It should come as no surprise that in a paradoxical 2020 MotoGP season in a year full of paradoxes, a new surface at Misano should have simultaneously both improved the track and made it much worse. Yet the paradox is relatively easy to understand: the tarmac chosen for the new surface has a lot more grip, but it is also softer when it gets hot, deforming more and producing more and bigger bumps. The additional grip is great, but you can't always benefit when your wheels are being kicked up into the air.
"There's more grip than last year but the track is similar to motocross!" Fabio Quartararo told us. "A lot of bumps. Positive that there is more grip but we need to adapt because honestly the first exit in FP1 was really difficult to manage the bumps."
One of the things making the bumps so difficult to manage is where they are. "It's bad," said Jack Miller, "especially in the fastest sector, it's really quite bad. That back section, the bike just starts shaking and bouncing, and one lap you can get through there semi OK, and the next lap you're just bouncing around and you can't really get back on the track."
"Down to the back straight, before the first fast kink, on the dead straight piece it's bumpy, the bike is going like that," Miller said, waving his hands about to indicate just how much the bike moves. That was tricky as you approach the fastest part of the track. "You're trying to get the bike settled as much as you can to tip it in. It doesn't feel great."
Shimmy and shake
The bumps were so bad in some places that he was being forced to shut the throttle completely, the Pramac Ducati rider explained. "Definitely through Turn 3 is one of the worst ones. As you go in, there's already a bump, so you can't really keep any partial throttle, you have to roll off completely and then reopen the gas, but then you have to be rather careful, because right at the point where you're really putting the gas to the ground, the bike loads, and then it sort of comes back at you, and you're hanging right off the inside to get the bike up on the fat part of the tire. And it almost tries to flick you off the inside of the bike. It's a really strange sensation there."
The extra grip was welcome, however. "The biggest bonus is at least there's some grip out there, which we didn't have last year," Miller told us. "But the fact that it's this bumpy and it's not even a year old this asphalt, I don't know what the **** they did, but they made it worse in terms of bumps."
The bumps were causing issues for a number of riders. The bike was shaking its head, brake discs moving enough to force the pads back into the brake calipers. The new system Brembo introduced a couple of years ago had mitigated a lot of the issues, and the 2020 calipers helped a lot in this respect. But the problem was still there, though some riders suffered more than others.
Brakes or no
The KTM was one bike which had improved a lot with the new calipers, Pol Espargaro explained. "KTM had huge problems in the past with the pads opening. I arrived to a point where I needed to complain in the safety commission, because for me sometimes it was a bit dangerous because I was hitting the brake lever and it was empty, nothing there," the factory KTM rider said.
"We were working quite close with Brembo and we arrived with these new calipers that are not opening so much for me, but I need to adjust them one or two times a lap," Espargaro told us. "In the past I had such big problems that I was always adjusting the lever anyway before braking and I am always thinking about."
Maverick Viñales had also used Friday to switch completely to the 2020 Brembo calipers, after rejecting them at Spielberg in favor of the 2019 calipers, which were prone to overheating, but provided a consistent feel and would bite at the same point in the lever travel in ever corner.
"Today we tried everything new and with the parts and in the first laps the feeling was not great, but the more I rode the feeling came really good with the brakes," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider told us. "For sure the feeling you have for braking is different but the bike [behaves] the same, so it’s not nervous. We did a good job and we don’t have any more problems."
No engine lost
Viñales' brake problems had looked like being extremely costly at the Red Bull Ring. When his brakes had failed and Viñales had been forced to bail, his Yamaha M1 had slammed into the air fence and wall and then caught fire. Already one engine down due to the issues in Jerez, losing a second engine was something the Spaniard could not afford.
It was not something he needed to worry about, however: Monster Energy Yamaha team boss told MotoGP.com's Simon Crafar that Viñales was using the engine he had crashed in Austria during the free practice sessions. Manufacturers build their engines with crashing in mind, as a crash is an inevitable part of the life of a MotoGP engine. Even extreme crashes like Viñales' Turn 1 smash at the Red Bull Ring.
Tire choice in all its glory
One problem the riders all have is a rather luxurious one. All three rear tire compounds work well at Misano, and all are viable options for the race. That puts the riders in a quandary, as they will have to spend more time evaluate which tire they think will be best for the race. At the past couple of tracks, the hard rear has not been a good option, most riders immediately discarding it.
That had caught some riders off guard. "I am really surprised how the hard is working, so I have to try it tomorrow, because today I didn’t try," Johann Zarco explained. "I did many laps on the medium, it’s not that bad but clearly the comments from the riders, the medium is not the best. So I need to try the hard, the hard rear is working the best."
Having all three tires as race options was the way the tire allocation system was supposed to work, Jack Miller explained. "I think it's good. I think it's how it should be, that we can use all three tires," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "The last couple of Grand Prix we've gone to, it's been pointless to even bring the hard tire, especially the rear. So I think it's really good that they've brought a tire that's usable here, something a bit closer. Because if you know your tire quite early, you're on the limit with what tires you can use throughout the weekend. But at least now we should see a little bit of a switch up during the race, some guys opting for the hard, some going for the soft. All the tires are working, it just depends what each bike wants."
Yamaha reign supreme
A full complement of working tires and a track which provides plenty of grip was good news for the Yamahas. The M1 looks to be the best bike around the Misano circuit, judging by the times in both FP1 and FP2. Yamahas were first and second in both the morning and afternoon sessions, and dominated both in single lap and race pace. That came much to the relief of the Yamaha riders, after suffering through two rounds at the Red Bull Ring, a track which is the M1's nemesis.
"To try to explain, in Austria I feel like I am 50 years old; here in Misano I feel like I am 30!" Valentino Rossi joked. "So it’s completely different. We were fast here in Misano also last year. But we had to go on the track to understand if we are still good because in MotoGP the technical situation change very fast."
The sense of relief among Yamaha riders was palpable. "Today was really positive because after struggling for one month and having tough times I can say that today we improved a lot," Fabio Quartararo said.
Maverick Viñales echoed that sentiment. "We knew we are fast at this track but there was new asphalt so we weren’t sure of the feeling. Anyway as soon as we went to track it was amazing. We were quite fast and I’m happy it was a good day at the office."
Stable over the bumps
Being able to use the available grip, and being stable over the bumps made the Yamaha M1 a formidable package at Misano, Rossi explained. "We are good here because this track is a very tricky track. It’s very difficult, very narrow, very small. It has bumps. It’s difficult to manage the MotoGP bike. But it looks like our bike is very stable and especially in the fast corners we can enter fast. So it’s a good track for us."
Looking at race pace, it is Viñales and Quartararo who stand out. Both riders cut some extremely fast laps on very old tires. Quartararo posted a 1'33.0 on a tire with 25 laps on, while Viñales was able to dip into the 1'32.9s using a hard rear which had 23 laps on it. To put that into perspective, race distance on Sunday is 27 laps, and the best race lap round the Misano circuit is a 1'32.6 set by Andrea Dovizioso in 2018, quite early in the race.
Behind Viñales and Quartararo, there is a big group all capable of running the same pace, somewhere in the low to mid 1'33s. Surprisingly among that group is Iker Lecuona, the Red Bull KTM Tech3 rookie, who posted a 1'33.2 on a tire with half race distance on it.
After a very difficult start to the season, Lecuona scored a couple of top ten finishes in Austria, putting to rest some of the rumors which had started to envelop the young Spaniard. His seat was possibly at risk, the whispers ran. Finishing fifth overall on the first day of Misano, two tenths behind KTM stablemate Pol Espargaro, showed the world that Lecuona deserved to be in MotoGP. "A good start, because everybody wrote many things after the first races, and now, just I need to say thank you to the team for supporting me," the Spaniard said.
On Thursday, Lecuona had played down his chances at Misano, saying that his objective was to finish the race and try to score a point or two. After the first day, he could afford to raise his sights. "Why not?" Lecuona asked. "Finally today I finished in the top five. Why not? It's always possible to think about the top 10, to think about the podium, because everybody, when you see the races, you see this season is a little bit crazy for the podium, so why not finish on the podium this Sunday?"
The man ahead of him, Pol Espargaro, was impressed. "I must say that I am really, really surprised with Iker," the factory KTM rider said. "I was behind him for the last couple of laps and he was riding smooth and nice. I congratulated him after the checkered flag because I was honestly really surprised with his riding style. Normally with Iker, we talked a couple of times, and maybe he was trying too hard and was over-riding a lot because he wanted it to come very quickly, but today, man, I was shocked. I’m happy for him."
The fact that the KTM RC16 is now a competitive package helped, Espargaro said. "The bike is working better and better and it’s good to see that we are fighting for the top positions finally and I’m super happy for all the guys in the factory. All the KTMs are working well and we are all in the top ten which is fantastic, and it is more info for all of us. It will help us to improve the bike, and also the riding style, with all these young kids coming into MotoGP."
Ducati chooses youth
There were a couple of announcements on Friday which also caught the eye. After the Moto2 session had finished, Enea Bastianini announced that he had signed a deal with Ducati, though he said a decision was still to be made which team he would be riding with. Well-informed sources say Bastianini will be racing in the Avintia team, where he will take the place of Johann Zarco.
Zarco himself expressed his admiration for Bastianini. "For Bastianini, the way he won races in Moto2, I have been very impressed by him and I think he will understand the MotoGP bike because he has this talent from Moto3 that he was fast. He didn’t take too much time to be fast, then in Moto2 it seems a bit more complicated but you can see when he is feeling good he has even more confidence."
As for his own future, all he knew is that he would be racing for Ducati in MotoGP, Zarco said. "I already said that next year I will move up to Ducati in Pramac or the factory team, so that is very positive news for me. I won’t stay in Avintia, and now in this good work from Avintia and the investment in Ducati, plus the good results I’ve had, I’m still wanting to have great results with them."
As I wrote yesterday, Ducati now have a decision to make. They have to decide whether to promote Zarco or Pecco Bagnaia to the factory squad, leaving the other rider in the Pramac Ducati squad. They still have to announce their deal with Jorge Martin, and there are persistent rumors they are also interested in Luca Marini, who currently leads the Moto2 championship. If Ducati want to bring all three Moto2 talents up to MotoGP, they will have to dispose of Tito Rabat, who may end up being shuffled off to WorldSBK.
The other piece of news which, well, slipped out accidentally rather than being formally announced, was that Dorna are experimenting with rider communication. Stefan Bradl tried out a radio system which Race Direction was using to pass on information directly into his ears, rather than via the dashboard.
"Dorna came to me and wanted to try something with radio connection to the rider," the HRC test rider, standing in for Marc Márquez in the Repsol Honda Team said. "For example some crash happened, in all the group it’s difficult to sometimes see yellow or red flags. We were talking about this in the Safety Commission. Then we were using a system like in F1. Radio that we can hear the Race Direction that give us some warning in case something happened. The system was working good. It was a first step in terms of safety, can be a big step for us."
The system had worked relatively well, but there were still some bugs to iron out. "I got some messages like ‘Warning’ or ‘Yellow flag’," Bradl explained. "The voice I had in my ear was fine. I could hear it very well. It was not dangerous or distracting me. From that point of view they are making a good job. But we have to find better solutions because we are moving a lot more with the head compared to F1 drivers. Also the noise is sometimes different. If you are inside the windscreen and go out it change a lot with the wind. We need to find better connections going into the ear, covering the noise."
There had been previous tests with similar systems, but they had all been rejected. As it had been a few years since the last test, and technology had moved on considerably since then, Dorna wanted to try it again, explained Carlos Ezpeleta, managing director of Dorna and in charge of managing events.
"We had tested this in the past with various riders and they said it was disturbing. Now technology has improved a lot we decided to give it another try," Ezpeleta explained. "We tested with Stefan. It went well. It was just a preliminary test. The system itself is the first prototype. At the beginning this will only be used to communicate predetermined recorded messages about flags, penalties, things like this. Then maybe in the future we could open up to communication with the teams and if it’s possible from riders back to the teams."
Let the riders ride
While communication between Race Direction and riders may well assist with safety, and making riders aware of potentially dangerous situations, the proposal to allow communication between riders and teams seems like a terrible idea to me. The beauty of Grand Prix motorcycle racing is that the team have a limited number of sessions to prepare the bike, and must hand it over to the rider to manage throughout the race. There is no telemetry available for the team to analyze during the race, and no way of communicating with the rider except via a pit board once a lap and through a severely restricted set of dashboard messages.
Radio communication between riders and teams would destroy this concept completely. The factories and teams have a massive investment in their bikes and riders, and want to control them as tightly as possible. They work out a plan, which the rider has to put into effect during the race. The temptation to communicate, to pass on as much information to the rider as possible, is understandable. There is no doubt that teams would try to micromanage their riders using the radio if they had that option.
Motorcycle racing may be a team sport, but what makes it so engaging is that in the end, it remains a rider-to-rider combat sport. The rider has a weapon, a motorcycle they have helped prepare, and must take on 21 others on their own, making the best possible use of the tool they have available to them. They are responsible for devising a strategy for coping with the surprises and shifting situations thrown up by a race, and trying to exploit their machine and tires to the full. Taking that control out of the hands of a rider seems like sacrilege.
There is to be a test on Tuesday for the entire MotoGP field, at which more riders will be given a chance to try this system. Personally, I hope that they consider using a radio system for reasons of safety, to communicate between Race Direction and rider. But I also hope they reject any notion of using the radio to communicate with the team. If riders are to remain the most crucial component in the rider-team-bike package, then they need to hold on to their control of what happens in a race.
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