There was good news and bad news for the MotoGP paddock after the first day of practice at the Circuit of the Americas. The good news is that the work done to the track to try to remove the bumps had not made the track much more abrasive, as some had feared. Tires are wearing normally, so pit stops or worse will not be needed.
The bad news is that the work done to try to remove the bumps has not done anything to remove the bumps. It has moved them about a little, improved them in some places, made them worse in others, but the net effect has been zero, or worse than zero. What's worse, the process used has generated a huge amount of dust, bikes coming down the back straight billowing clouds of dust in their wake.
"It's worse than Qatar," Jack Miller said. "I said to the guys, 'I hope you've got the air filter in from Qatar, because you're going to need it'." At the first race of the season, the teams have to run a special air filter to prevent the desert dust from entering the engine and causing excessive wear. "The dust is far worse than Qatar, it's that crappy concrete dust," Miller explained.
The dust was why Miller was so far off the pace in FP1, finishing 23rd in the morning after being spooked by the conditions. He didn't trust the conditions or the track in the morning, his confidence taking a knock after being sky high from his recent success in Argentina. He straightened himself out in the afternoon, helped by the track cleaning up a little with more use. Miller ended FP2 as fourteenth, four tenths behind Andrea Dovizioso in eighth. But it really wasn't much fun.
The grading process to flatten the bumps really hadn't worked. "For me, I think it's made it worse in a lot of places, especially the back straight," Miller explained. "You go off line and the roost and the dust is bad but the bumps – the traction control and wheelie control just starts having a fit because basically you're jumping the whole way down the back straight. The rear tire and front tire are coming off the ground all the time so the bike's like cutting in and out and it's just a pain."
Valentino Rossi gave voice to criticism which was universal among the riders. "First of all I like the track, it's good to ride because it's very difficult, you have emotional corners, so it's good," Rossi said after practice on Friday. "But the situation of the bumps is critical, it's a disaster. For me, it's the worst situation of the whole season. Because you have three or four bumps which are very big, because with our bumps it's very difficult, because you have a lot of bumps in the straight, so the bike moves very much at more than 300 km/h and it's a critical situation."
The bumps were everywhere, he said. "Turn 2 is very bad. Turn 10, big bumps. And the back straight, when you go up after the dip, you go over the crest in fifth and sixth, the bike moves a lot because there are big bumps, a lot of bumps in the braking also. And big, big bumps, maybe the biggest one is Turn 18, before the last two lefts, you touch the fairing on the ground, so it's like motocross. It's a shame, because personally I like this track very much, it's very good, but the bumps start to be a problem."
Made to measure
A bumpy track with low grip due to dust? Those conditions were ideal for Marc Márquez. Fearing that the rain expected on Saturday will prevent them from improving their times in FP3, most riders elected to stick in a soft tire or two and try to ensure their passage to Q2. Soft rubber drastically cut lap times, providing much needed grip on a treacherous track. So it was that Andrea Iannone ended up fastest in FP2, just a few hundredths ahead of Márquez, while Maverick Viñales, Valentino Rossi, and Cal Crutchlow were all close.
But Iannone et al had all fitted a soft tire in pursuit of a quick time, while Marc Márquez had run the hard rear, and had been focusing on race set up. In his final run on the hard rear tire, Márquez had posted a 2'05.0, 2'04.9, 2'04.6, and a 2'05.4. The rest of the field were running a pace in the 2'06s, a second or more slower than Márquez was capable of running consistently. Low grip and difficult conditions are where Márquez excels. For the second week in a row, the race looks to be going his way.
Márquez felt he could have gone faster if he had been able to use the medium front instead of the soft front. The medium he had been used had been damaged in a relatively harmless crash he had at Turn 11, sliding off into the gravel, the bike hitting the barriers, and so the Repsol Honda team had been forced to use the soft front.
"The best lap time I did with the hard rear," Márquez explained "I was with the soft front because when I crashed with the medium it was a little bit damaged and then we changed. But anyway still on the setup of the bike we can improve a little bit. I'm fast but I didn't find the correct feeling. So we need to improve."
He felt positive about his prospects, however. "About the rest, I feel good, I was happy, riding well and we will see if tomorrow is dry or wet. But anyway Viñales is not far. I mean of course we have a good rhythm, at the moment the best one, but the most important will be on Sunday and at the moment Viñales is not far but we need to continue working like this."
The Movistar Yamaha rider looked like being the only person capable of offering any resistance to Márquez, at least going by the timesheet. Viñales posted a run of 2'05.4, 2'05.1, and 2'04.8 while running a medium rear, and not really chasing a single quick lap. More worryingly for the competition, for the first time in the best part of a year, Viñales told reporters he was pretty happy with where the bike stood at the moment.
"Honestly, in FP2 I felt great," Viñales said. "We lost a lot of time because I think the soft tire was a little bit, let’s say, pre-heated. I had a lot of spin. But after that I changed to the medium tire and I felt great on the bike. I felt still I could ride much faster than what I did. I think lap-by-lap it’s going to improve. From Argentina it improved a lot from the exit of the corners so we have to keep working like that."
The improvement had come from the electronics, Viñales explained. "We made a big change with the electronics compared to Argentina in the way I like. The bike today was working much better, much better for my riding style. So I think still we have a lot of room to improve on the electronics side and also a little bit with the setup."
Hand to wheel
The change had been to take away some of the electronic interference and make the power delivery more aggressive. "You know, I had much more aggressive electronics and controlling more by the hand than by the traction control and that’s what I’m looking for right now," Viñales said. "I think it seems to work. Tomorrow I will try a little more on this side and let’s see if it works in the wet. So I’m quite happy overall."
Viñales had perhaps picked up this preference for an aggressive throttle response with less direct electronic intervention while he was at Suzuki. Andrea Iannone's comments after practice certainly hinted that this was the way the Suzuki worked.
"In Suzuki we control a lot with the hand," Iannone told reporters. "In this way on Ducati it's more easy. The electronics have more support and helps a little bit more. In Suzuki it's different. The bike is a little bit more smooth but it's completely more free." Having a more direct connection between throttle and rear tire is how Viñales learned to ride a MotoGP bike in his first two years with Suzuki. Now that he is with Yamaha, he is looking for the right compromise between the aggressiveness of the Suzuki, and the refinement of the Yamaha.
A new era
With Suzukis first and sixth, Hondas second and fifth, Yamahas third and fourth, Ducatis seventh and eighth, and Aleix Espargaro on the Aprilia in ninth, that made five manufacturers in the top nine. It was a remarkable achievement, and a testament to the various rule changes which Dorna have driven through over the past decade or so.
Espargaro was full of praise. "It's unbelievable," the Spaniard said. "I said at the beginning of the season, this is the best moment in MotoGP, because the riders are super super good, there are almost no bad riders, I would say that the top 20 riders are super good riders and the bikes and the manufacturers are unbelievable. The Aprilia is super competitive. We are getting closer and closer. I'm sure that this season in Europe we will be able to fight for top six in many races."
"To be able to put the Aprilia, Suzuki, Yamaha, Honda, Ducati all together, it's fantastic and makes this championship very interesting," Espargaro explained. "We have to applaud Dorna for the rules that they did in the last two or three years, to try to make everything closer, and make more chance for the riders. Because in the past, if you remember, there were four available bikes to fight for the top. Now, OK, still there four bikes better than the rest, but you can fight for the top with almost twelve bikes, so this is fantastic."
New bikes, new riders
This new era had come from a lot of hard work and a long-term plan, embarked on without any certainty of being able to achieve any of it. Back when he was Technical Director, Mike Webb had pushed for the introduction of spec electronics, to level the playing field. Dorna had hired Corrado Cecchinelli as Director of Technology, who could use his deep technical knowledge to counter the more specious objections put forward by the manufacturers.
Carmelo Ezpeleta had used a mixture of blackmail, arm-twisting, and gentle persuasion to get the factories to accept the changes that were needed, while simultaneously pouring more money into the independent teams to strengthen the base of the championship. The CRT bikes had persuaded the factories that Ezpeleta was serious about running a championship without them, and helped Ezpeleta realize that the independent teams were the backbone of the series.
But it wasn't just the bikes which had improved, there is a new generation of talent coming through as well. Valentino Rossi, who has seen talent come and go while perched atop of the series, praised the new era. "In the last years, especially from 2016, the situation changed a lot," Rossi said. "Because before 2016, just four riders won races, me, Pedrosa, Márquez, and Lorenzo. And from 2016, you have nine different riders that can achieve the victory, and for me, for MotoGP, it's good to see a race like Argentina where Crutchlow, Zarco, Rins, and Miller are in front."
Dukes can't juke
There may have been two Ducatis in the top ten, but there was still a lot of concern in the Ducati camp over their performance at the track. The layout of the Circuit of the Americas was among the worst possible for the Ducati, Andrea Dovizioso explained. "This layout is very difficult for our bike. With all the bumps and the grip that we have, it becomes worse."
Ducati's difficulties were twofold, Dovizioso explained. Firstly, the Desmosedici will turn well on the brakes or on the throttle, but it does not want to flick from side to side on a neutral throttle in sections such as the Esses at COTA, from Turn 3 all the way to Turn 11. "There are a lot of changes of direction without braking, and our bike in this particular point is not so strong," the Italian said.
The second difficult was acceleration from very low speed onto a straight where the bumps made it impossible to benefit from the Ducati's speed. "In the strong braking, where you have to exit in the first gear, we are not so strong. And the positive point of our bike is the acceleration, but not when we start in first gear," Dovizioso explained.
Jorge Lorenzo added that the new chassis had made the problems in Austin worse, because the agility of the new chassis made the bike more unstable over the bumps. "Last year we struggled a little bit over the bumps," Lorenzo said, "but the new bike increased this feeling a little bit. The bike is a little bit more nervous in general, so plus the bumps it creates a little bit more wheelie. So the positive aspect is it turns better in the corner. So we should keep this new bike, because it's a little bit better in general and has more potential, if we can understand all the details."
Friday was also the day that the Safety Commission met, and after Argentina, there was a lot the riders wanted to talk about. There was the track, of course, but opinions on that were unanimous: the track needs to be resurfaced, and the bumps need to be taken away. The problem for any resurfacing is that the ground the track is built on is subject to shift, meaning that the bumps would most likely reemerge after a year or two.
The big talking point was the handling of incidents between riders. Though the discussions and conclusions of the Safety Commission are supposed to remain private, to allow riders to speak freely, there was some amount of leaking to journalists as the riders departed the control tower building after the meeting had finished.
In the meeting, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta had promised that rules would be enforced more strictly, and that more riders would be subject to a black flag, especially if they caused another rider to fall. The problem with such assurances is that it is very difficult to draw up a watertight wording of the rules that would always catch the wrongdoers, without excessively punishing those whose misdeeds are few and far between.
The rules right now are deliberately vague, saying only that riders must ride "in a responsible manner which does not cause danger to other competitors or participants". This vagueness allows the FIM Stewards Panel to punish as it sees fit, rather than punishing accidental touches along with the more egregious cases. What the riders would like is much clearer guidelines on what is and what is not permissible on track.
The problem is illustrated rather well by the riders themselves. On Thursday, as riders continued to demand tougher punishment for wrongdoers, I asked riders if they could identify what constituted a dangerous pass, and what is acceptable. None could provide a clear and simple answer, everyone falling back on accusations that the names involved in incidents were always the same, while those who never committed an offense were equally easily identifiable.
It seems that the writers of the FIM rulebook may be disinclined to allow new rules to be added, unless they can be made waterproof and unambiguous. Given the complexities of distinguishing between an accidental race touch and a purposeful nudge, this may take some time to complete.
Gathering the background information for detailed articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.