There is a particular type of crash which happens in the wet. A rider will be heading toward a corner, and will start to brake for a corner. At the moment they start to tip the bike into the corner, the front wheel whips out from underneath them almost instantaneously, dumping them on the floor. The crash happens without warning, and without there being anything the rider can do about it. One minute you are up, the next you are on the ground.
The crash happens because on a wet track, grip is unpredictable. Tires cool, and where you thought there was traction, there was in fact none. A tire that might have been working on one side a couple of corners previously has lost so much heat due to the rain, the wind, that the grip you had previously disappears into thin air.
We saw a lot of those crashes in MotoGP FP1 this morning at Aragon, despite clear blue skies and a bone dry track. The reason? The track temperature was simply too cold, and as a result, the tires don't reach the required temperature either. The rubber which is soft and sticky when up to temperature is suddenly stiff and slick as glass, like the tires on a 1:12 Tamiya replica of a MotoGP bike. Johann Zarco and Fabio Quartararo both went down at Turn 14, a notorious point for that particular type of crash to happen.
Down in the dry
They crashed despite the fact the session had been delayed for 30 minutes, in the hope that track temperatures would rise above the minimum of 11°C which is roughly the minimum the Michelin tires need to work properly. Track temperatures rose, but the problem was the very stiff breeze whipping down the back straight and along the front straight, sucking the heat from the tires. Especially the right side of the tire, barely used between Turn 14 and Turn 2. That is a distance of roughly 2km, taking roughly 40 seconds to travel. A long time for the front tire to cool off.
If crashes at Turn 14 were of the wet weather variety, the crashes at Turn 2 were different. The cause was the same – the right-hand side of the tire not being warm enough to provide the grip the rider was expecting. But there was an additional complication at Turn 2, Takaaki Nakagami explained. "After the long back straight, and the last corner is all on the left side, then suddenly there is Turn 2. The problem is that Turn 2 is no brakes and less load on the front, so it's easy to lose the front," the LCR Honda rider said.
The riders have already scrubbed off all the speed they need to for Turn 1, the left hander at the end of the front straight. They then start to accelerate a little on the short exit from Turn 1 toward Turn 2, but are never going fast to need to brake again. The right side of the tire is never squished into the asphalt, which would generate more heat in the tire, which might then provide enough grip.
"After Turn 2, suddenly into Turn 3, that corner you use a little bit of front brake, and that corner, there are no problems," Nakagami explained. "But in Turn 2 you just roll off a little bit and you have to lean the bike suddenly. In the past I have crashed many times in that corner, but there's no feedback. Many times I didn't understand why I crashed. But this is a typical Aragon track in Turn 2."
The Michelin technicians warn the riders about the cold, Nakagami explained. "Especially in the morning session it was too cold," the LCR Honda rider said. "The Michelin engineer guy, he told me before the session, be careful in Turn 2. I knew that with less than 10°C on the ground it was impossible to get information from the right side, and I think for the future, it's better to bring an asymmetric front tire, because as you know in the past, many crashes at Turn 2."
Asymmetric front tires were a solution proposed by Andrea Dovizioso on Thursday as well, but Bradley Smith was not convinced it would be sufficient. "Of course something can be helped a little bit with an asymmetric tire, but I don't think 2.5 seconds [between FP1 and FP2 times] was from asymmetric tires," the Aprilia rider told us.
The problem was much bigger than that. "Michelin told us one of the first seasons their tires aren't designed to work in less than 15°C," Smith said. "They're just not designed from that point of view. And they don't work. Plain and simple. It was very difficult to ride in FP3 in Le Mans, it was very difficult to ride in warm up in Le Mans, and it's the same story here. These tires don't switch on with less than 15°C track temperature, and we had the cold wind coming off the Pyrenees this weekend and today as well. So for sure that's doubly a negative, but at the end of the day, we are riding now on track with tires that weren't designed for those conditions. We just need to consider that as a safety issue, and try to put everybody in the safest situation possible."
The 15°C quoted by Smith may have been the case when Michelin first entered the class, but they have made strides since then. But the problem is that the tires are still designed to work for the conventional racing season, which is spring and summer in Europe, and in more tropical climes at other times. That means air temperatures of 20°C and above, and track temperatures in the 30s and 40s °C.
Everything is different this year
But this is not a conventional season, nor a conventional year, and so we arrived at Barcelona in September instead of June, then went to Le Mans in October instead of May, and are now at the Motorland Aragon circuit in mid and late October instead of the last week of September. That doesn't mean that the circumstances can't be replicated in more conventional times, however.
"There's very few circumstances when it's like this in a normal season, honestly, but they can occur," Smith said. "I think we've been at Phillip Island before when it's been very very chilly, and it's been very difficult to fix, but also in Phillip Island, I think we go out at 11am because of the 2 hour delay for the TV etc. Valencia is always a tough one in the morning as well."
"The thing is that if we are having this problem now and we have five rounds to go, I think that it could only potentially could get worse, so we just need to have a backup plan. I'm not saying that everything needs to change now because it's super dangerous or whatever, I'm just thinking that if you are going to learn something from today, it's that this could follow us for the remaining part of the season, and we just need to make sure everyone is as safe as possible," Smith said.
Reshaping the schedule
Smith's suggestion was to have a double session of 90 minutes later in the day, rather than two separate sessions of 45 minutes. "I don't know if it's better to do maybe a 1 hour 30 session in the middle of the day when it's at its hottest, rather than these two 45 minute sessions. I'm sure there's going to be some question marks in the Safety Commission, I know that they've changed tomorrow the timetable a little bit already, to be a little later, but maybe we just need to change the philosophy."
After the Safety Commission, in which the riders talk to Dorna and FIM representatives about safety in an informal setting, and after a meeting with the teams, changes were made to the schedule for both Saturday and Sunday. Practice starts an hour later on Saturday morning, and the races will be held an hour later than originally planned on Sunday, meaning that MotoGP races at 3pm local time instead of 2pm. For more details and the full schedule, see this story.
But this is unlikely to be the end of the story. There are rumors of more changes on the cards, both this weekend and next, when MotoGP stays in place at the Motorland Aragon circuit for the Grand Prix of Teruel. The saving grace of next weekend is that the forecast is for warmer weather. But this theme will run all the way to Portimao, most likely.
An incomplete picture
The conditions made it impossible to draw conclusions based on the timesheets. The Yamahas were clearly fast, the three remaining M1 riders (Valentino Rossi is absent with Covid-19) taking top three spots in FP2. Joan Mir was quick on the Suzuki as well, and there were three Hondas in top ten, with Cal Crutchlow fifth, Alex Márquez eighth, and Takaaki Nakagami in ninth.
Absent from the top ten, and therefore provisionally from Q2, were the Ducatis. Normally, Aragon is a good track for the Desmosedici, the bike able to use its power to good effect down the back straight and then up the hill along the front straight. Andrea Dovizioso has finished second at Aragon for the past two years.
On Friday, however, the Ducatis were sat in positions eleven to fifteen, the only exception Pecco Bagnaia who was even further adrift. The reason was simple, according to Jack Miller. "We're struggling in the wind, like hell," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "All the Ducatis seem to be struggling. I think much like day one in Barcelona we all seem to struggle a little bit more and then as the wind died off we were able to be more competitive."
The issue was not, as some suspected, the Ducati's reliance on wings and aerodynamics, Miller said. "It's just the way the bike works," the Pramac Ducati rider explained. "For sure the bike front fairing doesn't help. But certainly in the wind the biggest thing you need is a bike that turns and we struggle still with the issue of turning on a perfect day, so the problem is amplified when you are trying to do it into the wind."
The problem was through the first and second sectors of the track, Miller said. "Sector 1, Turn 2, 3, even 4-5. Just trying to get the thing to turn. So Turn 2 it's blowing you out and it's really difficult to get the bike to start to turn, you almost have to wait until you can use the rear. Very similar at Turn 3. Then at Turn 4 the big problem I'm having is with the contact on the front so as you come to the top of the hill the wind is sort of blowing you out that way, so you almost have to chop the gas just to get the transfer to get the bike to take the right line and then open the gas again once you are on the correct line. So it's like doing that sort of thing in two parts and very similar at Turn 7-8, halfway through the braking zone you get smashed with this side wind so you almost have to prepare for it and roll out a little bit earlier to have a little bit more contact for when the winds about to hit."
The good thing for the Ducati riders is the wind is forecast to be much less on Saturday morning, though the temperature is also expected to be lower. An hour later start may help, but getting through to Q2 could be a challenge, Andrea Dovizioso opined. "I'm a bit worried about that, because still in this afternoon where yes, there was a lot of wind and that doesn't help, but the temperature was normal, acceptable. And still on the right side of the tire I was struggling so much, and I lost by lap time compared to the second practice. I think there is six tenths from my second practice last year, and I lose everything in the right corners. So it's related to the temperature on the right side of the tire. So I'm a bit worried about tomorrow morning. If the wind will be normal, it will help us, but to be faster than the lap time we did in the afternoon, it will be very hard."
Fresh from his podium in Le Mans, Alex Márquez has made it through to Q2 provisionally. This is more progress for the Repsol Honda rider, as putting in a single fast lap was somewhere he has struggled previously. He had been in Q2 at Barcelona, but there he hadn't felt comfortable. "In Montmelo after Friday I was also in Q2 but the conditions there were really strange," Márquez said. "The position in Montmelo was good but the feeling wasn’t. Here is it the opposite."
It helps that this is a bike that suits him, and suits the bike. "I already said yesterday that this is a track I like and I always feel so comfortable," Alex Márquez said. "Also with the bike, we could see with Marc and these past years, was really fast." Marc Márquez has won at Aragon for the past four seasons, so Alex knew the bike worked round the track, though he had suffered a crash in FP1. "It was a good day, just a crash in the morning with the soft. A rookie crash but in the afternoon we managed quite well and tried a medium front but it was a bit physical, not too much."
Another surprise in the top four was Joan Mir on the Suzuki. There was no surprise that the the Suzuki Ecstar rider had strong pace, but the GSX-RR's Achilles heel has been its single lap pace. That was not the case at Aragon, Mir said. "Today I felt great with new tire. With the first set we put the soft/soft to see how was my feeling. I was able to maintain 1'48 highs, 1'49 lows. For the conditions that was not a bad lap time. With 2nd set I wasn’t able to make 1 good lap. I got a bit disturbed by some Ducati guys. I was not able to do the perfect lap time. Anyway, the lap time is quite decent. Looking forward to tomorrow."
Yamaha clean sweep
Mir's main obstacles are of course the Yamahas. "They are really strong. They are showing a great potential, all riders. It means they are really fast," was the Suzuki rider's verdict. Maverick Viñales, who finished fastest and had strong race pace, was particularly pleased not to be losing much in the final sector, which includes the two straights. "Sector 4 is better than I expected," the Spaniard said. "We don’t lose so much so that means we have good traction out of the corners. I rode in morning with different people. I feel good to overtake here. You have many corners here where you don’t need power, you just roll off the brakes and go in. It’s good. We have more potential than the previous races to overtake someone."
The pace of the two Petronas Yamahas looks even better. Fabio Quartararo has his eyes on the prize, concentrating on the championship. But the Frenchman had suffered a crash in FP1 after pushing hard in tricky conditions. That was the opposite of his strategy in Le Mans. "For me the condition in Le Mans was more tricky and I didn’t want to make a mistake when there was nothing to win," Quartararo explained. "I think today it was important to push because we can have these conditions for the race. That's why I think today it was worth pushing at the maximum."
It got him a provisional ticket to Q2, and a strong pace. "I'm happy because Aragon is normally a track that has never gone so well for me and the pace was not bad," Quartararo said. "Compared with Franco and Maverick we have something to improve, of riding style and on the bike, and I think that I need to learn exactly were we need to improve, try to make it in FP3 even if the conditions are not so good. But I will take FP3 like a great moment to try to assimilate everything and try to make what I need to change on my riding style."
With FP3 starting an hour earlier, the line up for Q2 is far from set in stone. But temperatures are likely to be cold and still challenging. Sunday is still a long way away for everyone.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, supporting us on Patreon, by making a donation, or contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.