Be careful what you wish for. For four months, MotoGP riders sat at home and twiddled their thumbs, hoping for the racing to return. They got their wish, but there was a catch: the season opener is in Jerez, in July, in the withering heat of an Andalusian summer.
It was positively punishing on track, especially in the afternoon, once track temperatures started to creep into the mid 50s °C. The track gets greasy, and that catches riders out, especially rookies. Alex Márquez was one such rider: the Repsol Honda rider tucked the front at Turn 8, disrupting the plan for the session.
"In the crash, I was too optimistic, coming from the morning with a good feeling on track, you know," the younger Márquez brother told us. "I made a rookie mistake. The grip changed quite a lot from the morning to the afternoon. I was a little bit wide in the entry, but I was on a good lap so I tried to go back to the right line but I was a with a little bit too much lean angle on a dirty surface, and then the front was just closed."
Understanding how the heat affected the track was the key to the afternoon. The track has plenty of grip when temperatures are in the 30s and 40s°C, but once the mercury creeps past 50°C, the grip goes away, turning the MotoGP bikes into a real handful. By the end of FP1, track temperatures had hit 40°C. By the start of FP2, the track temperature was already 54°C, and rising.
The heat is on
"I did a 1'37.4 in FP1, and when I was riding around in FP2 it was 2, 2.5 seconds slower. I thought I was doing 1'37s the way the bike felt," Cal Crutchlow explained. "It’s so strange that the feeling and lap time is so different depending on the heat on the ground. I had a used tire on, but it feels really physically demanding from the point of view of the track condition because it makes the bike move, it makes the tires move, it makes the handlebars move all the time and that is more physically demanding."
The heat is bad enough, but dealing with the bike was the real killer, Crutchlow said. "You have the heat, but the bike moving around a lot is normally why you see this big drop in lap time in the afternoon. But the condition is night and day. Even now, at 10am, it is very hot compared with when we normally ride here in April or May."
Understanding that, how the track has changed and what you need to get the best out of the bike was the key to going quick in the afternoon. The greasy track needed a very different approach, Marc Márquez explained. "It's true that in the morning, more than the bike setup, the riding style is changing. In the morning, the grip is much better, so you can push the tires more, you can use different lines. In the afternoon, it's true that it's more difficult to be constant, more difficult to get the rear grip and it's spinning more."
The conditions will take their toll during the race as well, and not just because of the heat. "Of course, the physical conditions will be tough, especially because it's hot, of course, but especially because it's the first race of the season," Márquez told us. "You can train very hard at home, you can prepare your physical condition in a good way, but then when you ride the bike for the first time after a long time, the muscles are working in a different way. It will be tough because of this, and it will be tough for the hot conditions, to control the tires, to control the bike, the bikes are also suffering." There were places where things were worse, however. "Honestly speaking, I feel worse in Thailand and Malaysia than here," Márquez said.
Having a day of testing before the weekend had eased the transition, at least, giving those unused muscles a chance to recover. "Like always the first day is always the worst day," Andrea Dovizioso said. But Wednesday had been the first day, and that had given him more time to be ready for practice on Friday. "To have a break like normally we don’t have was like a dream. It was perfect to recover and be ready today. Today the feeling was much better. My body, my collarbone, I forgot my situation."
But the heat will be an issue, Dovizioso concurred. "The problem is the heat. It’s the same for everybody. When you practice you’re able to manage the situation because it’s five laps maximum or six. Six laps is fine. If you’re thinking about 25 it’s bad. It’s really bad. And it’s in Jerez. Jerez is a really difficult track because it’s small. When you have a big bike and you have to brake like turn one and six it’s difficult."
Numbers can deceive
The punishing conditions in the afternoon session made the timesheets trickier to interpret. Some riders had taken a new rear tire and chased a quick time. Others had stuck with used tires, and worked on pace for the race. But the difference between the two was minimal: Franco Morbidelli had finished the session on top of the timesheets, after using a new tire on his final run. Fabio Quartararo, who finished second, less than three hundredths behind his Petronas Yamaha teammate, set his fastest time on his first run with a new tire. But on his final run of the session, Quartararo posted two 1'38.6s and two 1'38.5s with the same tire with two thirds race distance on it.
A similar pattern was visible further down the field. Brad Binder took an impressive third place in FP2 with a new tire, while his Red Bull KTM teammate Pol Espargaro was fifth, also with a new tire. Marc Márquez ended the session in fourth, setting his best lap at the end of a run on a tire with half race distance on it. Maverick Viñales finished seventh, but set his time with a rear with 23 laps on it, the best part of race distance. Johann Zarco was a hundredth of a second slower than Viñales on his 20th lap on the rear tire.
Of particular note is the fact that all of these times were set with the soft rear Michelin. Michelin's tire nomenclature is always opaque, complicated by the fact that the multi-compound tires often vary only slightly, and in one particular part of the tire, between the soft, medium, and hard tires. But confusingly, the soft can sometimes be the better choice when temperatures are so high. As the tire moves and wants to slide on a greasy track, a softer compound can provide the grip a harder compound might miss. It is testament to the job done by Michelin that they brought compounds which offer such durability under the extreme conditions.
Quartararo, Márquez, Viñales, and Zarco were all impressively quick in FP2, their pace a real worry for their rivals. Quartararo and Márquez, in particular, were fearsome, lapping consistent in the mid 1'38s on old tires. The Frenchman had been cruelly denied at Jerez in 2019, when a bolt on a quickshifter broke. His pace is good enough to secure revenge.
Quartararo had been forced to sit out the first 20 minutes of practice, after being penalized for using a Yamaha R1 at Paul Ricard without getting approval from MotoGP Technical Director Danny Aldridge. When he did get out on track, with 25 minutes to go, he struggled, he said. "I couldn't make the first 20 minutes of the practice, then we go out and finally it was quite difficult, because we didn’t have a good feeling about the bike. Not feeling so great with the braking and cornering, turning, it was one of the hardest practices of my MotoGP career. For FP2 we made quite a big change and it was good because we made really good pace, which was really important because the race on Sunday is at the same time."
Quartararo had no real explanation for why he was so slow in the morning. "It is only the first race of the year, so we need to try many things on the bike and it is not easy to perform in every practice," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "For me the bike is totally new, and I don’t have a lot of experience in MotoGP and it is really easy to lose a bit the way. This morning I was P17 and 0.8 seconds behind, so at the end we are far, but when you think about it, it’s not that far. A small change can help you a lot for the improvement of the bike and feeling better."
Road to redemption
It is also worth pointing out that the other Frenchman is in remarkably good shape. After being reluctant to sign for Avintia, Johann Zarco's concerns seem to be unfounded. He was fast and consistent on the Ducati Desmosedici GP19, and quickest Ducati rider, finishing just ahead of factory rider Andrea Dovizioso, but posting more consistent times.
"In the afternoon, it was our strategy to try and keep the used tire and understand what we can do," the Avintia rider told reporters. "We did a few things on the bike that always gave me a better feeling. I’m able to ride the bike better in the Ducati style and the Ducati is coming to me. We were able to adapt the bike and fix small things on the suspension. And this all combines and means I can have some good lap time."
Though Zarco was happy, he still had things to learn, he said. "In the afternoon to have some lap times in the 38s high, like a 38.7s or a 38.8s, this was positive because it’s a good sign. We can see that not everyone can do it. This is positive but what is missing now is making 10 or 20 laps in a row. Why is it difficult for me at the moment? Because all that I’m doing on the bike is still not automatic. It’s necessary still to think and push myself. There are some new limits I need to learn."
Blowing through the gap
The heat wasn't the only problem for the riders. Along with the temperature, the wind picked up in the afternoon, blowing across the track from behind the paddock, right across the two fastest corners on the track. Jack Miller, who had been impressively quick in the morning on the Pramac Ducati, had struggled in the afternoon with the wind.
"The wind was more of a factor than the track temperature," Miller told us. "Even on the used tire I feel pretty good, and it's just on those last two corners that I'm struggling in and I can't find a way to be strong through there. When I tried to push on Wednesday I had a big moment there, and it was the same today too. The good thing is that I have a good feeling with the front and I can understand that it's tucking."
The problem is in part because of the layout of the track. The Jerez circuit is set into the bowl of a hillside, but the section between Turns 11 and 12 is directly behind a large open space containing a car park near the circuit entrance, which is itself next to the flat land where the local hills end. "In Turn 11 and 12 you're exposed, whereas everywhere else the track is kind of cut into the mountain," Jack Miller explained. "But in Turn 11 and 12 there's a gap that the wind comes from. We need to find a solution and because it's only two corners it should be easier to find a solution."
The wind was something to be aware of, Marc Márquez said, but not a matter of huge concern. "The wind is pushing more in the afternoon, especially in the two fast corners, but Phillip Island is worse," the Repsol Honda rider pointed out. "It's pushing, it's maybe something on Sunday that you need to take care about if it's there, but nothing really dangerous."
Touchy front end
Not as dangerous as Turn 2, apparently, where Márquez managed to crash in the afternoon. The Spaniard crashed while trying a new chassis, though he said the chassis had little to do with the problems. "The crash was a bit strange, because it was not really that I was pushing too much," the Repsol Honda rider explained.
The problem was that his foot had slid off the foot peg, and that had upset the bike. "If you see, the front 'jumped', because I lost the front a little bit, but then the problem is that I missed the grip with the boot, and then I slid with my foot, and for that reason, the bike jumped," Márquez told us. "But this was the reason. Lucky for me, I was able to pick up the bike and ride with the same bike, because it was a very slow crash."
The reason Márquez is trying a new chassis is because Honda lost its way with their 2020 aerodynamics package. That package was ditched on the last evening of the Qatar test, leaving Honda little choice but to homologate the 2019 aero package again. The aero package was meant to help make the Honda RC213V's front end a little less twitchy, but it had the opposite effect. So now, HRC are working with frames and with swingarms to try to change the balance of the bike.
More is not necessarily better
The root cause of the problem, Márquez believes, is the change to the rear Michelin tire. It is improved, but that improvement has forced the factories to chase solutions for dealing with the greater grip.
"This year, Michelin changed the construction, it's a tire that has better grip," Márquez explained. "That better grip can be good in the exit of the corner, but in the entry of the corner, it is pushing the front more. Normally better grip on the rear is better for Yamaha or Suzuki, because they are riding more with the rear tire, but we are trying to adjust the setup. For that reason, this morning we started with the base from Wednesday. This afternoon, we tried to find some bike balance, understand if we can improve this feeling. It was not possible, but we have a lot of information and tomorrow we will try to do another step."
Crashing, Marc Márquez has said before, is just the way you have to learn to ride the Honda, the only way to try to understand where the limits lie. If you are not willing to crash 20 times, you won't succeed on the RC213V, Márquez insists.
That can be tough on a rookie, but Alex Márquez insisted that he was willing to do whatever it takes to get to grips with the Honda. "At the end, I am a rider, it is my work and crashes are part of my work and I am not afraid to have crashes," the younger Márquez brother told us. "If I need to crash 20 times to be fast I would crash 25 times. This is something which is part of our job and we need to deal with it."
Kissing the asphalt
His crash during the afternoon was a typical part of the learning process, the younger Márquez said. "For sure the experience that I had this afternoon with the hot conditions, and the Honda like always is especially critical with the front, so you pay for the mistakes a little bit more compared to other bikes," he told us. "It's part of the job, I will try to manage this is a better situation cause when I start to break I saw that I was a little bit out of line but I tried to follow that lap so I did that mistake. All I can say, it's part of the job, and we need to be ready in any condition for crashes and try to learn why you crash."
Cal Crutchlow knows all too well how critical the front end of the Honda is, and he nearly crashed himself. "I nearly had one on the last lap, that’s why I pulled out," the LCR Honda rider said. "Exactly the same as Marc, I lost the front in turn two, but Marc would continue to lean the bike over and try save it, whereas I let go of the brake and prayed that I would stay on, and I did."
"It’s very critical, this is the Honda, the front of the bike is really critical to manage," Crutchlow told us. "I didn’t see Marc and Alex’s crashes so I cannot comment on that, from going on what we know from previous years, the Honda’s strong point is to tip into the corner, but it’s also our weak point because we have to keep pushing. That is our only chance to gain time over the whole lap. We gain everything in the braking and with the rider manually riding the bike. We keep going past that limit."
Life on the outside
If Alex Márquez' rookie mistakes led to a crash, Brad Binder was a little bit luckier. Like the Honda, the KTM is very strong on braking and corner entry, but unlike the Honda, the KTM RC16 doesn't crash so quickly. But it is easy for Binder to be tempted into a mistake by that strength in braking, the factor KTM rider explained.
"The thing that comes naturally is that this bike is very good in the braking zones," Binder told us. "That’s always been a strong point for me and it fits quite well. I need to learn to control it though, cos I’ve been going straight way too often. Sometimes it’s quite embarrassing because the other guys must think I live on the outside of the track! It’s one of those things. The thing that we need to improve is that last moment on the front; I keep pushing the tire a little bit too much and it’s almost collapsing a little bit and washing away on me. I either need to try and stop the bike better before I get to that point or I need to be more relaxed in that point of the corner."
That wasn't the only thing Binder needs to work on, the KTM rookie told us. "If I did a clean lap then the times were quite OK," he explained. "At the same time, I made a lot of mistakes and went straight through quite often. That’s the difficult part of MotoGP right now: to do one lap is not difficult but to do a race distance or to keep that rhythm is quite hard. This afternoon we were testing quite a few different things and I was making a lot of mistakes but I was trying to push on and get a feel for what we needed. For tomorrow I think we have a very clear idea of what we need to fix and I’m sure once I get a little more margin then this will change the rhythm up quite a lot."
Like Honda, Ducati are also struggling with the new rear tire. They had made real progress in the test on Wednesday, and improved things on Friday at Jerez, but there was still plenty of work to do, Andrea Dovizioso told the media. "With the used tire from the morning we did a really good practice in the afternoon, to try to be ready with this temperature because it’s really difficult. Still we are trying to manage the rear tire."
The problem is that the tire seems to be so very different from what it was in 2019. "It’s really different," Dovizioso said. "Still it is so difficult to manage the entry of the corner, mid-corner, exit… Everywhere has a different characteristic. Still we are working on that. Like we expect at every track, the feeling is a bit different. I mean the characteristic is the same but it can affect you more or less."
More grip may seem like a good thing, but the downside comes when you are used to using the rear to turn by sliding the bike. Michelin's new rear does not like to slide as easily as last year's tire, and that is giving the factory Ducatis a problem, Andrea Dovizioso explained.
"This is one of the characteristics of this tire," he told us. "It has a lot of grip, the casing is softer but it’s very difficult to make the slide you want if we compare it to the previous tire. We are struggling because we need some slide on entry to brake in the way we want or need with our bike. We are working on that (on entry). On the exit the same things happen. The characteristic of the tire is like this, and it’s difficult to manage the slide."
The difficulty is that though the rear tire will slide, it does so abruptly, which makes it hard to control. "On the edge, the slide is so difficult to manage because it’s so quick," Dovizioso explained. "It’s difficult to make a small slide and then decide how much you want to slide to turn the bike. You slide the rear very quick and when you slide like that you are not fast. So we are struggling on that. But these are small things. That’s why we did the step already from the test. We analyzed, tried something and the speed improved. But still I’m not comfortable enough."
At a standstill?
But the rider most worried at the end of the first day was Valentino Rossi. While the two Petronas Yamahas headed the timesheets in FP2, and his teammate was second in FP1, Rossi was three quarter of a second slower than the rest in FP1, and a whole second back, and down in 20th, in FP2.
"It was a difficult day for me because I was never fast," the Italian conceded. "This morning was a bit better but this afternoon we are struggling a bit more. Looks like we are always in trouble with the temperature of the rear tire and the grip of the rear tire. This morning the weather was cooler so I was a bit closer but this afternoon with higher temperature I suffered more. It was difficult, I am not very comfortable with the bike and I am also not able to enter very fast into the corner and I suffer. It was a difficult day, yes."
Fabio Quartararo had said that the 2020 machine belied its reputation for being easy to ride, making it difficult to get to grips with. "I don’t think it’s like we say the 2019 Yamaha is an easy bike," the Frenchman had said, "but for me the Yamaha this year is much more difficult to ride than last year so I think everybody need to change this way of ‘the Yamaha is an easier bike’."
Rossi denied that his troubles had anything to do with the 2020 bike, however. "I don't know," he said. "I don't feel a lot of difference, sincerely, and for sure the 2020 is a younger bike, so maybe we need more time and more kilometers to fix the settings. But my problem remains very similar to last year, where I suffer more is the grip and the temperature on the rear tire, so we need to find the way to improve."
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