We expected practice at Termas De Rio Hondo to be dominated by the weather, and we were right, though not in the way we expected. Rain had been forecast for all of Friday, but it largely held off except for the odd wayward shower which caused more of a nuisance than any real disruption. But a combination of a dirty track and strong and gusty winds made conditions difficult at the Argentinian round of MotoGP. It turned the field on its head: Andrea Dovizioso, the man who had won the previous race at Qatar, finished FP2 as 24th and last on Friday in Argentina.
The track played a big part in making life difficult for the riders (or more accurately, everyone not called Marc Márquez). The resurfacing had been a major improvement, removing the worst of the bumps, but the new surface didn't really have any extra grip, the riders said. "It's positive about the bumps," Andrea Dovizioso said. "Apart from Turn 4 all the other corners are much better, almost perfect. The grip is not good like the old one, maybe it's worse, maybe it's too new, I don't know when they did."
Valentino Rossi agreed. "The new surface is a bit better because we have less bumps," the Italian said. "I think Michelin was a bit worried about the level of grip because they bring more tires. At the end the level of grip of the new asphalt is the same as the level of grip with the old asphalt." The real problem was the track still being dirty, and not being rubbered in, Marc Márquez explained. "It's good. In terms of grip, very very similar the new and old, you cannot feel the difference, because there is no rubber, it's just dirty. But it's so good about the bumps. Last year it was at the limit, quite dangerous with big bumps, but this year it's completely flat," the Spaniard told reporters.
Less grip, more fun
Those conditions were ideal as far as Márquez was concerned. All that time racing dirt track pays off when there is little or no grip, as Márquez can use his mastery of sliding the bike around to lap faster than anyone else. On Friday, only Cal Crutchlow got within half a second of Márquez, while the Spaniard had nine tenths advantage over his Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa.
Márquez was in his element. "Of course today was a good day, but it was a strange day, because the track was so slippery," the Repsol Honda rider said. "It was so difficult to get the feeling. Of course, it was the same for everybody, but when it's slippery, I feel better. I feel good, I like to play with the bike, and I was able to do a good lap, a good pace." He feared his advantage would not last. "I think tomorrow and especially Sunday, everything will be closer and closer, because the grip will improve and everything will be more tight."
After stonewalling questions on the Jerez test when asked them in the press conference, Márquez let slip a little of what they had been working on after practice on Friday. "At the Jerez test, we did another step," Márquez said. "There we found a little bit more. I already said in Qatar, we are good but still missing something on the electronic side, on the character on the engine. So step by step we are trying to find small things, and we confirmed here that it is working well."
The Termas De Rio Hondo circuit is a track which suits the Honda RC213V better than Qatar did, but the results at Qatar were a sign of just how strong the Honda is this year, Márquez explained. "This is one race track that suits better with the bike and rider compared with for example Qatar. We said in Qatar, if we are in a good place there – we finished second very close to Ducati – we are in a good level. This bike is working better than it was last year, we have more power, and the lap time is coming easier."
The rough with the smooth
Things did not go entirely smoothly for Márquez on Friday, however. In FP1, he almost collided with Maverick Viñales and Karel Abraham. "They were wide and maybe slower, but here when you go onto the dirty part of the track, it's so difficult to turn the bike, so difficult to stop," Márquez said, describing the incident. "I was going in and then I started to lose the rear, and so I said, OK, I go wide, I realized that I would go wide, but they were outside and when I saw a small gap between Abraham and Maverick, I just released the brakes and opened the gas to get through the gap."
That near-miss had been caused by Abraham, Maverick Viñales explained. "Actually, it was not with Marc, it was with Karel," the Movistar Yamaha rider said. "I was trying to push, but Karel was a little bit stopping and going, and braked so early in Turn 5. So I avoided him, and then all the riders who were behind me also had the same problem. So we needed to avoid each other."
Márquez had another big moment during the flag-to-flag practice at the end of FP2. After a very quick stop, he nearly highsided himself out of the pit lane when the rear of his Honda span up as he rode away on his second bike. This is a perpetual concern in pit lane: tracks may be resurfaced, but pit lanes almost never are, and pit lane is where oil, grease, fuel, and other liquids get dropped onto the asphalt. The asphalt used is often cheaper, and not laid with the aim of providing optimum grip. This makes pit lane a dangerous place. "It's kind of different tarmac and it was more slippery and dirty, and I lost the rear," Márquez said. "So we need to be careful with this on Sunday, because it's another point where we have some risks."
Yamahas on track
The Hondas aren't the only bikes which the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit suits. The track has always been a good match with the Yamaha as well. The two factory Yamahas got off to a strong start at Termas, finishing sixth and seventh overall. They may have been 1.1 seconds behind Márquez, but they were only two tenths off the time set by Dani Pedrosa in the morning, and in the middle of a tight group of ten or so riders all within a half a second of each other.
Maverick Viñales was much more positive than he had been at the end of the first day in Qatar, though his insatiable ambition never leaves him truly happy unless he is quickest. "I'm never pleased being sixth, I'm always looking for more," the Spaniard said. "But anyway, I'm pleased that we started better than at Qatar, I'm feeling better with the bike. Now we have to find a good set up in Argentina, it changed a lot from Qatar. Especially the grip, in Qatar it was quite good, here the level is low so I have some issues carrying corner speed, I go very wide."
They were still using the base set up found at Qatar, Viñales told reporters. There was still room for improvement, but at least he could stop the bike. "Stopping the bike is better than before, because we solved some problems with the engine brake that we resolved, and it's a little bit better," he said. "But still we have some issues to get the rear contact on the ground, and get grip to turn. I'm quite confident. Sure we started better than in Qatar, so let's see how we finish."
Despite nearly coming together with Marc Márquez, Viñales had found some benefit from the situation. He had managed to learn a few things riding behind the Repsol Honda. "It was very interesting," he said. "Very interesting to see where we are losing, and I think now a little bit better. It opened my eyes to see where we have problems." That was mainly in corner speed, Viñales said.
No grip, no fun
That, perhaps, is an artifact of the track condition. The Honda can manage low grip tracks, and Márquez can maintain high corner speeds when the bike is sliding around. The Yamaha needs more support through the corner, more grip to help it make the corner. When the track has grip, the Yamaha is pretty impressive. On Saturday, with more rubber on the track, grip conditions may come to the Yamaha, and give both Viñales and Valentino Rossi a chance to take the fight to Márquez.
Rossi is sounding particularly positive. "I like the track," the Italian said. "It’s in a good condition. I feel comfortable with the bike, especially with the race tires. I have good pace. I can ride in a good way." He has a problem with soft tires, however, which could pose a few problems come Saturday afternoon. "Unfortunately I have more problem with the soft tires. I expected to improve more. I suffer with the soft. This can be a problem to manage in a good way. We’ll see for tomorrow about the qualifying because we don’t know our potential, and we don’t know which tire we’ll use."
That inability to get much improvement from a soft tire had meant he had missed out on an even faster time. He had been fastest through three sectors on his penultimate run, but had pulled in for a final shot with softer rubber. But he hadn't made as much progress as he hoped with the softer rear tire. "I was with the race tire, I know I was fast," Rossi explained. "I want to stay in the top ten because tomorrow if it rains, for sure it’s a big problem. So I don’t know if I have enough time to put the soft, so I stop. But unfortunately with the soft I did one lap more or less the same. So if I knew I’d have finished the lap and I could have stayed more in front."
The top of the timesheets is a real mixture, with three Hondas fastest, the two Yamahas in sixth and seventh, the Suzukis in fifth and eighth, and a couple of Ducatis in fourth and tenth. For Suzuki, Andrea Iannone had an excellent day to finish a tenth behind Dani Pedrosa. The GSX-RR has plenty of top speed, but they are losing out in corner speed, he explained. "But I think we have some good cards to play," he said.
Teammate Alex Rins had a tougher time of it in the morning, but made a big step forward in the afternoon. That was largely down to improving grip: he had struggled with braking in the morning, a problem his crew had been unable to resolve whatever they tried. FP2, with more rubber on the track, Rins had safely bagged a spot in the top 10, and passage through to Q2.
The Ducati enigma
The real mystery of the day was with the Ducatis. If you just look at the manufacturer names on the timesheets, things don't look so bad for the Italian factory: there are Ducatis in fourth, tenth, and eleventh, all less than half a second behind Dani Pedrosa in third. The conundrum for Ducati is that those three Ducatis in the top eleven are all GP17s, last year's bikes. Tito Rabat is the fastest of the lot, riding the Avintia bike to the fourth best time, though he used Aleix Espargaro as a target to set his quickest lap. Jack Miller is tenth on the Pramac Ducati GP17, just ahead of Alvaro Bautista on the Angel Nieto Team GP17.
The riders on this year's bike are struggling, however. Danilo Petrucci is the fastest of the GP18 riders, fourteenth fastest overall, and slower than the two factory Aprilias. Andrea Dovizioso is fifteenth overall, thanks to a quick time set in FP1, but the man who won the Qatar opener was absolutely nowhere in FP2, finishing dead last. Jorge Lorenzo was sixteenth overall, again having set his best time in the morning session. None of the riders on a GP18 are in Q2, and they could all miss out if it rains on Saturday morning.
GP18 vs GP17
It looks as if the GP18 is a step backwards compared to the GP17, at least in Argentina. Going off what the riders had to say, Argentina was amplifying the weak points of the bike, and not allowing it to demonstrate its strengths. "The Ducati is moving around a lot at this track," Danilo Petrucci said, "it feels like a boat, moving and making it hard to ride the bike to the limit."
Jorge Lorenzo blamed the wind for the GP18's woes. "I think the conditions from today, especially the wind multiply the weak points of the bike, that is the front wheel is a little bit less in contact than the old one," Lorenzo said. "For example in the fast corner before the long straight, I lose half a second in that corner because I couldn't open full throttle, because I couldn't feel safe enough to do it. And in the rest of the track, I also didn't feel great. Very strange conditions, special conditions."
Andrea Dovizioso wasn't certain it was all down to the wind, but the wind certainly hadn't helped. "I don't know," he said. " It's always difficult to know this. Maybe yes. But I can't say and it's six years I've been riding this bike, so to say 'okay we have a negative point in these conditions…' I'm not sure. For sure it was difficult. Very, very difficult. I have to close the throttle in turn four, in the straight, so it was scary."
Though Dovizioso also did not shirk his own role in the results - "For sure our bike is not the best for this track and these conditions, but some riders were faster than me so it means I didn’t ride at my maximum," he said – but this was also the nature of the bike. "Unfortunately it's similar to the past!" he laughed. "This is the bad thing and the normal thing. This confirms that this kind of track is more difficult for us compared to other tracks."
Where's the fairing?
What has caused this sudden regression for Ducati? Though it is hard to pinpoint an exact cause, there are signs which point to a general direction. The big improvement for the GP18 was the chassis, the bike being more flexible and easier to turn. This agility has come at a cost, however. The bike appears to be more prone to wheelies (perhaps a function of the engine as well), and this takes weight off the front tire.
The way Ducati fixed this in previous years was with winglets, or aerodynamic packages as we must now call them. What is extremely odd is that none of the GP18 riders have used an aerodynamic package at all so far this year. Even Jorge Lorenzo, who saw his fortunes radically reversed once he got his hands on Ducati's aero package at Brno last year, which took him from mid-pack to podium challenger.
So why aren't the Ducati riders using the winglets? They are evasive when asked about it. Jorge Lorenzo: "Let's see what we can do for tomorrow or the next tracks. But it's a complex thing at this moment." A recent story on the website of Spanish sports daily AS quoted Ducati sources as indicating that the combination of aerodynamic fairing and new chassis was causing he front wheel to want to fold in corners. The fact that Ducati have yet to wheel out the winged fairing suggests there may be something to that story.
Yet Ducati will have already homologated an aerodynamic fairing, as they had to do so at Qatar. The rules state that they have to homologate the external shape of the fairing, though Ducati may add or subtract struts and vanes inside the aerodynamic duct which provides the main downforce. It is possible that Ducati have homologated an aero fairing with ducts which can be added on like they had last year, but they have simply not yet decided to use it, while they work on a solution to fixing the lift with internal vanes to make the fairing usable.
Or it may be that they have abandoned their attempt at exterior ducts altogether, and will only race with the plain fairing for the first half of the year, until they decide to homologate the one update they are allowed for the year, after all three GP18 riders have had a chance to test it, either at Jerez or at Barcelona at the IRTA tests.
All this is speculation for the moment. But whatever the problem, there is something fishy going on with Ducati's GP18 fairing. In a couple more races, we should have a better idea of what Ducati are doing. If the fairing hasn't been used by Mugello, then they will probably be waiting for a new design to meet with the approval of the riders.
Speaking of Ducati, there are signs that there could be some movement on contracts in the next few weeks. Andrea Dovizioso is the biggest boulder holding back the flood, but he looks to be in the final stages of negotiating a new contract with Ducati. Johann Zarco will be another big mover, once he makes a choice between Repsol Honda and Factory KTM, though Zarco will most likely not make a choice until he gets back to Europe.
Sensationalizing a trailer
The more interesting developments have come around Jorge Lorenzo. Lorenzo's fate at Ducati has been shrouded in mystery for a while, and the trailer for an interview with Spanish broadcaster Movistar has only added to the confusion over Lorenzo's future. The trailer – a clip from a longer segment no doubt chosen to generate the maximum amount of interest – shows Lorenzo saying that Andrea Dovizioso "had always tried to undermine his morale throughout my career."
Naturally, the press – especially the Italian press, who still have a vendetta against Lorenzo because of how the 2015 MotoGP season ended – jumped on the quote and tried to sell it as a sign of Lorenzo's dissatisfaction within Ducati. There are other signs that Lorenzo may not be happy there – the speed with which Alex Debon was first brought into Ducati, then dropped again by Jorge Lorenzo last week, for example – and so this teaser fits in very nicely with that pattern.
Lorenzo didn't help his cause by refusing to answer questions about the statements on Friday. "Now we are in race mode," the Spaniard said, and that meant only talking about track conditions and Sunday's race. Anyone wanting answers would have to wait until Austin. "Maybe next Thursday we will speak about that. Now, we must concentrate on race questions, and you can see the interview. I never lie, always say what I think, and what I think is the truth."
How much weight should we put on Lorenzo's comments? I am told that Lorenzo's comments were made in response to comments by Dovizioso in Qatar, and were part of a much larger discussion about the rivalry between the two which has existed for as long as the two men have been racing each other, since 2001. Dovizioso acknowledged as much in comments to the Italian press. "Jorge and I have been racing together since 2001, and there has always been competition between us, both on and off the track." Put in that context, Lorenzo's comments are far more innocuous than the quote made them appear.
It is obvious that Movistar has taken the quote out of context to try to boost the audience for the full interview when it airs. Throwing out a quote which can seem controversial without the context in which it was made is a good way of generating interest from the fans and media. The press will leap upon the quote and write about it, and more people tune in to watch the whole interview. Whether that interview lives up to their expectations afterwards doesn't really matter. After all, the trailers for Hollywood blockbusters always show the most exciting parts of the film, not the long stretches during which the narrative is being expounded.
The full interview with Lorenzo is due to be broadcast on Sunday. By that time, however, the full context of Lorenzo's quote will get lost amid the sound and fury of the race weekend. Only a few people will take the time to consider the entire interview in context. Most will have moved on to the next subject.
There was some controversy in Moto3 on Friday. Aron Canet collided with Kazakh rider Makar Yurchenko, in an incident which looked entirely intentional. Canet had run across Yurchenko earlier, the Kazakh rider being much slower than Canet. Canet had taken this personally, irritated that Yurchenko was holding him up, and by the fact that he had run wide and nearly lost the rear when he ran across the kerbs. And so Canet tried an excessively aggressive pass up the inside of Yurchenko to get back ahead of him at Turn 7. But the Spaniard couldn't get his bike turned, and he ended up running straight on, clipping Yurchenko's bike in the process, taking them both down.
The pass appeared intentionally reckless, though to be fair, it did not appear as if Canet had taken Yurchenko down on purpose. However, it did appear to be a violation of section 1.21.2 of the FIM Grand Prix Regulations, which states that riders "must ride in a responsible manner which does not cause danger to other competitors". Surprisingly, Race Director Mike Webb disagreed, writing the whole thing off as a racing incident, and not handing down any punishment to Canet.
That surprises me. Mike Webb is a scrupulously fair man, and is not inclined to let poor behavior go unpunished, especially in Moto3. Obviously, we, the fans and the media, don't have access to the same vast array of cameras as Race Direction do. But from the footage we saw, I can only put this down to a severe error of judgment on the part of Mike Webb. Certainly, Yurchenko probably deserved a warning at the very least for riding slowly on the racing line and getting in Canet's way. But Canet threw caution to the wind, and was riding dangerously. This does not set a good example.
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