Surely the teams who tested at Misano prior to Silverstone would have an advantage once MotoGP arrived at the Italian circuit? With a day to set up the bikes ahead of time, they would start the Misano weekend with a head start.
That is the theory, anyway. But when I spoke to one of Johann Zarco's mechanics, he dismissed the idea out of hand. "You have an advantage for about five laps," he said. The problem is the period of time between the test and the race. Conditions change too much. "What you find is a setup for the conditions on the day. When you get there for the race, the track is dirtier, the weather's different, the temperature's lower."
The track definitely changed a lot between the test and the race weekend, as those who were at the test pointed out. "When we came here for the test, the grip level of the track was higher," Valentino Rossi said. "But for some reason, also for the rain yesterday, the track even if it's a bit colder is more slippery."
"The track condition when we tested here was fantastic," Cal Crutchlow said. "And today, it was not very good. I don't know why, but it was."
The rain, the cold, the dirt
Jorge Lorenzo had an explanation for why the track was in much worse shape than a month previously. "In the night it rained quite heavily, and the rain dropped the grip of the tarmac, especially in the morning. In the afternoon, the tarmac improved, so the lap times finally with new tires has been fast, so the track in the afternoon improved constantly. So finally, we got close to the grip of one month ago, but it's still not the same."
The conditions left Andrea Dovizioso puzzled. "I think it's impossible at the moment to understand the pace for the race, because today it was very strange to ride in this condition," he told us on Friday. "The tires were very strange, the tire was completely different to the test. At the beginning of the practice in the afternoon, we used a used tire from the morning, with six laps on, and we destroyed the tire in three laps. Normally this never happens with Michelin. You can have a drop, but the wear normally is good. So I think the conditions were strange."
Intrigued by Dovizioso's analysis, I went to check with a Michelin representative. "The tires at the race are exactly the same as the ones used at the test," I was told. The strangeness of the conditions, and the difference in the way the track felt, were what made the tires feel so very different.
It also made tire choice that much more difficult. "It was for sure a difficult day, because especially with the tires, we expect to work with the harder option," Valentino Rossi said. "Because when we come here for the test the grip level of the track was higher. But for some reason, also for the rain yesterday, the track even if it's a bit colder is more slippery. So we have to work more on the soft and the medium."
Did all that testing go to waste, now that the riders found such a different track? The four fastest riders had all tested at Misano. But the fifth, Marc Márquez, did not. The Repsol Honda rider did not appear to be hampered by a lack of track time at Misano, at least in the afternoon. But he had to rectify a mistake in the morning, after gambling on being able to go straight through to Q2 on used race rubber.
"We took a risk, but we had to do like this because the other manufacturers did a test here and they have everything more or less clear," Márquez explained. "For that reason, everybody put in a new soft. But we didn’t test here so I took that gamble."
He and his team did have a plan to stop for fresh rubber at the end of FP1, but Márquez messed up the timing. "I stopped at the end of the practice and we missed a little bit the timing because I did one lap very slow. The team calculated it very precisely, but it was my mistake that I did one lap too slow. When I arrived I knew that in 20 seconds I could not do one lap with the new tires. So then we prayed and maybe the Pope helped us," Márquez joked, referring to the trip to the Vatican he had taken to meet the Pope, along with a number of other riders. "It didn’t rain and it was OK. In the afternoon I went out with the soft tire so I could be fast from the beginning."
Under normal circumstances, Márquez would not have bothered with fresh rubber. "Normally we never have that plan," he said. "The recent plan was just to keep the same tires. But during the session you must understand if you need [new tires] or not. Then I said, ‘I’ll need them.’ We calculated correctly, but I did one lap too slow. When I stopped after 20 minutes, Santi [Hernandez] said, ‘You don’t have time. Go out with the same bike and practice the start.’ Yeah, we took the risk but with those things sometimes when you want to be perfect it’s so difficult."
Valentino Rossi had also made a mistake in FP1 which left him out of Q2, but his problem was due to being limited to a single bike, the other suffering a technical problem. "This morning I had a problem with the second bike because the second bike doesn't work, unfortunately," Rossi said. "So this made a little bit of confusion during the practice and after I exit with a medium tire but it was not enough to stay in the top ten. Also because, like in Silverstone, I take the flag for one second too late. Maybe if I had another lap I could stay [in top ten] but I take the flag so I was out."
Close, and closer
Though Rossi got into the top ten in FP2, and booked himself a spot in Q2, he is still far from content. "From some points of view I'm quite happy, because I feel better with the bike compared to the test," Rossi told us. "We modified the setting and we improved. Especially in the fast part, now I'm not so bad. But we had a lot of work to do because in braking, I suffer. It's a bit difficult to stop. And also we have to work a lot on the electronics to find the right way to give the power. But the first target is to stay in the top ten already today, that is always very important and we are there. But if we want to make a good race we have work a lot and we have to improve our speed."
His teammate is in much better shape, and looks it on the bike. Maverick Viñales is riding with aggression, pushing the bike and getting it just where he wants it, lapping consistently quickly. The improvement had come from a change of weight distribution, taking some weight off the front end of the bike. "We especially took out a little bit of weight so we have more room to push the brakes, so I don’t go too deep, too soon," Viñales said. "I go early and that helps me a lot to stop the bike."
But his Movistar Yamaha M1 was in good shape, meaning all Viñales had left to work on was perfecting his lines around the track. "For sure I need to improve the line," he said. "I’m not on the perfect line in all the track so I need to improve my riding style, especially in sector one. There are things to try: different lines; riding a little bit differently in the sectors that I am not great. So on the bike I feel good like this. Like this the bike is able to be between the top three so there is not so much sense to change the bike."
Viñales will be battling for the top three with two Ducatis and a Repsol Honda, all of whom are quick. "Marc has the pace to win," Cal Crutchlow opined. But Jorge Lorenzo believes he is also a candidate for victory, if he can fix an issue in the fastest part of the circuit. "Tomorrow we have other ideas to try, also on the second bike," Lorenzo said. "Let's see if we can gain something in the fast sector of the track where I am losing a little bit. But apart from that, I think we have good pace. Good pace with old tires. We are quite ready, and I think we are one of the favorites for the victory."
Lorenzo's teammate Andrea Dovizioso felt confident he has the pace as well. "We confirmed our good speed, but I didn't have a question mark about that," the Italian said. "I'm happy about that, also because this afternoon I didn't have a good feeling, and I did a really fast lap. But it's not enough what we have, because I think Marc has a really good pace, this morning Maverick was very strong, in the afternoon not, but conditions were very strange. Jorge was very fast, but I think we have to wait for the conditions tomorrow and especially on Sunday, because today it affected the practice a lot."
The Reale Avintia Racing team met with some criticism on Friday. Superstock 1000 rider Christophe Ponsson has been drafted in to replace the injured Tito Rabat, and there were doubts that the Frenchman would be fast enough to ride safely in MotoGP. He was not fast enough to secure a spot in qualifying in FP1, but he made steady progress through Friday afternoon. He ended the day just under six seconds slower than Andrea Dovizioso, just inside the 107% limit for qualifying. Ponsson's fastest lap of 1:38.154 was 106.5% of Dovizioso's best time of 1:32.198.
There was still a great deal of concern at Ponsson's pace, though riders were careful to blame the team, rather than the Frenchman. There had been objections when Avintia had put forward Ponsson's name as a replacement for Rabat, but the team had countered that it was difficult to find a qualified substitute.
"I expected what happened today," Andrea Dovizioso said, summing up the consensus of most riders. "Unfortunately, when you don't have experience in this kind of bike and championship, it's normal. It's too different. Not because he's not fast. It's too different, and it's normal the first practice and the second practice you are too far, because the chassis is stiffer, the bike has more power, it has a lot of electronics, the brakes are different, the tires are different. There are too many different things, and this is not the best, and the gap I think is too much."
Ponsson would get quicker, but he could still potentially pose a hazard for anyone coming up behind him. "For sure, tomorrow he will improve and he will be closer," Dovizioso said, "but in the practice, if you find him on the track, you have to slow down. I don't think it's the best for the championship, and for sure we need to speak about that in the Safety Commission. I don't have anything against him, I think his experience is not enough to start during a race weekend."
Simple solutions solve nothing
The simple solution would appear to be to tighten the 107% rule, which was put in place many years ago – I asked one paddock veteran when the 107% rule was introduced, and they couldn't remember when it was, suggesting it was more than 25 years old. It had been put in place to winnow down the field, but after a freak rain shower five minutes into practice many years ago, only a few riders were within the qualifying time, the rest having to fend with a soaking wet track. At that point, Race Direction was granted discretion to allow riders deemed fast enough through to the race, regardless of the 107% rule.
The real problem, of course, is not so much the pace of Christophe Ponsson, or of the 107% rule. The real issue is the difficulty to find replacement riders. In an ideal world – and realistically, we are not that far off the ideal situation – every MotoGP team would have a Moto2 team, from which they could take young riders to fill in if a MotoGP rider is seriously injured. But there are still teams – even in the MotoGP class – which are not financially stable enough to be able to afford this, despite the €4.5 million they receive from Dorna.
The GP16 vs GP17 showdown
Rabat's injury also gave us a chance to measure the difference between a Ducati Desmosedici GP16 and a Desmosedici GP17, as Xavier Simeon has been given Rabat's bike while he is recovering from his injury. Clearly, Simeon is hampered by being on an old bike, the GP16 a good deal less competitive than the GP17.
How much less competitive? The table below compares Simeon's performance on the GP16 during FP2 at Silverstone two weeks ago to his performance on the GP17 here at Misano in FP2. Simeon was at 103.15% of Andrea Dovizioso's best time in Silverstone on the old bike, but is at 101.73% of Dovizioso's time at Misano. The gap is still significant – Simeon is still 22nd out of 26 riders on the grid. But his improvement is nearly 1.4% of the best lap. That translates to just over nine tenths of a second.
Apply that improvement to Karel Abraham's best time on the Angel Nieto Team Ducati GP16, and he would go from 21st on the grid to close to the top ten. This is an entirely theoretical exercise, of course, and we are not suggesting that Abraham's best time in FP2 was down to his bike. But it is undeniably so that the GP16 is a disadvantage, and that disadvantage can now be measured, however imprecisely.
|Pos||Rider||Time||Percentage of best time|
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