They say that you can experience four season in one day at Phillip Island, but on the first day of practice for the 2017 MotoGP round, the weather gods restricted themselves to just the two. The sun burned down as if it were summer, while the icy wind blew in off the Bass Straight bringing the chill of winter. I suppose if you average summer and winter, you get the Antipodean spring, which is the current season at Phillip Island chronologically, if not necessarily meteorologically.
That wind was a major problem. It buffeted the riders and bikes and stripped any semblance of stability. It also rendered the aerodynamic fairings largely useless, or for some riders, made the bikes more unstable than with the standard fairing. "The wind makes our life very, very difficult," Aleix Espargaro said, echoing a common sentiment from Friday.
It had not stopped Espargaro from being fastest on Friday, however. It was a remarkable achievement for the Aprilia RS-GP, the first time an Aprilia had been fastest in a session since the start of the four-stroke era. The last time an Aprilia was that quick was in 2000, when Jeremy McWilliams put the Aprilia 500cc V twin on pole at Phillip Island. Proof, if it were needed, that the key to speed at the Australian track is corner speed, rather than outright horsepower.
A sense of perspective
Espargaro was naturally elated, but also all too aware of the context. His fast lap was a one-off, rather than a sustained string at race pace. "First of all it’s just Friday," he said, putting something of a damper on expectations. "We don’t have to go crazy but obviously it’s fantastic to be on top. The Aprilia guys are more happy than myself but obviously it’s fantastic to see the faces in the garage. Last season they were super happy when they went to Q2, and this year we lead a session in MotoGP so it makes me very, very proud. I think everybody in Noale will be extremely proud of the job we’re doing when they get up and they are doing."
This was also a track Espargaro had marked on his calendar, as a place where he expected to perform. "For the feeling I have with the frame of the Aprilia I had put a mark on this track," he said. He had not been quick in the morning, the feeling not coming while temperatures were a little higher than in the afternoon. "The conditions are difficult and the track is very, very cold," he said.
Aleix Espargaro may be sitting on top of the timesheets, but it is Marc Márquez who has the pace at Phillip Island. The Repsol Honda rider was fast right out of the box: on his first run in FP1 – a long run of 10 full laps – he posted 6 laps in the 1'29s. In his final run of FP1, he added another 3, to total 9 1'29s. That is as many as the six other riders who managed to crack into the 1'29s combined.
On a roll
Márquez was fast in the afternoon, too. Though he ended up in second, he was just five thousands of a second slower than Aleix Espargaro, and with much better pace. Márquez had 8 laps in the 1'29s, more than any other rider. That was enough to raise alarm bells for Andrea Dovizioso. "I see him riding well and working for the race, he didn't try to make a fast lap," Dovizioso observed to the Italian media. "That's how I see it, but I hope I'm wrong!" he joked
Márquez acknowledged they had started the day off on the right foot. "From FP1 we started in a good way," Márquez said, "we started with a good base setup and I was feeling really good on the bike. In the afternoon we lose our way a little bit and then we came back to what we had in FP1. Tomorrow I believe we can improve a lot, especially on the stability of the bike on the fast corners because at the moment it is quite unstable. We will try to keep the same level because we have a good pace."
Getting a strong start was key for Márquez. "Like I said yesterday, it is important also to start in a good way and then the weekend becomes easier and easier. But the problem also is that Dovi start also in a good way, in FP1 he was already very fast, but what makes me strong is that normally in a circuit with left corners I am fast."
There is a fascinating mental battle mounting between Márquez and Dovizioso, that much was clear from their comments. Andrea Dovizioso was happy to be quick, finishing Friday as third fastest. He still regarded Márquez as the favorite to win at Phillip Island - "At the moment, yes, but it would be strange if it wasn’t like this, so I’m not surprised!" he joked – but he was pleased at being faster than expected.
"I expected to be competitive," Dovizioso told the press. "But we did a little bit more, so I’m really happy about that. Immediately from the first exit I felt quite good. I’m happy with the feeling of the bike, but it’s not enough. Marc confirmed what we expected. He’s very competitive here."
Both Dovizioso and Márquez are circling each other like boxers in the opening round of a fight, probing, testing, trying to impose themselves to gain an advantage with the memory of Motegi fresh in their minds. "I think now we are very competitive," the Italian said. "We are ready to fight. Marc now knows more than before. Like he’s trying to do to me, I’m trying to do to him, to put the pressure because this is racing. I think we have a chance to fight. It will be very difficult because Marc is really fast, really good and it’s difficult to beat a rider when he’s fast like this. But before Japan it was like this, and we did it then."
Dovizioso had set his best time on a used tire in the afternoon, using the soft rear tire. Márquez had also switched to the soft rear in the afternoon, to better handle the cooler air temperatures after running the medium in the morning. Dovizioso still believed the soft rear could be a race option, though he feared the performance drop maybe too large after a few laps. Saturday, though, he would be focusing on the medium rear, to try to improve the feedback from it and give himself another option. If it stays dry, of course.
For Márquez, the soft rear was still open to question, as he had not put enough laps on it to make a judgment. His focus, though, was on the medium, which is what he was fast in the morning on. The fact that the Ducatis were considering the soft made life more complicated, Márquez said, as he believed the Ducatis would race that tire.
Perhaps a more interesting question – and a sign of how very different the Honda and Ducati are – is the choice of front tires. Both Dovizioso and Márquez spent time on the medium front and the soft front, but Márquez also tested out the hard tire. The Honda RC213V fares better with more support at the front from the harder rubber, but it is a real risk at Phillip Island. The right side of the tire can cool down too much and dump you on the track under braking, as Márquez found out as he crashed out of the lead last year. Dovizioso, meanwhile, focused on the medium, taking care to warm it up properly before throwing the bike into a corner.
Don't push your luck
Maverick Viñales found out the hard way that caution was required, suffering a massive and fast crash at the Hayshed when he pushed too hard on his first lap out of the pits. "I pushed too early because I saw Jorge and Rins and I wanted to follow them to try and get a good lap," the Movistar Yamaha rider explained afterwards. "I think it was that; I pushed too early. It means we need one lap to warm up good and then push."
Viñales' eagerness may perhaps be explained by his speed. The Spaniard ended the day as fifth fastest, behind Cal Crutchlow, but his pace was second only to Marc Márquez, matching Márquez' 8 laps in the 1'29s, despite a crash.
There are apparently mutterings that Viñales has gone back to the bike he used to dominate the preseason test here, but the Spaniard dismissed them out of hand. "I didn't change the frame," he replied when asked if he was using a different chassis. It wouldn't have made much sense to use the chassis from the test anyway, Viñales protested. "The tires are very different from the test, especially the front. There are totally different feelings. So we tried to manage the best we can with the setup we have."
Of course, there is more to a bike than just a frame, and perhaps Viñales has asked for the swingarm and electronics he used at the test to help give him the right feeling. He may have been fast, but he was still suffering with a familiar problem. "We have to improve sector four. We know it’s our weak point. We have to improve the traction area but we can work and we can solve that problem through the weekend." Yet Viñales is much more upbeat than he has been all weekend, and so he will likely be a factor come Sunday.
There were two more Hondas in the top six, a sign that the bike is working well there. Cal Crutchlow had a strong day on Friday, ending up fourth ahead of Viñales and behind Dovizioso. Yet Crutchlow was far from happy, having made the mistake of starting the day on the medium rear. "I just never had a great feeling with the bike," the LCR Honda rider said. "I didn't have a great feeling like in the test at the start of the year. The bike hasn't changed so much, but I felt quite a big difference in the rear tire compared to last year, and I wasn't really getting anywhere until I put the soft tire in at the end of the day. And then I realized why everyone else was going so fast and I wasn't."
The tires had changed from last year, and that had been what had confused Crutchlow. "I just don't have a good feeling, you need a good feeling with the rear around this place to be competitive, even if your rivals are not really too concerned with the rear of the bike. I think with the Honda, we need to have either good grip or a good feeling."
Even more impressive was Jack Miller, back on a MotoGP bike just 20 days after breaking his right leg. The Australian was quick morning and afternoon, and that had left him optimistic about his prospects on race day. "Any day you get out there and you're top 3 in the morning, top 6 in the arvo is a good day," Miller told journalists. "We've got really good consistent pace, and I feel I've got the speed. It gives me more and more hope for Sunday."
His leg was giving him less trouble than he feared, helped in no small measure by the fact that Phillip Island is full of left handers, which don't strain his right leg too much. "I don't think it's affecting the lap times at all," Miller said. "I only really notice out of Turn 4 and into Turn 6, and from Turn 6 through 7 into 8. It's just picking my bum up off the seat and moving it across, that sort of like and up-and-twist motion isn't the easiest, but I'm hoping that because the muscles in the back of my leg haven't been used for quite a while, I'm hoping that today was a little bit stiff and a little bit sore, but by tomorrow they should be a little bit better. "
His biggest problem was not so much on the bike as when he got off it. "To be honest, when I'm on the bike, it doesn't really hurt," he said. "It's more when I get off the bike and straighten the leg back out is when it starts to give me some grief." With rain expected on Sunday, how would that affect him in a flag-to-flag race? "It's more about tactics, you can win 0.2, 0.3 or whatever in the changeover, but I don't think it'll make that much difference by the time it comes round to the end of the race."
Miller's biggest problem was illustrative of greater issues in the new bike swap rules, which say that the bikes must be pointed at 45° to the garage, both coming in and going out, and that they are not allowed to leave the pits on their second bike until they are released by a mechanic with an F1-style lollipop. When Miller came in to practice a bike swap, he found his second bike wasn't even ready. "I came in and the bike was still on the starter and it was in fourth gear," the Marc VDS rider said. "I feel on my end I did a good job, but the bike wasn't quite ready."
Bike swaps – still too many shenanigans
The mix up by the Marc VDS team was relatively trivial compared to the blunder committed by Marc Márquez' Repsol Honda squad. Márquez came into pit lane, did a perfect stop, and leaped from one bike to the other. The trouble was, the mechanic holding the lollipop immediately released Márquez into pit lane, instead of waiting for traffic to clear, as is the intent of the new rules.
As it happened, that caused more of a problem for Márquez than for anyone else. "It just seemed that Marc went to pull out and he nearly dropped the bike, but it's because he had to stop because he was let out maybe at the wrong time," Cal Crutchlow said, as the rider into whose path Márquez had been released. Though he had indulged in some firm gesticulation, Crutchlow saw it as funny, rather than anything else. "I was laughing more than anything, not complaining," he said.
Yet the Repsol Honda team's mistake is symptomatic of larger problems in the new system. I have watched at previous races as riders have practiced bike swaps, most press rooms overlooking pit lane and affording a bird's eye view of the swaps. There has been a litany of mistakes: riders released by mechanics without looking, mechanics stood facing the wrong direction, so they can't see back down pit lane and the traffic coming.
Of course, that is why teams practice, to iron out the problems they find before the race. The real test of the new system will come during a race, when everyone will have to get it right. Given the weather forecast, that could come as soon as Sunday. In the narrowest pit lane of the season, there is precious little room for error.
Bike swaps aren't the only safety concern at Phillip Island. Cal Crutchlow, a faithful attendee at MotoGP's Safety Commission, was annoyed at finding that the organizers had not made good on their promise to move the race start time from 4pm to 3pm on Sunday. "Last year, 19 of us sat in the Safety Commission, and the other four or five that weren't there, we agreed that we were going to race at 3pm this year, because it's safer, the track doesn't cool off that much," Crutchlow said. "And then we arrive here and it says 4pm race start, so I don't really understand what went on there."
The problem with starting at 4pm is that temperatures can drop quickly. In 2014, for example, track temperature dropped by nearly 10°C during the race, as the sun started to dip in the sky and lost some of its ferocity. Starting an hour earlier improves the odds of the weather being kind to the riders, and temperatures remaining more stable. That was not the case on Friday, mind you. "It was cold, obviously," Crutchlow said. "Even at that time of day, it was 3pm, it was cooling off. Right before the start of the session it seemed bitterly cold."
Worse could be to come on Saturday. Overnight rain means the track could be damp, and further showers could leave it that way through the day. Qualifying could be a very messy business.
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