And so hope and expectation meet reality. On Friday, we could stop fantasizing about just how good this season might be, and see for ourselves just how close the field is in the premier class. Well, how close it is outside Marc Márquez' insane record-crushing lap in FP2, made following Maverick Viñales around and using him as a target. It may only be Friday, but Márquez beat Johann Zarco's pole-setting lap record from last year by three tenths of a second. And they will only be going faster again tomorrow.
Any concerns that Marc Márquez might ease himself back into MotoGP, nursing the shoulder he had operated on last year until it was back at 100%, were laid to rest. "No, I ride full attack. I am riding full attack, I am pushing," Márquez said.
Viñales, who knew that Márquez had been following him when he made his fastest time, joked about it being a magnanimous gesture towards a weakened rival. "Yeah, I knew he was there, but I know he is injured, so I tried to help him a little bit... " the Monster Energy Yamaha rider joked. "Maybe I helped him too much! But it was important to see where our competitors are, so at the moment, we have to put the head down and work, work, work. They are ahead at the moment, some tenths ahead, so we need to keep working really hard."
From development to practice
Friday also marked the end of testing, and the start of the period of slow evolution which happens through the racing season, as the factories start to refine the package they found in testing and move forward with less time to spend racking up laps. That also meant that we got a proper look at the bikes as they will be used throughout 2019.
With the fairings now frozen until the factories bring their one permitted update for the year, we got to see what everyone was running. Even though aerodynamics packages are homologated for each rider individually, most teammates elect to use the same fairing. That is not the case in the Yamaha garage this year, Valentino Rossi sticking with the package from last year, while Maverick Viñales has elected to use the new, double-wing version debuted at Sepang.
But aerodynamics are not frozen as the rule makers intended them to be. As is his wont, Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna has conducted a thorough search of the rules and uncovered a couple of loopholes in the process. The rules specify that the aerodynamic body (as the aero package is formally known) consists of two parts: the fairing and the mudguard or fender. Useful drawings are provided to illustrate the meaning.
Loopholes are made for exploiting
What the rule makers forgot is that there were parts of the bike still left uncovered. Ducati have created a couple of curved carbon fiber covers which attach to the bottom of the front forks, and cover a large part of the front wheel, down to the tire. They have also created a spoiler which sits on the bottom of the swing arm, rather than the fairing. Both parts neatly circumvent the rules, much to the chagrin of the scrutineers. Ducati can fit and remove the parts whenever they want.
— Thomas Morsellino (@Off_Bikes) March 8, 2019
What are they for? "We saw on television that it was for cooling down the rear tire, but it is not like this," Danilo Petrucci said. "But I can’t tell you because Gigi gets angry! We saw on television that they said it was to cool down the rear tire but in fact that is not the real reason. There is also another part on the front and when I saw it I asked what is its purpose but unfortunately I cannot tell you as it is my contract. There are some small changes riding the bike but not as big as we expected."
Key to understanding what the two parts do is the fact that the front and rear aero parts never appear on the bike separately. That means the function of the two is interconnected. Former Moto2 and Moto3 crew chief Peter Bom believed the parts around the front wheel would minimize the turbulence generated by the spokes of the front wheel rotating. The smoother air that generates would then flow along and underneath the fairing, creating less drag, and possibly creating more downforce on the steeply angled vanes of the rear spoiler.
A spoiler mounted on the rear swing arm would help push the rear into the ground more effectively, helping to keep the rear from coming loose from the ground. That may provide more initial stability when braking from high speed. This is just speculation, of course. The only people who know the truth work at Ducati Corse, and would incur the wrath of Gigi Dall'Igna were they ever to spill the beans.
Starting is everything
While the spoilers were relatively new, Ducati's holeshot device has been around for a little longer. There has been much speculation over what it might do, but an observant Dorna video editor found conclusive evidence during FP2. As Andrea Dovizioso slowed to do a practice start, he could be seen twisting the lever on the triple clamp, while at the same time lifting the rear to engage the device. He then does a practice start, and from the onboard shot, the Ducati GP19 remained beautifully stable as he took off.
I spy with my little eye...👀
— MotoGP™ 🇶🇦 (@MotoGP) March 8, 2019
Jack Miller gave a little bit away speaking to the media on Friday night, when asked about the holeshot device. "It’s good," he said. "I didn't do one start all winter and I couldn't even remember where the button was today in FP1. I was like ‘is it the blue one?!’ Here is it never the same because you always tend to have a head wind and where the practice start is you have to deal with the crosswind and it hits the front tire like that. I wasn't particularly happy with the practice starts but generally in the race we are pretty good at them."
Does the holeshot device help the bike stay flatter and more level at the start? "Yeah, that's the general idea," the Pramac Ducati rider acknolwedged. "You can use a little bit more torque, and you can feel it. You just have to get used to it popping up and remember it’s going to pop up."
In the LCR Honda garage, Cal Crutchlow's bikes were equipped with the carbon swing arm he had longed for through 2018. Though he downplayed the significance, he believed it brought benefits over race distance.
It was still hard to understand the difference directly, Crutchlow explained. "Don’t forget I’m on a different package," he said. "The package is completely different to last year, or my feeling with the package is completely different to last year. As we know the bike is not so different but my feeling with the carbon swing arm is better than without it, because I have ridden the 2019 bike without it. And I think it will be a positive for the race but they did a good job with that."
In the Repsol Honda garage, Jorge Lorenzo had a leather-look saddle on one bike to allow him to move more smoothly around the seat, more in line with his normal style. Marc Márquez noted that Lorenzo rode entirely differently to him. "I mean we are day and night, on the way to ride the bike. I ride one way and rides the opposite, completely opposite, and it is time to understand this. I am very aggressive and he is very smooth so of course he will be very fast in some corners and I will be very fast in other corners. Now it is time to understand. He will check my data, I will check his data."
Close bar Marc
With track temperatures way too high during the day to set times faster than the cooler conditions of FP2, the entrants to Q2 look pretty much set. Márquez set a stunning single lap, but he was also very consistent in race pace, as was Maverick Viñales. But in terms of a fast lap, the field was exceptionally close behind the vast gap which loomed to Márquez.
Between Viñales in second and Cal Crutchlow in thirteenth, there was less than six tenths of a second. The riders in eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth – Jorge Lorenzo, Taka Nakagami, and Cal Crutchlow – missed out on Q2 by just a few hundredths. Crutchlow was five hundredths slower than Joan Mir in tenth. The gaps are very small indeed.
Márquez fast lap and strong race pace could spell trouble for most of the rest of the field. Despite still not being at full fitness, Márquez was very happy with where the Repsol Honda is now. "I feel even better on the bike with more power and also we are improving on the setup," Márquez said. We are still at the first race with a new bike, and a new engine, so we need to understand many things. Even like this, the philosophy is a lot like last year, when we need to suffer we will suffer and this circuit is one of the most difficult for me and the one I suffer at a little bit but we are in a good way. But it is only Friday and my championship is still zero points. Sunday is the day."
The right environment is worth half a second
Maverick Viñales was second quickest, but is his speed an illusion, as it proved to be last year? Viñales said he believed that much of the improvement came from a better feeling with his new crew chief Esteban Garcia, and riding coach Julian Simon.
"We have a really good feeling," Viñales said. "The atmosphere inside the team is completely different to last year, I can be much more calm inside, relaxed. And they make me stay really calm, and that's really positive. When everything is good, it's easy to be like this, but when things go wrong, I think Esteban and Julito will help me much more than when they are correct."
How did they help him keep calm? By taking a more methodical approach more in line with Viñales own temperament. "We have a good plan," he said. "We follow the plan, and we don't go out of the plan, and that's very important. Like, sometimes last year I made 10 laps in 1 run, or whatever. Now we follow the plan: we make 4 laps, 4 laps, 4 laps. And we don't go out of the plan. And I think that's really important, because that's the way to test everything. And like today, I made good runs. So I think that the way they help make me calm is we have a plan, they give me the things to try, and we never hurry up, and that's really important."
Highs and lows
Viñales' teammate was much less fortunate in the evening, after ending the first session of practice as fastest. The front tire he had used in FP1 and was saving for FP2 wore itself out much quicker than expected, creating a huge vibration when leaned over. That left him incapable of setting a fast lap, and languishing down in seventeenth, out of Q2.
"This morning I was not so bad, and this afternoon we didn’t modify the bike and we entered this afternoon with the plan to use the tire on a race distance as we don’t have other tires," Rossi explained. "But unfortunately after five laps I destroyed the front so in that moment we don’t understand why, and secondly we didn’t have any more tires."
"It is a shame because we were optimistic after this morning to try with our pace, which was better," Rossi said. "It is very difficult to understand what has happened. It looks like the line is narrow for us to go fast." The Yamaha M1 is capable of going very fast, but if you are not precisely within the operating window, you are in trouble, it seems.
That is doubly so in this era when so many riders are so close together. "With 18 riders in one second it is like in MotoGP, if you don’t push at the maximum it is very easy to go out of the top 15," Rossi said. "We have to find a way to improve tomorrow to have a good pace."
Unlike testing, there is not much time left for him to do that. The FP3 session will take place in the heat of the day, meaning not much will be learned. That leaves the 30 minutes of FP4 before qualifying to get it right. It is a very tight window, but tight windows make for close racing.
No movement on race time
At the end of the day, the riders all attended the Safety Commission, where they discussed whether to move the race an hour earlier, from 8pm to 7pm. That request was turned down, as conditions looked to be favorable for Sunday, though the riders weren't exactly overjoyed with the decision.
"Most of the riders preferred 7pm because it is less risk," Marc Márquez said. "For today it was perfect conditions but you never know, yesterday was very, very cold. So, most of the riders prefer 7pm, but they said 8pm would be the race time. Last year was 7pm and they said next year might be 7pm again but this year it will be 8pm. We pushed, all the riders pushed for 7pm. But they said we rode very fast today and with not many crashes. Today was a very nice day but on Sunday we will see."
If the weather does get worse, then Cal Crutchlow was worried about the effect it could have on the race. "Today is perfect at 8pm but tomorrow could be light raining. As we saw in the Moto2 test last week it was 17 degrees at 8pm. In our test there were twelve crashes after 7:30. Our feeling about it, last week after the test I was told it couldn’t be moved."
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