up at the front, and there are bikes which don't, and they are struggling. Including, well, the GOAT, to extend a metaphor.
The 2017 Yamaha M1 simply does not work well in the wet. "Sincerely we tried to do a lot of things with the bike but we are in trouble," Valentino Rossi said after finishing the day in twelfth, over a second and a half slower than the fastest man Andrea Dovizioso. "We don't understand why. Because last year I was very competitive in the wet. I had a good feeling with the old bike. But this year we are struggling. Something strange."
The problem is mainly wheelspin and rear traction. "We’ve been struggling all the time with rear grip," Maverick Viñales said, agreeing with his Movistar Yamaha teammate. "We change a lot the bike during all the practices but finally the same problem remains. It’s been very difficult for us during all of this year trying to be fast and competitive."
Can't get no rear traction
Both Viñales and Rossi had run through several options to try to improve rear traction in the wet. Where most of the front runners did two runs in both the morning and afternoon sessions, maximizing track time over changes to setup at a track where a wet lap is close to two minutes, the two Yamaha men both did three runs in the afternoon, and only Viñales did two runs in the morning. That is just a hint of the problems they are facing. "I think we are quite worried because today we do a lot of modify but at the end, no way," Rossi said, exasperated. "So we don’t have a lot to do more than this, I mean in this weekend, so we need to understand for next year."
That Rossi should be effectively writing off this year is less surprising, the Italian's shot at the title is very slim. But Viñales is nominally still very much in the running for the title, 28 points behind Marc Márquez. But even Viñales believes the title is slipping away from him. "Márquez and Dovizioso are in the top positions, while I am struggling, and if it stays like that on Sunday, I will be much further from the title. I don't know what to do to improve, we've tried everything," he told Italian media.
"I'm trying everything on the riding style," Viñales said. "With other styles the problem is the same; it’s the rear grip. We are trying mechanically and with the electronics. We’re going to try for sure because, as I said, we don’t want to give up, but it’s very difficult to improve from one day to another day."
Old vs new
If the 2017 bike is no good in the wet, the 2016 bike is pretty good. Johann Zarco ended the day in fifth spot, behind Dovizioso, Márquez, Aleix Espargaro, and Jorge Lorenzo, while his temporary Tech 3 teammate Kohta Nozane was an excellent thirteenth, just 0.018 slower than Rossi.
Rossi admitted he had tried the 2016 chassis at the start of the year, but going back to it was not an option. "I tried it at the beginning of the season, but is very difficult to make exactly like last year, because the engine is different, the seat is different. So at the end maybe no, I never try!" he joked.
Zarco's pace was because he is strong in the rain, according to Rossi. "For me Zarco is a good rider in the wet and he is one second faster than me and Viñales," the Italian agreed, before pointing to the difference between Nozane, replacing the ill Jonas Folger on the Tech 3 2016 Yamaha, and Kats Nakasuga, entered as a wildcard on the 2017-spec factory Yamaha. "For me, it is interesting to see the two Japanese test riders. Nakasuga is with our  bike and Nozane is with the old bike. Usually Nakasuga is faster than Nozane and have more experience. But today he is two seconds slower! So is a big step."
That was not to play down the performance of Nozane. The Japanese youngster had left everyone impressed at how quickly he was up to speed on the bike. "He's very good. Very fast," Rossi said. "At the beginning I follow him and he was fast. He has some experience with the M1, but I think that he hasn’t ridden the M1 from March and I think he is very young. I think he can be a very good Japanese rider for MotoGP."
The biggest frustration for the Movistar Yamaha riders was the difference between the wet and the dry. Even though they still had problems with tire wear in the dry at Aragon, there was no comparison with the wet. The new chassis brought to Silverstone had been a help, but problems remained. "On the dry, when we race with this chassis like in Silverstone and Aragon not so bad, unfortunately not in Misano for me, we have some problem but we were quite competitive," Rossi explained. "But in the wet, no way. Very difficult. If you look at the data with the old bike it is a big frustration. Because ****, in the corners, no way. So we need to try to understand. Especially for next year."
One down, two to go
With Viñales talking himself out of contention, that leaves the field clear for Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Márquez. The Italian ended the day on top of the timesheets, though his advantage over Márquez was minimal. Dovizioso was almost surprised. "It was really good, also because we didn’t expect so much to be competitive in the wet because the last two tracks that we rode in the wet, I didn’t feel so good," he said. He was especially happy to have been so fast in the beginning of FP2, when there was much more water on the track.
The main issue for Dovizioso was tire consumption, as it was for everyone else. "Now we have to work on the details in the wet, because the consumption of the rear tire is quite high for everybody," the Ducati rider said. "24 laps is very long. The speed is there, so we have a chance to work in a different area to try to save the tire.”
Dovizioso was encouraged by the fact that he was quicker than Márquez, and that the Repsol Honda rider had been pushing so hard that he had crashed. "I think Marc started on a used tire in the afternoon, and that's why he wasn't able to be among the first riders at the start. The fact that he made a mistake confirms that we are all at the limit."
Marc Márquez explained that the crash had been caused by the combination of a new tire and a traction control setting that was not completely dialed in. "Honestly, I went out and the feeling was good, but then I put in new tires for the last run to make a long run but there I lost some feeling, and I start to struggle a bit more with the rear grip," he said. "Even like this the lap time was coming well. Suddenly there, it was a strange crash because I was with the gas. Normally there with the gas you always have the traction control that keeps you in a safe way. That time it was so quick. Like, ‘Waaaaaah!’ It’s something that we need to work on for tomorrow – not only on that point. There are a few to be more safe. It’s better that it happens now, before the race, to try and have everything under control."
If Dovizioso has anything to worry about, it's the fact that Márquez was so comfortable in the wet. Especially with a lot of water on the track: "This morning there was a lot of water. I felt really good with the bike. This afternoon with less water it looks maybe better but sometimes it’s worse with less water. I need to understand it well and adjust the set-up with less water." With the weather looking like it might just improve slightly for Sunday, leaving the track either dry or just damp, that could be a problem for the Repsol Honda rider.
Márquez was clear on who he thought was the fastest rider in the wet. "If we have to ride tomorrow in the wet, Lorenzo will win," Márquez told Italian media. "He has the least to lose at the moment." Jorge Lorenzo was certainly quick, ending the day in fourth, and both comfortable and confident. "FP2 was really good, especially the last exit. I had a really strong pace and we are very optimistic to fight for the first row or pole position tomorrow," the factory Ducati man said.
Being fast in the wet had been a pleasant surprise, as riding in the rain was a little like Mrs Gump's proverbial box of chocolates. "In the rain you never know which feeling you can have," Lorenzo said. "The feeling changes so much between different tarmac or different tracks. But today we demonstrated the bike is still very competitive in the rain. We were first and fourth. With very good pace. So we can fight for something important. For sure it's going to be a long race in difficult conditions. Because it's raining quite heavily, so to stay on the bike will not be easy, but we are fast and we are competitive. This is the important thing."
The blame game
Lorenzo's day had not had a particularly smooth start. Towards the end of FP1, he was wiped out by Cal Crutchlow's Honda RC213V at Turn 9. There was some disagreement about exactly who was to blame. According to Crutchlow, he had been caught out by Lorenzo being too slow on the racing line. "I'm sorry for him because in the end I hit him and it looks like I'm completely the villain," Crutchlow said. "But he was going really slow on the racing line and it looks like I was going really fast. But if you look at the rider in front of him - Nozane - where he brakes and where I braked, he braked later than me. But because I had to brake harder because I was going to hit Jorge, because he was going slow, I locked the front on the water."
Lorenzo admitted to being slow, but pointed out that he was the rider in front, and Crutchlow could see him. "Yeah I was slow, but he could see me in front and he could understand what was the best line not to make any stupid thing in first free practice," the Ducati man said. "For me he risked so much, he braked so aggressively and lost control of the bike."
Standing in the gravel trap, Crutchlow made no secret of the fact that he thought Lorenzo was to blame. Later, though, he went to Lorenzo's garage to apologize. It was an apology made more from a sense of politeness than any real contrition, or belief that he was to blame, however. "He knew I was coming and he was six seconds slower than his previous lap," the LCR Honda rider said. "But obviously I crashed into him, so it doesn't look good for me! We're not going to agree, but the main thing is we are both okay. I have seen him and his team, to make sure he is okay, because I didn't want to take him out, that's for sure."
In terms of blame, Crutchlow felt he did not deserve to take the bulk of it. "I think it was 50-50, actually 60-40 in my favor! We can - not laugh about it now - but we can smile about it I suppose, because we are both okay."
In among the front runners was also Aleix Espargaro. The Aprilia rider was second in the morning, third in the afternoon, benefiting both from the conditions and perhaps from the updates Aprilia have brought to Motegi. The intake system has been reconfigured to help with torque, according to Aprilia boss Romano Albesiano. The exact details are, as always, a secret, but that most likely means changes to airbox and inlet trumpets. It helped propel him to the pointy end of the grid in the wet at Motegi.
"In the rain, and when the track has a lot of grip, we can be competitive," Espargaro said. The same was true in the dry. Like the Yamaha, the Aprilia did well when the asphalt had a lot of grip. At Motegi, Espargaro had felt good on the bike and that had allowed him to push. For Espargaro, this is a sign that the bike is becoming competitive. The aim for 2018 would be to fight for fifth place in the championship, if Aprilia can maintain its rate of progress, Espargaro said.
Low weight, no heat, no speed
While Espargaro reveled in the circumstances, Dani Pedrosa suffered familiar woes. The cold temperatures and a wet track made it impossible for the featherweight Repsol Honda rider to get enough temperature into the tires. Not enough temperature means not enough grip, and not enough grip means Pedrosa can't go fast, and not going fast means he can't get enough temperature into the tires. It is an all too familiar vicious circle. In the afternoon, when the track had less water on it, Pedrosa was quicker, though eighth at what is one of his strongest tracks is still disappointing. But the morning had been a disaster, with Pedrosa finishing in twentieth place.
One of the problems Pedrosa faces – and he is not alone in this – is the fact that Michelin designated the extra soft rear tire as the B spec, meaning that they are only allowed two of them, whereas they are allowed up to four of the A spec, or soft rear tires. With the prospect of rain on Saturday – and possibly Sunday – most riders were keeping back their extra soft rear wets to use in qualifying. Andrea Dovizioso, for one, was left frustrated. "With only two tires, you can't do anything. We still have to decide if we are going to use it just for qualifying or also for the race, but we can't take any conclusions without trying it. Only Johann Zarco used the tire, though as he often uses a softer rear tire, we are left to wonder if he is even considering racing it.
The rain helped mix up the order even further. Pramac Ducati's Danilo Petrucci is a fixture when it's wet, and the Italian is convinced that he can be battling at the front if it stays wet. "The rain helped me," he said. The bike still needed some setup work to get it perfect, and he was still recovering from the aftereffects of food poisoning, but he was confident of playing a part on Sunday. That could make the championship fight rather interesting.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the top ten were the names of both Suzuki riders. Andrea Iannone, who has struggled for much of the season, was very happy indeed to be seventh fastest. "Probably one of our best Fridays," he described it, and was especially happy given that he had spent a lot of time on used tires and been able to maintain a strong race rhythm. The bike worked well in the wet, its agility helping it, though it still suffers in acceleration.
Alex Rins was also provisionally into Q2, six tenths behind his teammate but ahead of the two factory Yamaha riders. Rins had been the first to test a new fairing Suzuki had brought, which Iannone also tested a little later. Following the inspiration of Ducati – and now also Aprilia – the fairing features large protrusions on the side of the fairing which act very much like winglets. The protrusions are lower than the Ducati (see the photo below, courtesy of Suzuki), but function in much the same way. They help keep the front end of the bike down, and the front wheel maintain contact with the tarmac.
Whether Friday's times are representative will depend on what the weather does. The forecast remains fickle, above all, changing every time you look at it, though cold and cloud cover remain a constant factor. Just how much rain falls, and when, could end up having a massive effect on the championship. But we won't know that until Sunday.
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