It seems fitting that a year which has seen some pretty wild weather – from the heatwave in Brno to the deluge at Silverstone – should end at Valencia amid thunderstorms and torrential rain. It was so heavy at one point that the FP1 session for MotoGP was red flagged for 30 minutes, as pools of water gathered in a few corners around the track.
Echoes of Silverstone? Not quite. The company which resurfaced Valencia ensured that water drains quickly. The amount of rain having fallen was unheard of at the Ricardo Tormo circuit, yet the surface was quickly usable again. Was there more rain here than at Silverstone, Jack Miller was asked? "Way, way, way more and we are still out there riding," he replied. "It is night and day compared to Silverstone as the track has really good grip in the wet for one and I felt I could almost get my elbow down in some places this morning. So the track has got really good grip and there are some puddles but they are quite close to the kerbs so you can avoid most of them. Much more rain here than Silverstone – I am no meteorologist but I think so."
"For me, everything depends on the amount of water, because the track worked well," Valentino Rossi said on Friday afternoon. "The asphalt has good grip in the wet and also good drainage. The problem is if it rains like this morning at 10 o'clock, you cannot race, because there is too much water and these big bikes make a lot of spray, so if you are in a group you cannot see. This morning it was enough to wait 10-15mins and after the conditions were better, so we have to do like this."
It wasn't just raining in the morning. It rained on and off for most of the day, sometimes heavier, sometimes drying up briefly. As we left the paddock sometime around 8pm, the torrential rain had returned, flooding the paddock and leaving small rivers flowing between the hospitality units. It is fair to say that the weather was pretty bad.
Wet, but fast
Yet conditions were good enough to go surprisingly quick. After the rain had eased up in FP1, and the session restarted, times soon dropped into the 1'39s, Marc Márquez, Jack Miller, and Danilo Petrucci lapping some 8 seconds off race record pace. Those times were set on a track wet enough to need the softer compounds rain tires, which still looked pretty fresh after 20+ laps. That is all down to the available grip in the wet. "Valencia circuit has very good drainage and the grip is very good, so even though it was rainy conditions the grip was amazing," Marc Márquez said. "Sometimes we were riding with the elbows down in some corners."
The conditions did catch one or two people out. Not just in terms of hitting the dirt – Jack Miller had a sizable off at Turn 10, Xavier Simeon falling twice, and getting knocked about badly enough to require a visit to the medical center – but also as far as booking a spot in the top 10. The track was wetter in FP2, leaving Valentino Rossi, Johann Zarco, and Jorge Lorenzo all out in the cold. If the track isn't drier on Saturday morning than it was on Friday, they could find themselves having to fight their way through Q1.
Lorenzo was perhaps the most resigned to his fate. Though his left wrist is much better after surgery than it was at Sepang, it was still a lot weaker than he hoped. "Honestly, a little bit worse than I expected yesterday," the Spaniard said, on his last weekend with the Factory Ducati team. The wrist was fine for use in daily life, but riding a MotoGP was another thing altogether. "Another thing is the pressure and heaviness of the MotoGP bike, especially on braking. It’s a lot and still the injury is not healed completely, though I'm a lot better than Sepang."
Better safe than sorry
On the one hand, the rain had helped reduce the stresses on his injured wrist, as braking and acceleration takes place at much lower speeds and intensities. But on the other hand, the rain increased the risk of crashing, forcing Lorenzo into riding far more conservatively. "Probably the wet conditions helped me, because in the rain you have more or less half the pressure that you’ve got in the dry. But for the negative part is it's more easy to crash. We’ve not completely healed from the injury. The idea to crash is not very welcome."
Lorenzo's concerns about his wrist had nothing to do with the fact that he leaves Ducati on Sunday and has his first test with Honda on Tuesday, and more to do with worries about further injury, he insisted. "I worry about myself, about my physical condition. Because I know the injury is not healed completely," Lorenzo said. "In normal conditions you go much more carefully in the wet than the dry, because you don’t want to crash. When you don’t feel completely strong and completely well, you are even more so. It doesn’t depend on if it’s the last race with Ducati or anything else. It’s just a subconscious thing."
While Lorenzo missing on the top 10 was down to his wrist, Valentino Rossi had struggled in the morning with bike setup. "This morning unfortunately I didn't make a very good lap, and I didn't feel good with the bike so I was not in the top ten," the Movistar Yamaha rider told us. "But for the afternoon we improve the setting of the bike, the balance and in the afternoon I felt good. I was quite strong in the pace and this is important. The shame is that with more water we are not able to improve the lap time of the morning, so I'm not in the top ten." Saturday morning will be crucial for the Italian, to get another shot at the top 10.
The good thing about a whole day of rain was that everyone got a chance to work on a wet setup under consistent conditions. "It was an interesting day because it was a full day of full wet, so we can work a bit on the bike, on the balance of the bike," Rossi said. "Also because during this season we don’t fortunately have a lot of water."
Chasing the wrong direction
The 2018 Yamaha was also considerably better in the rain than last year's bike, Rossi explained. "For me, first of all last year was a very bad feeling, it was a nightmare because the 2017 bike was very difficult to ride in the wet," he said. "We and Yamaha worked and the 2018 bike is more like the old Yamaha that in the 2015-2016 we were quite strong. That is one thing. The other is that we worked on the electronics, which is very important in the wet. We tried to make it smoother and easy to ride and it looks also in the wet we are not so bad."
The difficulties in the wet were a consequence of wrong choices made at the end of the 2016 season, Yamaha Racing managing director Lin Jarvis had told a press conference at lunchtime. Valentino Rossi expanded on that. "For me at the end of 2016 we had some problems, we were strong but we suffered already with the tires, and it looks like also the other manufacturers in that moment made some big steps. But unfortunately we tried to fix this problem not with the right stuff. We tried to work on the chassis, on the weight distribution, when for me we have to work more in other areas like the electronics and engine."
Rossi's improvement made him third fastest in FP2, though that was not enough to take him into the top 10 overall. Marc Márquez and Danilo Petrucci were quick in both sessions, and with Jack Miller and Andrea Dovizioso fast in FP1, the Ducatis showed their customary strength in the wet. Petrucci was especially impressive. "Danilo says he hates the rain," Pramac Ducati boss Francesco Guidotti told me during FP1. "But all the other riders hate the rain more."
"I like these conditions, but I don’t like for going on the bike!" Petrucci joked. "The feeling when you feel the rear tire spin on the main straight at 300 km/h is not so good, but I feel okay. Maybe I like these conditions because I'm fast, but for sure for riding it's not the best conditions." Having grown up riding dirt bikes, he was used to finding grip rather than conserving his tires, as his contemporaries who had raced 125s from a young age had. "In the wet I don’t have this problem so I can ride and push as much as I want and I improve my performance lap by lap. Then I think the wet helped me a bit in acceleration but then I think it's always been a condition that helps me a bit."
Despite finishing fourth in FP1, Andrea Dovizioso had not felt comfortable at all. He had the same feeling in FP1, when he was just four tenths off the fastest rider, as he did in FP2, when he was two seconds slower. "Today the feeling was quite bad on the bike," the Factory Ducati rider said. "The same feeling I had this morning, I had in the afternoon when the water was different. I don’t think it’s about how much water is on the track. I think if we are able to understand and improve the bike we can be more competitive in both conditions. The feeling was very bad. It’s strange because we expect a better speed."
The issue was a feeling with the rear tire, Dovizioso explained. "I didn’t have enough feeling on the rear to release the brake and make the speed in the middle of the corner," he said. "It didn’t happen something very bad, because the grip was good. The asphalt have a good grip. It’s about feeling. It’s about having a good feeling to make the right line, release the brake and make the speed. But it wasn’t good like usual."
Managing scarce resources
Marc Márquez was fast both morning and afternoon, unsurprising perhaps given that Valencia is a track with a whole bunch of left handers, and the reduced grip in the rain are the conditions in which he usually excels. His main concern was with tires, and figuring out which compounds would work best. Michelin have just two wet compounds, the soft and the medium, and limited quantities of each: six front tires, three of each compound, and seven rear tires, with four soft and three medium. That means that working out exactly which tire will work best in the wet is crucial, as there are no slack in the system to get it wrong.
"Today the plan was try all the tires," Márquez said. "We only have soft and medium on the rear. We did many laps on the soft rear tire. About the quantity, we need to adjust and be very precise, because we don’t have a lot of soft tires. So we tried the rear, the medium rear. I didn’t like it because there was too much risk."
With news out earlier this week that Casey Stoner would not be continuing as a test rider with Ducati, there are strong rumors – some insisting that the contract has in fact been signed – that the Australian would return to Honda as a test rider. That is not something which Marc Márquez is keen to see, as he made clear when he was asked about it.
"Of course Casey has an incredible talent," Márquez said. "But if you want to be a test rider you need to test many, many days during a season. And you need to be able when the factory wants you. This was not the case from what I heard." Márquez was referring both to Stoner's time at Honda, when he tested only a few times a year, and at Ducati, where he had ridden only three days of testing in 2018. Anyway, there was no need to sign Stoner, Márquez insisted, as Honda already have a test rider. "Now we have a very good test rider that is Stefan Bradl. So I would like to keep him."
Is there friction between the two? Possibly. Throughout Stoner's time as a test rider with Honda, the Australian complained that Honda never used him as efficiently as he believed. Stoner tested more with Ducati until this year, when shoulder surgery left him out of action for a considerable time. Yet some Ducati staff complained privately that Stoner was focused too much on setting a quick lap time at each test, rather than grinding methodically through a pile of parts to test.
Rumor and hearsay are always treacherous guides to reality, so who is to say what is true? But Márquez' fierce reaction made it clear that he had no interest whatsoever in having Stoner return to the HRC fold. We will see whether Márquez has enough sway to dissuade Honda doing just that.
New number, old rivalry
Casey Stoner was not the only recipient of barbed comments from Marc Márquez on Friday. Márquez was asked about Maverick Viñales' intention to switch from using #25 to using #12, a number Viñales had used when was much younger, and racing against Márquez in the Copa Conti, a 50cc class for the under tens raced in parking lots around Spain. Viñales had told the Spanish press that he wanted to use the number 12, "to see if I can be as successful as when I was little. It will be a reset, especially for my mentality". Had Viñales switched to that number because it was the one he was using when he had beaten Márquez as a child? "Exactly. In the end, everything is in the mind."
Márquez response was sharp. "I don't think we ever competed for a championship against one another," he said. "I think I only did a couple of races in the Copa Conti, because I was doing the Open RACC 50." That was a 50cc championship organized by the Catalan federation. "There are riders who need stability, motivation from a psychological point of view, because they are insecure and are looking for something," Márquez continued. "I know that a number won't help you win a championship. In the end, it's the work of all the team that counts."
Viñales was open about why he wanted to change his number. "It's been many years that I want to change [from 25], but I never found the way to do it. "But now I felt I need to do something different. You know, next year there is going to be a new engine, new crew chief, new everything so it was the time to change, new Maverick."
The logical time for Viñales to introduce his new number would have been at the Yamaha launch in Madrid next January, but the Spaniard was eager to wipe the slate clean for the beginning of the test, and start afresh, after two difficult years with Yamaha. "It was the two worst years for me in the world championship, so I want to change everything. I just try to go back when I was so good. Now it’s the right time [to change the number]. I want to change, mentally it’s important to feel good, as you said it was time to change and I just felt good to do it now."
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