The weather is a fickle mistress to motorcycle racing. The MotoGP riders have just spent two sessions in dry and relatively sunny conditions looking for the perfect setup, and all that work is likely to be wasted. Rain is expected overnight, and then all day on Saturday, starting from around 10am, just in time for FP3. Sunday looks like being damp, rather than wet, so even the setup found in what will probably be very wet conditions on Saturday will be of little use on race day. The race will be something of a gamble.
But we still learned plenty on Friday. We learned that Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales have the best race pace, a couple of tenths quicker than the sizable group capable of fighting for third. We learned that Marc Márquez is still capable of impossible-seeming saves, though that is also a portent of problems with the Honda – neither Jorge Lorenzo nor Cal Crutchlow managed to duplicate Márquez' trick, instead ending up in the gravel. We learned that Alex Rins still can't put a single fast lap together, despite having very good race pace. That it was a carbon swingarm which Pol Espargaro had been testing in secrecy at Jerez. And that Fabio Quartararo is a genuine competitor.
First, race pace. For once, the top of the combined Friday practice timesheet is representative of likely pace in the race. Both Maverick Viñales and Marc Márquez are capable of lapping in the low 1'32s, on old tires and without too much effort. That Márquez is quick should not come as a surprise, the Repsol Honda rider is fast, and has been at most tracks this year. But Viñales believes that Yamaha have made a minor breakthrough, and he is capable of being fast at many tracks.
"The step we made was in Jerez in FP4, and also in the test," Viñales said on Friday evening. "I think this speed, this feeling with the bike, we can take to other tracks, if nothing changes. The feeling that we have now is that the bike is more stable, not in FP1 amazing and in FP4 really bad." The change allowed him to be a little more aggressive, and manage the tires better. That, Viñales felt, should help him close the gap of a couple of tenths at Jerez, and be much closer in the race.
Marc Márquez was a lot more cagey about the pace which he has. When it was pointed out to him that he has led every lap of the last three race (at least while he was upright, in the case of Austin), the reigning world champion said he had to change his tactics around, to keep his rivals off balance. "It’s true that since Argentina I led many laps," Márquez told the media. "I was not used to race like this but sometimes you need to find different strategies for the opponents. If not, everybody expects the same. When I have the bike and the feeling, and when I feel strong enough then why not? That means if I have the feeling, why not try to do it again here? But after warm-up you already understand if it’s possible or not."
Knowing whether he can escape from the front or not meant he could keep that particular card up his sleeve, Márquez explained. "It’s positive because then your opponents, then they will not know what you will do. You can understand the kind of strategy of Maverick, of Dovi, of Rossi. But when somebody is doing something new and in some races starts pushing from the beginning then in another race starts saving the tire, you don’t know if he’s straining or pushing. And it’s just for a chance. But of course in every race it will not be possible to do this strategy."
Márquez had three or four saves on Friday, depending on how you count them. In the morning, he had a massive moment at Garage Vert, one of those saves which are really a crash, which he manages to hold onto for long enough for the wheels to grip again. He dug his knee and his elbow in, and kept the bike up off the ground long enough for the tires to bite again, and to pick him up and allow him to ride off again.
In the afternoon, Márquez was trying to get the hard rear tire to work, but it had to be treated with caution. The tire needed enough heat to provide grip, but the only way to get heat into the tire was to ride aggressively. Márquez found himself in a Catch-22 situation, and caught a save or three with his reflexes. "I was using the hard rear tire," the Spaniard said. "It was good but if you don’t get the correct temperature in these first two or three laps - when it’s very difficult to get the temperature in the tire – and you don’t take the risk then it’s very difficult to arrive. I was trying to be aggressive and then this created some slides that I didn’t expect but I was trying to find the limit."
The trouble for Honda is that only Marc Márquez can save incidents like these. The bike got away from Cal Crutchlow and Jorge Lorenzo too quickly, and both of them went down on Friday. "It was a standard Honda crash," Crutchlow told us. "It is like a broken record, we lose the front and that is it. Don’t get me wrong as I wasn’t the only guy to go down in that session as you saw but the front and front feeling for me is way more critical than last year."
The lack of feeling from the front end was only part of the problem. The other part is that the 2019 engine is more aggressive, and that translates to problems getting the engine braking right. "I think that we have a difference in the bike from last year," Crutchlow said. "So the front feeling is not like what I had last year, or what me or Marc had last year, as we were the ones on the different bikes. But a lot of this stems from the engine brake. The bike is so unstable entering the corner. They are two separate things but the problem is if you have good corner entry with the engine brake and not the shaking then you might be alright, you might crash because I hit a bump and I was going fast, that is enough."
What does this mean for the race? In the hypothetical case this is a dry race, it means that Marc Márquez will have to proceed with caution. He may want to try to make a breakaway, but if he pushes too hard too early, he risks an issue similar to Austin, and the possibility of crashing out of the race. Of course, if, as expected, the weather makes for a half-dry, half-wet track with unpredictable grip, then the rest of the field won't see Márquez for dust.
Jorge Lorenzo also crashed, but his crash precipitated something of a revolution for the Repsol Honda rider. Lorenzo had crashed in FP1, and finished fourteenth, and decided to make a change he had long resisted. He took off the wider Yamaha-style seat he had used at both Yamaha and Ducati, and reverted to the narrower and more rounded Honda-style seat.
That change had an immediate effect. Lorenzo went from lapping in the low 1'33s, to post a sequence of laps in 1'32.6. He then put new soft tires on, and went into the high 1'31s, good enough for fourth place on the timesheets. Ergonomics have always been a crucial part of Lorenzo's riding, as the saga of the Ducati tank proved last year. The seat being a step in the right direction merely underlines that.
"It has been tough this morning," Lorenzo said. "It has been tough to crash and finish fourteenth, it was very tough mentally to get the motivation and to be positive. But finally, somehow I got on the bike with some motivation and positiveness, and finally we tried more things on the bike, and something that we tried gave us a benefit in terms of safety, in terms of comfort in the corner."
"This type of seat came from my time in Yamaha, and I kept it in Ducati, and I brought it to Honda," Lorenzo explained. "But finally I discovered that it's not working, and the standard Honda seat is a better solution. I didn't make a single fast lap, I made three laps in 1'31.5. So that's not a bad pace. But we need to translate this into a result in the race. If we cannot do that, we cannot be really confident and demonstrate and show what we are able to do. This was just a practice, but about the feelings, we made a step. So for me, it's like a small victory, but the speed is going to be a long process, it's not going to be easy."
It is exactly that kind of step which Valentino Rossi needs to find. While his Monster Energy Yamaha teammate is steaming ahead, Rossi is still struggling to find traction. "I expected to be stronger, but in the end, it's a difficult day," the Italian said. "Because already from this morning I had not a fantastic feeling, I suffered a little bit, especially in acceleration from the corners."
Rossi lost some time in the morning when the chain snapped on his bike, meaning he had to be taken back to the pits and take his second bike out. That cost him valuable time, which could have been used working on a solution. "In the afternoon we tried something else, at the beginning it was not too bad, but we tried something different to try to improve," Rossi said. "We didn't find a good solution, so we had to work until the end of the practice. At the end, I was able to do just one lap with the soft and I am out of the top ten."
Rossi's race pace is in stark contrast with the Petronas Yamaha riders. Fabio Quartararo once again stole the headlines, topping the first session of free practice on Friday morning. He couldn't quite match that feat in the afternoon, but still ended up third, behind Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales. The Frenchman has strong race pace too, as does his teammate Franco Morbidelli. Morbidelli's problem is that he can't push out a fast single lap in the same way as Quartararo, but on paper, he is just as fast as his teammate on used tires.
Andrea Dovizioso has similar pace to Quartararo, but was annoyed with himself for his performance on Friday. He didn't have a perfect feeling with the bike, the factory Ducati rider said, but the speed was good on old tires. His problem had been that he had been pushing too hard, been too aggressive in pursuit of a lap time. That was in part due to the nature of the track, with the tight and slow corners, which simply begged to be attacked. But that wasn't necessarily the fastest way around the track, Dovizioso explained, and he needed to find a bit of calm on the, ride more smoothly. If he could do that, he believed he could be competing for victory, or at least a podium.
KTM goes carbon
On Thursday, Pol Espargaro had refused to tell us what he had tested at KTM's private test at Jerez, on the Wednesday after the race. We found out in the morning, BT Sport's eagle-eyed pit report, ex-BSB and MotoGP racer Michael Laverty having spotted that one of Espargaro's KTM RC16s was kitted out with a carbon fiber swingarm. (It was Laverty, by the way, who also spotted that Jorge Lorenzo had switched back to the standard Honda seat, instead of the wider, Yamaha-style affair). Espargaro had used the CF swinger exclusively in the morning session, prompting KTM to fit the swingarm to both bikes in the afternoon.
"We were testing it in Jerez on Wednesday because we did not want to show it so much on Monday," Espargaro said. "We had a good feeling with it, especially with a used tire and you have seen how fast we can be with a medium tire. Consistency and spinning a lot but we can do the lap-time comfortably – not that much though if I’m honest! But it gives more comfort with your style and this is what we were looking for, particularly for Sunday races."
The swingarm was lighter, Espargaro said, which helped with changes of direction. "On the bike it helps in different places, like the change of direction so it’s better," the Spaniard told us. "It doesn't change the character of the bike and this is nice because I like the character of the bike. I’m riding comfortably on the limit and it gives you something else when you need it, like when the grip is not so nice…like today with the medium tire. This is what we need. We know we normally don't have so much grip on the rear so we were looking for something to help us on the race weekend, especially in low grip and at the end of the race when is where you can make most time."
It also helped with traction, Espargaro explained. "It stops spinning earlier and then when we pick up the bike it is going a little bit faster on the back straight. It is not something very different but a small detail that helps give you a feeling you can push a bit more."
Of course, the problem is that gaining in one area means that you simply run into the next. Improve one weakness, and you expose the next limit of the bike, which you then have to address. "It is like a cycle where everything improves," Espargaro explained. Whether that improvement is good enough for a decent result on Sunday remains to be seen.
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