Valencia is a fine place to celebrate the end of the MotoGP season. For the vast majority of the paddock it is close to home, at most a couple of hours by airplane, car, or train. It has a fine building in which to host the end of season awards ceremony, the Palacio de Congresos, designed by renowned architect Norman Foster. And it draws a massive crowd, over 100,000 fans turning up on Sunday to watch a race which usually doesn't matter much in the grand scheme of things, beyond rider pride (and there is little much grander than rider pride).
But it also has its downsides. The track is neatly folded inside a tight little bowl, but at the cost of having a lot of left-hand corners, and only a couple of rights. And with the season at its current length, the race is in mid November, and even when the sun is shining, temperatures can be Baltic, something the winter winds don't do much to help.
Caution is advised in these conditions. With the track temperature in the mid teens, even very soft rubber on the right hand side of the tire is not enough to save you at Turn 4 if you try pushing too hard, too early. As Valentino Rossi found to his cost. In FP1, the Italian entered the first right hander of the circuit a little too fast with a new tire, and found it wasn't quite up to temperature. "Sincerely, I made a mistake, a stupid mistake, because I had the soft front, but I pushed a little bit too much already in the first lap, and I crashed."
Winter is coming
The track caught him out again in the afternoon, though this time, it was on a used tire, and he didn't understand what exactly had happened. "The second crash, sincerely, we checked and I didn't do anything different from the lap before," Rossi said. "It was already lap 7 or lap 8. For sure here, with the medium front, everyone is at the limit, because the temperature of the asphalt is very low, and that corner is very dangerous because you arrive after a lot of lefts. Maybe this is the problem, afterwards we will check more deeply."
There is of course a much simpler explanation. "For me, the problem is not the front tire from Michelin, the problem is that it's 15th of November," Rossi said. Having the Valencia round in the middle of November is a risk. The sun rises late and sets early, and temperatures can be very cold, especially in the morning sessions, the sun taking a couple of hours before it properly warms the track.
Most years, the weather is fine, with air temperatures of over 20°C. The race is only a week later than it was in 2016 and 2017, and both those years the weather was warmer than it is this year. A week does not make that much difference, but the later the last race of the year, the greater the risk of adverse weather. "Maybe we need to make this race in Sepang," Rossi joked.
The real problem, of course, is that fitting a season of increasing length into the window of suitable climatic conditions is getting ever more difficult. If the season is to start at Qatar (which, given the amount the Losail circuit pays for the right to be the season opener, it is likely to continue to do), and finish at Valencia (which suits Dorna and most of the paddock), then something is going to have to give. 19 races in 2019 left little room to spare, 20 races in 2020 will be even busier.
Fitting 22 races into the 36 weeks between March and mid November, as Carmelo Ezpeleta hopes to do in 2022, will mean holding a lot of races back to back, especially if, as the riders want, there is a summer break of at least 3 free weekends, a necessity if the winter off season is also compressed.
And it's not just the riders. A race week involves 6 days away from home for the teams, and on back-to-back weekends it hardly makes sense to go home, as it means leaving again the day after you arrive. It is even tougher for some of the Dorna staff: the TV crews have hundreds of kilometers of cable to lay at every race, which then needs to be pulled up again once the race is finished. The process barely leaves enough time to sleep in between finishing at one track and starting at the next.
No back to back
This is already causing problems putting together a calendar. The Thai round at Buriram has been moved to March, but it can't be held back-to-back with Qatar, for example, as the loss of 8 hours due to the time difference means there is simply not enough time to physically remove the TV equipment from Losail and getting it to Buriram on time to set it all up again in time for the race weekend, a problem exacerbated by the exceptional and ever improving TV coverage provided by Dorna. Better footage needs more kit, and more kit needs more time to install, remove, and ship from one circuit to the next.
There are already signs that the schedule is causing staffing problems. One solution for the TV issues could be employing a second crew, but that would mean a massive increase in cost. Teams face a similar problem: one factory has already lost an engineer to WorldSBK, as he wanted to spend more time with his young family, and wanted more time at home. He will not be the last: even figures in senior positions are complaining of not spending enough time at home.
A simple solution proposed by some of the bigger brains in the media center was to cut the weekend from three days back to two. What effect that would have on attendance is hard to say: crowd numbers on Friday are between a quarter and a third of Sunday crowds at most circuits, and consist mostly of fans who are there for the full weekend anyway. I am not familiar enough with TV contracts to understand whether broadcasters would pay less for an event which only happened over two days (and with the rise of streaming services, the question is how much longer TV contracts will continue to exist in their current form).
The riders and teams would certainly oppose the loss of a day of setup time, as WorldSBK found last year when it split the two races over Saturday and Sunday in 2016. An extra practice session was introduced in 2018 to make up for the compressed schedule.
Jack Miller opposed the idea, when it was put to him. "We couldn’t do the Saturday and Sunday format I don’t think unless they change the way our qualifying format works," the Australian said, "because at the moment in FP1 you see you have to throw a tire at it in the end, FP2 you’ve got to throw a tire at it in the end. So you are always doing those banker laps and that means the last 10 minutes you only really get an hour on Friday and an hour on Saturday and then you are racing. The rest is close your eyes and hope for the best more or less."
The subject of the schedule came up at a press conference with the team managers of the factory squads in MotoGP. "22 races is becoming quite tough," Suzuki boss Davide Brivio acknowledged. "It's difficult for the riders to keep the concentration and the intensity through the 22 races, and also for all of us, for all everybody working in the sport. Because it becomes a very long period. We started also a discussion between the teams when there was the possibility to have 20 races next year, as is going to happen, to talk about reducing the tests. This was just to try to do something to compensate for the extra races. It's not the same thing to cancel a test and to introduce one race. We are at least trying to reduce the big stress. It's going to be quite demanding for everybody."
Cutting the weekend was a possibility, Brivio admitted. "Maybe the idea to reduce the weekend, it could be one way. Personally I would evaluate it. But it's something we can think about. We can do 22 races, but we compress the schedule in Saturday and Sunday. This can be one way. Luckily, MotoGP is becoming more and more popular, there are a lot of requests to hold races, which is positive. We can go and explore in more countries, this is fantastic for everybody. So let's try to find the best compromise, so for me to reduce the weekend we were thinking, and we started to chat a little bit inside our team about this."
The power of organization
At that same press conference, Lin Jarvis explained some of what lays behind Yamaha's recent success. A long period of changes within Yamaha had borne fruit, with new management in a number of positions in Japan. But the way the racing department worked had changed as well, Jarvis explained, Yamaha trying to create a culture of openness to avoid mistakes, and to learn from them when they were made. Comparing results between 2018 and 2019 did not see much difference, but the feeling inside Yamaha was much more optimistic, Jarvis said.
Jarvis also elaborated on Yamaha's testing plans. The experiment with a European test team had not been an unqualified success, he said. The Japanese test and European test teams had worked using different processes, and that had made comparing data difficult. So Yamaha had resolved to work with just their Japanese test team, but test at a lot more Grand Prix tracks in Europe. They would still be working with Japanese test riders Katsuyuki Nakasuga and Kohta Nozane, both in Japan and Europe. And they would no longer be working with Jonas Folger, Jarvis explained. But that did not mean they would not work with European test riders in the future.
There was of course a day of practice at Valencia, and as usual, it was Fabio Quartararo who ended the day as fastest. The Petronas Yamaha rider had posted a quick lap in FP1, but lacked race pace, something he improved in the afternoon. The Frenchman was still capable of posting the fastest lap, but his pace was much closer to Marc Márquez, Maverick Viñales, and Alex Rins.
"The pace is not so good but it looks like the team already knows what to do," Quartararo said. "We need to see what is the main problem as we are struggling in the last sector mainly. But honestly it is a track that has never been good for me, in Moto2, and in MotoGP it is even more difficult, so it is a tough track for me but we are working hard to be as fast as possible. We will see the data of Maverick and lap by lap on his pace and see where he is much faster than us."
Marc Márquez was not convinced that Quartararo lacked pace, however. "At the moment looks like it will be like this," the Repsol Honda replied when asked if he thought it would be him versus Viñales in the race. "But I mean Maverick is fast, then Fabio is fast, Rins is fast. Maybe these three guys, but then we cannot forget Mir is not bad. But at the moment is looks like Maverick is riding in a very good way."
Racing becomes testing
Márquez admitted that his strategy had changed since winning the title in Thailand. And not just his: Honda was already testing parts for the 2020 bike, Cal Crutchlow told us. "We are already testing this weekend. We are busy doing things already for next season and for this weekend," the LCR Honda rider said.
Márquez was as vague as Crutchlow about what exactly he was testing. "Since I won the championship, we are working in a different way on Fridays," he said. "Try to understand some concept things, try to understand or change some big parts or big concepts on the bike. Today was a little bit like this, but we focused a lot also on the race weekend, on the pace, on the tires. We are working in a good way and of course since Thailand we are trying to work in a different way, just to start to prepare well for the 2020 season."
Maverick Viñales carried over his strong form from the past two races, buoyed by his victory in Sepang. "I felt straight away really good on the bike because in Valencia normally we struggle quite a lot for the rhythm, especially in previous years," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "But this year we arrived with another mentality, a totally different bike and straight away I felt really good. In the morning, in the cold. In the afternoon, with the wind. Also with the hard rear. I felt in a good way and that's important because many different tracks, fast and slow tracks, we are there and that's the key to continue the process."
Viñales' upward trend was also paying off with each success. "In Sepang we understand how to improve the engine brake, for example, and here still we need to improve," Viñales said. "So Sepang was like a race where we had the best engine brake of the season and now we have a point of reference, so we bring it and I think tomorrow we can make another step."
There was optimism at the other end of the grid as well. Iker Lecuona made an early debut on the Red Bull Tech3 KTM, replacing the injured Miguel Oliveira who is off having surgery on his shoulder. It made sense to put him on the bike a couple of days early, but Tech3 boss Hervé Poncharal told me he had impressed on Lecuona to treat the race weekend as an extension of the test he would have ridden at on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Lecuona may have been last, but it was an impressive debut nonetheless. The Spaniard finished just two tenths off his teammate Hafizh Syahrin, and 2.4 seconds behind Fabio Quartararo. "For sure I am happy about today," Lecuona said. "My idea was to finish 3-3.5 seconds away because it is my first time with this bike and when I finished 3.1 that was great for me. Now I managed 2.3 so I’m happy about the gap. The team is amazing and we will continue to work."
The biggest challenge he had faced was getting used to the carbon brakes in MotoGP. "For me the biggest problem is the carbon brakes," Lecuona said. "They are very difficult to understand but I was learning more by the last laps and I had more feeling and it was getting better but I still need more laps with this bike."
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