"It's only Friday." Something you tend to hear from riders on, well, Fridays, when you ask them who they think is looking strong. Friday is the day that people are getting up to speed, evaluating different setup directions, making a preliminary assessment of tires, and putting in a banker lap when time and conditions allow. Drawing conclusions from either session of practice on Friday is fraught with difficulty.
Doubly so for Friday at the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmelo, near Barcelona. The track hosted three days of action for the WorldSBK series last weekend – now with double headers for the World Supersport and Supersport 300 classes due to the compressed 2020 schedule – and so received a layer of Pirelli rubber. There have been rainstorms during the week which have washed some of that rubber from the track, changing grip levels once again. And the wind on Friday was, in the words of Jack Miller, "pretty savage".
On the face of it, you might say that Franco Morbidelli, Johann Zarco, and Brad Binder are capable of quick times, Morbidelli and Zarco dropping under 1'40. On race pace, you might want to conclude that Morbidelli, Fabio Quartararo, Joan Mir, Alex Rins, and Maverick Viñales are all quick on used tires. But the results from Friday need to be read like you might read tea leaves. Sifted through in the hope of finding patterns; but fearful of leaping to conclusions which the future simply will not bear out.
Clean track, low grip
Though grip was low, the track itself was in pretty good condition, despite the WorldSBK round the weekend before. "The track looked rather clean, really clean, first of all when I cycled on Wednesday, and then yesterday I went for a track walk with the boys," Jack Miller said. "The track looked really clean, like there was not too much rubber down, let's say."
But any Pirelli rubber left on the track after the World Superbike series had raced may well have had an effect on grip levels, the Pramac Ducati rider explained. "It could have something to do with it. When we have the winter tests and Superbike are there, they generally go faster and we don't generally go as fast. So it could be something to do with that. But I think the rain and everything like that sort of washed a lot of the rubber on the track away."
Rubber or no rubber, grip was lacking, and the combination of that and the heavy wind which buffeted the track from the west made riding very difficult indeed. "The grip level is extremely low, like really low, and the wind has been pretty savage today, to be honest. You come out of the last corner, and it hits you, tries to blow you on the grass on the outside." Once out of the corner and into the lee of the grandstands, the rider has time to compose himself again, Miller explained. "Then you come back and try to prep yourself for the end of the straight, and then the wind is hitting grandstand and doing a U-turn and trying to blow you off the track in the middle, and then you come out the other side and it's trying to blow you off in the braking zone. So that's heaps of fun."
Exiting the front straight, there was a lot of wind to cope with, the Pramac Ducati rider said. "Then you go Turn 1, 2, 3, and midway through 3, it hits you massively from the inside and it's really hard to cut back through the wind. The last couple of corners are a nightmare as well..."
A gentle touch
That had necessitated a radical change in riding style. "The biggest thing I've noticed today is just trying to be really gentle," Miller said. "You can't upset the bike whatsoever, I've never hung off a bike so much in my life."
With less wind forecast for Saturday, work on bike setup could resume more fully, he said. "I feel like if the wind is down tomorrow like it's supposed to be, it should be a bit more normal. Let's say low grip, but similar to Argentina, something like that."
Miller and his Pramac Ducati team had changed the bike to match the very different track they found in Barcelona compared to Misano. At Misano, with a lot of grip, they hadn't needed a lot of weight transfer under acceleration and braking to generate grip, and so had run the bike lower at both ends. At Barcelona, they had to do the opposite, and raise the bike at both ends in pursuit of grip. "Here we've gone up trying to chase grip, trying to get more transfer both front and rear," Miller said. "I think with some more setting adjustments, understand how the tires are working, it's going to be crucial for Sunday, I think."
Andrea Dovizioso also pointed out the difference between Misano and Montmelo. "I don't think we can take today to know exactly how Sunday will be, because everybody came from Misano and the difference in the grip is the biggest you can find from Misano to here, so first you have to adapt," the Ducati Factory rider said. "Second, in the afternoon there was a crazy wind, to be fast you have to take a lot of risk, and I didn't have the feeling to do that, and I think that tomorrow the conditions will be better to be faster, so I don't think it was too important."
Dovizioso and Bagnaia had also used radically different tire strategies compared to the rest of the grid, and that rendered any comparison with the rest of the grid pretty much invalid. "It was a bit strange, but me and Pecco did the same strategy, but completely opposite to all the competitors about the rear tires," Dovizioso explained. "So we don't know our speed, because in the morning we used the tire in a different way, and also in the afternoon." They had not used a tire to chase a quick time, and done their long runs at different times.
All this meant it is almost impossible to know just where everyone stands. "So it was a strange day about the winds, and the tires, so I think nobody was really able to work in the afternoon, because we tried some setup, but in the second exit, the bike was uncontrollable, and you can't work on the details like that. Also about the tire, it was very difficult. I think everybody felt a big drop of the rear tire, but when you have to fight with the wind it's a different story. So I think tomorrow the condition will be normal," the Ducati Factory rider told us.
All at sea
The slippery conditions had been expected to benefit the KTMs, but they had left Pol Espargaro at a loss in the morning session. "It was strange and very weird, especially the morning. We were riding a lot of laps and it was useless, for nothing, because I didn’t learn anything," the Red Bull Factory KTM rider said. "I was with amazingly low grip and spinning a lot. It was like having rain tires in dry conditions and we were close to the last. I felt very bad. We miss a lot of knowledge of the track situation so in the afternoon I was using the medium tire and it was coming but still didn’t feel good. I don’t feel the limits of the bike or the braking points for example, the best way to make the corners, opening the lines, closing the lines."
He had no idea which direction to follow, Espargaro said. "It is very difficult to understand what to do. To do one lap was difficult. I could not understand the tires or the bike. I could do four laps pushing and very similar, but losing 3 tenths to my teammate in T4 and I don’t know how to get it back. In the other sectors we are not bad but there I am losing half a second: boom. I don’t know what to think and I’m feeling strange. It is like we have not done any laps here."
Altered electronics strategies
Espargaro and his team have had to turn their electronics strategies on their heads in pursuit of a strategy to cope with the strange conditions at Montmelo. Finding the balance was hard. "In the data, we locked so much the rear for braking so we needed to release engine braking, but as soon as we do that I feel super-uncomfortable on the brakes. We need to raise the TC amazingly high because we spin in a way we never did this year or even the last."
Conditions were the worst he had encountered for a long time, Espargaro said. "I don’t remember the last time we had such low grip and such difficult conditions like these. In the end to make one lap was a matter of trying to find the limit and going to crash, and if I am going to do that then it will be tomorrow in qualifying. It was tricky conditions and facing this situation. In terms of four-lap rhythm we are fourth and in five we are fourth again, so when we analyze we are good in race pace but I am missing this ‘taking more risk’ to do one more lap. But it is not the time to do it.
The combination of wind, low grip, track layout, and the abrasive surface had a strange effect on the tires. The strong wind was sucking heat out of the tires, especially the front on the left hand side, and that was causing riders to crash. You needed to push to get heat into the tires, but it was taking a number of laps. But if you persevered, you were rewarded with dropping lap times.
"The tires are difficult to warm, the more laps you do the better it is with the front," Suzuki's Joan Mir explained. "But there is a moment that the rear starts to warm and spin more and that’s why we see the lap times drop so fast in this track because of this condition. The wind didn’t help to warm the front tire. The straight is so long. If you don’t push at 100 percent on out lap then you aren’t able to warm the tire. In my case I need 2 good laps to warm the front. For qualifying something to consider. If there is a lot of cold in qualifying then it will be hard."
Mir was one of the many riders to fall at the left handers around the track, the Suzuki rider going down at Turn 5. "It’s a critical corner," Mir said. "A bit of downhill, of camber. It’s a strange corner. Also the first corner that you do, the first left [Turn 2], is a corner you don’t brake and don’t warm a lot the left part of the tire. T5 yes, you have to brake and use more the tire. With the temperature I was too optimistic with the brakes and lost the front. It was a mix. I know if I brake in this way with more temperature on track I don’t crash for sure."
All of the crashes had happened in the left handers, mostly on out laps or early in a rider's run. Riders crashed at Turn 2, Turn 5, Turn 10, and even Turn 11, with only Turn 7 spared the ignominy of a fall. Low temperatures and optimism were the common causes of most crashes. "I went to brake 25 meters later in the first lap," Franco Morbidelli said of his crash at Turn 10 in FP2. "Not a wise idea. You have very few corners on the left at this track. The third left corner I faced I was 25 meter later and it wasn’t a wise idea, as I said."
Real race pace
Despite the lack of grip, there were some things the riders could work on. Maverick Viñales, for example, did a lot of his runs with a full fuel tank to simulate the start of the race. This has proved to be his weak point throughout this season, and indeed the last few years, and it was something they were focusing on now, he said. "For sure I’m working all the time on race set up, every practice," he said. "I need to understand. Also the riding style change quite a lot. We need to understand how to do it."
Viñales was one of the riders who was happiest with his day's work, unsurprisingly given the pace on used tires he was showing. "I’m quite happy because straight away we are fast. This is the most important. This afternoon with the wind it was very difficult honestly. I never had that type of conditions this season so it was very hard."
The good news was that top speed was less of an issue at Montmelo than in Austria. "I said yesterday that this was not the worst track for the straight because you come from two fast corners. The last one is a fast one. We have good grip out of this corner. It looks better," Viñales told us.
The Covid-19 threat
Conditions on the track may be improving, but there is reason for Dorna to be worried. After losing one HRC engineer to quarantine after a positive Covid-19 test in Misano, the LCR Honda team lost a second HRC engineer at Barcelona. The entire team was tested again on Friday, with the tests returned coming back negative, but three others forced to remain in isolation awaiting the results of the second test. Other engineers have been drafted in to take their place, but that still left the team in a difficult situation.
"It makes life more difficult, of course. We are down on staff," Cal Crutchlow told us. "But it doesn't stop us from working hard and continuing to do our jobs in the garage. Today we got all tested and everybody in the garage has tested negative. I don't know how they do, it but it's a fast test and we had the results given in an hour. But not nice to have two tests today. It's OK, it's part of it, it shows how much we want to be here as we go through it all the time, same as the people who are here."
At Misano, a few of the staff working in the paddock had been able to sleep at home, outside of their nominal Covid-19 bubble. Montmelo is far worse in that respect: so many of the team staff, riders, and especially Dorna staff live in Barcelona, and are sleeping in their own beds. That makes them vulnerable to exposure via family members, who are not part of the paddock bubble. Despite Dorna's testing program, the risk of becoming infected with Covid-19 is much greater than at other races, especially given the rapidly rising case count in Barcelona.
Making things worse is the fact that riders are bringing their partners and families to the track, opening up another avenue of exposure to the coronavirus. Aleix Espargaro, for example, posted pictures of himself with his wife and children at the track.
Meanwhile, much of the paddock is still doing their best to exclude the chance of an outbreak in the paddock – including the small number of journalists who have been granted access to the circuit, but are kept a long way away from riders and team staff. With Covid-19 cases on the rise throughout Europe, and governments reintroducing limits and restrictions on events and large gatherings, the 2020 MotoGP season continues to hang by the slenderest of threads. If there is a wider outbreak in the paddock, or MotoGP is seen as a risk factor endangering public health, races could be canceled at the drop of a hat.
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