Has the resurfacing of Silverstone been a success. Judging by the reaction from the riders, you would have to say yes. "I don't think you'll speak to another rider today who doesn't have a smile on his face, because the asphalt is amazing, the grip is amazing," Jack Miller raved, echoing the thoughts of most riders.
The timesheets proved that they were not just saying that at the behest of the Silverstone PR people. It took Marc Márquez 4 laps of the track to beat the best time set during FP1 in 2018, his time already faster than the existing race lap record. By the end of FP1, Fabio Quartararo was within a whisker of the outright lap record set in 2017. That record was beaten first by Valentino Rossi at the end of FP2, then destroyed by Fabio Quartararo five seconds later. Quartararo's best lap in FP2 was over seven tenths quicker than Márquez' pole record from 2017.
It was much the same pattern in Moto2 and Moto3. Tony Arbolino smashed the outright lap record in FP1 for the Moto3 class. In Moto2, Fabio Di Giannantonio broke the outright lap record by six tenths in FP1, then in the afternoon FP2 session, Jorge Navarro took another seven tenths off the time set in the morning. The track is much, much faster. On Thursday, Jarno Zaffelli, the man who had drawn up the requirements, and then overseen and monitored the laying of the new asphalt, had predicted that the race lap record might be cut by as much as 1.7 seconds on Sunday. It is looking increasingly likely that that is a realistic target.
As a pancake
The improvement came not so much from the grip levels of the asphalt as from the lack of bumps. "The new asphalt has good grip but the biggest difference is a lot less bumps, so you can push more and ride the bike more at the limit," Valentino Rossi explained on Friday evening. "For me the grip is good but it's not the biggest step compared to last year. It's a little bit better. The big step is the bumps because the situation is really, really improved."
With the bumps removed, the lines in the corners changed, with riders no longer having to try to avoid the big bumps on corner entry or in the middle of the corner. "You can use the perfect line because in the past Silverstone was very, very bumpy," Rossi explained. That meant changing the setup to cope: "About the setting, you have to make something different, like going longer with the gearing, you have to prepare the bike to have a pace of 1.5 seconds faster. So you can go harder with suspension because anyway you have less bumps. You modify something."
The effect was immediately visible in the pits. More teams were making bigger changes, swapping out rear shocks and changing front suspension and geometry. It was not so much that they had been taken by surprise, it was that they had not dared to hope the asphalt would be so good.
Complicating setup problems
"It's almost like you start in a new track," Andrea Dovizioso said. "You have to set up the bike in a completely different way than the past, the electronics, you have to adapt to the new grip." The real issue was that the teams could set up the bike for the layout of the track, rather than being limited by also having to deal with the worst part of a circuit, whether that be a lack of grip, or bumps, or a difficult surface.
"Every track demands something, but if you have really bad grip or a lot of bumps, you have to make a setup for that," Dovizioso explained. "To try to improve the biggest limit of the track. When you don't have that limit, you can work on some other details. Because last year and in the past here, we were struggling to get the tires warm, absorb the bumps, it was very difficult. It was a different story. Now it's about using the best potential of the track with much more speed, and try to have the best balance, but not for the bumps, but about making the speed in the middle of the corners, really hard braking, the braking is a bit longer, because you don't have to follow the bumps. You just use the best potential of the track."
The positive thing was that the three main compounds which Michelin had brought were all working well – almost nobody tried the extra hard compound, brought more as a safety measure than as a possible race tire – with different bikes choosing different rubber. The Yamahas were working exceptionally well with the medium tire, though the hard worked just as well. The Hondas seemed to favor either the hard or the soft, with no one attempting to run the medium for much of the time. The Ducatis were stronger on the medium than anything else, while Alex Rins clearly favored the soft rear.
Tire wear was optimal too. If someone were to write a textbook on what a racing tire should look like when it is used, they could have used a photo from any of the bikes on the grid at Silverstone. The tires looked excellent, no real marking on them, no signs of graining, overheating, excessive wear.
Grip dropped a little in the afternoon, when the sun came out and air and asphalt temperatures rose above those in the morning. "In the afternoon with the heat, the grip was a bit less," Andrea Dovizioso told us. And that could cause a headache for many of the teams at Silverstone, with the weather set to get hotter and sunnier throughout the weekend.
Meaningless race pace?
That made interpreting race pace, and assessing who might be fast on Saturday and Sunday supremely difficult. There were so many complicating factors that much could change from one day to another, Dovizioso said. "It's only Friday," the factory Ducati rider pointed out. "And with the change of the asphalt, it's still harder to understand us and the competitors. Also, what we have to improve and what we have to be focused on is not clear, because the track is so big and wide, it's completely different than in the past, so it's not easy, we are working on that for tomorrow. Because the feeling is not bad, also because the asphalt is much better, so it's easier to go faster and you don't have to fight with the bike."
That was one of the reasons that Ducati had gone back to the old fairing, rather than the new one debuted in Austria, and Marc Márquez had stuck with the aluminum frame rather than the new carbon frame. "You can approach the weekend in one way or another and this weekend we had some doubts from the beginning because last year we struggled a lot," the Repsol Honda rider explained. "Then there is the new surface, we have four different front and rear tires, a lot of things together. So it's better to forget about the rest and just concentrate here for example with the same chassis, and the new aerodynamic that is clearly better for us."
There would be other chances to test the new chassis once again, the reigning champion explained. "The other things that we are not sure about, the chassis and the 'spoon' [swingarm spoiler - DE], it's better to forget and next week we have a test in Misano and we will try there again. But we are just concentrating on the race week because at this circuit normally we struggle a lot, but today was a good day."
The greater speed of the track and different lines caused a few headaches for Race Direction. They were left to deal with a plethora of riders exceeding track limits and having their laps canceled. That happened to both Fabio Quartararo and Valentino Rossi at the end of FP2, both Yamaha riders having their fastest laps taken away. While Quartararo's crime was widely regarded as far more egregious, Rossi's was a matter of millimeters, rather than centimeters.
That was why, the fast laps of both Rossi and Quartararo were reinstated after review by Race Direction. They both ran wide at Turn 6, the exit of Chapel, but many riders believe that the kerbs are too short there, and should extend a little further. That would mean fewer riders running over the green-painted hard standing, triggering debate over what constituted exceeding track limits.
Pain, risk, and reward
Friday was Jorge Lorenzo's first day back on the bike, and it was more physically demanding than anything he had done before. Lorenzo was in real pain still, the fractured vertebrae still not at 100%. It also meant that Lorenzo had been unable to train, and was suffering with his fitness as well.
Lorenzo's own assessment of how things had gone had been rather bleak. "Obviously it has been a tough day because you never feel very comfortable when you are in the last positions and you are last like I was this morning," Lorenzo explained. "It is the situation that we have now and to try to push the situation creates crashes and the consequences that you can imagine, so for the moment it is the situation that I have. My back has not healed completely and I have pain, especially after FP2, and I have lost muscle mass and my physical conditions is not used to MotoGP because of two months without bikes. Little by little, I need to be patient to get through this race."
Lorenzo hoped to be better at the upcoming Misano test, and at the race after that at Misano. "I think in the Misano test I will be a little bit better but especially at the Misano race, so I can push more, especially on braking and be closer to acceptable lap times. But right now it is really difficult to do it and I need to have patience not to push more than I can."
He had pain and discomfort however he tried to ride the bike, the Spaniard explained. "Almost everywhere I have problems physically, in braking also in the middle of the corners with my neck as my neck lost a lot of muscle, and the change of direction. I have the pain in the back and I move very slowly so everything I do very slowly. The only areas I don’t lose is acceleration. But in the rest of the track I am losing a lot. It shows that in my three-and-a-half seconds off to the fastest ones."
It would have been better for Lorenzo to sit out another race, but politics dictated that he had to return at Silverstone. "I felt that Silverstone was the track where it was the best option for me to come back, because if I delayed more my comeback would be very difficult for everything." Lorenzo said. "Obviously if I waited one or two more races I would enter physically healed probably but worse on reactions, muscles, reflexes and habits on the bike. I think it was the right time to come back but I feel my injury has not completely healed, I have pain on my back, so I’ve lost a lot of qualities that I had before the crash."
But Lorenzo had to come back at Silverstone to help quash the rumors which still swirl around him, that he had an interest in switching back to Ducati, either with the Pramac Ducati squad for 2020, or with the factory team in 2021. He could not afford to stay away, as staying away would only have poured oil on the flames of rumor linking him to Ducati.
It is probably a very bad idea for Lorenzo to be back racing again, only a few weeks off the two fractured vertebrae picked up at Assen. He has the example of Hiroshi Aoyama before him, who suffered the same injury in his rookie season in MotoGP. Aoyama was never the same rider after his crash, after returning well before he was ready. The fear is that Jorge Lorenzo could suffer the same fate.
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