It's groundhog day. The MotoGP paddock is back in exactly the same place and doing exactly the same thing it was doing a week ago. The coronavirus-curtailed 2020 season is big on repetition, and as a result, on disorientation. With no distractions at the track, everyone is starting to go a little stir crazy. What things will be like at the second race at Valencia, in the middle of the third run of three back-to-back races doubling up at some circuits, heaven only knows.
What does change from last Friday was the work to be done. Better weather and a weekend's worth of data mean that most teams are much closer to their base set up. (But no everyone: there are a few riders who are a bit lost, and grasping around for a solution). That leaves the teams free to experiment with the tires they weren't sure about a week ago, riders swapping between the soft and medium rears, for example.
"Not too much difference," Jack Miller said. "It is what it is. Don't get too focused on what worked the week before. You've got to keep an open mind. For example, I'm leaning towards the medium tire this weekend, but we need more analysis."
More time to work
Fellow Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso was doing the same, spending most of the two practice sessions on used tires, especially the medium rear. The Italian may have finished FP2 in a lowly fifteenth position, but he never really tried for a quick lap. He spent the first half of the session on a used soft tire, then the second half on a used medium, running a high 1'24 on a medium on its 19th, 20th, and 21st lap. For comparison, that is roughly the pace he was running on the soft rear at the end of Sunday's shortened and restarted race.
It was important to Dovizioso to assess the medium rear, because since MotoGP returned to the Red Bull Ring, the winner has always chosen the soft tires. That is a particularly sensitive subject for Dovizioso, as he was beaten to the line by erstwhile teammate Andrea Iannone at the first race back at the circuit in 2016, after Iannone's gamble on the soft rear paid off.
"First we raced with soft, because from 2016 nobody was able to win with the medium tire," Dovizioso said on Friday afternoon, explaining why they had gone with the soft in last week's race. "At the end we didn’t know which tire was the best. We couldn’t work a lot with the weather last week. Feeling was good with soft so we continued with the soft. But we were really on the limit in the race. Looks like the medium work a bit better but you don’t know exactly because in practice the medium is better."
Better the devil you know?
Understanding whether that would carry through to the race was tricky, Dovizioso explained. "Most of the riders chose the medium last week. But also last year the medium looked better in practice, but in the race Marc took the medium and it didn’t work like in the practice and I was able to have a better consistent tire. The soft worked better."
In the end, it comes down to conditions on the day. "The temperature affect a lot the work of the tire. They are very similar and it looks like for the race the medium is better but in the end it’s the temperature. if Sunday is cool you have the potential but you don’t know if it is better than the soft for 28 laps. Like always there is a question mark." To answer that, Dovizioso had been alternating between the two. "We are working more with M. Comparing M and S with a lot of laps, it’s the best way to have some more feedback. We already used the soft in the race so we know the drop, how it works. We didn’t know the medium so we were focused on that."
That some riders heavily favor the medium rear was evident from the lengths some riders were willing to go to preserve them. Joan Mir spent most of FP2 on the same medium rear he had used in the morning. By the end of the three runs he had done on the tire, it had 32 laps on it, four more than race distance. Worryingly for his rivals, perhaps, Mir did a 1'24.8 on lap 26 with the tire, and a 1'25.0 on lap 29. The race is only 28 laps.
This work, and the expectation of good weather on Saturday morning, meant that riders were less concerned about a single lap in FP2 and more about overall race pace. The standings on the timesheets at the end of a session is always deceptive, but that was doubly so at the end of Friday. Some of the names at the top of the timesheets were riders on a one-off lap, others are genuinely quick.
The name at the very top of the timesheets look like it belongs there, however. Pol Espargaro was the fastest rider overall in both sessions, but he was also had outstanding pace. In the morning, he did a 1'24.8 on a medium rear with 23 laps on it; in the afternoon, he ran in the low 1'24s on his first laps on a new medium, then ended with a 1'24.8 on his 15th lap on the tire.
He isn't the only KTM rider to be fast. Brad Binder was quick in race pace in the afternoon, and Miguel Oliveira was posting very quick laps on an old medium in the middle of FP2. The secret of the KTM seems to be that the bike is capable of getting the same sort of tire life out of the rear Michelins as the inline fours of Yamaha and Suzuki, while also being able to brake hard with the front without collapsing it the way the Honda does.
This was as mystifying to KTM's riders as it was to everyone else. "We also asked that to Michelin!" Pol Espargaro said, when asked about the RC16's uncanny ability to get on with tires other bikes couldn't. "Why are we using the hard front so good and someone like Honda, who always used to use harder compounds than us, and last year we couldn’t even think about it. This year we changed completely and we are using the hard front. I cannot use a harder tire here. I was using the medium front and I was struggling massively. I switched to the hard and straight away – boom! – it was better. It is pretty strange and we don’t know why."
The KTMs won't have it all their own way. The Ducatis of Andrea Dovizioso and Jack Miller have pretty solid race pace, as do the Suzukis, especially Joan Mir. Maverick Viñales is very strong on the factory Yamaha as well, but this is deceptive: Viñales is always good in practice, but it is how he copes with the changing conditions in the race which is the issue. Takaaki Nakagami, too, looks to be competitive on the LCR Honda, the 2019 bike continuing to outperform the 2020 machine.
Jack Miller made a point of playing up the chances of Ducati keeping their streak of wins intact in Austria. "We have the machinery and the support, so why not?" The Pramac Ducati rider said. "We are working on the race pace and this afternoon if we look at the pace on the used tires, the only riders looking as strong as us was the podium from last week which was Mir, Dovi and myself." Miller was somewhat more disparaging about the prospects of a KTM victory. "We will see… the KTM does a lot of talking, especially one of them but I don’t know if it will win races eight laps into a race but we will see this weekend if they can do it."
The Suzuki is looking very strong at the Red Bull Ring, but the GSX-RR makes its lap time in a very different way to the Ducati, Andrea Dovizioso explained. "The Suzuki is completely different to the Ducati. They are so good in middle of corners and they become better in the braking. They are very similar to us in braking, much better in the middle of corners, and the acceleration is not as good as us but they are able to exit with more speed."
That ability to maintain corner speed helped them with tire life, Dovizioso explained. "If you exit with more speed you don’t use too much the rear tire. You don’t have to pick up and use max power because you have the speed in the middle of the corners. So you use less the tire and also is the reason why Rins and Mir are good at end of race."
The Ducati had to use its advantage in a different part of the track. "We can accelerate from the middle of the straight to the end," Dovizioso said. "But if you lose some km in first part of acceleration, it takes a lot of meters to gain to the Suzuki because you are losing the speed, then you are the same speed as the Suzuki and after you gain. This means you start to gain in the middle of straight, not before. Also if your acceleration is better because we are not able to exit like them. So they are able to be consistent, able to be fast and more consistent that everybody at this moment. This is a good point for them for sure."
One rider who isn't performing where he needs to be is championship leader Fabio Quartararo. The Frenchman is struggling with grip at the rear, and can't get his tires to last for more than a few laps. "We tried a few settings on the bike today, but we have been riding almost all the day with the medium rear which I think will be the race tire," the Petronas Yamaha SRT rider said. "And for me the feeling was really strange. The feeling of the bike was weird. The performance was dropping way too fast. This is something I still don’t understand. Andrea this morning made a 1'24.1 with 15 laps on the tire and we are struggling in the 1'24s. Really frustrating."
His team had at least solved most of his braking issues. They had fitted the new finned calipers to Quartararo's Petronas Yamaha M1, to lower the temperatures of the calipers and brake fluid, to create a more consistent brake performance. It looks like this solved the issue he had in the race last week. But even with that solved, it doesn't fix his problems with tire wear.
Quartararo's teammate Franco Morbidelli explained the importance of braking performance at the Red Bull Ring. "Brakes are definitely an issue here because you can reach high temperatures, especially when racing in a group," the Italian said. "So it's really important to have a good braking performance from the brakes, of course. Today I didn't have any major problems, but of course we try to adjust and look at the temperatures more than at other tracks."
Morbidelli, of course, was one of two riders at the center of the storm created by their crash at Turn 2 and Turn 3 in Sunday's race. It had been a huge and terrifying crash, yet Morbidelli was back riding on Friday, despite being sore and bruised on the right side of the body.
He had forced himself to face his fears straight away, the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "I tried to face Turn 2 straight away flat out and luckily I didn't have too big of a shock, also because of my own mistake but because of another rider. So when you ride there alone everything is easy. I think it's going to be a little bit different when I have bikes around me. Because in that moment, the brain works by memory and for sure I don't have good memories about the corner, being with some riders at my side. I don’t know how I'm going to react at that time but I will try to make some laps with some riders to see how I feel how I feel in that corner, being close to other bikes."
Morbidelli was magnanimous toward Johann Zarco, a rider he has known since the two were youngsters. Was the penalty enough, he was asked? "I don't care," Morbidelli said. "The accident is already gone for me. From the moment I gave my opinion about the accident, my chapter on this history was closed. The chapter was opened up for the Stewards panel and it's their job to analyze racing actions and to give or not give sanctions. Our job is to ride and give them the most detailed opinion we can give."
He was not interested in vengeance, the Italian said. "I don’t need and don’t want any type of revenge on Johann, like someone is thinking, I have nothing but friendship with Johann. I know him since we are kids, we used to race with pocketbikes together. Basically I know him since I'm a little kid. And I don’t have any hard feelings against him. I just gave my thoughts about the accident and my thought was that he could have been penalized because he made a mistake."
His comments immediately after the race were made in the heat of the moment, he explained. "Of course I gave a strong comment after the race because I was all fizzy and I was all lit up and had just risked my life at 300km/h. But I have to say that I have nothing but friendship for Johann and for me after I gave my opinion on the accident the chapter is closed and I'm keeping on doing my job, which is riding at my best and doing what I love."
Morbidelli had felt that Zarco deserved a penalty, and was content with the punishment handed out by the FIM Stewards, with Zarco forced to start from pit lane. "I respect the decision of the Stewards," Morbidelli said. "I gave my thoughts about the incident and I thought he deserved a punishment. But I have no voice in the dimension of the punishment. That is the job of the Stewards panel. I'm okay with their decision."
Unsurprisingly, Zarco was less happy with the penalty. Having been passed fit to ride complicated his approach to the penalty, however. He was tempted to submit an appeal, out of a sense of honor and justice, he said. But such an appeal would only be heard after this weekend. The trouble was that if he waited until after the weekend to appeal and then lost, he would head to Misano closer to full fitness, and having to start from pit lane.
It was better to take the penalty at the Red Bull Ring, and put the whole episode behind him, he said. "I prefer to swallow this penalty and start from pit lane this weekend," the Avintia Ducati rider explained. "And like this, we will close the story immediately, which is not a funny story. So better to do it that way, and I am pushing myself to then do the best race as possible in Misano, also because I will be 100% fit and still getting points. My target for me is to stay with Ducati with the best bike possible, so it was not planned to play for the championship this season, that's why starting from pit lane this weekend is not the end of the world, it's a good way to finish this story."
Zarco did not have any confidence in the FIM Stewards, however. "I would say it's not an easy job, what they are doing. But no, I'm not confident in the stewards. That's all. Just to answer the question, no. I don't think they are the right people in the right place. We should have some other people."
Like Morbidelli, Zarco will have to face his own fears once he finally gets on track on Saturday. Zarco has a little more experience, having had a massive crash in the race at Phillip Island back in 2018, when he tagged the back of Marc Márquez' Repsol Honda as the pair headed into Turn 1. A week later, he was back on the bike at Sepang, another very fast track.
"I already got this experience in Australia with the crash," Zarco said. "I remember the next track was Malaysia, I got a strange feeling in the first corners, but you are focused, the bike is so fast that you have to be focused on the present moment. Tomorrow I think that if the wrist is OK, I will be in this mindset. So the crash will be quickly canceled from the mind."
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