For the past couple of months, the UK, along with the rest of Northern Europe, has been sweltering under one of the hottest summers in recent memory. That, of course, was before MotoGP arrived. The arrival of Grand Prix racing brought an abrupt end to the British summer, with temperatures struggling to get anywhere near the 20° mark. Add in a strong and blustery wind, and a late shower in the afternoon, and the MotoGP paddock faces a very different prospect to recent weeks. And let's not talk about the heavy rain which is forecast for Sunday.
Before the bikes took to the track, there had been much talk of just how bumpy the new surface would be. On Thursday, the riders were wary, wanting to ride the track at speed before making a judgment. After Friday, the verdict was pretty devastating. For the majority of the riders, the bumps are worse, if anything.
"Everybody expected the new asphalt to give us a good track and it was a disaster," Marc Márquez commented. "It was worse than last year, better grip but many bumps." In Spanish, he joked that he hoped the contractor had not sent a bill yet. Aprilia rider Aleix Espargaro was even more vehement than Márquez. "Sincerely I don't understand what happened. I’ve never seen something like this. Many times this year we have pushed in the safety commission to make new asphalt in tracks that are much better than this! It’s a shame because Silverstone is a really nice track; very long with a lot of fast corners but I am more trying to avoid a crash and the bumps than being competitive."
Fighting through the bumps
Andrea Dovizioso took a more philosophical view, but was just as hard in his criticism of the track. "I think the feeling for everybody is bad, even when you are fast it is a fight through the bumps," the Ducati rider said. "When you are at maybe the best track in our championship this is very bad. You have to fight in every exit because with all the power we have – the MotoGP bikes – the reaction is very bad. It does not stop; until the next corner the movement is there."
The problem of the bumps is exacerbated by the strong wind and cold temperatures. "The wind here makes everything worse. It is very difficult," Dovizioso said. Silverstone is a very high speed track, so strong winds tend to upset the bikes more anyway. Throw in a lot of bumps, and it becomes even more tricky.
The cold doesn't help either. "The thing is that, when it is cold like this and bumpy, you have two problems and the solution are in opposite directions!" Aleix Espargaro explained. "You would like to make a shorter bike to gain stability but you need more temperature in the tires. You want the bike more agile and to cope with the wind. We can increase the tire temperature by 6-7 degrees but then it is worse for the bumps. The compromise is very difficult."
That makes tire choice difficult too. Ideally, you want to choose a stiffer front tire to handle the bumps, but the cold wind sucks the heat out of the tires at Silverstone, especially on the left side, which doesn't get as much use. No heat means no grip, and no grip means entering each corner not knowing whether you will make it to the exit in one piece. Finding a balance between a softer tire, which will offer better grip, but which won't provide the same support over the bumps for a full race distance, or a harder tire, which will handle the bumps all race long, but may betray you as you enter one of the faster left handers, is difficult.
Attack without fear
Valentino Rossi had the best advice for dealing with the bumps, but it requires a leap of faith. "For me, from what I have understood in my career the secret to ride a bumpy track is to not care," the Movistar Yamaha rider commented. "Because if you start to think about riding in another way, or if you don’t attack the bumps but you try to go around or you enter the bumps, it is a little bit like motocross: if you enter the bump more scared, then it is worse. So you have to go and hope that everything is okay – this is the best way I think."
Despite the complaints, the riders did not want to label the track as dangerous. "Our bikes are not made for the bumps, so the feeling with the bumps is very bad but the tire has a very good grip," Valentino Rossi said. "I think that more than it being dangerous it is difficult to manage."
That was very much the way that Andrea Dovizioso saw the problem too. "The grip is good and also last year it wasn't bad," the Ducati rider said. "To speak about ‘danger’ is maybe too much. I think that is a different thing. But it is very bad. It is very easy to make a mistake, to crash and you have to use a lot of energy. In twenty laps it will be difficult to manage. It is bad but to speak about danger is to talk about the wall and you might hit it." There is plenty of runoff at Silverstone, so even if the bumps do cause you to crash, you at least have somewhere to go.
Despite the bumps, the pace was good, already on a par with the fastest race laps set last year. The surprise of the morning was seeing the Movistar Yamahas at the top of the timesheets, though several riders did not use a new rear tire at the end of FP1. Even then, Maverick Viñales looked extremely competitive, one of the three fastest riders on the day in FP2. His pace was strong, and at a track where the rider counts more than the bike, the Yamahas are hopeful of a result.
Both riders felt they had benefited from test at Misano, though Valentino Rossi felt more assistance from electronics updates he had tested there. "We worked a bit on the electronics for acceleration and it looks like we have made a step as the bike is a bit smoother from the bottom. I think this is important for us," he said. "It looks like we have started to go in the good way. The road is long and there is a lot of work but this afternoon I feel something better and also Maverick said the same thing so it is positive."
For Viñales, it was more about his general level of comfort with the bike. "Today the strategy was to enjoy myself on the bike, enjoy myself, try to set up a good electronics for the track," he said. "After Misano we don’t know if it would work as well as there. But it was good, I could ride quite fast, precise and the rhythm was not to so bad."
The main improvement had come from his feeling with the bike, and especially confidence in the front end, Viñales said. "The general feeling, the general feeling was much better. I could push the bike much more in the front and this always gives me a lot of confidence. Every time I push the front I could do the lap times. It was very interesting to understand the way to ride the bike in order to be fast and consistent."
Three for the win
Examining the timesheets, Viñales will meet the stiffest competition from Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso. Both men were fast and consistent in FP2, and looked to be in control. Márquez had made a big change in setup from the morning to the afternoon, and that had made the difference.
"In FP1, I ride too aggressively but also the bike was shaking a lot, but then the front tire was also not a good tire for me," Márquez said. "So everything was going the wrong way, even the electronics were out. But then for FP2 the team worked a lot to give me another kind of set-up, another kind of electronics and I changed my riding style. All this means we improved the pace by one second and we were very close to Maverick and Dovi that are, at the moment, the fastest ones."
It was too early to draw conclusions, was the general tone, and another day of practice would reveal more. "It is too early to speak about the race," Dovizioso said. "Tomorrow it looks like the conditions will be the same so we have to see if we can be better and look to the competitors. Sunday could be wet but we have to work for every situation."
Official at last
On Friday, the Petronas Yamaha Sepang Racing, as the team will officially be known, was presented at a press conference, featuring some major figures from Malaysia, including the Petronas CEO Wan Zulkiflee, Sepang Circuit CEO Razlan Razali, and the Malaysian Minister for Youth and Sport Syed Saddiq. The press conference did not reveal anything we didn't already know: Petronas sponsorship, support for Malaysian riders, Franco Morbidelli and Fabio Quartararo as riders, Johan Stigefelt as team director for all three classes, and Wilco Zeelenberg as MotoGP team manager.
The press conference also confirmed what I have written previously: that Morbidelli will get a bike close to the factory spec, and Fabio Quartararo will race the 2018 bike. This is a step up from the system used by Tech3, who only ever got last year's bikes, but Lin Jarvis, Yamaha managing director, let slip that this was mostly a question of money. "If we make more A-spec bikes, at the end of the day, it's possible to do, but it has a cost," Jarvis said. "So the first thing is, there's a significant cost difference between an A-spec and a B-spec bike."
Notes on Thursday
Regular readers of MotoMatters.com may have noticed that there wasn't a round up on the site on Thursday night. A minor illness made it impossible for me to get something written, but there are a couple of things worth mentioning here.
First and foremost, the fact that Dorna managed to get a live link up with the International Space Station in the pre-event press conference, where NASA astronaut and self-confessed race nut Drew Feustel spoke to the riders. The stars of MotoGP – Marc Márquez, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo, Andrea Dovizioso, Cal Crutchlow, Alvaro Bautista – got to ask questions about life in space, and the mission of the ISS. It is not often that you see MotoGP riders, the biggest name in their sport, in their countries, in the world, be overawed by speaking to someone. But this was one of those occasions.
The other thing worth noting was the comment by Aleix Espargaro on the relative strength of the various bikes on the grid. Talking about why Suzuki hiring Andrea Iannone would be good for Aprilia, and especially for the development of the RS-GP, he said, " he can give us a lot of ideas, because he rode the Ducati and he rode the Suzuki, for me the best bikes on the grid right now".
Asked if that meant he thought that the Suzuki and the Ducati are better than the Honda, Espargaro said he believed it was. "It's difficult to know, it's difficult to say, but from my point of view, my humble opinion is that, yes, the Suzuki is a really stable bike, in all areas, it's not the best, in no area is it the best, in no area is it the worst. They have a quite good engine, quite good chassis, quite good electronics. For me, the strongest team. So it's a really good package. And the Ducati obviously has a lot of stability and the best engine in the world. So for me, these two bikes are the best at the moment, at least from my point of view. Maybe the Suzuki riders or the Ducati riders would prefer the Honda, and maybe some on the Yamaha or the Aprilia or whatever. But this is my point of view."
When we pointed out that there was a Honda leading the championship, Espargaro's reply was telling. "But the championship is led by Márquez," he corrected us. "Cal Crutchlow is for me a very, very good rider, and he's very far from Marc. So the question is, what happens if you give the Ducati to number 93?" Would it matter what bike Márquez had? "Not any bike, but with the stability of the Ducati on the brakes, and we know how strong he is on the brakes, and with that engine? 19 in a row?"
Ducati tried very hard to sign Marc Márquez this time around, but the Spaniard chose to remain with Repsol Honda. No doubt Ducati will try to sign Márquez again at the end of 2020, when the next lot of contracts are up. So maybe we will find out whether Aleix Espargaro is right or not.
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