We knew it was going to rain at some point on Friday, the only question was when. Well, not quite the only question. The other question was, if it did rain, would the MotoGP riders go out and ride in the rain? Or would they deem the Red Bull Ring to be too dangerous to ride in the wet, and sit out practice, as they had threatened when rain had caused Moto2 riders to fall like skittles last year?
It started to rain in the early afternoon, right at the end of Moto3 FP2. Thankfully, not heavily enough to claim too many casualties, though Nicolo Bulega did suffer a massive highside after the checkered flag had fallen, his bike flying through the air and clouting Nakarin Atiratphuvapat around the head, the Thai rider trying to fend off the airborne KTM with one hand, while trying not to fall off with the other.
From that moment on, the rain started to pelt down. A rivulet started running across pit lane exit, and standing water formed on the steep downhill sections of Turns 1 through 4. It rained so heavily that MotoGP FP2 was delayed for 20 minutes or so, as the safety car circulated testing conditions. But the session was eventually given the green light, and riders were free to enter the track. Would anyone attempt it?
Alex Rins was the first to test the waters, venturing out and then heading straight back in. Johann Zarco was the next, the Monster Tech3 Yamaha rider the first to put in consistent laps, though conditions were not really up to it. "When I start, even if we have mapping for the rain, there is too much power and I was fifth gear and spinning in fifth gear all the time," Zarco said. "Also I have to have half-throttle to go and to make the straight."
Zarco's pioneering was appreciated by the rest of the grid, lapping while it was wet and providing a marker for when the track started to dry enough to be reasonable. "I think we could see when Zarco was out on track, especially at the beginning, those were conditions which weren't quite safe," Bradly Smith said. "But give it another five or ten minutes, the water level went down and it started to be OK, so I'm glad I wasn't out there when he was, and I'm glad I was out there when I was."
One by one, riders started to drip out onto the track, some more reluctantly than others. Just about last of the lot was Marc Márquez. A few laps later, he was also fastest of the lot.
Cal Crutchlow had been one of the longest to hold out, and also one of the most vocal critics of the circuit. "It is the same old story, if one guy goes out you’ve got to go out, haven’t you?" he said, before taking a more humorous slant on conditions. "To be honest we’ve been riding the bike so much lately I just don’t know why everyone didn’t want the afternoon off. We’ve got to ride it next week in Misano at the test. I’m sure that they would want an afternoon off, I was ready to park it."
Better, but still dangerous
Despite that, the work the track had done to sandblast the tire rubber left by F1 in the braking zones had made a significant improvement to the circuit, even Cal Crutchlow was forced to admit. "It was better than I thought, but at a couple of corners it was a lot more slippery than at other corners," the LCR Honda rider said, "so you were able to push in some corners but not in the others, but to find that limit it was quite difficult but I felt comfortable and confident. I felt I could have gone really fast if I needed to, I just didn’t want to take any risks because I didn’t need to take any risks."
Crutchlow was adamant the track still wasn't safe, however, and not just in the wet. "You don’t notice the barriers have been pushed back and you know when you crash in the rain all you do is speed up. To me it is not safe but I’ve said this all along so I’m not going to keep on about it, you just have to do what you have to do, ride the bike and get on with it. I’m never a guy to complain about safety or worry about anything but I don’t this place is cut out for it in the dry let alone in the rain."
The problem, Crutchlow agreed, was that the power of Red Bull made the circuit pretty much untouchable, despite obvious safety issues. "The problem is if you go to the safety commission, and there are eight athletes that are not going to back [any complaints] or else they would be chopped of their €300,000 or €400,000 per year endorsement deal," he observed. It is worth noting that Crutchlow is backed by a rival to Red Bull, and by a similar amount, but that does not invalidate the central point of his argument.
Better than expected
Overall, the riders were pleasantly surprised by the level of grip available, though that may have been more of a question of low expectations, rather than spectacularly grippy asphalt. "In the wet, the grip was very good," Marc Márquez said. "Better than I expected. On the brake points I was a little bit careful because last year we had many, many crashes but in general the feeling was good."
Riding in the wet was "quite fine," Maverick Viñales said, but when the rain was heavier, the track was more difficult to navigate. "With a lot of water on the track it was very difficult, if it remains a lot of water especially out of Turn 1 to Turn 3 it is a lot of water."
"I expected very bad grip, but it was good," Andrea Dovizioso said. "The first reason I think is the soft Michelin is too soft to make the race and it was very good, the grip. Maybe they clean the track more than the past, so there was less rubber on the ground and maybe it helps have a better grip. I think, I don’t know. But it was really good."
But there were plenty who warned of danger. "For me, I made some laps during the practice, because it's been a long time since we rode in the wet, and we have something different to try," Valentino Rossi said. "But it's true that it rained very hard, but the track is not good, because it's very slippery, and the water remains on the track. And also you have that point, and also the braking for Turn 4, for example, where you have to brake on the edge, and it's very, very dangerous, you have to roll off the throttle."
Quantity, not quality
The quantity of rain was the decisive factor for the Movistar Yamaha rider. "For me, in the last five for six minutes, with that amount of water, it will be very difficult to race. Too dangerous," Rossi said. "Also because in the straight, the bike makes a lot of aquaplaning, and a lot of spin, and it's not good. So we hope for the dry, but if it rains, it has to rain not a lot. If not, it becomes too dangerous."
Yamaha had fitted their bikes with a new deflector underneath the fairing, to try to keep rain off the rear tire. It had helped, Rossi said, but was not quite a magic bullet. "We tried this deflector to take out some water from the rear tire, and also for the aquaplaning," the Movistar Yamaha rider told us. "It's not so bad, I think it's good. But with this amount of water, anyway, we have a lot of aquaplaning, so it's not easy."
Probably the most dangerous part of the track was Turn 2, the fast left kink on the climb up the hill, according to Marc Márquez. "That corner maybe is the most dangerous point on the circuit," the Repsol Honda rider said. "I mean it looks like the runoff area is enough but we arrive around 290-300 in that corner and especially when you go in, it's not the problem because you lean but not much. The problem is that you start to brake with some lean on the left side and in that area it's better to lose one tenth, because a crash there and you are injured for sure. So it's the most physical point of the circuit for that, because you start to brake on the left side. It's dangerous for the speed, but I think the run-off area is enough."
Dovi vs Marc, again
Fortunately for the riders, it looks like it will not rain on Sunday for the race, though there could be a few rain showers around during qualifying. In the dry, there are two riders who are head and shoulders above the rest. Their names should be familiar, as they finished first and second in the race here last year: Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso.
"On Sunday it looks like it will be dry and I'm confident, but Ducati is strong," Márquez opined. "I mean you can see first, second and third Ducati. Especially Dovizioso is very, very strong. They have a really good acceleration, so that makes the difference in this race track, but we will try to improve a few things on the bike for try to be with them."
"In this moment I think we have a very, very, very similar pace," Andrea Dovizioso carefully framed it. "We wanted to put a different tire at the end – not to improve the lap time, but to compare the two tires because at the moment the soft and the medium look like the race tires. So we knew there was a big chance to ride in the wet this afternoon, so we used the practice this morning in the best way. We used a soft tire because it’s a new tire that we didn’t have last year. At the end we compared the grip with the medium, just to compare." Marc Márquez hadn't put a new tire in at the end, and was still comfortably faster than most.
Márquez had suffered a minor problem in his third run in the morning, and been forced to change something at the rear of the bike to try to improve the throttle response of the bike. I saw mechanics remove the tail section, and fiddle around at the back of the bike, without being able to see exactly what had been replaced or modified.
The Repsol Honda rider remained coy about what we had seen. "We are changing a few things! I will not say what," he joked. "On the exhaust we are trying to improve a little bit the connection with the gas and in that area is the exhaust and for that reason they are trying to… they changed one piece for try to have a smoother connection."
The Red Bull Ring continues to be the Movistar Yamaha team's kryptonite, Maverick Viñales just sneaking into the top 10 in FP1, bumping teammate Valentino Rossi out by just five hundredths of a second. It had been a hard day overall for Rossi, as he had lost time when his rear sprocket shattered along the front straight, causing the chain to jump the sprocket and Rossi to come to a halt.
That disrupted his program for that session, Rossi explained. "Today I was a little bit unlucky, because I had a problem, I broke the good bike at the beginning. The other bike is quite different, especially in the setting, because we want to try something in the middle of the practice, but I didn't feel very comfortable." That experiment with a second bike had not been successful, Rossi explained. "The second bike, we tried a different setting and weight distribution to try to save the tire, but maybe we saved the tire a little bit, but I lost too much performance. In fact I think that with my bike, I can be a little bit faster."
The problem, though, is the same as it has been just about all year, Rossi explained, and the layout of the Red Bull Ring was exactly the opposite of what the Yamaha needed. "For us, this is the worst configuration, if you have to start from the slow hairpin in 1st or 2nd gear and after you have a long straight, it's where we suffer more. So for me, the layout of this track is the worst one for us."
Teammate Maverick Viñales pretty much agreed with all of that. "We are still struggling with acceleration and at this track we have to sort it tomorrow," Viñales said. "If not we don’t have any chance."
It could be a long Saturday for the Movistar Yamahas at the Red Bull Ring.
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