It was a much more pleasant day that greeted the MotoGP riders for the second round at the Motorland Aragon circuit. Air temperatures for FP1 were 18°C on Friday morning, versus 11°C a week ago. Temperature differences were less marked in the afternoon, but the big difference was in the wind: it had returned since last week, but was not the icy affair it had been previously.
Riders had a chance of making it from Turn 14 all the way to Turn 2 without losing all temperature in the right side of the front tire and ending up in the gravel. Only three riders crashed today, as compared to eight a week ago. That was true across all classes: there were eleven crashers combined in Moto3, Moto2, and MotoGP, compared to eighteen last Friday.
What that meant was that it became a little easier to try the medium tires, front and rear, but the temperatures weren't sufficiently different to start to find major differences. That is as you might expect, coming back to the same track a week later. That also meant that, with the weather expected to be warm enough to be able to push for a time in FP3 on Saturday morning, a bunch of riders decided to forgo the chance to chase a spot in Q2 on Friday, preferring to focus on tire choice and setup.
Faster and slower
That had two distinct effects. It closed the field up enormously compared to last week – the gap from first to last in the combined standings was cut from 2.4 seconds to 1.9, and there fifteen riders inside of a second as opposed to seven last week. And it meant that some riders made enormous strides forward compared to a week ago – Brad Binder was 1.7 seconds quicker than he was in FP1 last week, Stefan Bradl 1.6 seconds, Takaaki Nakagami over a second – while others stood still or were slower than they had been.
For some, the reason they didn't improve on their time was because they were already pretty quick. Maverick Viñales was almost two tenths slower than a week ago, but that only dropped him from fastest to second fastest overall. Likewise, Fabio Quartararo was a tenth slower than he had been a week ago, but he only dropped from second to fourth.
The big winner from the week off was Takaaki Nakagami. The second the Japanese rider had gained between this week and last propelled him from ninth overall to the fastest rider. With Cal Crutchlow ending the day in third, Alex Márquez in sixth, and even replacement rider Stefan Bradl ending the day as eleventh overall, it looked like a complete Honda revival.
Evolution, not revolution
Nakagami denied there had been some kind of revolution over the past couple of races, however. "Many people ask me what's happened to the Honda bike because it looks like all the Honda riders are quite competitive," the LCR Honda rider said. "But it's nothing secret, because for us we can say that it's exactly the same like last weekend. We started in FP1, with last Sunday's setup, so nothing different and we just keep riding with the medium compound."
He had picked up from where he had left off, after crossing the line in fifth in the race last Sunday. "It was good," Nakagami said. "I mean the pace from FP1, we are so competitive and I'm really happy to see that. Because it's really important how we can keep the pace on Sunday. Looks like at this moment we are on the right way and I'm happy because on the bike, even with the strong wind in FP2, we are able to manage and set a good pace, good lap time, with the medium compound."
LCR Honda teammate Cal Crutchlow reiterated this point. "People saying that Honda have turned it around, etc etc, I don't believe that's the case. As I said yesterday, I believe that every time, we get some small information, and the changes are really small, whether they are electronics or the rider, or this new shock – as I said, sometimes we use it, sometimes we don't. Essentially, we are fast around this circuit at the moment, but as we saw last week, it was Alex [Márquez] who made the difference I believe. And again today Alex was really fast and Taka was really fast."
The great leap forward for Honda was more a question of riders riding better and being more consistent. "I think it's the rider making the difference," Crutchlow said, "because at the moment, if you look at the practices, it's Taka's race to lose by about 11 seconds. Because his FP1 pace, if he'd kept that gap that he had, he would win the race by 11 seconds."
That was not down to upgrades, new parts, finding a magical setup. "As you know, nothing's changed for him from last week, he hasn't suddenly got a new bike or anything like that. He's just riding well. And as you have been able to see from the last six years, the Honda riders have to ride the bike really aggressively and really hard to be able to go fast and they are doing a really good job of that. So that's it really."
Stefan Bradl, test rider and replacement rider for the (still) injured Marc Márquez, did have things to test. The German had carbon inserts on the frame of his Repsol Honda, a technique Honda and others have used to test revised chassis stiffnesses relatively quickly.
"Yes, we had a chassis to compare," Bradl admitted. "Obviously it was quite clear for everyone to see and it was on the plan from yesterday. Yesterday we discussed the issue and decided to try the chassis and we were comparing it. Basically it's working well and so far we need to analyze the data, the difference is not big and yes, we want to be clear and we want to do another comparison either tomorrow or in the future because it is worth to give it another try."
The Repsol Honda rider was uncertain whether he would use it in the race yet. It would need more testing on Saturday, Bradl said. "It depends how it goes tomorrow, there are some pluses and some minuses. If it goes well tomorrow and we can make the advantages bigger, there is always the option to use it for the race on Sunday. But it's too early to say, because it has some positive and negative and we have to evaluate it carefully this evening. We will see how it goes tomorrow and if we have to make some adjustments."
No Marc, no party?
Bradl also appeared to suggest that he would be in replacing Marc Márquez in Repsol Honda for Valencia as well. He explained that he would have to switch from racing mode to testing mode after the second round in Valencia. "There is another test planned after the second race in Valencia," Bradl said. "It's going to be an important test for my self to try new parts to get a little bit out of racing mode to get in testing mode, but I don't know how it goes by then, what happens with Marc and all the situation. It is still a bit too far but we stick with our plan for testing because not so many test days remain so we see how it goes."
Reading between the lines of Bradl's statements, it does not look very hopeful for an early return for Márquez. Indeed, you might reasonably interpret it as a sign that Márquez might not be back to race in 2020. That would certainly give him the best chance to recover fully ready to launch an assault to recover the MotoGP title in 2021. But it does raise questions over just how serious the injury to Márquez' arm was. He, and HRC, insist that recover is proceeding as expected. And if the bone was shattered and then rebroken, then giving it a very long time to recover and heal again is probably very smart. It's just in stark contrast to his previous rush to return.
If the Hondas were up, the Ducatis were down, the Desmosedicis filling the bottom five spots of the combined timesheets, the best Ducati Johann Zarco in lowly thirteenth. It wasn't so much that the Ducatis had gotten worse in the space of a week, however. It was more that they had made next to no progress, while others had gotten faster. Andrea Dovizioso, Pecco Bagnaia, Tito Rabat and Jack Miller were all slower than they were a week ago on Friday.
Miller felt he had been robbed though, after his fastest lap had been taken away from him under the rule which automatically cancels a lap time if a rider is in a sector where there is a yellow flag. "I did not a bad lap at the start, a 1'48.9 or something, but again it takes them ****ing 30 minutes to delete my lap," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "So I don't know what these ***** are doing up there," he said, referring to the FIM Stewards tasked with overseeing the rules.
Miller's problem was that he hadn't been able to get the soft rear to work the way he wanted. "With this temperature the way it is the soft just doesn't seem to work that fantastic," the Australian said. "But anyway it was better than it was last weekend. We found something with the bike that made me more comfortable."
Working for the race
He was one of a large group who hadn't pushed for a fast lap. "Because the race is on Sunday and we're just trying to work for that," was the response Miller gave when asked why that was. "I generally have no issue pulling a lap out when I need it, it just depends on whether or not I'll get a yellow flag or not, that's the other question." There was no reason to worry, he insisted. "None whatsoever! Do I look worried? Saturday's the fun day, I enjoy Saturday. We'll get to throw plenty of tires at it tomorrow."
Andrea Dovizioso, still in the title chase but worried about his overall speed, was another rider who hadn't thrown a soft tire at setting a quick time. "I’m sure me, Jack and Pecco didn’t put new tires, so we didn’t prepare to do the lap time," he said. "We can be a bit forward. But the gap is too big and we need to be in a better position. Tomorrow for sure we can fight for top ten but our target is not to be in the top ten. Our target is to be on top. And that is the limit, that is the problem of the day, not the position at the end of today."
Dovizioso had spotted a trend among the teams in terms of testing tires. "I think today everyone worked in opposite way," the factory rider explained. "Who raced with the soft worked with the medium, so the top riders. Who raced with medium worked with soft, just to try. What we saw today is something bad for us. A lot of fast riders with the medium did an incredible pace. But potential is less with the medium compared to the soft. We have to work more on that and today didn’t show the reality. It’s even worse with the pace of fastest riders. Today was a bit difficult for us. For sure our potential is better but better and stay with them is a different story…"
Among the Suzukis and Yamahas, there was contentment. They had been fast last week, and were fast this week, and nothing much to add to that. Maverick Viñales was one of the more downbeat of the Yamahas. "Feeling has been very different from last weekend," the factory Yamaha rider said. "But overall it has been very positive. I didn’t have an amazing feeling but the rhythm is there and for one lap is there. I’m quite positive."
Fabio Quartararo was in a similar position. "Tough, but at the end it was good," the Frenchman said. "End of FP1 we tried many things which were not working and I was totally lost. Then we went out with a new medium-medium and we had a base that was not bad. Then the second run not bad. Lap times was still 1'49.3, going low 1'49s. Hope to have same feeling with the soft rear tomorrow during a long run." But he had been unable to take much of a shot at quick time, Quartararo said. "To make a time attack after FP1 and all FP2 with the medium, in the time attack I was a little lost and the lap time not so good. Really looking forward to tomorrow."
Championship leader Joan Mir was the happiest of the lot. The Suzuki Ecstar rider had finished the day in fifth, comfortably in sight of Q2. His pace had been strong too. "It was a great day. We focused a lot on working with a used tire," Mir told us. "Our pace was not so bad, I tried different things to understand what happened on the race with the front tire. So it's important to understand this, I gave a lot of information to all the team, and now it's important to analyze all this stuff to have a great package for tomorrow."
Mir had been impressed by the sudden speed of the Hondas. "I'm really surprised about the Hondas, they're really fast," the championship leader said. "So I think they found something, because all the riders, even the test rider, is super fast. So it will be interesting to see how that bike will be in the race. I think at the moment, Nakagami is the one who has the better pace, and probably on paper, we are quite close. But we also practice with the tire that I normally don't like, the medium rear. So let's see if with the soft I feel a bit better, which is normally the race tire. And then see how the pace is."
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