Given the severity of the storms which have washed across the Malaysian peninsula, you might expect practice for MotoGP to be a wet one minute, dry the next. So far, however, only the Moto3 class has had a problem with wet conditions, the day starting out on a drying track, then rain disrupting FP2 for the smallest class in Grand Prix racing. MotoGP were a good deal more fortunate, left with a dry track in surprisingly good condition.
That might explain why the times were so good: there were a handful of riders knocking out 1'59s in both the morning and afternoon sessions, times which normally only appear once qualifying starts. In 2017, only Valentino Rossi got into the 1'59s in free practice. In 2016, only Maverick Viñales managed it. "Lap times were fast today," said an impressed Bradley Smith of KTM. "1'59s were like a miracle in the past. Guys were on 1'59s from the first session and there in the second session as well, it wasn't just when the track was cool. We're still a little way away from a 1'58, which I think Jorge did in the test, but not that far away that I think it's the track conditions."
There is no obvious explanation for why the track would be so fast, Smith said. "Here we know, from February 1st to February 20-something, the track can be half a second slower, or faster, whichever way the conditions are going. I really can't put my finger on one thing or another."
Whatever the reason, there is no denying the track is fast. Seven riders got inside the two minute bracket on Friday, Danilo Petrucci, seventh fastest man, just two tenths slower than the fastest man of the day, Alex Rins.
Insert "on fire / hot lap" pun here
It was an impressive performance from Rins, and an even more impressive performance from his mechanics. On Thursday afternoon, one of his bikes had caught fire, and gone up in flames impressively. The Suzuki Ecstar mechanics had spent the evening stripping the bike down, and rebuilding it all again.
"They did a really big job," Rins said. "Yesterday when the bike caught fire, I was here doing something in the office, and when I went into the box, I saw the bike, everybody with water, I couldn't understand what was going on. I was scared, because Marco, my mechanic, was on the bike and he was touched on fire, but he is OK, so this is the most important thing."
Despite the flames, the bike was relatively undamaged. The wiring harness and electronics had to be junked, but the rest of the bike was wondrously unharmed. "We changed all the electronic cables, but the fairing, the chassis, the engine, is all the same," Rins said. The advantage of the extensive use of carbon fiber is that it acts as a fireproof barrier, and the mechanics had doused the flames quite quickly.
"The funny thing is the lap time today I did with this bike, the one which caught fire," Rins said with a wry smile. They had used his second bike in the morning, the swapped back to the 'fire bike' in FP2.
Fast Friday for a change
It is something of a surprise that Rins should be fastest on a Friday. If the Spaniard has a weakness, it is that he takes some time to get up to speed, and never seems to show up on Friday. There was no obvious explanation for it, Rins saying he was using the same strategy as normal. "We are working with used tires, and then we changed to the new tire on the end. Especially today, my feelings were very good on this track, and I was able to be very fast."
The data from the tests back in February may have helped, but then again, much has changed in the meantime, Rins said. "We knew that in the IRTA test, our bike had a good potential. Compared with now, the bike has changed a lot, the engine, the fairing, the winglets, the electronics a little bit. So I'm very happy because we worked well from the beginning, from FP1."
Rins may have been fastest overall, but three riders stood head and shoulders above the rest in terms of race pace. That Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso are two of those riders is no real surprise. After all, Márquez and Dovizioso have been the best of the bunch for most of the second half of the season. But it is Maverick Viñales who looks to have the best pace, on paper at least, grinding out 2'00 laps on used tires almost at will.
Fast at last?
That the Yamaha M1 would be competitive at Phillip Island was to be expected. The Australian track masks the bike's main weakness, which allowed Viñales to put an end to Yamaha's longest streak of races without victory. But Sepang is a very different track to Phillip Island, and nobody had really expected them to excel here.
Viñales was as surprised as anyone. "It's more positive than I expected, because last year I struggled so much," the Movistar Yamaha rider said. "But already in lap ten I made the lap time. I was just riding the bike without pushing and it was actually really good. I’m happy that the bike works in three different tracks, in the warm, hot and completely different tracks. So I’m really pleased we can work by consistency now and also I can improve my riding style."
The key, if there is one, is sticking with the base setup found in Thailand, Viñales explained. "Just cleaning and go! It was good. For sure we can improve a bit the setup, but for sure I can improve a little bit more myself to arrive at the limit. When I find the limit, I will start to work a little bit more on the setup. I will try to improve with my riding style because at this track I always struggle a lot so we need to keep focusing the way in Phillip Island. That would be perfect. This race is going to be much more difficult than Phillip Island because finally it’s more stop and go. In certain points I can keep speed and that helps a lot for the exit of the corners."
A change that works, for now
Teammate Valentino Rossi was faster over a single lap, and happy with his pace, but still a little way off the pace of Viñales. He was still satisfied, however, a change to the weight distribution having improved rear grip. "We modified the setting, the balance of the bike, and we tried to have less spin and better acceleration," Rossi said. "And we used a bike quite different compared to the test in February, and the feeling is better. So this is good. Also because after Phillip Island, also here, we are strong, and also Maverick is fast, so this is very positive for the bike and for the team."
They had learned a lot from the data in Australia, Rossi explained. "After checking the data from Phillip Island, we worked a lot on the setting of the bike, and we improved the grip, especially from the rear tire. And the first impression is positive, because I was good in the hot lap, but also the pace is not so bad. It's just Friday, we have to see, but the start was not so bad, and now we have to concentrate, especially on the tire choice, because it's very open front and rear, and also we have to wait for the weather, and we hope that the dry will stay, especially for Sunday."
Coming back to Sepang eight months after the test meant the data from February was only of limited use. And testing during the season hadn't helped much either, Rossi said. "For me personally, I said already to my team, I want to cancel all the test during the season, because they are useless. It's enough to make 2 or 3 days at the beginning, to understand if the engine is OK and everything, but after that, for me personally, the way that you ride, and you can keep the concentration in a race weekend is another story. In the test it's heavy and dirty work. Here is a lot more fun. So I'm going to ask if we can cancel 50% or 60% of the tests!" he joked.
Rossi had a possible explanation for why he was struggling more with rear tire wear than his teammate. Rossi is both taller and heavier than Viñales, but the Italian believes it is his height which causes the problems. "So when you are tall, it's more difficult for the rear tire, especially for the rear tire life," Rossi said. "For me, you can have some other advantage, but it looks like you can stress more the rear tire. But you have to work. You have to work in another way, on the position on the bike, because now it looks like with this tire if you load it too much, you suffer a lot."
Marc Márquez was having problems with tire load at Sepang on Friday, but his issues were all about the front tire. In FP2, he fitted a hard front tire to his Honda RC213V, and found himself putting on a display of acrobatics which was exceptional even for him. Four times Márquez saved the front end of his Honda, catching the bike on knee and elbow at Turn 1, Turn 5, Turn 15, prompting Dorna to turn it into a free video for the MotoGP.com website.
Márquez suspected the issue may have been the hard front tire. "Today we had many moments, and maybe we need to look at the information because I was the only rider riding with the hard front," Márquez told reporters. "Maybe it was too hard. Then in the last run, when I put in the other tire, it was better so that was the most important." Márquez was not the only rider using the hard front, but he was the only rider in the top 15, Karel Abraham, Tom Lüthi, and Scott Redding all finding themselves much further down the timesheets.
Márquez noted that the Yamahas seemed more competitive. "Yamaha is also very competitive and Valentino put the new tire, so he was also very competitive. It is clear they have done a step and both Yamahas are managing in a very good way." The fact that Márquez mentions that Rossi used a new tire, but does not mention Viñales, should be noted.
But it is Andrea Dovizioso who Márquez believes is the most competitive. "It’s true that Dovizioso is faster than everybody, he has very good pace and he is riding in a very good way," Márquez said. "But we need to manage to be more competitive, with the same speed, but in another way."
Andrea Dovizioso was happy with his pace. "I’m really happy because we started this morning with a really good speed," the factory Ducati rider said. "We did a good lap time in bad conditions. But this afternoon we did a step. We showed a really good speed but exit by exit with the same tires I was able to improve my lap time. I was really fast. We tried two different set-ups and it was a bit better. So I’m really happy with the feeling I have on the bike. We didn’t put a new tire at the end because we didn’t need it. So I’m really happy."
What Dovizioso feared was if it rained, which would mean they would lose any data gained from the first day of dry practice. "Maybe it will rain and then we start from zero," Dovizioso said. Though he has won at Sepang the last two years in the wet, he wasn't sure how the bike would react if it did rain. "I think it can be good but every year has a different story. Our balance is completely different from last year. Maybe it’s better but we can’t know. Let’s see how we ride in this condition. I really would like to make a dry race because it’s the toughest race for sure about the physical condition. But it will be very important to make this test in the dry."
His teammate is having a far tougher time of it. Fresh off surgery to fix a damaged ligament in his wrist, Jorge Lorenzo tried to ride the Ducati with an extremely painful and virtually immobile left wrist. He was painfully slow, finishing dead last, 3.5 seconds behind Alex Rins, and a second slower than Jordi Torres, still filling in for the injured Tito Rabat on the Reale Avintia squad.
Lorenzo was upset and frustrated. He had expected to be fitter than he is. "The situation is difficult because I am frustrated," the Spaniard said. "I expected, no I wanted, because I knew after one week from the operation I would be like this so I wanted to be here and be much better because this track is good for me and for the bike. I arrived here better than in Japan but even if we solve half of the problem and half of the pain I am not able to be very competitive."
Lorenzo will make a decision on whether he will carry on, or make way for test rider Michele Pirro, who is in Sepang on standby, on Saturday morning. "Tomorrow morning we will decide if it is better that I continue or I’ll lend the bike to Michele," Lorenzo said. "Tomorrow, depending on how I feel when I wake up, I will feel if I am much or just slightly better or the same."
He felt better than he had in Japan, but he put his fitness at maybe 65-70%. Probably not good enough for it to make sense for him to carry on. Better to fly back to Spain, and focus on recovering for Valencia, another track at which he has always excelled. Lorenzo will want a strong result at his last race on the Ducati, and then to be in as good shape as possible for his debut on the Honda.
One step back, two steps forward
With a race on the new/old hybrid Aprilia RS-GP under his belt, Aleix Espargaro was straight through to Q2, for the first time in 2018. After doing back-to-back testing at Phillip Island during practice, they had found a better setup for the race, Espargaro said. And it had paid off. "In the race I was able to do a really strong pace in the first part of the race, and finally finish in ninth place. So it was the second best position of the season. And here, from the beginning, I felt better and it's the first time in this season that in the first two sessions, we are straight into Q2. So obviously a little bit better."
Pressed to explain what was different about the hybrid bike, Espargaro said it was hard to explain. The aim was to keep the stronger braking of the 2018 bike, while regaining the grip of the 2017 machine. That had meant a completely new chassis, combining elements of the two frames, but using the seat unit from the 2017 bike. Repositioning the engine in the frame had been the biggest step.
Where was the bike better? "More rear grip and stability," Espargaro said. "Overall, the feeling of the bike is that this bike is like a lower bike – it's actually not – but my feeling is that this bike is lower, everything is more compact, and when I touch the throttle, the stability is a lot higher, the rear grip is higher, and when you release the front brake, the turning is a lot better. So overall, we have to still work on it, because the rear grip is not as good as I expect, but anyway, still it's better than the '18 bike. I have to change a little bit my riding style, because again the approach of the throttle is a little bit different. But I'm happy, I really enjoyed the Australia race and I enjoyed this morning. This morning I was fast, so I'm happy."
His new-found speed had given him confidence that he could be much more competitive, Espargaro said. "This has been the first time that we have been able to be close to the top guys in a track that is not really perfect for our bike, so we will not improve a lot the position of the championship, but at least if I can finish the season enjoying a little bit, it will be good."
Friday is also the day on which MotoGP's Safety Commission meets, and the time schedule of the flyaway rounds was the subject of discussion. One thing the riders wanted was to move the Phillip Island race back from 4pm to 3pm, to improve the chance of more stable temperatures.
But just moving the start back an hour would not be enough, Aleix Espargaro said. "We are trying to race at 3 o'clock, but for me, this changes 1%. We have to move six months the race. This will be the perfect thing. I will really push for that, and I already talked with Carlos Ezpeleta, I know they would like it also, because they don't really care where they put the race, but it's not that easy also for them, so I will keep pushing and for sure Dorna will keep pushing."
The start time at Sepang was also subject of discussion. The current start time of 3pm is right at the point where the afternoon rain will often fall. Keeping the usual start time of 2pm would give the riders a little better chance of racing in the dry.
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