Why are the MotoGP bikes so much slower at Barcelona than last year? In FP1, fastest man Marc Márquez was a second and a quarter slower than Valentino Rossi was in the first session of 2018. Fabio Quartararo, fastest rider in FP2, was 1.2 seconds slower than Jorge Lorenzo was in the same session in 2018. "If you compare to last year, in FP2 somebody did a 1'38 and many riders were able to do a 1'39, but this year, nobody was able to do a 1'39," Takaaki Nakagami wondered. "More or less 1 second slower than last year."
The answer came from the skies. When I walked to my car this morning, I found it covered in thick drops of very fine dust. According to the locals, this is a fine dust carried from sandstorms in the Sahara, 1000km south of Barcelona. Heavy rain earlier in the week, then brief showers overnight, and at the start of the afternoon, left this fine Saharan sand all over the track, making it dusty, and robbing it of grip.
A lack of grip wasn't the only problem. The sand on the track was also incredibly abrasive, chewing through tires, especially fronts, and especially in FP1. When Marc Márquez came back from his second run on the medium front tire, the right side looked like someone had taken a cheese grater to it. Things were much better in the afternoon, but it did make figuring out who was doing what much more difficult. With conditions so rough in the morning, most riders were using up their allocation of tires they did not expect to need for either qualifying or the race. But some were also approaching the weekend from a different angle.
Was FP1 a wasted session? "No, it was not a waste of a session for sure," Fabio Quartararo told us on Friday afternoon, after setting the fastest time of the day. The brief rain shower in the afternoon had made FP2 a tricky proposition as well, the Petronas Yamaha SRT rider said. "Also in FP2, there was some rain in Moto3, it looked like it wasn't water, it was more dirt. I work a lot with the rear brake, and today, I couldn't touch it, because as soon as you touch it, the bike is sliding a lot. So for me the track today was really dirty, and we see that the lap times are really far from last year already."
New parts to play with
While the track may have been dirty, Friday at Barcelona did offer a chance for the riders to test out a range of new parts. The most visible of the updates – perhaps because it was one we had been expecting, after his trip to Japan – were two new wing-like attachments to the tank of Jorge Lorenzo's Honda RC213V. Though Lorenzo refused point blank to answer exactly what difference they made, their effect can be guessed at. By allowing him to hook his legs under the tank under braking, it should take some of the load off his arms and shoulders under braking.
Lorenzo was positive, but emphasized this was just the first step on a long journey to building a bike which he can succeed on. "It's not a big thing, it's not a big deal, but it's one piece of the puzzle I want to build," the Spaniard said. "If last year, this was the last piece of the puzzle I needed to win, this time it's the first piece, and it will not have the same result on Sunday."
Though Lorenzo refused to explain what difference his tank wings made, Jack Miller, who has used a similar style tank since the middle of last year, was more forthcoming on what benefits the tank had for him. "We've got the lips on the fuel tank," the Pramac Ducati rider told us. "We actually got a new one this weekend, a lot lighter, that's not as big, just to hook your knees under it, especially at Turn 9, the hairpin, you just jam your knees under it and try to take as much weight off your hands as possible. So you push off your feet and you push your knees into the fuel tank and use that as a locking position to hold back. And basically the upper body weight gets taken by your arms rather than your whole weight."
Seek it where you can
The other visible part was the new exhaust which Valentino Rossi tried. Larger, and more of a megaphone shape, revising the exhaust is one way to alter the character of the engine, despite the design of engine internals being frozen for the rest of the year. Rossi was not particularly enthusiastic about the new exhaust, however. "We tried one exhaust that is a bit different but I don't feel a lot of difference," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "So we will try on Monday in the test and we will use the standard one for the weekend."
What Yamaha really need is a new engine, Rossi hinted, but with the regulations the way they are, that would not be possible until next season. But what he did want, Rossi said, was for Yamaha to get back ahead of the game, instead of waiting for the winter to work on new engines. "Sincerely I don't know very well, but when the Yamaha has been competitive then we have tried a new bike in the Brno test. For some reason – that nobody knows – in the last years the new bike does not arrive. Never. Maybe also for that reason we take a big gap."
But there were also new parts being used by some riders which were not visible to the naked eye. Their existence either had to be acknowledged by the riders, or, in the case of Marc Márquez and Honda, when the new parts didn't quite fit together they way which Honda expected. Márquez came into the pits during FP2, and got stuck waiting while his team tried to make a new part fit which appeared to be used in the rear wheel.
Márquez downplayed the issue, as you might expect. "The problem is fixed," he said, "it was just a new part, there was something strange there but not any mechanical problem. It was more from the manufacturer." The time he lost put him down in seventeenth in FP2, though that was not much of a problem, as he had already secured passage to Q2 with the time he had set in FP1. But he was happier with his race pace than he was concerned about his ability to set a fast lap. "This afternoon I didn't put the new tire, but even like this with a used medium I did 1'40.9, that is not bad." Only one other rider managed the same pace on used tires, and that was Andrea Dovizioso.
Progress getting rapider
For other unseen parts, journalists were reliant on the word of the riders. KTM have brought a raft of new parts to Barcelona, the fruits of Dani Pedrosa's two-day test at Brno, his first for the Austrian factory. Pol Espargaro raved about them, praising the fact he was fastest on the bike with new parts.
Johann Zarco was a little more hesitant, though that was perhaps more because he tried the new parts in the afternoon, when conditions were different. "I tried it yes," Zarco said. "But again, some interesting information but difficult to compare when the wind is blowing and not in the same direction, the tires are used and the temperature is going up. There were at least three important elements different to the session before. And in that moment you need to give a clear comment about the difference of the bike and it’s quite hard."
He had also tried the carbon swingarm which Pol Espargaro had been using for some time, and was much happier with that. "It brings some more grip and on this track with very low grip it was helping a lot. It is good to have a bike with some grip but it is not doing everything."
So what conclusions can we draw from the first day of practice? Given the difficult conditions, the answer is probably not much. There were riders who were changing their approach to practice too, learning the lessons of Mugello.
Marc Márquez was one of those riders. "Today we changed a little bit the strategy from Mugello, first of all to try to understand the tires and I think we did a great job," the reigning champion said. "Of course that means I was with the soft front in the afternoon with very high temperature, but anyway it was our strategy and I try to keep going and just I try to understand well. Tomorrow of course we will start to put all the best things that we try. We had two different bikes, with two different set-ups and two different tires. So yeah, basically I think it's not the real position, but of course it's a circuit that is similar to Mugello. It is not a circuit like Le Mans and Jerez."
The reason for the change was to work though the various tire options, rather than fixating on a single combination and focusing on trying to make that work. "In Mugello it didn't work like I want and then I focused too much to the hard-hard," Márquez said. "Then after the race I realized that maybe a different tire was better. So for that reason I changed the strategy and when everybody was with the soft front in the morning I was with the medium and when everybody was with the medium in the afternoon I was with the soft front."
That had the added benefit of confusing the other riders and teams, who were on different tires each time they were out on the track with Márquez. But changing up tires was a lesson learned from previous races. "It’s the strategy inside the box and something that in Mugello basically we misunderstand something and Qatar too," Márquez explained. "And in Qatar and Mugello we had the same allocation of front tire, more or less. So it's time to understand and basically we change the strategy because of the allocation of the tires, to get more information. Not for any other reason."
On paper, it looks like Márquez only has the Ducati of Andrea Dovizioso to rival him for pace. But it is very difficult to judge whether that is true or not, especially since Márquez spent so much of FP2 following other riders, and especially Dovizioso on the Ducati. They were the only two riders to lap consistently in the 1'40.9s, but Márquez did his quick laps behind Dovizioso, when the factory Ducati rider was pushing with a soft rear tire.
Rins has pace, but not for one lap
But the Suzukis were not a million miles behind on race pace, and especially Alex Rins. But both Rins and teammate Joan Mir suffered crashes on their first flying lap on the soft tires, a result perhaps of the Suzuki's inability to put heat quickly into the tires.
Rins was convinced he had a soft rear tire which had some kind of deficiency, however. "Something happened with the tire because I entered T4 and immediately the rear tire went, sliding a lot," Rins explained. "Then I went straight on and I don’t have time to stop the bike and then I crash. It's strange because later when I came back with the same soft on the rear it happened in every corner exactly the same, so I decided to enter the box. So then I start with the new medium on the rear and today I feel quite comfortable. The soft we put was bad. I'm happy because riding smooth, everything under control," the Suzuki rider explained.
He wasn't the only rider to complain of a duff tire, however. Jack Miller was equally scathing of his tire, though part of that was perhaps because his team had refused to change to a different tire when he asked them to. "We had dramas with the soft," Miller said. "I used it from the start, they wanted me to do laps on it, but to be honest, it was just one of those softs that doesn't work. I knew it from the start, and it just got worse and worse, and I was having moment after moment, and more highsides on entry than anything, I couldn't use rear brake."
"So I already wanted to change tire, and they told me I needed to do another run on it. So I just spent a little bit saying it wasn't worth it. I knew it already before the last run, but we wasted ten minutes of the session. We've got good pace, but like I said, it was just a tire that didn't work. I don't feel the soft, from my opinion and from what I saw from Marc, that he kept it on as well, if you go out there and blitz one or two laps, it seems to be alright, but if you do 15 on it, it doesn't seem to work real good at the moment."
On Saturday, the skies are expected to stay completely dry, and to be much warmer than Friday. This should help the riders work more consistently on race pace, and give them a little more grip to play with. Perhaps we will have learned a little more after the second day at Barcelona.
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