There is nothing like the sight of racing motorcycles entering a track for timed laps to bring a circuit alive. If yesterday, the atmosphere was best described as eerie, the baritone roar of a pack of Moto3 bikes was enough to snap the MotoGP paddock out of its malaise. We went from wandering around looking lost to watching the timing screens, and jumping out of the way of bikes as they entered the pits.
Walking up and down pit lane, and with a chance to focus on Moto2 and Moto3 exclusively, a few things catch your attention. First, the luxurious space afforded to the MotoGP teams: each MotoGP rider has a garage to call their own, giving bikes, riders, and mechanics plenty of space to move around in. The Moto2 and Moto3 riders have vastly less room, with three two-rider teams squeezed across two garages. That forces mechanics to squeeze Moto2 bikes (as wide as most MotoGP machines) in between concrete pillars and the thin partition walls used to separate the teams, and give them somewhere to display their sponsors' names.
Why couldn't the Moto2 and Moto3 teams all move up into the garages vacated by the MotoGP teams? Because the MotoGP teams didn't really vacate those garages. Behind the shuttered garage doors, the pit boxes are full of flight cases and shipping crates, sitting waiting for a destination to be shipped to. In vain, for the present time. We won't really know where that is, until the World Health Organization officially declares the global attempts to contain the virus a failure, and move on to the next phase of dealing with the disease, whatever that may be.
The other thing you notice without MotoGP sucking up all the attention of bike fans is just how good the riders are in both Moto3 and Moto2. They, too, work hard with their crews to get the bike just right, work on strategy to ensure they get through to Q2, push hard for a fast time, concentrate on finding the right race pace. To paraphrase the title of a Jeanette Winterson novel, MotoGP is not the only Grand Prix class.
Ten years later
The first day at Qatar produced some fascinating talking points too. Joe Roberts ended the day on top of the timesheets, with a lap which took two tenths off the lap record. In doing so, he became the first American rider to top a Grand Prix session since Nicky Hayden timed his quick lap in a wet FP4 at Phillip Island just right in 2016, putting in a fast lap when he replaced Dani Pedrosa. And he became the first American rider to top a session in Moto2 since Kenny Noyes took pole at Le Mans in 2010, the inaugural season of the Moto2 class.
Is this a flash in the pan? Probably not. This has been coming for a while. Roberts was quick and consistent at the test here last weekend, and has been on an upward trend. "I have been fast from the testing but to be first and to break the lap record is a whole other thing," he told us on Friday evening. MotoGP commentator Steve Day had been watching at track side with Kawasaki WorldSBK rider Alex Lowes, and Lowes had told Day that it was clear to see that Roberts had improved unbelievably at the track, even without being able to see the times.
There have been a number of changes in the American Racing Team which have contributed to Roberts' improvement. The American has a new crew chief, and former MotoGP rider John Hopkins has been brought in as rider coach. "In a championship class when it's so tight, it's a combination of everything," Hopkins explained. But above all, it was a question of confidence. "It's self-belief is his biggest thing. He's always had the talent, he has just as much talent as any other guy in the championship, especially working with him this winter. I would say his biggest improvement is confidence, he's got a crew chief that he is working well with, a bike that he feels comfortable with underneath him, and it's a combination of everything."
The switch to Kalex had made it easier for Roberts, he said. "To be honest, I'm a rider who relies on feedback from the front," he said. "If the front is not working, I'm a frickin' disaster, I kind of fall apart a little bit. Well, not fall apart, but drop a couple of tenths. But this Kalex, no bike is ever going to be the perfect bike, there are things I am struggling with - unstable feelings on the bike even now - but it's about things you feel comfortable with."
The big leap forward for Roberts had been in being able to turn the bike. "I think for me, the main issue is that now the bike actually turns when I release the brake," he said. "So I'm able to actually allow myself to ride in a different way, and to brake a bit earlier. Whereas last year, I was trying to rush the corner, trying to back it in, try to make this whole big shit show out of the corner and it was never working. So now I've just got something I feel I can work with. Its crazy how far we have gone up. I would say this track also suits my riding style because I have always loved fast and flowing corners, but I like to believe we can do the same thing at every track."
Had the change in the time of the session made a difference? Moto2 was originally scheduled to take place an hour earlier, before the sun went down. With the loss of MotoGP, the Moto2 session was scheduled for the original MotoGP slot, at 6pm. That meant the track was cooler, and theoretically, there should have been more grip.
Night time is the right time
Joe Roberts was skeptical. "Everybody kept saying that the grip's going to be miles better now, because it's night time. And if I'm honest, there wasn't so much of a difference. When I first went out, my grip was worse, my edge grip was terrible."
Marcel Schrötter, of the Intact GP team, felt much the same. The German had been expecting the track to be much, much faster, but it hadn't. "Not really. I felt that the conditions, normally this track always gets faster in the afternoon. Especially today, it was pretty warm without the wind. But not too many 1'58s, to be honest, I thought maybe there would be a few more 1'58s in the cooler temperatures. So it must be something that the track is not that super fast. It's fast, because the lap time by Roberts was quite fast, but overall I thought more people were going to be in 1'58s this evening."
The biggest difference with the changed time for Moto2 was that it was now taking place in the dark. "It's actually kind of weird when you go out at night time, because you have all the lights, you have reflections in your helmet," Joe Roberts explained. "There's a lot of visuals things that can take your attention away, so it takes a couple laps to get used to it again. It's always something I haven't liked about this place is going from daytime to night time, because it was kind of an adjustment. But the last session was obviously great so I figured something out."
Blinded by the sunset
Marcel Schrötter was happy with the change, riding in the dark being far more preferable to riding an hour earlier, as the sun was setting. "I prefer it, I like it," he said. "The sessions we had at the test, it's one of the worst times, because you start when the sun is near sunset, and a few corners, especially the second to last corner is blind. So you ride half the session almost blind in this corner."
That could have created a very hazardous situation during the race, the Intact GP rider said. "The race would have been at the same time, and for me it's pretty risky, because you won't see if anyone has a moment in front of you on the exit of the corner, or maybe just crashes, and there's a bike. You wouldn't see it. So it's a pretty risky situation. But the conditions were OK, the track was good. But now for me it's a bit better."
KTM ready to race
That things can change between a race and a test was also evident in the Moto3 class. All through testing, the Hondas had dominated. At Jerez, the top five from all three days of testing had been on a Honda, with Ai Ogura of Honda Team Asia leading the way. In Qatar, Hondas occupied the top eight spots, with the Snipers Team's Filip Salač ahead of Ogura and Tony Arbolino.
But at the end of Friday, there were two KTMs leading the way, Red Bull KTM Ajo's Raul Fernandez ahead of CIP rider (and brother of KTM MotoGP rider Brad) Darryn Binder. Six of the top ten bikes were KTMs (if we count the Husqvarna of Romano Fenati as a KTM, which it is at the moment.
The difference had come from an engine upgrade, which KTM had brought to the first race. The Austrian factory likes to keep its cards close to its chest in Moto3, after having been burned once before when Honda pulled a similar trick. The new KTM engine brought enough added top speed to keep pace with the Hondas, making for a much more evenly matched championship.
The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, so we will see who has the upper hand once the slipstreaming madness of the Moto3 race gets underway on Sunday. There is much to look forward to at Qatar, even if there are only two classes there.
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