What did we learn from the first day of practice at Brno? Not much, but that in itself is valuable. The COVID-19 pandemic meant that the Automotodrom Brno circuit has not seen much action, so there is very little rubber on the track. The circuit has always been fairly low grip, but it is much worse now than it has ever been. It needs rubber down on it before any conclusions can be drawn.
That makes figuring out what is going on rather tricky. The track is changing session to session, as bikes deposit a thin smear of Dunlop and Michelin rubber on the surface of the track and in the crevices between the grit particles used in the aggregate. That leads to big changes in grip levels: Fabio Quartararo's fastest time in FP2 was over eight tenths faster than the best lap set by Takaaki Nakagami in the morning session. Quartararo's best time from Friday was nearly three quarters of a second slower than the best time at the end of the first day in 2019.
With the times so far off the pace – Quartararo's time is two whole seconds off Marc Márquez' outright lap record, and half a second slower than the race lap record – and grip still changing, conditions were just to inscrutable to draw any conclusions from, or at least any conclusions which might last beyond Saturday morning. Trying to work out which tire will work best was almost possible on Friday. There are still too many unknowns.
Bump and grind
The lack of grip was made much, much worse by the bumps around the circuit. The Brno track was last resurfaced back in 2008, and though it has been patched up and fixed throughout the years, it is clearly starting to reach the limit of usability. The circuit sees heavy use by cars, and they are pulling up ripples and waves into the braking zones around the track. That is making corner entry and corner exit very difficult.
Though the riders all agreed that the track was in a bad way, they differed on how severe the bumps were. Alex Márquez, Repsol Honda rookie, compared the surface to the way the track in Silverstone had been rippled in the braking zones after F1 had raced the first time the track was resurfaced. "The track this year looks a little bit more bumpy. Not in one point, but it's a bit more bumpy everywhere. Similar to Silverstone two years ago, like the surface is not stable, so there is always a little bit of vibration."
Aleix Espargaro, always passionate and colorful, insisted it was almost too dangerous to race on the bumps. "It’s one of worst tracks I’ve ridden in my life, not just in terms of grip – the grip is very, very poor – but in terms of bumps," the Aprilia Gresini rider said. "For me, I’m just a rider so I can’t decide where I go to race or not. But for me it’s unacceptable to race here. It’s very far from being at the level of MotoGP. It’s a disaster this tarmac."
Where were the bumps on the track? "It's kind of more easy to explain where the bumps aren't," Jack Miller joked. "We've been complaining about the bumps since I came here in MotoGP and yeah, they're just getting worse and worse year by year. You know, the classic ones, into Turn 13, are the worst ones of course. There's some into turn 5 as well. Quite bad. Turn 3 is quite bad. Turn 1 pretty much all the way around is very bad. And again, at 10, the other long hairpin, is really bad as well."
The bumps made the circuit extremely tricky to navigate, with 22 fallers over all three classes on the first day. Two suffered serious consequences, requiring a trip to the hospital. In Moto3, promising youngster Carlos Tatay was ruled unfit after displaying symptoms of memory loss which indicate a concussion.
That should be sufficient to rule him out for the weekend, but the teams still do not take concussions seriously. The Reale Avintia Moto3 press release emphasized that they expected Tatay to ride on Saturday. "On arrival at the pits, Tatay notified the team of a slight memory loss and was taken as a precaution to the Brno hospital for the necessary tests and checks," the team stated in a press release. "The results have been excellent and Carlos Tatay is in perfect condition to complete the rest of the weekend." Teams and riders who have ignored the symptoms of concussion previously have suffered long-term harm in the past.
The results of Pecco Bagnaia's crash left no room for doubt over the rest of his weekend. The Pramac Ducati rider fractured the top of the tibia inside his right knee, and will need an operation to fix the small piece of bone which has been broken. That rules him out for Brno and the first race in Austria, with some hope he can return for the second race. Though nothing has been announced yet, it seems very likely that Ducati test rider Michele Pirro will take Bagnaia's place until the Italian youngster can return.
For Aleix Espargaro, Bagnaia's crash was a sign of just how dangerous the track had become. "It’s very risky to brake hard," the Aprilia rider said. "Every time you take a bump you risk crashing. We saw many crashes today. Also Pecco is very injured. Corner 1 is very bumpy also. For me the worst thing has not been the bumps. It was the grip. Very, very low grip. This afternoon with 45 degrees – 57.8s I was 5th and that’s 3s from the lap record. It’s very difficult to manage a 300hp bike in these conditions. We had to put a lot of traction control to the bike to make it safer but for the condition of the track is not at the level."
The track really needs to be resurfaced. The riders were sympathetic to the fact that it would represent an extremely costly operation coming at a time when the world is still reeling from the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. "The situation in the last few years in Brno has been difficult, and you understand that to resurface everything you need a lot of money, so we speak about millions of Euros," Valentino Rossi said." And I understand because now there are no fans, the circuit does not work a lot so, I don't know if they will resurface."
Yet the riders are keen to see the circuit resurfaced, precisely because it is one of the few tracks which do justice to a MotoGP bike. In terms of layout, circuit width, and elevation change, Brno is one of a handful of tracks which are true motorcycle racing circuits, up there with Phillip Island, Mugello, and Assen. It would be a tragedy to lose it. "I know it's a massive track, and it's a big big undertaking to resurface a track like this – but it's such a magical track," Jack Miller told us. "I mean, it's one of the favorites of everybody so it's a shame to see it like this."
Will the circuit be forced to resurface the track? Andrea Dovizioso, the only rider to speak to the media after the Safety Commission had met on Friday evening, said the riders had been unable to reach a consensus. "I just finished the Safety Commission and like always the riders said different things," the factory Ducati rider told the media.
Bump and bounce
But for the ever-analytical Dovizioso, there was more to the problems with vibration than just the bumps. The nature of the tires, especially the updated, slightly softer carcass of the 2020 rear Michelin, which contributed to the instability of the bikes. "I’m a bit worried – I think like every rider – for the consumption and the movement on the exit," Dovizioso opined. "It’s something crazy. It’s never happened before. I don’t know how much it’s the asphalt and how much it’s the tire."
It was a mixture, the factory Ducati rider believed. "I think it can be 50/50. The reaction of the tire is the biggest reason for me. At this track when you are in the traction area you are with more angle because the corners are very long. You can’t really completely pick up the bike. In that area maybe the casing is the reason there is all that movement. Every bike makes more or less the same, so there is something."
This will have a profound affect on the race, Dovizioso explained. "It’s really difficult to manage, especially because the grip drops a lot. Lap by lap it becomes really difficult to manage. In this moment if the condition remains the same for tomorrow and Sunday it will be a very strange race because the lap time will drop a lot."
Miguel Oliveira, who had excellent pace both over a single lap and especially in terms of race pace, was of a mind with Dovizioso. "I think here it's going to be tire degradation," he replied when asked what would be the defining factor of the race at Brno. "Here we see that the grip level goes down a bit more than at Jerez."
In Jerez, the heat had been the challenge, but at least that would not be as much of a factor. "So I think physically it is going to be a tough race, just like any other race, but nothing special," Oliveira said. "Jerez was particularly hot, and the fact that it was a dry kind of heat and wind made everything more difficult as riders and for the bikes to handle the heat. But here, I'm not expecting much problems physically. So I think the biggest challenge is going to be managing the tires, the grip, and just having a good pace."
Suzuki's Joan Mir expanded on the challenges posed by managing tire degradation. "Yes, it will be really hard for this," the Spanish youngster said. "We tried all three rear tires, and all three drop a lot. Not only for me, for everybody. For sure it will be really important to manage the throttle well, to open smoothly, without spinning the tire a lot, if we want to stay on the podium." That is where his teammate Alex Rins had fallen short in the race in 2019, Mir said. "Remember last year with Alex in the last two laps, he struggled a lot and he missed out on the podium for that reason. So we have to stay clever, to try to use the rear tire as little as possible, and like this we will improve the results from Jerez for sure."
The advantage Mir and Rins had is the bike, Mir told us. The Suzuki GSX-RR is a solid, all-round machine, which works well in pretty much any condition, whether the track is billiard-ball smooth or, as Dani Pedrosa once put it, gnarly like a motocross track. "Well, we struggle to go over the bumps, but everybody struggles," Mir told us. "MotoGP bikes are very stiff, so the bumps are quite difficult. But it looks like that the bike is working well."
That should hardly come as a surprise, given that the bike has been working well everywhere. "We already knew that the bike was working well," Mir said, before adding the caveat that only extreme heat was an issue for the Suzuki. "It was working well in Sepang, it was working well in Qatar, in Jerez it was working, but not in extreme conditions, I was struggling a little bit more. In all the tracks, it's working – bumps, no bumps. But in hot conditions, we have to work. "
In normal summer conditions, rather than the extreme heat of the Andalusian summer, Mir was confident of vying for the podium. It had helped that he was quickly up to speed and competitive. "It's probably the best start of the weekend in my time in MotoGP, so let's continue like that. What is really important for tomorrow is again the qualifying, to start in the first two rows will be the key. If we want to stay on the podium, that will be the key.
Orange vs red vs blue
If Joan Mir gave an assessment of the Suzuki – one which should for that reason perhaps be taken with a smallish pinch of salt – KTM's Pol Espargaro gave his view on how the other bikes are faring over the bumps, especially when taken as a yardstick for where the RC16 is at the moment. Espargaro had spent some time behind the other bikes, and gotten a clear picture of how the KTM stacks up against the Yamaha, the Honda, the Ducati.
"We are always in constant development of the bike," Espargaro said. "Even if we look good we still have quite a lot of things to improve, and the best way before the race is to try and be behind someone so we can see where we are strong and where we are weak, and then I can give [feedback] to electronics and other stuff my impressions of how we are, where the others are strong and where we might be faster than them. It helps to know how to fight them in the race."
Even if it was only the first day, there was still much to learn, he insisted. "It might only be FP1, you can see more or less where they struggle, and it helps us. In the afternoon, we had little problems on the electronics and dashboard and we were trying to figure it out and I also had to use both bike with tires and it was a bit messy."
No grip, no corner speed
Following Fabio Quartararo had proved instructive. "They were struggling quite a lot on corner entry," was Espargaro's assessment of the Yamaha M1. "The rear was always moving a little and it was not super-grippy so it was not following the line. They really need to open the line, Yamaha-style, and carry some corner speed. But if you cannot make it because the bike is not stopping or the rear is not turning they were struggling a little, while we were gaining there. They were a little bit better on acceleration on the fast areas and they were smoother with the throttle. We needed to be sooner on the throttle to recover a bit more the speed and be a bit more aggressive than them, and when the grip is not there we struggle a bit more. By opening smooth and slow, Yamaha are used to being very good on that part. There were a couple of corners where we were not as good as them. The rest we were fine."
The Hondas and Ducatis had the opposite problem, Espargaro explained. "The problem here is that when you have the bike at full throttle and just a little lean and the engine is free to give you full power, the bike continues to spin and increases to the point where it starts to shake quite a lot. In that moment the more power you have or the more power you need, the more it is spinning and moving and shaking the bike."
"I guess Ducati are always strong in that part," the KTM factory rider continued. "The last part of the corner where they pick up the bike and they have a bit of angle they have good grip and acceleration and the power is there to pull them out: I guess they have a problem there. We are also struggling but we don’t have the power they have. For us it is still a problem as well because we spin too much and when we pick up the bike it is always shaking and moving a lot. We are trying to improve it and in FP2 we tried the harder rear compound to see if it helped to have different pressure and temperatures. But I think it is a problem that will stay until Sunday and it is one thing that we will not improve easily so we need to get adapted."
Espargaro's KTM teammate Brad Binder, who had all three of his flying laps in FP2 canceled, either because he ran just off the track or because there was a yellow flag in one sector when he was pushing, was having similar problems with the bike moving around. It was very different from the way the RC16 felt at Jerez, the South African explained. "It is like a completely different feeling. In Jerez we had almost no pumping, no shaking, whereas here we have quite a lot of pumping coming out of the corners and I am struggling a little bit with the stability right now."
Binder had a bigger problem, however: just learning his way around the track on a bike with twice the power of the Moto2 machine he rode last year. "Pretty much the main thing today comes down to a lack of really knowing where my marks are on the track with this new bike. Once I get that sorted tomorrow I’m sure we’ll be a lot more competitive."
One of the ways Ducati has found to try to cope with changing conditions is the use of their shapeshifter, or ride-height lowering device. On Friday, Ducati factory rider Danilo Petrucci went into a surprising amount of detail on the use of the device. He had been struggling with the lack of grip, he said. "As always with less traction, I started quite well with a new tire. Then we struggled a lot to maintain the pace. It was difficult because the tire drop was high."
Using the soft tire had not made helped his chances of getting into Q2, Petrucci explained. He had finished Friday in fourteenth overall, 1.1 seconds behind the fastest man Fabio Quartararo. "For sure I didn’t manage to have good lap time with the soft tire. From the data we saw we’re missing a lot of traction in acceleration. We cannot solve the problem about the asphalt in the afternoon. Last year they promised to relay the asphalt but the reality was different."
This is where the ride height device could help. Because there are more places where you can accelerate at Brno, it got more use than in Jerez, Petrucci explained. "In this track we use it more because we have more straights and more braking areas and especially there are more acceleration also. I think it will be more useful this time. Even if we have more activation point in some areas in the maximum lean angle. It’s quite difficult to use it in middle of corner but it’s an advantage for us."
It was used both in braking and acceleration, Petrucci said. "The fact is we have to use it when there is big acceleration and a big braking area. In some other parts we cannot use it when we can’t accelerate hard or brake hard. We hit when we have a long acceleration. When we are already on the throttle."
Ducati also use it to help stop the bike, Petrucci explained. "Yeah, then when we brake the bike for sure is lower, there is a lower height," the factory Ducati rider said. "Then we need to brake really hard to disable the system because by the rules we can’t have electronic aids by this. It’s all mechanical. We use it in the acceleration before and in the braking area later."
The device has to be disengaged on corner entry, however, as it hinders rather than helps in the middle of the corner. "In cornering it doesn’t help, unfortunately, and we cannot use it because lowering the rear of the bike doesn’t help to corner," Petrucci said. That was a concern, he explained. "This is a matter for us, we are struggling a bit, especially with the lower traction, to turn the bike."
Petrucci was coy about exactly where they used it at Brno. "Mostly we can use it when there is a long straight and a long braking area. So in this track we have more of this and we can use it more. Not all the track but in most of it." When pushed, he gave a little more detail. "We use it three times per lap. In Jerez twice. Here three times. But if you check the track maybe you can discover where we can use it."
Though several other factories are also working on similar devices, it took way more than just fitting it to a motorcycle to get the benefits. It took a conscious effort to use it, to make sure it is used in the right part of the track, and that the rider brakes enough to ensure it disengages.
All this effort meant that some riders who have tested it are still some way from actually using it in the race. "I tried, but honestly it is too difficult," Fabio Quartararo said of Yamaha's version of the shapeshifter. "It is not the same system as Ducati. I try though and every time I go out, I say ‘I will try it this lap’ but it is so difficult to use it in a perfect moment and to know when you should use. For the moment I only use it on the start."
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