"Well, for sure I think we are not the fastest, but it's only Friday." A common enough refrain after FP2, with another day of practice and qualifying to go before the race on Sunday. But when it is championship leader Joan Mir saying it, on the weekend he could wrap up the title, is it a sign of trouble?
So far, Mir has been remarkably calm and composed under pressure. He has impressed even nine-time world champion and MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi. "Nobody bet on Mir at the beginning of the season, but already in the last races of last season he did a big improvement and also in the winter test he was strong," Rossi told us on Friday evening. "For me he's very mature, it's like he has more experience considering he is a very young rider and it's just the second year in MotoGP and also he did just one season in Moto2. So he's an unbelievable talent, I think. Nobody expected that he can win the championship this year. But I think that if he will win he deserves it 100% because he was the more constant, that this year is very important."
The talent is beyond question, his consistency is proven. But from time to time, the pressure must leak through, no matter how smart and well-balanced you are. That may explain why Joan Mir took a very rare tumble in FP2, washing out the front at Turn 4 and hitting the gravel. There are a host of rational explanations: Turn 4 is the first right hander after a couple of kilometers of left-hand corners; Mir was trying the hard front, evaluating it as a possible option for the race; it was overcast and cooler than it had been during last Sunday's race.
A sign of trouble?
So it might just be a common or garden practice crash. Still, it was only Joan Mir's fifth crash of the season, the Suzuki rider being at the lower end of the MotoGP crasher spectrum. If it had happened a couple of races ago, the incident would have passed unnoticed. But with two races to go, and Mir with one hand on the championship, there is room for doubt. Perhaps the tension and nerves lie with us, the observers, rather than with Mir himself.
"Overall it was a good day, talking about my feelings," the Suzuki Ecstar rider told us. "But I had a crash in FP2, trying the hard front. Maybe for this temperature it was a bit on the limit and I crashed. Normally I wouldn't try in this temperature but it looks like tomorrow will be cooler so we had to try."
That left him riding his second bike, with a different setup, and slipping down the standings as riders hammered in fast laps at the end of FP2, in search of safe passage to Q2 and a solid qualifying position. "The problem then was that with the second bike I didn't have the same feeling. It was not completely ready and then I was not able to improve my lap time compared to the new medium rear and used front. This was a problem to improve the lap time, so tomorrow we have time in FP3 and FP4 to improve our pace that is not bad but I think we have margin," Mir told us.
That mad rush at the end of FP2 saw Joan Mir drop to twelfth in the combined standings, and provisionally out of Q2, with one last shot tomorrow morning. The fact that his race pace is strong was no reason to relax, he said. "Relaxed no, because here you can't relax. These guys are super crazy! Also myself! It's true that the pace with the medium tires is really good, also with the hard front, it's not bad, but with the medium it's a bit better. So the problem is that with the soft I didn't improve the lap time, I was not able with the second bike to be strong. But I think in a normal scenario that we could improve."
No margin for error
It is natural to be worried about dropping out of Q2, but the problem the MotoGP riders face is just how incredibly tight the field is on the second weekend at the same track. Mir ended the day in twelfth, just a tenth behind Maverick Viñales in tenth position. But the Suzuki rider was only 0.458 seconds behind the fastest man of the day, Jack Miller.
The margins are tight all the way down. The first nineteen – 19! - riders are with three quarters of a second of each other, Alex Márquez 0.749 behind Jack Miller. That makes it tough for anyone hoping to qualifying well at a track where passing is notoriously difficult.
Miguel Oliveira's position at the end of the day - seventeenth and seven tenths behind Miller – did not reflect the fact that his race pace was among the fastest on the day. "That's actually the most frustrating part, that the pace is quite good," the Red Bull KTM Tech3 rider said. "Everything is very tight, it's true, but we seem to have a little bit of a struggle to understand how to basically get more grip out of the soft rear. Overall I think the day was OK with the race configuration. We tried a couple of things to understand the direction. But the time attack, we failed to do a good job. So we need to go and do the work tomorrow morning."
Good artists borrow, great artists steal
One thing KTM were working on was the new shapeshifter. Or rather, an adaptation of KTM's existing holeshot device. It had been a small change to the position of the lever operating it to transform it from something only useful at the start to something which an be used during the race, Oliveira explained.
"It's quite simple, we changed a lever because it was quite hard to do with the thumb," the Portuguese rider told us. "We changed to a little lever and now we are trying to understand if we can use it while we are riding or not. But it's still something that we don't have a green light to use, because we need to set up the rear height, how much we go down and this kind of things."
Pol Espargaro had also been working on the same system. "We are still testing it. It is something very new as you see with the other manufacturers, most of them are using it and they have the benefit on acceleration," the Red Bull Factory KTM rider said. "We are trying to reproduce it but it is still so young. It was working good, no problems but we want to keep it safe. We don’t want to use it for the race because it is a long distance and we don’t want to gamble with this new device. We’ll see how it goes through the weekend and especially in FP4 where can collect more data. But it is working OK. "
Softer is not better
Miguel Oliveira wasn't the only rider to have had problem with the soft tire. "There's less consistency," the Portuguese rider explained. "Basically, the tire is spinning more on the edges, and as soon as you get to the drive area, it's very stable but at the same way, you are not able to apply the power. So it's still a bit unclear how to make it work." The problem was the transition between the edge of the tire and the fatter drive area as the riders pick up the bike. "With the medium tire, we have a very smooth transition, we can basically hit the same marks every lap, but with the soft it seems a bit harder to do."
Even Takaaki Nakagami, who ended the day in second, had struggled with the soft rear tire. "The first time we tested the soft compound on the rear, the first impression was not really good, for us it felt too soft, I couldn't feel that this was the best performance or not," the LCR Honda rider said. "We are not understanding well, so that's why the last minutes of the FP2 we changed to the medium compound. Then I made exactly the same lap time with a soft and medium compound."
On the one hand, this was a good thing, Nakagami explained. But on the other, it would be nice to have a tire which clearly gives better performance once you go chasing a quick lap in qualifying. "This is good, with both tires we made a great lap time," the Japanese rider told us. "But anyway, we need to adapt with the soft compound. Of course, this is not the race tire, it's impossible, I think the medium compound will be the race tire, but for the qualifying we need to make a lap time, so we need to make a small adjustment for the qualifying."
For some riders, setting a time in FP2 was important. That was definitely the case for Jack Miller, who ended the day as fastest, just a fraction faster than Nakagami. With dry weather and warm temperatures, it was better to chase a lap on Friday afternoon than run the risk of it being wet or too cold on Saturday morning, the Australian said. "It’s more to do with the weather," was how Miller explained why he had been chasing a fast lap. "Just trying to get one in for a banker."
Miller was hoping that he had done enough on Friday afternoon. He didn't fancy going out and having to push again on Saturday morning, so was hoping for a repeat of last weekend's wet weather. "I hope it’s that way again this weekend and we don’t have to go out and risk our lives tomorrow. Knowing my luck it will be bright and sunny and we’ll have to go out there and do it all again tomorrow. If anything does happen or it’s a bit windy then at least you have a banker lap in."
The Ducatis appear to have made a big improvement compared to last weekend, with four of the Bologna bikes in the top six. That was just over a single lap, however, rather than race pace. That was the assessment of Joan Mir, at least. "For sure, Ducatis in front means problems because on the straight they are so fast, but this is only the first day," the Suzuki rider said. "It's interesting to see the lap times of the Ducatis, how fast they are in one lap, but then about race pace there are not so many Ducatis on the pace. Dovizioso is probably the fastest, but then the others it's not the same as one lap."
Andrea Dovizioso did not have a clear explanation for the improvement. "The reason why all the Ducatis are faster than last week? I don’t know. But the condition is different. The track is very fast. There was no wind and the temp is not too high. So the situation was good to be fast. Looks like every Ducati is a bit faster."
They had used the experience of last Sunday's race, the factory Ducati rider told us. "We worked on some details from what we saw in the race. I’m happy because I’m able to brake a bit harder to have better feeling on the front. We did a small change in the afternoon and it worked better and I was able to be consistent – not the fastest but consistent. That was very, very important. Unfortunately a lot of riders have a good pace. I believe we have to do two or three tenths a step forward to be in the front group and to be sure going into Q2 directly and starting on the first two rows will make the big difference."
A tale of two teammates
If the Ducatis seem mostly competitive, the Yamahas have a clear split between them. On the one hand there is Franco Morbidelli, who appears to be the fastest of the Yamaha riders, with Maverick Viñales not far behind, both over one lap and in terms of race pace. On the other hand there are Fabio Quartararo and Valentino Rossi, with Quartararo at a complete loss for a way to explain his lack of pace.
Morbidelli was so confident he hadn't even bothered chasing a quick lap, and still ended up eighth having set his best time in the morning. "It was a positive first day," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "I was able to be quite fast and consistent with two different specifications, and that's positive. We are in the top ten without doing any time attack, so that's even more encouraging. The day went out pretty smooth, I would say."
He was aware that his teammate was struggling, but he did not know what the problem was. "I haven't heard what problems are affecting Fabio right now, I haven't heard any comments from other Yamaha riders," Morbidelli told us. "What I know is that I feel quite a good potential and I feel good with the bike, and I have a good feeling. We tried different settings today, and the results were encouraging with both different settings and different tires. We are definitely in the game."
The fact that he was so much quicker than the riders on the 2020 Yamaha M1 meant he was not even looking at their data any longer. "I'm not checking out the other Yamaha riders too much, because they are a bit struggling. So I need to care for myself and go ahead for myself," Morbidelli said.
The contrast with Fabio Quartararo could not be greater. Where Morbidelli had been able to find improvement by playing with settings, Quartararo had turned the bike upside down and it had not made a discernible difference. That worried the Frenchman. "The feeling was not good," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "Strange. Because normally when we make big changes on the bike we feel it. Today the first time we made big changes and the feeling was the same. No worse no better. This is strange. Normally I’m a rider that feels a lot on the bike."
Quartararo's problem was not something he had suffered with before. "Trail braking and corner speed which is actually our strong point," the Frenchman explained. "In the trail braking there is a lot of movement, and the corner speed just wanted to go wide. I never had that real big problem in the championship in 2019 and 2020. Difficult to understand."
Could the issue be down to the 2020 Yamaha M1, versus the more docile and manageable 2019 bike? "Yes, I will say it’s the main problem, or one of," Quartararo believed. "Last year with normal days you can adapt on the bike. This year the margin is so small to be fighting for victory or fighting for points. This is something… the double races are also difficult because everyone improve and we don’t. If you make big changes like we did today you should feel it. Today was the same. The main problem. you get lost easily but difficult understand. Today the first time I experience making big changes and feeling nothing."
There is still a day to try to fix it, and exploit the additional grip the track has to offer with so much rubber down. But while Fabio Quartararo is struggling, there is less and less reason for Joan Mir to be concerned. If the Frenchman cannot improve, then Mir will only have teammate Alex Rins to face. But first, there is qualifying to get through.
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