It is always easy to get carried away by testing. Seeing a particular rider at the top of the timesheets, it is tempting to start constructing a narrative which sees that rider dominate the season, while writing off the rest. That, of course, is nearly always a mistake. And in the case of the second day at Buriram, Thailand, it is definitely a mistake.
That doesn't mean Marc Márquez won't be fast for the rest of the year, as well as Saturday in Thailand. He has won the MotoGP title in four of his five seasons in the class, so topping the timesheets was not, as one journo joked, because Michelin gave him special tires for his birthday. Márquez had been fast, and consistently so, through both the Sepang and Buriram tests so far. But the order behind Márquez probably doesn't reflect the true relative strength of the field.
The reason? Tires, of course. On Saturday, Michelin brought a new rear tire for the riders to test, after the rears used on Friday had shown some signs of degradation. The original allocation of rear tires were the same as used at Brno, Argentina, Sachsenring, and Sepang. The new tire was the rear used at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. That is relatively unsurprising, given that the place everyone compared Buriram to the first time they saw it was Austria. The different compounds in the Austria rear were better placed to withstand the stresses of Buriram, especially along the three successive straights in the tropical heat.
Not as you like it
Not everyone liked the new rear. "In the afternoon, we also tried some different tires for Michelin, because it looks like they modified the casing for the October race," Valentino Rossi said. "But sincerely, I didn't feel very good, so we need to do something else tomorrow."
Cal Crutchlow was similarly deeply underwhelmed. "Michelin gave us some stuff to try, the tire they wanted us to try is the one we were racing in Austria," he said. "And it was not cool. It was difficult to manage, and it was nothing like what we had been riding, that was the problem. We were used to some very good grip in some areas and not great grip in others, where this thing was like the complete opposite."
Andrea Dovizioso, whose savvy dedication to understanding race tires helped him win six races in 2017, had the deepest understanding of the situation. "Michelin brought some tires but it looked like those tires wouldn’t be able to make the race," the factory Ducati rider explained. "So the lap time you see at the end of the day is not the reality. Apart from that we didn’t put in a [new] tire."
"Not the reality"
The timesheets at the end of Saturday proved to be a case of comparing apples to oranges, Dovizioso said. "They brought today the tire from Austria where the grip is less, the spin is more and the lap time is slower. I think that is more the reality for October. Not many riders tried it. Not many riders were fast with that tire. That’s why I can say I’m really happy because I was fast. Marc was fast with that tire. So still it’s too early to understand the real potential." Dovizioso warned against drawing premature conclusions and constructing false narratives. "Every time the media make a mistake and look at the lap time at the end of the day and make a conclusion. It’s not the reality."
So the timesheets might say that Marc Márquez was fastest on Saturday, and Andrea Dovizioso was ninth. But if they were racing tomorrow, and using the rear tire from Austria, rather than the original tire allocation, then the PTT Thailand Grand Prix at the Chang International Circuit could well turn into a carbon copy of the last race the pair of them contested using the Austria rear tire.
Márquez' best time was not set using the Austria tire, but given the speed he produced, that should not be a concern. He became the first rider to lap the Buriram circuit in under 1'30 on two wheels. It was a special twenty-fifth birthday present to himself. "Of course, thank you for all the messages, because I appreciate it, and you know the best way to celebrate this special day is on the bike," was the first thing he told reporters after practice on Saturday.
Playing the long game
Like Dovizioso, Márquez had immediately switched his attention to the Austria tire Michelin had brought. "Today was a hard day, very warm, but we did a lot of laps, we worked very hard, because we know it's important," Márquez said. "I want to try to find the best things. Still I need to do more laps tomorrow. Not more than 90, but more laps to test some things, because we still we had some parts that we didn't have time to try. But yesterday, we had one plan, but Michelin brought a new tire here, and we are trying to adapt the setup to that tire and trying to understand well for them."
Márquez' focus on the tire is indicative of a change in the attitude of the Spaniard. As he matures, he is gaining more control over both the direction and process of development. Like Dovizioso, Márquez is working to eliminate distractions, in part forced by the change to the technical regulations. The engine freeze means that the factories have to have their engine right before the season starts, because they can't fix it in the middle of the season. Likewise aerodynamics; factories can only homologate one aero package at the start of the season, with the option to bring a single update during the season.
This has concentrated the minds of the riders, and Márquez is now laser focused on the tasks he and HRC have prioritized for the preseason. At Sepang, the first objective was to choose the right engine. In Thailand, the next task is assessing aerodynamics packages, with HRC debuting a new version at Buriram.
"I tried both fairings," Márquez said. "It was a different one, it wasn't the same one like in Malaysia. It was a different one, and I felt it was a better compromise. It was not so extreme, I felt it was a better compromise. But anyway, tomorrow we will concentrate more to work there, because in the Qatar test, it will be the last chance to work on the aerodynamics because then from the first day, you need to decide which fairing you will use."
Each design had upsides and downsides, and making the right decision is crucial, Márquez emphasized. "From a standard base I'm already using some small winglets, the fairing on the side which already creates some downforce, but that bigger fairing creates even more downforce. Of course you improve on the wheelie side, you improve on the braking stability, but then you lose a little bit handling, you lose some turning. I need to check. I need to check well, because I don't want to create any doubt, and before I say something about preferring this one or the other one, I want to check deeply."
Márquez' change in attitude, in working during testing for the season to come, rather than just trying to blow everyone out of the water with a quick lap, was evident from his focus on race pace. "Of course the pace is related to the plan that you have to try, because sometimes you go out and then you are one second slower because you are trying other things on the bike," the Repsol Honda rider explained. "But when I put everything there, it's good, I feel comfortable. But I want to arrive in Qatar and see how it is. Of course, in a preseason test it's easy to make a fast lap, that's something everybody can do, because in 200 laps, one lap can be the good one. But the pace is important, and it's where I was already working a lot last year, this year I'm trying to work there."
Pace is all that matters
Márquez' approach is reminiscent of Johann Zarco. Like Dovizioso, Zarco abhors distractions, focusing solely on what he has, and getting the most out of it. Zarco knows that races are won in the final fifteen minutes, not the opening ten, so working with old tires is where the benefits are. "Overall, all the laps I did today were fast, and I'm happy for that," Zarco said. "I didn't do a very long run, but I was using some times a tire with many laps, and never felt a big drop for the tires. So for me, it means the balance of the bike is good, I'm riding well, and I'm happy for that. At the end of the afternoon, I tried to improve the lap time even better, it was great, but I'm happy because I felt that I found some limit that now, working on small details with the team, I will be able to be in the 1'29s. So keep calm and accept that everything is coming step by step, but keep pushing to be always in the right feeling."
Zarco spent all day testing the Yamaha wings, which he believes are a positive. There was no point taking them off, he said, as the track was not long enough for the wings to start causing real problems with top speed. His other focus was on electronics, using the same basic system as in 2017. "We are on the same electronics, just trying to use it in a different way. We had a test today working with the traction control and this, I couldn't feel a lot in drive, but the feeling was OK, and my team also said it's a way to have less consumption, so maybe preparing the Misano race."
Zarco currently has it a little easier than the factory Movistar Yamaha team. While Zarco's new teammate Hafizh Syahrin is making excellent progress, improving his time by 1.1 seconds from yesterday and now matching the times of Tom Luthi, Zarco himself is free to concentrate solely on his own work. That is not the case for Movistar Yamaha, where Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales have to work together to push the 2018 Yamaha M1 project forward.
Pulling in different directions
And that is where the cracks are starting to show. Development for Rossi and Viñales appears to be something of a seesaw: one day, one of the Movistar pairing is fast, happy, and up near the top of the timesheets, while the other is down in the lower echelons. The next day, the roles are reversed.
On Saturday, it was the turn of Viñales to be happy, and Rossi to be concerned. Viñales was happy because he felt that Yamaha had finally found a direction, and he was being allowed to follow his instincts on the bike. "Honestly it took such a long time to understand the way to go on the bike, maybe too much," the Spaniard said. "Until the afternoon I didn't start to feel good on the bike, feeling that I can ride in a good pace. But anyway at the last moment we changed some things, it seemed to improve, maybe it is the way to follow tomorrow."
What had changed? "Especially following my own feelings and my own setup," Viñales said. "That's when I feel good, when I have my bike and when I can ride as my riding style. So tomorrow we are going to check. Now we have to improve the rhythm. I think we did an incredible step in the afternoon, already on 1'30 on the rhythm and that's the most important."
Rossi's day had been dramatically different. "It was a difficult day," Rossi sighed, "because we started this morning in quite a good way, I did some good rhythm and I was faster compared to yesterday and was not so bad. But after, we have a long list of things to do, we have a lot of work, we worked a lot with the setting to try to improve, we worked a lot with the electronics to try to improve the acceleration, but sincerely, we didn't find a good solution. Unfortunately during the day, we are not able to improve."
The balance of the electronics seems to be the point where Rossi and Viñales diverge. Viñales wants the engine to be more aggressive, to be able to attack. Rossi has always wanted controllable drive, using the corner speed of the M1 to accelerate early and smoothly out of each turn.
Reversal of fortune
Rossi wasn't the only unhappy man on Saturday. Jorge Lorenzo was similarly displeased, though for very different reasons. He had suffered with problems with his preferred bike in the morning, then been a second a lap slower on his second GP18. More worrying was the fact that he simply did not feel comfortable on the bike at Buriram, the opposite of Sepang, where he was able to be fastest with relative ease. Lorenzo and his team still need to figure out how to match the bike to his style at every track. As it stands, it looks like Lorenzo will be unstoppable at some tracks, and out of contention at others.
Whether the new chassis which Ducati have brought to Buriram will help is very much in question. Andrea Dovizioso tried it, but could not feel a real difference from the first update which the factory riders received at Sepang. "It’s very, very similar," Dovizioso said. "I did the same lap time. That’s why I say it’s difficult to take a decision. First, the temperature we found here and the track is not the best to make a decision, especially if the difference is small and it’s difficult to feel. I don’t feel the difference so we have to try again maybe tomorrow, but especially in Qatar."
The happiest Ducati rider was probably Jack Miller. The Alma Pramac rider ended up third overall, and was just as happy on old tires as he was when he put on fresh rubber. What had surprised him most of all was just how consistent he was able to be. "Last year I felt I was able to do my best lap once or twice but I definitely wasn’t able to do them four in a row," he explained. "Now this year I’m fitter and am just able to get in my rhythm and smack out seven or eight lap runs all within three tenths of each other. It’s great to get that rhythm, where you’re happy and you don’t feel as though you’re struggling in certain areas."
The Ducati just felt a lot better suited to his style, Miller said. "For me it feels more natural. I have an understanding of where the tires are and I’m feeling that every lap. In the last four years, I don’t think I’ve ever felt this comfortable. Being able to do the things that I can do, I haven’t been this self-confident with my riding since I was in Moto3. I feel this bike really reacts to my feelings and I can follow it. Of course, we’re still in the early days of testing. We need to keep the feet on the ground and keep working. Of course, I’m really happy with how we’re working."
Thailand hearts MotoGP
The MotoGP grid has one more day of work ahead of them. Sunday's test starts half an hour earlier, at 9am local time, and finishes at 5pm. The first two days have already seen good crowds attending, but Sunday is expected to be pretty close to capacity. This is remarkable, given that fans have to pay for tickets, they aren't free. And above all, watching testing is a pretty dull experience: when bikes are on track is unpredictable, and the track can be empty for hours at a time. There is limited information at best, and no big screens with live action, as there is at a race weekend. So if crowds are packing the grandstands now, how busy and buzzing will the race weekend be? I think it is safe to say that a MotoGP race in Thailand is more than overdue.
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