Two decisions plague the 2019 Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi. One, a historical choice made back in 2010, when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, throwing so much ash and dust into the air that it severely disrupted air travel around Europe, forcing Dorna to postpone the race from the original date in April to October. The other, a more recent change made before the 2018 season, where tire allocation for all of the races throughout the year is already fixed before the season even begins.
The change of dates forced on the Japanese Grand Prix as a result of Eyjafjallajökull has stuck, meaning the race is now always in October, as part of the three flyaway races in Japan, Australia, and Malaysia. That has the unfortunate effect of putting the race right at the tail end of typhoon season, which stretches from July to October. Over the years, heavy rains, high winds, and low-hanging clouds have caused the action to be canceled or postponed before. In 2013, Friday practice was canceled completely due to rain and fog, while the 2015 race start was delayed while we waited for the low-hanging cloud to clear, so that the medical helicopter could fly.
The tire allocation is a change which the factories and teams asked for themselves, but which has seen them be hoist by their own petard several times over the two years the rule has been in effect. Unseasonal weather has seen hot weather at usually cool tracks, and cold weather at usually hot tracks, with Michelin caught between the two. It is a minor miracle they manage to supply raceable tires at every race when they have to choose 6, 7, 8 months ahead of time.
Wet or dry, hot or cold
This is especially a problem at tracks where the weather can be very changeable. At Silverstone this year, Michelin had tires which could cope with the sort of conditions you might reasonably expect on a Sunday morning in late August: overcast skies, cold winds, and cool track temperatures. Instead, Silverstone was tropical, and the soft tires barely got used.
Motegi is a track a lot like Silverstone. Track temperatures can be Baltic, when typhoons bring rain and cold weather to central Japan. But if skies are clear and the sun shines, the track can be scorching. Track temperature and tire allocation can change the grip available enormously.
These two factors explain a lot of what happened at Motegi on Friday. With horrendous weather on the way – paddock phones lit up with alerts from the Japanese authorities, warning of high winds, torrential rain, and subsequent flooding in the region – track temperatures were already low. And with heavy rain likely to see FP3 canceled on Saturday, and possibly threatening qualifying, teams and riders had a lot of practice to cram into the two sessions on Friday. And cold track temperatures meant they could only usefully test the soft and the medium compounds which Michelin had brought.
Too cold for the hard
The hard rear was pretty much unusable. Only three riders tried it – Marc Márquez, Andrea Dovizioso, and Jorge Lorenzo, all in FP2, and none of them completed a full, timed lap on the rear. Márquez tried twice, but both times had to give up immediately after the out lap.
"In the afternoon we couldn’t work, unfortunately, because the temperature was so low for everybody and the rear tire didn’t work," Andrea Dovizioso explained."We also wanted to try the hard but it was even worse."
The morning FP1 session had seen fractionally higher temperatures, and had been marginally more useful. But the fact that riders spent most of their time on the soft and medium rear tires is a direct result of the tire allocation. If Michelin had been allowed to choose compounds a week or so ahead of time, then they would have had a clearer idea of the conditions to expect, and brought softer compounds. But the teams have made their decision, and there is little impetus to change. From time to time, we get weekends like this, where temperatures or conditions are so far outside of reasonable expectations that it is hard to keep up.
Less temperature = more grip
There are upsides to cold weather as well, however. A cooler track usually means more grip, especially on a surface as abrasive as Motegi. That benefited the Yamahas, all four Yamahas in the top six at the end of FP2. It was a close run thing for Valentino Rossi, though, the Italian having a brake problem with the bike he had intended to go out on to chase a spot in Q2.
"We had a good plan, we had plenty of time for the time attack at the end," Rossi explained. "But unfortunately we have a problem with the front brake with the good bike, so we had to remove all the tires and put them on the other bike, so at the end I did the last lap with 10 seconds to go, but I did a good lap and I am in the top 10. This is important."
The Italian has made a number of changes at Motegi, dropping the carbon swingarm and new exhaust he had been using since Misano. "We're not ready yet to use them in the race," Rossi told Italian media. "We need some more time to work with these parts, and we don't have any time in a Grand Prix weekend." The swingarm and exhaust will return once testing begins, after the season ends. For the moment, they are back in the hands of test rider Jonas Folger, who was confirmed as staying in the role of Yamaha test rider for 2020 at Motegi yesterday.
Testing should also see a new engine with more power for the 2020 Yamaha M1, Rossi revealed. But finding horsepower was not the problem. "It's not a problem for our engineers to find more power," Rossi said. "But what is important in MotoGP is the power delivery, to have a bike that is easy to ride. To do both takes time, money, and people." But he was confident that Yamaha was well on the way to giving the riders what they had been asking for.
From three to two
Rossi had made another change as well. The Italian had switched from braking with three fingers to just two, in a search for more stability. The number of fingers riders use is just habit, with a variety on display, from the single, middle finger braking of Casey Stoner, to Rossi's triple digit squeeze, now ditched for just two fingers.
"It's something I wanted to try for a while," Rossi told Italian media. "But it's not easy to change after such a long time." The reason Rossi gave was to making braking a little smoother, and calm the front end down as a result. Using two fingers meant load didn't transfer so quickly to the fork, which made braking smoother and kept the front end more stable. "In one way, you are braking harder by not braking so much, because using less pressure on the brake means the bike stops better," Rossi explained.
Rossi wasn't the fastest Yamaha, however. That honor went to Fabio Quartararo, who was fastest overall after the first day, three tenths quicker than Monster Energy Yamaha rider Maverick Viñales, and the only rider to drop into the 1'44s. It was the 24th time he has been fastest this year, a phenomenal start to his rookie season. After the first three races of 2019, once MotoGP returned to Europe, Quartararo has been fastest in at least one session at every race bar Austria and Aragon. He already has four poles to his name, and the only thing missing is a win.
Yet on Friday, it was Petronas Yamaha SRT teammate Franco Morbidelli who was faster in terms of race pace. The Italian may have finished sixth overall, but he looked to be pretty much on the same race pace of low 1'46s on used tires as Maverick Viñales. The two Yamahas are a little slower than Marc Márquez, but the Repsol Honda rider doesn't have the gap he usually has after the first day of practice.
"Today was not the best day for us, because we are missing a few things," Márquez said. "Especially FP2 was not the best practice of the season, but anyway we did a great job. We worked in a good way, although it was difficult to understand the tires and that is where we have the biggest question mark." They had changed the setup a little to get the bike to turn better, and getting better drive out of the corner, but they had only found the right base on the final exit. That work had cost extra time in the pits, but been worth it in the end.
Friday saw the familiar trio of Quartararo, Viñales, and Márquez on top, and the reigning champion pointed to the two Yamaha riders as having raised the bar. "Honestly speaking, it is Fabio and Maverick who are setting the level. We are trying to be there with them," Márquez told the Spanish press. But so far, it was Márquez who came out on top in the races. "With a new tire, the Yamaha is very fast," he explained. "That's why nearly all the poles have gone to a Yamaha rider, or there's been a Yamaha on the front row. But in the races, there are different factors. Tire consumption also affects the race."
Old frame, new pace
While Márquez took his usual place at the front, his teammate Jorge Lorenzo continued his travails toward the rear. Lorenzo felt he had made a step forward, however, by reverting to the chassis he used at the start of the year. That had helped cure some of the lack of front end feeling he had, but had given him chatter from the front tire in return.
"We could see some improvement today compared to the last races," Lorenzo said. "From the beginning I felt more comfortable. We came back a little bit to the chassis we used at the beginning of the season, but with some pieces that were added through the season and this combination creates a little better feeling."
The improvement was evident from Lorenzo's pace, though the chatter impeded his chance to post a quick time. Where others improved 1.5 seconds, the Repsol Honda rider could only find an extra 0.5 seconds on his fast lap. But in terms of race pace, he was a second off the front, rather than the 1.9 in his fastest lap. He was lapping in the low 1'47s, the kind of rhythm that would put him close to the top ten, and not far off LCR Honda's Cal Crutchlow.
That left Lorenzo optimistic. "It was my best session since my injury at Assen," he told the Spanish press. "My objective at the moment is to improve the chatter, the vibration in braking, which is making life complicated. It's a problem we have had since the beginning, but we have some ideas. If they work, then we can make a big step forward."
A big step forward at Motegi would be extremely timely. A decent result in front of Honda bosses at their home Grand Prix would strengthen his position when Johann Zarco takes over the 2018 Honda RC213V of Takaaki Nakagami from the next race in Phillip Island.
Turning down opportunity
At Motegi, we also got confirmation of a rumor which had been doing the rounds for a while. We first heard about it at Misano, but I never managed to track down Remy Gardner's manager to confirm it. In Japan, Gardner spoke to MotoGP.com about the offer he had received from KTM to move up to MotoGP and race an RC16 in 2020.
The offer had come after the race in Austria, Gardner said. "My manager just said he was expecting a call from KTM and what were my thoughts," he told MotoGP.com. He never learned if the offer was for the factory squad or the Tech3 satellite team, he explained.
Perhaps the most surprising thing was that Gardner had turned the offer down. "I thought I would like to continue in Moto2 for one more year," he said. "I said I like fighting at the front, when we're there. I had a two-year contract with these guys, I'm happy with the SAG team. I want one more year's experience and I thought it's probably better to stay here at the moment."
It is not often you hear of riders turning down a chance to step up to MotoGP. The fact that it was KTM making the offer no doubt played a role in his refusal. At the moment, the RC16 is not a competitive prospect, though the project continues to make solid progress. Another year in Moto2, and a chance to challenge for the title is perhaps a more enticing prospect. Especially given that everyone is out of contract at the end of 2020, and there should be a veritable bonanza of competitive seats up for grabs for 2021.
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