Winter is officially over. Though meteorological winter ended on 1st March, and the astronomical winter will end next week on 20th of March, the long MotoGP winter came to an end at 12:50 local time in Qatar, when Moto3 rolled out for their session of free practice. After World Superbikes got everyone warmed up at Phillip Island in February, the advent of the Grand Prix classes means that racing is back again in earnest.
It is also back in weird way, as is to be expected at Qatar. The schedule remains a curiosity, the latest iteration merely shuffling the weirdness around. For MotoGP, the first session in the blistering heat, the second in the relatively cool of the evening. Track temperatures in FP1 were hitting the mid to high 40s °C, whereas in FP2, they had dropped into the mid 20s. In essence, FP1 is as good as useless for finding a setup. Times dropped by a second between FP1 and FP2, a good indication of the difference in track grip.
The riders had talked about the schedule in the Safety Commission meeting, hastily scheduled for the end of the day after the riders decided against doing it between FP1 and FP2. "In my opinion, it's a special weekend, and we know that," Marc Márquez told us. "Of course FP1, you ride, you feel it's the same layout, but it's for nothing. You cannot try the setup for the race. It's a special weekend, and it will be impossible to find the best schedule. If you want a GP of five days, yes, because then we start on Wednesday, but for me it's OK."
Reverting back from a four-day event to a three-day event had been one of the prime driving reasons behind the switch. "Unfortunately it's impossible to find a perfect schedule, because how many hours we have at night is not enough to make two practices," Andrea Dovizioso said. "Too many times it happened that the humidity came too fast." Spreading practice over four days instead of three means an extra day in Qatar for the riders, and most of them are willing to make a sacrifice or two if it means being able to avoid that.
Though most riders are OK with having the race in the evening, there is some disagreement about the best time to hold it. "I think 7 o'clock can be too much, 8 o'clock is enough," believes Andrea Dovizioso. "I would put the race at 6pm," Dovizioso's Ducati teammate Jorge Lorenzo opined. "It is still night and it is warmer so it is better for everyone. Well, for me for sure." Still others felt a 7pm race start was fine, with no change needed. Unable to reach an agreement, it looks like the race will be at 7pm for the foreseeable future.
Tight as a bow
As a spectator, you soon forget all about the strangeness of the schedule when you see the closeness of the field. There was just six thousandths of a second difference between Andrea Dovizioso in first and Danilo Petrucci in second. Alex Rins was third, less than a tenth slower than Dovizioso. Less than a tenth of a second separated fourth-place man Jorge Lorenzo from Valentino Rossi in ninth.
Marc Márquez was one thousandth of a second quicker than teammate Dani Pedrosa, who was in turn one thousandth faster than Cal Crutchlow, who was also just one thousandth quicker than Valentino Rossi. Jack Miller was just under a second slower than Dovizioso, and the Australian was fourteenth fastest on Friday. The whole field is incredibly close. This is MotoGP 2018-style.
Not everyone was necessarily happy about this, of course. "On a positive note, I feel good on the bike, I feel good on the team, but now the reality is that there's a lot more closer guys than everybody thought there were," LCR Honda rider Cal Crutchlow told us. "It makes a great race for you guys, but I thought I had an easier race than what it looks like."
It is certainly hard to figure out who is in strong form in terms of race pace. "It looks like there are a lot of riders with good speed," Dovizioso said. "It's very difficult really who has the pace to the end, but at the moment it looks very tight for the qualification." Dovizioso's main rival Marc Márquez concurred on this. "In one lap, Ducati is very very strong in this race track," Márquez said, "but it was always like this. "We need to check the race rhythm well, for race distance, that's the most important thing."
A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation would put Márquez quickest in terms of pace, probably. The Spaniard was running around the 1'55.4 mark in FP2 on some of his longer runs. Danilo Petrucci and Jorge Lorenzo look to be on similar pace, as is Cal Crutchlow. In terms of race pace, Dovizioso appears to be a couple of tenths behind the champion, along with Alex Rins, Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi and Johann Zarco.
The problem is that the margins are slender, however, and not everyone is truly showing their hand. When there are so many riders so tightly grouped, figuring out who could win and who could be dropped is enormously difficult. The race pace rankings could be turned on their head on Saturday, let alone what will happen come Sunday. This is a Good Thing for the fans, but a Bad Thing for the teams. They have more riding on the line.
Going fast in different ways
The other thing is that the manufacturers seem to be pretty well balanced in terms of performance, though they all achieve it in a different way. The various strong points and weak points all cancel each other out, putting Ducati, Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha all within a tenth or two of each other.
Marc Márquez was pleased to be closer to the Ducatis in terms of top speed. "We noticed on the main straight that the top speed is closer to the Ducati," he said, though he was speaking more from measured times rather than personal experience. "I didn't follow any Ducatis. But at the moment it's more power, but now we need to find a way how to deliver this power to the bike, how to use it. Because Ducati has much less wheelie, much less movement, so we concentrated a lot on the engine, we found a good engine with a smooth character and more powerful, but still we need to improve in some areas, but now it's time to work on the chassis area during the season."
Andrea Dovizioso pointed out that with the wind blowing along the front straight and pushing riders along, those top speed numbers were deceptive. "I don't think that's the reality, because the speed trap is in the braking zone," the Italian said. "Especially today, we have the wind in a different direction from the test, so we have to brake early because we couldn't stop in Turn 1. So the braking is early, and this is not the reality."
The Desmosedici still has its own problems, however. The first touch of the throttle was still just as brutal as last year. Fixing that will take some time.
The Yamaha M1 is not far off either. The problem the Movistar Yamaha riders are having is a lack of acceleration when grip is low (for example, in the heat of FP1, or during the heat of the day). Valentino Rossi was pretty happy overall, given that he felt he had matched the speed he had managed at the test.
Johann Zarco is also struggling with grip, though he can't find an easy solution to his problems. "My biggest problem is the rear grip," the Tech3 rider said. "Not for the drive, we don’t have high spinning, but the bike is always sliding a little bit and this makes the problem to turn well. So we could not find the solution during the two practices, but even with this problem I'm not that far from the top guys."
Zarco also gave a hint as to what he will be doing next season. Keeping Zarco at Tech3 is going to be just about impossible for Hervé Poncharal, as Zarco has set his sights on a factory team. The Frenchman all but confessed to having his eye on the Repsol Honda team, where he would be slotted in alongside Marc Márquez.
That was not something to be afraid of, Zarco insisted. "Why be afraid? To be Marquez's team-mate can be a nice thing. And it's kind of a 'dream team', this Repsol Honda team. I mean from the time I was watching, I was not watching a lot but I remember some pictures of Mick Doohan, then it was Valentino Rossi on the Honda, now Marquez. It's always a nice team to see."
Zarco's confession seemed to suggest that Honda are getting close to having a plan, and that that plan doesn't include Dani Pedrosa. Instead, it seems that Honda are fully invested in trying to tempt Zarco into the fold. That aligns with rumors which have been appearing in the past month or two, and with things I have heard about the 2019 Silly Season. With each new rumor or signing, Silly Season looks to live up to its name.
But all this is still just speculation at the moment, rumors gathering pace from testing, when nobody has a real idea of what will happen during the races, Zarco explained. "I did great tests, but doing great races will make the difference," he said. "First of all I think do the first three races and then we will know."
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