MotoGP riders love resurfaced tracks, and Barcelona is no exception. But while the new asphalt laid at the start of this year is infinitely better than the old surface it replaces, there are still the odd few blemishes. The surface may be new, but the grip wasn't universally good, especially as the track was a little dirtier than expected. And as the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmeló is used extensively by F1, the cars have already started to pull up the tarmac in the braking zone, bumps and ripples starting to make an unwelcome appearance already.
And though you can change the asphalt, you can't change the locating and microclimate around the track. It got hot and humid in the afternoon on Friday, and riders went tumbling through the gravel despite the new surface. A grand total of 28 riders hit the deck on Friday, across all three classes and all sessions. That is well over twice as many crashes on Friday as on any Friday during the last five years.
Johann Zarco was one of them, washing out the front at Turn 5. It was a fairly normal crash, Zarco explained. "The crash this afternoon was not something bad, just closing the front when you try to lean the bike to turn the bike as quick as possible," the Monster Tech3 Yamaha rider said. "Things can happen. It was the medium front after three laps. Maybe I asked a bit too much, or we were not good in the setup to lean that way. But not a big problem, I could understand it quickly."
The conditions helped explain at least some of the crashes, Zarco said. "The thing is here, you feel you can push but when you do a bit too much, you are on the limit," he explained." And we are I think quite close with the lap time, and that makes the level more high, and more risk to crash. And also you feel a big difference when you are on the line, you see where all the black lines from the tires are, and if you go a bit out from that, then it's sliding a lot. So it means, if you try a bit too much and you go a bit wide, you must almost release all your push, because if you are a bit wide and you say, I do it the same, you can crash. And that can also be the result."
"It's strange because offline is dirty, online seems not dirty with loads of grip but patches with no grip at all," Cal Crutchlow mused. "It's the same for everybody and as I said yesterday I still think they've done a good job with the track. The last two corners are back to the way that we prefer to ride them as well. It just seems that you can make mistakes really easily, as we saw with a lot of crashes even though most people didn't seem to do a lot wrong."
"You saw Zarco this morning have the big moment. It's like a patch of ice," Crutchlow said. Johann Zarco explained that that problem had not been down to the track, however. "This morning was more scary than the crash in the afternoon, because in corner 12, I had a problem with the rear brake, the rear brake locked a little bit," Zarco told us. "At this high speed when you lean the bike, if something is a little bit wrong on the bike, you can immediately have a big moment and be fast in the gravel. Pretty happy that I did not crash."
Valentino Rossi was surprised by the state of the track. "For me, first of all the track this morning was quite bad and I don’t expect this," the Movistar Yamaha rider said."I expected better conditions. After, it was coming better and as always in the afternoon with more temperature it is more difficult, more tricky with the rear. I think this afternoon we were quite lucky because we don’t have the sun so the temperature of the asphalt was quite hot, but nothing crazy. I like the track, it is very good to ride with the new asphalt because the grip is good and also you have a lot less bumps."
Marc Márquez was running into a different problem with the track, but one which has always existed at Barcelona. "The new surface is so good," the Repsol Honda rider told the media. "It equals everything a lot, because to find the limit is a little bit easier, but we are enjoying and now the most important thing will be to find the good rear tire. The bumps from Formula One are not a problem, but you can feel them already even though it is a new surface." But there was a major issue, at least for Márquez and his generation of riders. "One of the problems of this circuit is the kerbs. The kerbs are car kerbs and are very high on the inside and it is difficult to put the elbow and the knee down."
It had been a difficult day for Márquez. A crash in the afternoon scuppered his plans, a result of the Repsol Honda team not getting the setup of his RC213V team right just yet. "I was riding with used tires, hard/hard," Márquez explained, "and maybe the tires were not ready. But it’s also true that today I didn’t feel comfortable because we had a small electronic problem and I had some really strange slides and normally in MotoGP it is not like this."
That left Márquez down in twelfth on the combined standings, and currently outside of Q2. But he was confident the team had found a solution. "We are missing something, but the good thing is that we have found this problem in this hour and a half. And even with all these problems, with the race pace I am there - in the top three - and this is the most important."
His position on the timesheets does indeed belie the race pace which he has. Examining the full lap times, it is clear that Márquez has among the strongest pace, having set a 1'39 and three more low 1'40s during FP2. That was better than Andrea Iannone, second fastest man overall, better than either Maverick Viñales or Andrea Dovizioso, who were third and fourth respectively, better than Cal Crutchlow and Johann Zarco.
It was not better than Jorge Lorenzo, however. The Ducati Factory rider came into Barcelona fresh off the back of his maiden Ducati win at Mugello, and the two tracks share a common strand of racetrack DNA. Several riders explicitly mentioned Lorenzo as a genuine threat. "I can say that now Lorenzo understood something, and he's pretty fast with the soft tire, I don't know about the medium, but with the new soft he's fast, and with the used soft, he's fast too," Johann Zarco said about the Spaniard. "So he understood something and when you have the setup right and the control of the bike, you can manage the tires pretty well."
Cal Crutchlow concurred. "I think Lorenzo nailed a lap, nailed the final sector," the Englishman opined. "He's absolutely on form at the minute. When he's like that it's horrendous! Honestly, after Mugello, I knew it'd be a difficult weekend here to beat him. This was a race last year that he led a little bit and had a not bad race, finishing fourth. And after last week, I knew he was going to be difficult to beat here." That doesn't mean that Lorenzo will get it all his own way, however. "But you don't know in Assen, that could be a different story," Crutchlow said.
Perhaps Andrea Iannone could put up some resistance to the Spaniard. The Suzuki rider finished second quickest overall, just a tenth of a second behind Jorge Lorenzo. But Iannone did not feel he had gotten everything out of the bike on Friday. "I'm quite satisfied, even though I'm not in great shape" Iannone told the Italian press. "I'm happy about many things, but we need to improve in several places, and I have to be more precise." The second half of the race, and saving your tires until then, would make the difference between winning and losing for Iannone.
Somewhat surprisingly, though Maverick Viñales and Andrea Dovizioso were third and fourth respectively, they appeared to be missing some race pace. Dovizioso was very calm about the situation, explaining he had spend his day working on tire performance. "Today you can see easily a lot of mistakes on entry," the factory Ducati rider said. "Nobody can really push on exit because there is the layout. The layout is not the best for the tires, especially the rear. But still I don’t think the situation is clear. We have to understand the details; the consumption; the potential of the tire; the drop. We worked on the hard tire today. Some other riders worked with the soft so we don’t have the real comparison to know exactly our speed. But overall the feeling is good."
No easy choices
It is the satellite riders who look to have decent pace, Cal Crutchlow and Johann Zarco looking strong and consistent after the first day of practice. Crutchlow had some concerns over the tire allocation, he said. "You saw me and Marc use the hard front initially in the second session," the Englishman said. "It was a bit of a risk with the track temperature but it seemed quite good. At least we're able to use the allocation instead of sitting with ten tires on the rack that we can't use, like at Mugello."
Zarco had found his pace within himself, rather than with the bike, not longer being eaten up (if you'll pardon the pun) when things didn't immediately go his way. "Today the New Johann is back!" Zarco exclaimed. "Not the new, the Good Johann. There is the Old Johann, and the Good one, and the good one is here since the beginning of the week, everything is going well. So I want to keep it also this weekend. I think I learned a lot at Mugello about how to manage myself when I feel that not everything is coming well. So even if I'm struggling a bit on some points, I stay cool."
There was a remarkable showing by his teammate on Friday, Hafizh Syahrin. A change to the setup in Mugello – raising the bike up to make weight transfer a little easier to help with braking – had worked well at Barcelona. That change had allowed the modest Malaysian to take nearly a second off his best time from the test before Mugello. "I didn't change the suspension so much," Syahrin said. "I just raised the bike, to give me more support on the braking, because at the moment, I've already improved on the brakes, before I was a little bit weak on the brakes. So now I already have an advantage on the brakes, because of this setup change."
But Syahrin is not certain of being able to hold on his position in Q2, however. "Suddenly, I can stay in the top ten for Q2," the Malaysian said. I know some riders will go faster tomorrow, but anyway, I feel really good with the bike, I enjoy with team, and also I think the team understand me and I understand the bike. Since Mugello, we did something different on the bike, and we improved nearly one second compared to the test. So I'm really happy about this, and thank you very much for giving me a good package."
On Saturday morning, with colder temperatures and more determined looks on their faces, the rest of the grid will be chasing a really quick time. Syahrin's time in the top ten may well be numbered. Or perhaps it will not. The rate of Syahrin's progression has been impressive to watch.
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