Just how close is MotoGP at Misano? The gap between Brad Binder in first and Taka Nakagami in second is just 0.002s, two thousandths of a second. The top five are all within 0.071, just over seven hundredths of a second. The top ten are within half a second, and there are eighteen (18) riders within a second. It seems fair to say it is insanely close.
Or it would be if that were an accurate reflection of the actual state of the MotoGP grid. But the combined standings at the end of the first day of practice at the second MotoGP round at Misano in two weeks is rather deceptive. Precisely because it is the first day of practice for the second race on consecutive weekends at the same track.
Coming into Friday, the MotoGP riders had three days of riding at last week's San Marino Grand Prix at Misano, then a full day of testing on Tuesday. It seems fair to say that the Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli holds no secrets for the MotoGP grid any longer. And with the weather predicted to be stable on Saturday, there was no real reason to push for a fast lap on Friday if a rider was comfortable with their pace.
Dig into the analysis PDF timesheets on the MotoGP.com website, and it is clear that the combined times do not tell anything like the whole story. Yes, there were some pretty impressive times posted on Friday afternoon. But there were also a bunch of riders who didn't bother sticking in a new soft in pursuit of a slot in Q2. They preferred to focus on race pace, and double checking their tire choice with the benefit of hindsight, and experience of a race just under a week ago.
Take Joan Mir, for example. On Friday afternoon, in FP2, Mir went out for three runs: an eight-lap run on a new hard tire; a six-lap run on a used soft tire; and a seven-lap run on a new medium tire. At no point did he put his head down in pursuit of a lap time. It was more important to understand what the tires are doing.
"We tried all rear tires we have," Mir said. "With this grip on track, that’s why everyone is super fast. All the tires became really similar because the grip is so high. For sure the soft is the one to make a fast lap. But in the morning I tried it in FP1 I started with the medium, normally it’s working well for us. Suddenly I lost a lot of grip. I think it was because of the temp. we tried it in last exit in FP2 to confirm we don’t have a problem with the medium tire. That’s why we didn’t use the soft at the end, the medium is good. We feel great with the medium."
The Suzuki Ecstar rider knows exactly where he stands right now. "I feel great with the bike. I’m able to ride in a good way. I think we work a bit more for the race. We’ll try to improve our lap time in FP3 and then start in the first two rows. I think this is possible."
Or take Andrea Dovizioso. Despite being twelfth overall and not automatically through to Q2, the championship leader spent all of FP2 on a single rear tire, putting 21 laps on medium rear. "Today we didn’t put the new tire because we wanted to be focused on the medium rear," Dovizioso said, after finishing eighteenth in FP2. "The only practice you can do that is the afternoon."
The problem was that the conditions in the morning had made it impossible to work on race setup. "In the morning that [medium] tire work in a really bad way. You do 4 or 5 laps and it’s completely destroyed," Dovizioso said. The problem was a mixture of a track with a lot of grip, lower temperatures, and the track having been cleaned. "We’ve had 5 days’ worth of rubber down," Jack Miller explained." Of course they cleaned it and it was spotless as when we started last week on Friday. It’s getting better."
Where Dovizioso had had graining with the medium rear in the morning – a form of accelerated wear where setup and temperatures don't match the optimum working environment for the tire – Miller had avoided those issues by choosing the hard rear. "We were on the H," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "Better in cooler temperatures. No graining. For me it’s a massive positive. Graining has been a big issue. I used the medium and the soft on the rear in the afternoon. The soft had a bit of graining. It’s helping me make up my mind."
Matching the rear tire to the conditions is as much an art as a science, especially in terms of temperature, Miller said. "We don’t really have an exact temperature. You have a sheet with each one’s range. You make a decision from that." That left Miller facing criticism for some of his tire choices. "People give me **** for it," he said. "They say you should use the hard tire, but a lot of the time the soft is made for that temperature more than the hard tire. It’s a double edged sword. You have to be in it and understand the tire. Sometimes you use the hard for quali and the soft for the race. It’s just like that sometimes."
Add in the factor of new tires which have been heat cycled, and it adds a further layer of complication. Michelin does not bring a complete set of freshly manufactured tires for all of the MotoGP riders to every round. That would be both immensely wasteful, and rather expensive. Instead, when tires are taken to a track but not used, they can be returned to a pool of tires for use at another circuit where the same tire spec is in the allocation. When MotoGP is racing at the same track on consecutive weekends, that happens a little more often than usual.
Those tires have not done any miles on track, but they might have been put on a rim and sat in tire warmers ready to be used if necessary. That process of being brought up to temperature – the tire warmers are set to 90°C – and then cooled back to the temperature-controlled range of between 20 and 22°C for storage should not affect the way the tire behaves in theory, but theory and practice – in both senses of the word – can be a little different.
And so the teams keep the heat cycled tires for free practice. "At the beginning of the weekend, we always try to put the preheated tires, because they can have less performance," Alex Rins explained. That can make the process of selecting the right tire a little complicated, as the Suzuki Ecstar rider had experienced for himself.
"I think we started our weekend in the last minutes of FP2," Rins told us. "Sincerely, in FP1 and a lot of FP2 I was struggling a lot to find good traction, good grip on the rear. This morning was a disaster, I tried to ride as well as I know, and the bike didn't change compared to a few days ago, compared to the test. So we just started with the medium tire this morning, and I was struggling a lot to find the good traction."
That nearly cost Rins another shoulder injury. "Immediately between Turn 5 and 6 with the same gas, I was losing the rear." Rins was tossed up out of his seat, and nearly thrown from the bike. Those near highsides can be as damaging as actually being tossed off the bike. The bike can move so violently that the bars shaking has been known to break wrists and dislocate shoulders.
The incident had been painful, but Rins had escaped without further damage to the shoulder he damaged in the first round at Jerez. "It hurts a bit, the right shoulder," he said. "For sure I'm lucky after this big highside, because the shoulder stayed in place, it didn't move, it didn't go out. This is important. And for sure now I'm feeling a bit of pain, but with a bit of therapy, a bit of massage, I can recover for tomorrow."
The pain in his shoulder hadn't affected his riding, fortunately, and Rins had found the right direction at the end of practice. "In the last ten minutes of FP2, we put a new set of tires, a hard front and medium rear and sincerely I was doing the same as in the beginning of FP2, but I was starting to feel again good feedback from traction."
This mixture of strategies, riders all following different programs based on their confidence of getting a spot in the top ten, threw up a rather fascinating top ten. Fastest overall on the first day was Brad Binder, who just sneaked in ahead of Takaaki Nakagami.
Binder bounces back
It was something of a surprise for Binder. The Red Bull KTM rider had not had a particularly happy first race at Misano, crossing the line in twelfth. But he and his team had found a few tweaks to help him get up to speed. "We made a big change in the way I could stop the bike and it’s an advantage," the South African said. "When I crack the throttle I had the grip ready there. It’s something we found in the second exit of FP2 and I had more than 20 laps on the soft rear tire and I felt much better with it, more grip. In general I was really happy with that."
Binder had been helped by having Maverick Viñales as a target ahead of him. "I had a good opportunity there," he said. It was also a chance to understand where the Yamaha was strong, and how it compared to the KTM, Binder explained. "It was awesome to see. Some things were great, like he was able to carry a lot of corner speed through those flowing corners, which is a bit more difficult for me at this stage. But in the tighter corners I felt a bit more stronger in the braking zone. It was cool to see we had almost two different ways to do the lap time."
Behind Binder – only just behind, by two thousandths of a second – another surprise. Takaaki Nakagami took second spot overall on Friday, the LCR Honda posting an impressive time to finish just behind the KTM. It was a ray of sunshine for Honda, who have had a miserable time in recent months. First, Marc Márquez broke his arm in Jerez, and put himself out of action until November. Then Cal Crutchlow suffered arm pump from the effort of riding the 2020 Honda RC213V, especially when nursing a broken scaphoid, and needed surgery which made it impossible for him to ride. And finally, Stefan Bradl was forced to withdraw on Friday after surgery for a nerve issue in his hand meant he was not fit enough to ride this weekend.
That leaves just Nakagami and Alex Márquez competing this weekend for Honda, which made life complicated, Nakagami explained. "Less data during the weekend, which is not the best situation for us, and especially for Honda," the LCR Honda rider said. "Not the best situation this season so far. I'm really sorry for Honda."
Nakagami has taken a big step forward this weekend. Part of that had been finding the right line down the back straight and through the section through Curvone, he explained. That had fixed a lot of his problems with the bumps through that section of the track. "Not completely fixed, everything, but right now, for the bumps, we are 80-85% in a quite good way," the Japanese rider told us.
It was all about line choice, he said. "It depends on the line, after the back straight and through the right corner, if you miss like a few centimeters on the outside, and there are some big bumps, and if you hit the bumps with full throttle, the bike can become nervous. Even in FP2 . So really sensitive, but last weekend, I was trying all the lines, I chose different lines and different angle on the bike, and I didn't feel any different. But now, if I take the good line along the back straight, the bike is quite stable."
Is it a turnaround?
Though much further down the timesheets, the other Honda rider had also made progress. Alex Márquez was 1.5 seconds faster than on Friday last week, and 0.9 closer to the front. Unfortunately for the Repsol Honda rider, that still left him in seventeenth overall, but now he is a quarter of a second off the top ten. That is a much more realistic proposition than the nine tenths he was missing last weekend.
After the barrage of criticism which Honda has faced for their miserable run of results since Marc Márquez took himself out of the championship, is this a turnaround for the Japanese factory? Or had events cast HRC in a bad light, and was Honda much closer than the timesheets showed? After all, as Repsol Honda team boss Alberto Puig pointed out, Takaaki Nakagami is just 23 points of the championship leader Andrea Dovizioso, and could become a contender for the title.
To say there has been a turnaround is way too strong, but at least there are signs of hope. Nakagami is genuinely improving, having worked on his upper body strength to manage the Honda, while Alex Márquez is slowly getting on with the work of getting to grips with the toughest MotoGP bike on the grid to ride.
"I think Honda have always had a bike that was demanding a lot from the riders, and that you need to be really fit," Alex Márquez said. "We saw it last year with Lorenzo. You need to be 100% fit and if you are not 100% fit, you are just a passenger on the bike. You need to force the bike, you need to be there." Accepting and understanding that was the key to success, he said.
Did that need to be changed? "To change this? I don't know. I am not an engineer to say where we can change," the Repsol Honda rider told us. "It's true that for example we can see Maverick on the Yamaha with a heart rate that is only 120, and I am already on 120 when I am walking! It's impressive to see him on the bike at 300 km per hour and see his heart rate at 120. It's impressive. But it's different kinds of bikes, it's different types of bike."
There is a benefit to having a bike which is easier to ride. When asked about the situation at Honda, Valentino Rossi expressed his admiration for the factory he started his premier class career with, but eventually decided to leave. "I think that Honda is always a great manufacturer, the number one in motorcycle racing," Rossi said. "And I think that the bike is competitive, but for sure this year without Márquez it's difficult. It looks like the bike is fast but difficult to ride and this makes the difference at this level in MotoGP because you need a bike that is rider friendly to give a good feedback to push at the maximum."
When easy ain't easy
Maverick Viñales may have a Yamaha universally judged to be easy to ride, and be riding the bike with a heart rate of just 120, where others are close to their maximums in the 170s and 180s, but that didn't mean that the Monster Energy Yamaha rider was particularly happy. It was a severely dejected and frustrated Viñales who spoke to the media on Friday evening, despite finishing the day in fourth.
His frustration was a reflection of the fact that he is completely lost with the Yamaha M1, and unable to get his head around how to make it work in the way he wanted. Viñales was trying to get more rear grip from the Yamaha, but whatever he and his crew did, it didn't work. "We didn't find anything!" he told the media. "We thought we had, but then with the race setup we didn't find something. We tried to reproduce with a full fuel tank, same amount of power with the bike and we had the same problems. So tomorrow we will try something very different."
In the end, he had given up. Instead, he will focus on the front end of the Yamaha, Viñales swore. "We focused a lot on the rear side, trying to find more grip," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "It’s three years where I haven't found more grip on the bike, so I don’t want to lose more time on the rear. We know that the rear works in one way and we need to try to live with that. Tomorrow we are going to concentrate a lot in the front tire, trying to make it work, more grip, more stability and more turning. So we're going to try to see if with the front we can solve that problem."
Back to front
Changing grip levels were causing him the most problem, Viñales explained. "The problem I felt is that when I have grip, I can make the lap time very easy. But as soon as I lose the grip, I cannot turn the same, I cannot brake on the same points and I don't have confidence even with the front."
That required a change in approach. "So basically, my thinking is to work with the front. We tried to find more and more and more on the rear and doing laps around, because finally we didn't find nothing on the rear between these three years. Always we go back to our standard, so we don’t want to lose more time and we will try to gain the lap time by entering the corner and by corner speed. We need to concentrate on that, I mean it's another way to do the lap time. But I need something different because I cannot continue with the same, knowing in the race I will suffer."
Fast Fabio again
The irony is that his future teammate looks to be the fastest of the lot. Strip away the quick lap times and concentrate on race pace, and Fabio Quartararo has a terrifying rhythm. His FP2 consisted of one long run of 17 laps, all of which were in the low to mid 1'32s. He followed that up with a few more laps on the same medium tire, before switching to a soft.
Quartararo's issue last weekend was the starts. But he had used the test to work to fix that. Eight test starts he had done, and in the end, tried a radically different body position. All of a sudden, he was getting off the line in the way that he hoped. If that works out, then the Frenchman could be on for win number three this season.
But it's still only Friday. There is a lot of practice left. First, the small matter of qualifying on Saturday, and then the race itself. There are no points for pace on Friday, nor for testing. As Maverick Viñales is all too painfully aware...
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