Will we see a Ducati vs Honda showdown at Motegi? After the first day of practice at the Japanese track, it looks like that is still on, though we lost one potential protagonist. Jorge Lorenzo went out to test how well his injured wrist would hold up, but found his wrist unwilling to play ball. He did two out laps, but couldn't cope with the immense strain which the braking zones at Motegi – the toughest on the calendar – put on him. After those two laps, Lorenzo decided to withdraw from the Japanese Grand Prix.
"Yesterday my feelings weren’t very positive and unfortunately today I had confirmation not only of the pain, but also that there was a serious risk of making the fracture worse," he said afterwards. "On hard braking I couldn't push with my left wrist and I had a lot of pain in the left corners and especially in the change of direction. I wasn't fast, I wasn't comfortable and I wasn't safe, so there was no meaning to continue."
Despite the loss of Lorenzo, Ducati are still in a very comfortable position, Andrea Dovizioso having finished the day as fastest, despite sitting out FP2. The Italian wasn't alone in that choice: Marc Márquez, Cal Crutchlow, Pol Espargaro, and Jordi Torres all elected to skip the afternoon session, which started out damp, the track never really drying out fully by the end of the session, though half the field managed to squeeze in a couple of slow laps on slicks on a drying track at the end of the session.
The drying conditions may have been next to useless for actually working on set up, they were good for the morale of one or two riders. After a tough year at Aprilia, Scott Redding used the mixed conditions to show he can still ride a bike, finishing second in FP2 behind Dani Pedrosa. He had done something similar in Austria, ending third on a drying track on the Saturday morning. But Redding had been decent in the dry as well, finishing FP1 in twelfth, three tenths behind his teammate. You get the feeling he has a point to prove before he heads off to BSB.
But the real battle had already taken place in the morning. Andrea Dovizioso topped the only fully dry session of the day, posting a very strong pace on used soft tires, before switching to new medium tires and then going even faster. At the end of the day, Marc Márquez was pointing to Dovizioso as the favorite for the race. "It’s a bit too early to understand where we are, but I saw that Dovi is going to be fast this weekend," Márquez said. "If you see a little bit the pace it was not incredible. We are very equal. But I know Dovi's style and he was riding in a good way. So he will be tough."
Dovizioso responded to Márquez' claims with his usual wry sense of skepticism. "He will be there with me in the last lap," Dovizioso told the Italian media. But he acknowledged that he was in good shape with the setup, and already felt comfortable. He had done the opposite to the rest, switching from the soft tires to the mediums at the end, because he had hoped to use the medium tire in the afternoon as well, a plan which was scuppered by the rain.
The key to Dovizioso's continuing competitiveness is the fact that they have the base setting pretty much down pat, he explained. Danilo Petrucci had looked at the factory Ducati rider's data, and commented that Dovizioso barely changed the setup between tracks. Was that his secret? "When you are fast, you try not to change too many things on the bike, because that's not what makes the difference," he said.
Dovizioso pointed to others who are also quick. Cal Crutchlow was fast, as he showed in FP1. The LCR Honda rider said the step which Honda had made in acceleration had helped make them more competitive, though they were still at a disadvantage compared to others. "I think on the acceleration we've definitely made a step with our bike and our package and Honda," Crutchlow said. "But I think we don't just lose in the acceleration. We lose to our competitors in some of the braking zones as well. It depends also on what front tire we use or how we can manage the front tire."
LCR have been using a video camera to shoot out at track side, an increasingly common strategy among teams. Video footage allows teams to show their riders where they are strong and where they are not, but it also provides useful feedback for the factory, Crutchlow explained. "We have a video guy on track that is managing that situation very well, for us to be able to show Honda as well where we gain and where we lose against out competitors."
Not just the tires
Maverick Viñales and Johann Zarco were also quick, giving Yamaha reason for optimism. Viñales was especially happy, despite only finishing FP1 in fifth place. "Honestly, it was really positive because we confirmed that the improvement we made in Thailand was due to the setup changes and not due to the tires we used there," the Movistar Yamaha rider said. The change in weight distribution had made the difference. "We simply changed the weight distribution, and the bike worked," Viñales told Spanish media.
Viñales was working in a different direction to the one being pursued by his teammate, he explained. "We are working more with used tires, when they start sliding. We can improve more following this line than another one."
Valentino Rossi was a little more cautious. "I like the optimism of Maverick, but I prefer to wait," he said. He had also tried some setup changes, including changes to the weight distribution of the Yamaha M1, to help save the tires. But it had not worked particularly well, Rossi said. The pursuit of improvement had convinced him to go out in the wet in the afternoon. "Unfortunately in the afternoon the conditions were difficult, because it was half and half. But I have something to try, so I stayed on the track with the wet tires to try to understand, and with that information we try to have a better setting, especially to keep a good pace also with the used tires."
Turning a corner?
Rossi's caution was perhaps justified, as he had only secured his spot in the top ten with a fresh set of tires, albeit he had used the medium rear rather than the soft. But the fact that both Zarco and Viñales were fast is a positive sign. Zarco was very happy to have finished third, but he was more happy about his race pace. "FP1 was fully dry and I've been fast immediately from the first exit, and I enjoyed it a lot," the Frenchman said. "So after we could do some good work also and improve the bike."
Does this mark a turnaround in affairs for Yamaha? It is still too early to say, but the fact that Maverick Viñales is both comfortable and fast points to the Spaniard being right in his assessment that their pace in Thailand was down to more than just the tires. It is perhaps a little premature to be all too optimistic after just a single fast session – something Valentino Rossi was at pains to point out – but the signs so far are good.
The Japanese round of MotoGP is the place where the Japanese factories enter their test riders as wildcards, with the aim of getting a jump start on development for the coming season. Concession teams are at an advantage: factories without concessions have to use the same engine and sensor package homologated for the factory riders, while those with concessions – such as Suzuki – are exempt.
Sylvain Guintoli, at Motegi as a third rider for the Ecstar Suzuki team, is riding a 2019 prototype, taking full advantage of those concessions. The Frenchman has a new engine in his bike, with more power to play with. He also has a new chassis, this time without the carbon fiber inserts. Team manager Davide Brivio explained to MotoGP.com pit lane reporter Simon Crafar that the carbon inserts had been used to experiment with stiffness, and now that they had found the sensation they were looking for, they had been able to build a new chassis without the inserts.
Katsuyuki Nakasuga does not have the same leeway as Guintoli, still using the 2018 Yamaha M1 engine. Apart from the stunning livery, there is little visual difference between Nakasuga's bike and the factory Movistar machines. Valentino Rossi certainly didn't believe that Nakasuga had anything new to try. "I don't know for sure, but I don't think he has anything new," Rossi said. The Italian joked away questions about when he expected to see the 2019 bike. "All I know is that we are testing at Valencia on Tuesday and Wednesday after the race."
For sure our bike, I think, is really good in that part. Not just for the wheelie control. This is why I think we can be very competitive here.
Of course it's one of the parts where we struggle a little bit more, during these last years and for example in Thailand it was the part where I struggled more, especially on the acceleration side. It's also one of the strongest points of the Ducati and for that reason I say maybe this weekend will be difficult, but we will try. Anyway we have other strong points - the turning in the mid-corner and tight turning - where we can have some small advantage there to compensate for what we lose in other places.
Actually in Thailand we improved a lot the wheelie control. We have a new fairing to try here, trying to keep the front wheel a little bit more down and use more power, which I think is what we needed in Thailand to be able to win the race. So let's see if we can manage well and we can be strong.
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