Four seasons in one day. That's how they describe the weather at Phillip Island, and that's exactly what MotoGP got on Friday. Jack Miller's day summed up conditions nicely. "It was quite windy early as the doors were nearly blown off my house," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "Then it started calming down, then bucketing down, and believe it or not I was sitting out having a coffee at 6:30 this morning in a t-shirt as it was 18 or 19 degrees and then as I was driving to my parents’ house the temperature started going down and down and then the rain came in. I thought it would be set in for the day but it managed to clear up this afternoon and we managed to get on the slick tires."
In the end, the MotoGP riders got three session in different conditions. FP1 was cold, wet, and blustery. FP2 was warm, dry, and fairly sunny. And the special tire test session, to put the final touch on the new construction rear tire Michelin wants to introduce in 2020 was cooler, with temperatures dropping.
Those changing conditions had a fairly significant impact. First, it meant the MotoGP teams were trying to cram an entire weekend's worth of setup work and tire testing into 35 minutes, followed by chasing a time for Q2 in the final 10 minutes. Even Marc Márquez, who never stresses about chasing a time for Q2, stuck in a soft tire in pursuit of a quick lap, nearly losing out when he found his teammate Jorge Lorenzo sitting on the line through the final two corners.
Big crashes lie waiting
Secondly, cold and wet conditions in the morning and falling track temperatures in the afternoon made it easy to get caught out. And get caught out people did. Especially Fabio Quartararo. The Petronas Yamaha rider got flicked off at Siberia when the rear came round on him, smashing his left ankle into the ground. He was lucky he didn't break any bones, but it left him with massive bruising on his ankle, and thanks to the painkillers he was given in the medical center, unable to ride in the afternoon.
Quartararo put the crash down to inexperience. "I don't have enough experience on the wet to really be playing with the [engine] maps," Quartararo told MotoGP.com's pitlane reporter Simon Crafar. "It's not easy, so I think we need to be learning these things step by step, because actually we haven't made many laps in the wet."
The crash is a major setback for the Frenchman. He had been tipped as one of the favorites to win at Phillip Island, the track ideally suited to the Yamaha, and Quartararo having been getting closer to finally beating Marc Márquez in the last few rounds. That is looking an increasingly difficult prospect after the crash, however. He lost valuable track time in the dry, which could prove costly on Sunday if the race is dry. That is a big if, of course: this is Phillip Island, four seasons in one day, and it just depends what time it is the turn of winter or autumn.
The Yamaha is certainly fast in the dry. Maverick Viñales ended the dry FP2 as fastest, by a significant margin. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider was nearly half a second faster than Andrea Dovizioso in second. But he might have been pipped to the post if Marc Márquez hadn't come across his teammate while he was on a hot lap.
The clash infuriated Márquez, long enough for him to pull up next to Jorge Lorenzo when the pair were doing their practice starts after the session had ended, and gesticulate that he thought it better that Lorenzo not be sleeping on the racing line. But when Márquez spoke to the press, he was already downplaying it.
"Of course in the first moment I was upset because now we cannot forget that free practice means qualifying practice, I mean you need to go directly into Qualifying 2 and the forecast for tomorrow looks like rain 100%," Márquez said. "So it was my last chance, I was on a very fast lap and I tried to overtake him in the best way for me to not lose time."
Lorenzo should be more aware of where he was on track, Márquez insisted. "In the end we need to pay attention, because we cannot ride in a 'slow mode' in the middle of the line. Of course he didn't have more space and he will say there was no space, but you need to check behind, you need to understand and be out of the line. But apart from that, I was angry in the first moment, but then I was in his office and we speak together. No problem."
Lorenzo acknowledged that he was on the racing line and got in Márquez' way, but the Spaniard also insisted that there was no need for Márquez to cut him up so sharply that he removed Lorenzo's winglet. "I understand his version saying it was my failure to look back and I think he has adjusted a lot, but I also understand that he had to do that lap," Lorenzo reflected. "I’m sure he had no plans to touch me as he passed, but he judged the distance badly and we touched. It could have been avoided if I had looked back. But, even making that mistake, it could have been avoided if he left 20 centimeters of margin. Maybe he would have lost a few thousandths or hundredths, but we wouldn't have touched each other."
The incident highlights the tensions in the Repsol Honda team. Marc Márquez has won both the riders and the manufacturers championship, but the team championship is still open. If Lorenzo was a little faster, and scored a few more points, it would already be in the bag for the Repsol Honda team, and Marc Márquez' generous bonus from Repsol would be on its way to his bank account. (And more than that, Marc Márquez would have won another thing, because underlying it all, winning things is what Márquez loves above all else.) So to find Lorenzo getting in his way is more than usually irritating.
The travails of Jorge Lorenzo
Jorge Lorenzo is already in a difficult situation. Hampered by a back injury, and failing to manage to get his head around the Honda RC213V, he is trying to build on the confidence he found in the second half of the race in Motegi. Coming to Phillip Island, a blisteringly fast track where you can easily hurt yourself very badly if you come off because of the speeds involved, and finding mixed conditions is exactly what Lorenzo doesn't want. He longs for dry time to continue trying to progress. A wild, wet, and windy track is just what he doesn't want.
The Spaniard does see some reason for optimism, however. "Luckily, Michelin has brought a much softer tire compared to last year," Lorenzo said. "The medium this year is the soft one of last year and they have brought a softer one, which all the riders have felt much better with. Especially me. When I put it on I gained a second and a half. And the feelings were totally different. It felt like another motorcycle, it stopped much better and you entered the corners with much more confidence."
The problem is his back and his neck, a relic of the crashes at Barcelona and Assen. "Even so, we are very far away, at 1.8s but this is one of the worst circuits for me lately. Or the worst. It will be a complicated race. My physique has suffered a lot, the spine and the neck, because of the position you have to have on this track on the bike. Until I finish I will try to make a good result, but it could be a strange race, different from the others."
Trusting the front
Lorenzo could be having more of a problem at the front than at the rear, however. Lorenzo lacks feeling from the front end, and that is making him tentative in trying to turn the bike. The problem for the Honda is that you have to push the front end hard to make the bike turn. Lucio Cecchinello explained to Johann Zarco that you have to get the front fork bottoming out before the front tire will want to turn.
To help that happen, you really need to run as hard a front tire as possible – although the 2019 Honda is a little more forgiving in this area than the 2018 bike. But using the hard front means you have to push harder to warm it up, and you get less warning before it lets go. That is hard to manage for a rider lacking confidence in the front end.
So what Lorenzo does is run the soft front tire almost exclusively, because it gives him more feedback and feel for the front end of the Honda. But with the soft, you can't brake as hard into the corner without the tire squashing, and then not wanting to turn. And so Lorenzo finds himself in a Catch 22 situation. Not daring to use the hard or the medium front, because he doesn't have confidence in them. And not able to get confidence with the medium because he can't push it hard enough to make it work.
Old new boy
Johann Zarco is going through the same process, though it is a little easier for the Frenchman because the 2018 RC213V he is riding as replacement for Takaaki Nakagami in the LCR Honda Idemitsu team is easier and less physical to ride. Zarco was grateful for the time in the wet in FP1, because it gave him time to understand what the bike needed at a slightly less frantic pace.
"The first day, the FP1 was on the wet, it was kind of good to test the bike the first time," Zarco said. "Not easy, because it was difficult to find confidence in the wet. But when it's raining you go slower, so I had more time to adapt to the bike. I was not super slow, and I was happy to be careful, but have some correct lap time."
Zarco refused to make direct comparisons between the Honda and the KTM – contractually, he will not be able to comment until the term of his original contract has passed, though that is likely to be at the end of 2019, rather than the end of 2020. But Zarco's comments did give something of an insight.
Was the Honda a physical bike? "It depends how you ride," Zarco said. "Me, I'm not the kind of rider to ride physical, but I think it's possible to manage it. Just with the confidence, you will save the body."
Zarco did end the day faster than Jorge Lorenzo, a quarter of a second quicker in FP2, and eight tenths quicker in the tire test, though there was less reason to be chasing a fast time in the supposedly untimed test. Whether we can draw any conclusions from Zarco's performance compared to Lorenzo is hard to say. There are a lot of variables in play here. But Zarco's debut on the LCR Honda was relatively promising. Most importantly, he finished ahead of all four KTMs in FP2. That must give him some quiet satisfaction.
Saving the day
Though the tire test was untimed, that didn't stop riders from pushing. The objective was to have everyone do at least 11 laps on the new construction Michelin, and all but Andrea Iannone managed that, the Aprilia rider only putting in 10 laps. (Fabio Quartararo and Pol Espargaro chose to sit out proceedings after crashing.) Iannone was delighted with the new rear, giving the Aprilia the grip he felt was missing. The Italian finished second behind Marc Márquez in the tire test, seven tenths faster than the time he set in FP2.
Marc Márquez managed to steal the show in more ways than one in the tire test. He had yet another unbelievable save, folding the front completely in MG corner, but refusing to go down. Instead, he jammed his knee and his elbow into the tarmac, waited for the bike to slow a fraction, then gave it a dab of throttle to lift the front again and remain upright.
The maximum lean angle he reached was 70.8° according to data from the bike and Alpinestars, and yet he still managed to save the crash and continue riding. 70.8° of lean angle is insane, pretty much lying the bike down flat on the ground. And it illustrates the bizarre power Márquez has in some unusual places. The strength he has in his hip flexors to be able to lever a 160kg bike back up is extraordinary. Training those muscles is not easy.
"I lost the front, there was lot of banking," Márquez described the crash. "I was thinking to give up, but then I said 'before I give up, I will open the gas to see what happens'. Then when I opened the gas is when I had the kind of reaction of the bike that was a kind of wheelie and was able to save it."
The fast boy
Márquez' save detracted somewhat from the fearsome pace Maverick Viñales had on Friday. The track layout suits his style, Viñales said. "I think the layout has very fast corners and a lot of flow between the corners, it’s something I really like. I can take the maximum from my riding style. It’s a track I know I will always be there at is this one," he told reporters.
Who does Viñales expect to face on Sunday? "A lot of riders," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "Here they all go fast. It’s a track where if you follow you can do the lap time. There will be a lot of riders. We have to be ready to battle. This is a track which normally creates chaos at the beginning of the race. We’re going to try to be very smart."
The Ducatis were certainly fast, with Andrea Dovizioso, Danilo Petrucci, and Jack Miller all inside the top five. That was helping to motivate all three of them, according to Petrucci. "I really really like this first day. All the Ducatis are quite good. I think we are pushing each other to be the best Ducati, both Jack and Dovi and me, so I think we can be positive for tomorrow."
Andrea Dovizioso was careful to dampen expectations, as he usually does on a Friday. "At the moment I think Marc and Maverick have a really different pace but after them we are in a group which I think is good because we are there and still everything is possible," the factory Ducati rider said. "We were able to make a good lap time at the end, I used two soft tires because I really needed to be in the top 10 as it looks like tomorrow will be wet. There is a big chance so I am happy. The lap time came along and that is good as it is not easy as the grip is low like always here so it is very difficult to stop the bike and to turn the bike."
Dovizioso was particularly pleased with the 2020 construction rear tire they had tested for Michelin, and believed it could be an advantage for Ducati. "The grip is much more, especially in this layout as you feel more," the Italian explained. "It was really good for me as we had a lot of grip on entry and I was able to brake better and make the line easier. With the standard tire I always make a mistake because I don’t have any kind of grip. When you brake hard you always make a mistake. It was much better."
Saturday has started wild and windy, with rain expected as the day progresses. Qualifying promises to be anything but simple. But it should be an intriguing day Down Under.
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