On paper, things are close at Jerez. At the end of the first day, the top eight riders are all within half a second of each other. The first fourteen are within a second. You would normally see the kind of tightly bunched times on a Moto2 result sheet, not MotoGP, as former Moto3 and Moto2 crew chief, and now Eurosport commentator Peter Bom put it. It has all the makings of a very tight race.
Or it does if you judge it only by the headline times. Dig a little deeper and a different picture appears. Scrap the riders who put in a new soft tire and chased a fast lap, and focus only on race pace on used tires, and it Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix at Jerez looks like being fought out between The Hondas Repsol and LCR, Ecstar Suzuki rider Andrea Iannone, and just maybe, Johann Zarco on the Monster Tech3 Yamaha. Sure, a bunch of people did some 1'38s and low 1'39s, but Marc Márquez, Dani Pedrosa, and Cal Crutchlow were banging out that kind of pace consistently, on tires which have more than half race distance on them.
Is it going to be a Honda whitewash? "It is still too early to say," Cal Crutchlow told reporters, trying to dampen expectations after finishing the day as fastest. "A lot of the other bikes take one day and overnight they are there. If they are sliding a lot then they try to fix it for day two. If we’re sliding then that's our natural bike and we don't make the same improvement overnight. I don't think we’ll suddenly have another second but other people might find another half a second."
But there is no doubt that the Honda is strong. "The bike is definitely working well," Crutchlow said. "Again it is very physical to ride around here and to do a lot of laps consistently is quite hard. Obviously the speed is there. I feel I am competitive and the team and bike are working well and Honda also. Every circuit we have been to this year we’ve been good."
The results of the Repsol Honda riders reinforce the might of the RC213V. Dani Pedrosa second fastest overall, his wrist much better than it was in Austin, despite some difficulty with a bike that was too raked out in the first session of practice, leaving him down in fourteenth after FP1.
Marc Márquez ended fifth, well below par until you realize that he had a crash at the end of FP2, and never got a chance to fit fresh rubber. He set his best time of 1'38.863 on a front tire which had 11 laps on it and a rear which had done 5 laps. He did a 1'39.029 on the same tires, with 25 laps on the front and 19 laps on the rear, before the front let go when he braked too late. "Marc seems to have a bit more pace than most people at the minute but he is coming off a win," was Crutchlow's assessment.
Whether that crash is hiding a deeper problem is open to question. In FP1, Márquez went out for two runs on the soft front tire, and by the end of fifteen laps, that tire was destroyed on the right hand side, which takes a beating around Jerez' many fast right handers. It is possible that Márquez was just using up allocation of tires he will never be able to race, and saving the mediums and hards for qualifying and perhaps even the race. But a crash on a medium, and a destroyed soft in FP1 could be a sign that wear is going to be an issue late in the race for the reigning champion.
If Yamaha are to put up any opposition to the might of Honda, then at the moment, it will have to come from Johann Zarco. The Frenchman was seventh quickest in the morning, but unlike the other front runners, he only used a single set of tires, his pace consistently in the mid-1'39s. The issue for Zarco is that he couldn't find much of an improvement in the afternoon, until he put a new set of soft tires on front and rear.
Yet Zarco remained optimistic. "Pretty happy about the first day," the Tech3 rider said. "The asphalt is just so good, because you can have some extreme lines with your riding, and the bike is never moving. And without the test here in Jerez, we are competitive, so every comment I was saying to the team from this morning to this afternoon, we were improving. So when you are going in this way, that every time it's positive things on the bike and on the track, you can relax yourself and be much faster. So I'm happy for that and I want to keep that pace for the next days."
Tire wear better?
The problems with tire wear in the second half of the race in 2017 seem to have been banished by the combination of a better bike and the new track surface. "It's true that last year, we were struggling with the used tire, but now the track is different," Zarco said. "Now we can be faster and even the way we are using the bike, we can control much more the rear traction. At the moment with the medium tires, I did great laps, even with many laps on the rear tire, so for the first day we are almost more than positive. But keeping the good pace and then working with small things on the bike to play with it even more than today, I think I will have a good chance for the podium on Sunday."
Things are looking less rosy for the factory Yamahas, however. Valentino Rossi just sneaked into Q2 provisionally by the end of Friday, while Maverick Viñales could do no better than twelfth. The problems seemed to arrive when the grip went away in the afternoon after temperatures rose, a classic Jerez problem, despite the new surface.
"It was a difficult day, especially in the afternoon, because in the morning I felt good with the bike, with the tires, and FP1 was not so bad," Valentino Rossi said. "But in the afternoon with more temperature we suffer more. I’m not very happy with the balance of the bike. We have to modify the general balance, the general feeling. But especially we suffer with the tires because in this track the new asphalt is better but you spin a lot. In this situation we suffer and after some lap we lose some grip and our pace is a bit more slow compared to our opponents."
Maverick Viñales was even more concerned. " I wasn't feeling well during FP1 and FP2, it was difficult," Viñales said. "In Austin we improved quite a lot, but since coming here the problems started again. The bike is moving around a lot, so we have to keep working and stay focused." Rossi tried to retain an optimistic tone. "I think it will be hard but it’s just Friday. We have a lot of work to do to improve tomorrow and we will see."
On paper, championship leader Andrea Dovizioso is in a comfortable position, sixth fastest overall and less than half a second off the pace of Cal Crutchlow. But in terms of race pace, Dovizioso is posting 1'40s, rather than the low 1'39s of the Hondas. Dovizioso also played down expectations, while retaining an optimistic frame of mind. "It's too early to know what we can do in the race, because the feeling is good," Dovizioso told the media. "Three or four riders are competitive for the race, and not a lot of riders are really fast and on the pace. But I think a lot of things can change tomorrow, so I don't know."
But the Italian believed improvement was possible. "I don't know how much we can improve, because I believe we can improve our pace tomorrow, especially with the same tire as our competitors. I think also my riding style wasn't good in the afternoon. So there is always a lot of work, on the bike, on the rider, on the electronics. There is always a margin everywhere to try to improve the situation, so until after the warm up, most of the time it's difficult to know what you can do. I think we can have a chance, but we will see, and the way we work tomorrow will affect it a lot."
His teammate Jorge Lorenzo believed he could have been much better than seventh overall. "In the morning I didn't use a new tire," Lorenzo said, "so I put one in in the second free practice. But the first soft rear tire, for me, was not good, so I couldn't be much faster. But when I put the medium rear tire, I improved one second, so the medium rear has much more grip than the first soft new tire. So this is not normal. Then I put another soft tire in the end and I improved the lap time." That lap could have been even quicker, Lorenzo believed, had the bike not jumped out of gear. "It was a pity that in my last lap, one gear missed, so I lost the lap because of this mistake of the gear. So I was quicker and I could have been maybe top five."
The divergence at Ducati was in evidence again. Ducati had brought new parts for the Desmosedici GP18, which were aimed at making the bike easier to turn. Those parts are believed to be very close the GP17 design, which suited Lorenzo slight better. "We are trying new things on the bike," Lorenzo said. "Ducati brought here some new parts that worked well today, to make the bike more smooth in the middle of the corner and acceleration. And this goes a little bit in the direction that I want for that bike, that we lost a little bit with the new bike, that improved in some areas but got worse in stability, in smoothness on the exit of the corners. With these new parts on the bike, it goes in the direction I want a little bit."
The biggest difference the parts made was that it made the bike smoother while cornering, Lorenzo explained. "Not in the braking, but in the middle of the corners and in the traction areas, the bike is smoother, it moves much less, and this is good for here and I guess for the next tracks."
Andrea Dovizioso, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with the new parts. "We didn't try any new parts," the Italian said. "We have a clear situation in our side, and like last year, we know what we requested, what we would like to have, and what Ducati are working on. Most of the time in the past, we learned that when you want to try too many things, it's the worst thing you can do most of the time. And it's not what we need now, and it wasn't what we needed last year, and our strategy worked."
But the new asphalt, and the updates made to the GP18 over winter testing had helped him be faster, Dovizioso said. "I think the new asphalt and without any bumps and with better grip is better for us. This I think is the biggest reason why we are fast," he told the press. Was it more the track than the bike? "Maybe," Dovizioso replied. "Maybe it's also some small percent of the bike, because this winter we improved a little bit here. Not enough. We showed the last two races it wasn't enough, the change we did this winter, but we did a small step like I explained during the winter test, but it's always a mix of everything."
Silly Season slows to simmering
Dovizioso also admitted that he had held talks with Repsol Honda about his future, though he played down the significance of that. "We are open, we spoke with some other companies. It's normal. It's not something we have to be scared to say. Every rider does it. Everybody does the same thing, but most of the riders don't say that it happens. But I don't have any problem to say that. I don't think it has to be a problem."
Despite the talks, it still seems more likely that Dovizioso stays with Ducati. It makes sense for Dovizioso's manager to speak with other factories, if only to serve as leverage for bigger salary demands from Ducati. But with Johann Zarco gone to KTM, the second seat at Repsol Honda is still available, team boss Alberto Puig believed still to be keen to drop Dani Pedrosa. Dovizioso would be an option, as would Joan Mir, but there is a lot of negotiating to be done.
Silly Season talks in general seem to have been put on hold. Jorge Lorenzo has hinted that he wants to wait until he has had a few European races to score some decent results, before making his decision. The Marc VDS team's talks with Suzuki have stalled for the moment, as Suzuki boss Sahara-san had a back problem and could not fly to Jerez to conduct negotiations. After the KTM signings before the Jerez race, it could be three or four more races before the next major announcement. But then again, given the febrile atmosphere in the paddock at the moment, the next bombshell could drop tomorrow. It's MotoGP, and anything could happen.
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