Same circuit. Same weather conditions (more or less). Same riders (more or less). Same bikes (more or less). So why do we even need practice? Why not just skip all of Friday and go straight into qualifying on Saturday?
Compare the combined standings at the end of the first day of the Spanish and Andalusian Grand Prix. Just five of the 22 entries are within one position of their place in the combined standings of both FP1 and FP2 at the end of Friday: Maverick Viñales, 2nd-1st last week and this, Jack Miller 6th-7th, Fabio Quartararo 15th-14th, Pecco Bagnaia 18th-17th, Tito Rabat 19th-18th.
The rest of the field varies wildly. Discounting the walking wounded – Marc Márquez, who didn't ride, Cal Crutchlow, and Alex Rins – riders are five, even ten positions further up or further down the order at the end of Friday practice. Franco Morbidelli was 12th last week, 4th this week. Andrea Dovizioso was 4th last week, 10th this week. Valentino Rossi was 13th last week, 2nd today.
Rossi may be one of the few exceptions, in that he has made significant improvements since last weekend, though more of that later. For the most part, the difference is not necessarily of speed, but of strategy. With a weekend of practice and racing under their belt, most teams and riders already have a clear idea of where they stand in terms of setup, and so are working on minor changes in pursuit of a few more tenths. There was a lot more work on race setup, and a lot less on chasing a quick lap for Q2. Q2 can wait until Saturday morning.
Take Jack Miller, for example. "I wasn't out there trying to break lap records," the Pramac Ducati rider joked. "Especially in the faster corners, I was not taking too many risks. For sure pushing, but keeping a little bit in the tank for FP3 tomorrow, because I know that it's going to be very important and saving it for then and qualifying. The main thing I think we're focusing on is, already this afternoon the track temperature was a bit hotter than it has been, and the forecast is for it to be even more hot over the weekend."
Returning to the same track offered a golden opportunity for most riders. "I think most of the riders are happy to race in the same track, because after four months off of the bike, everybody has to work on the bike," Andrea Dovizioso told us. "And to that on the same track in the same situation is the best way to work on some details. So it's really positive for us, especially because it's not the best track for us, and when you have to work on the setup, this is the best."
It had helped them find some extra improvement at a track which has always been bad for them, Dovizioso said. "Tomorrow it will be hard to be in the top ten and to be in the first two rows, because the target is that. We are focused on that, but like I said before, still there is something we have to understand. We saw something in the data, every Ducati rider is riding in a different way, everything is new, everybody is adapting. So the situation is not clear like it was in the past, and we are trying to understand as much as we can to try to be ready for Sunday."
So having the usual schedule, despite having already had a full weekend at the Jerez circuit is better for everyone. "I think you've got to try and keep it semi as normal as possible," Jack Miller said. "I mean, as I said, the track's quite different this week, the conditions are changing. So we just have to sort of go with it, I guess. Of course we all knew exactly what corner was coming up next and what gear to put it in, but the initial feeling and your setup, even the setup that worked for us last week, we having to adjust it more and fine tune it. Even if the bike is absolutely at lap record pace, we are still trying to adjust settings and whatnot."
Miller, for example, was trying out a solution to the numbness in his right hand he suffered in the race last weekend. "For sure. I think the part was already on the bike probably about a half hour after the race, to be honest, the boys were showing me bits and bobs that we can change. But we found a piece that we think is working better. But I won't really know until we get to do 25 laps on Sunday. But just in general, today it felt better."
The one thing that almost everyone was trying with more track time (and more temperature in the track) is giving the medium rear a try. Last Sunday, everyone raced the soft rear, as the best compromise between grip and endurance. Now they have time to assess whether the medium rear can be faster at the end of the race.
"Just trying to understand what tires to run, because I feel a lot of guys are sort of stuck in their way of focusing only on the tire that the race winner ran last week, and most of the grid ran last week," Jack Miller told us. "Which I think was good and everything, but my feeling is that we can focus on both tires that we have, more speaking for the rear. Because I don't think we can discount the medium, because our information is from last week. The track is always different, day in day out, and what worked last week may not work this week, so keeping our options open, you could say."
The options are open because of the sensitivity of the Michelin tires to changes in the track, Andrea Dovizioso believes. "Like always, Michelin tires are particular," the factory Ducati rider said. "We found the same temperature, but the condition is a bit different, and the tires are working in a different way. This morning, the medium tire, the wear was bad for everybody, but not [this afternoon]. This is the reality, and every time it's like this."
That, Dovizioso believes, is why riders were more interested in the medium tire. "I think it's the reason that the medium works better today in the hotter temperatures than last week, because last week, nobody was fast with the medium, but today a lot of riders did a fast lap time, and a good pace. So I don't know if tomorrow after free practice of all the classes, the same situation will return like last weekend. Or if it's different, and we have to adapt and try the medium. But we were focused on the setup, difficult to compare. If we have to, we will try in the afternoon tomorrow. Because everybody is really on the limit with the rear tire. I think this is another reason some riders tried a long run with the medium rear."
That same issue had cast doubt into the mind of Maverick Viñales. The Factory Yamaha rider finished second last weekend using the soft rear, but showed exceptionally strong pace on a medium rear in FP2. The high temperatures predicted for Sunday made the choice even more tricky.
"For sure the behavior of the tires will be more difficult," Viñales told us. "But anyway, we are trying to understand what the feelings are when the bike slides, and where we can improve. Especially the thing that made me do a little bit more overthinking is the rear tire, especially the soft, because we suffered a little bit at the end of the race. It will be tricky with hot temperature."
Grip vs wear
The medium rear certainly had the endurance. Viñales used just a single medium rear for FP2, and put 23 laps on it, two shy of full race distance. He set his best lap, 1'38.107 on lap 20 with the tire, and his second best, 1'38.125, on lap 23. Teammate Valentino Rossi went even further, putting 28 laps on a medium rear, and setting his best lap on the final, 28th lap on the tire.
"We tried to work always with used tires this afternoon," Rossi said. "I think first of all this weekend the track condition is better, so the choice will be more open between soft and medium. But for me personally I have a good feeling today because we changed the setting in the bike and I feel more comfortable. I can ride better and I was fast on pace and the time attack. In the afternoon I suffer always a bit more but anyway it's difficult for everybody and it looks like we are stronger than last week."
A change to the setup had brought a big improvement for Rossi, who had suffered badly throughout last weekend with the rear tire, unable to come to terms the Michelins. "For me, it's more important the feeling with my bike," Rossi said. "We modify the setting and I'm able to ride in a better way and also my tire work better compared to last week. I am faster in the rhythm and I have a better feeling when I ride. For sure it's always difficult because have a lot of different riders and bikes that are very strong. But we are better than last week."
Old isn't necessarily worse
With so much experimenting with tires going on in FP2, the session threw up a fair few surprises. Biggest of all, perhaps, was seeing Takaaki Nakagami fastest in the session by well over a tenth of a second. Nakagami had set a time with a new medium, pushing for a quick time, where others had set their best laps while focusing on long runs.
Nakagami was getting extra attention with Marc Márquez sitting out Friday, but he didn't believe that had changed the way they were working. "Nothing changes," the LCR Honda rider said. "Obviously [HRC technical lead] Takeo [Yokoyama] has more time to stay with our guys. It really helped also during the session, during the day, also after the session. Also yesterday night we discussed with Takeo, we did a recheck of the data and what happened in the race, we did a recheck of Marc's data, and I can clearly see the difference. Also the bike setup is quite different, so we try to be a little closer to Marc's setting which is very helpful for me. Over all, Takeo talk with our guys and he helps a lot, this is good."
Nakagami is riding a 2019 Honda, though it is something of a mongrel, he explained. It wasn't one of the bikes ridden by either Cal Crutchlow or Marc Márquez last season. "I actually don't know which bike they had last season," Nakagami said. "From the Qatar test we tried different chassis, different parts. I chose by myself which parts are the best, so I don't know which bike and who used what, because they have a lot of from when Lorenzo complained about the bike. He requested many items, so they have a lot of items, so I chose after a lot of tests this one no, this one yes. A combination, I put together my own puzzle and I don't know if this bike was used by Marc or Cal. I think it's different, I chose by myself."
The injuries sustained by both Marc Márquez and Cal Crutchlow were being keenly felt by Honda. Despite the pain in his recently pinned scaphoid, Crutchlow was trying out different chassis. The prototypes tested at Sepang appear to have been discarded, with Crutchlow riding something that looked a bit closer to the 2019 bike. There is a carbon frame cover which looks like the larger 2019 version, rather than the much smaller 2020 version, but there is also a carbon frame insert that looks like the one which appeared on the 2020 bike. It is also different to the one Crutchlow was riding just last week.
That is a good deal more difficult to judge when working remotely, of course, with no journalists or specialist technical photographers such as MotoMatters.com contributor Tom Morsellino present at Jerez and able to take a close look in pit lane. The few photographers who are present are way too busy trying to serve the needs of an entire championship to take the time to examine the technical details of the bikes.
Just riding was difficult enough for Crutchlow, let alone evaluating new parts. He was pleased to ride, though. "I showed it’s possible to ride the bike, although the feeling is a little strange," he said in an official team statement, having skipped out on his media debrief to get treatment on his wrist. "I don’t have so much pain in the wrist and when I do I just try to ride around it as best as possible. I feel the condition of me on the bike is not superb after the crash last week, but we’ll continue to work over the weekend to make me a little bit more comfortable. The surgeon, Dr Mir, has done a good job and, along with me keeping ice on the wrist over the weekend to keep the inflammation down, I’ll grit my teeth and try to do my best possible on the bike."
Ligaments are significant
Riding was even more difficult for Alex Rins. The Suzuki Ecstar rider dislocated his shoulder and fractured his humerus in a crash during qualifying last weekend, and despite working hard on his recovery during the week, including spending time in a hyperbaric chamber, he was suffering badly. The issue in Rins' case is not the bone, but the tissue damage, the tendons in the shoulder a crucial component in both strength and flexibility in the joint.
"Today was a good day but it was a hard day. It was a painful day," Rins said on Friday afternoon. "On the bike I was feeling a lot of pain and from before the start of today I was thinking, ‘I’ll feel pain but I can still ride well.’ After the session I saw that this was impossible and I felt much more pain than I expected. We have to keep fighting and working and FP2 was much better than FP1. For FP2 I tried some analgesic to try and reduce the pain. There was less pain but not enough."
His shoulder held up better than he feared, Rins said, but it was still doubtful whether he would be able to race on Sunday. "I think that the positive thing is that after FP1 and FP2 my shoulder doesn’t to have a lot of inflammation. I feel pain but I don’t put risk on the tendons. We’ll see after tomorrow because for sure I need to feel better on the bike. If I see a moment where I don’t have enough power I’ll stop because it’s too risky for me and also for the other riders."
That will be a worry for Marc Márquez when he gets on the bike on Saturday morning. But there is reason for cautious optimism. Márquez chose to sit out Friday practice to give his arm another day to heal. The fracture was much worse than the one suffered by Alex Rins, but fortunately, if such a word is truly applicable, it was caused by the front wheel of his Honda, rather than by dislocation. The break was worse, but there was no tendon or cartilage damage. It is simply a matter of whether he can support the pain in the plated bone.
Riders have raced with worse, as several were keen to point out on Twitter. Loris Baz raced with a broken humerus without pain killers. Xavier Simeon broke his collarbone in two places on a Saturday morning, then did qualifying that afternoon and the race the next day with the injury.
Austrian assault continues
Though true pace was difficult to unravel, one factory did stand out. The KTMs of Pol Espargaro and Brad Binder were once again extremely quick. Binder was third quickest in FP1, Espargaro third in the afternoon. Both showed solid race pace as well, though on relatively new tires.
Binder had raised expectations through the roof by lapping at podium pace last Sunday, though he had a clear track ahead of him after running off track. He was far from overwhelmed by that pressure, however. "Definitely happy with the way things have gone today so far," the Red Bull KTM rider said. "Everything went pretty much to plan perfectly. We started off this morning with the plan to do a time attack at the end and in FP2 try to work on our pace and setting for the race. That’s exactly what we did. We tried a few things today that caused a bit of chaos in FP2 and we figured it out by the end. I’m happy because it seems we have figured out a good base setting. To be third fastest on day one is fantastic."
Binder also pointed out that the bike had some advantages over its rivals. "I’ve got the opportunity to ride behind almost every manufacturer so far and all the different riders too," the South African said. "The main point where I feel we are quite strong is definitely on the brakes: corner entry and braking is where our bike is fantastic. That is the main point, but also, saying this, I do lose a bit on corner exit, but that’s down to me not quite doing the pick up as well as I should yet."
Pol Espargaro explained that the biggest improvement was that the bike was consistent over race distance. "Actually what we are using now is something we have been asking for a long time in the past. Some consistency on the race weekend," the Spaniard said. "We tested these things starting last year but we couldn’t put it until the end of the year or preseason. For sure Dani was testing some of them together with Mika and I was proving whether they were OK or not on the race weekend and the lap times. We were working a lot on the race distance and the new chassis that is a bit more stiff on the sides to have less movement on the bike."
Espargaro had taken the electronics in a different direction to the one used by test rider Dani Pedrosa, however. "Then I was working quite a lot in the preseason on the electronics to solve the problems because Dani had a different way of using them and I was not really happy with it so I went in my own way and finally we are all using that way of electronics. But all of us are putting ourselves on these improvements and also Brad is putting good info about what we can improve, so it is teamwork."
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