Every day that sees MotoGP motorcycles circulating in earnest is an interesting day, but some are more interesting than others. Friday at Misano was one of those days which last, throwing up surprises and shattering preconceptions. We found out that we need to throw overboard a lot of the things we thought about the current state of the MotoGP championship.
First, to the things which were not a surprise. That Yamahas should top both sessions of free practice, and establish themselves as favorites for the race was entirely to be expected. That Valentino Rossi should impress is no surprise either: Misano is his home race, and a win here is his best chance of getting back into the championship. Jorge Lorenzo finding his feet again, and laying down a withering pace raised one or two eyebrows among those who had written him off. But the real shocker was Pol Espargaro topping the second session of free practice, and ending the day faster.
Have Yamaha smuggled a few go-faster bits into the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha garage? The answer to that question is quite simply no. Espargaro's pace has a very simple explanation: the Spaniard has been strong throughout this season, the switch to the Michelins playing to his strengths. "This is a track where I am fast," Espargaro told us. "If we add here the new tires which are really grippy on the rear and quite good performance on the front, I feel like I can ride in my style, aggressive and opening the throttle really early with full lean angle. I feel really comfortable riding the bike."
Plus, of course, the small matter of time gained by using another fast rider as a target. "For sure, I was behind Márquez, and it helped me two tenths more or less." Taking away two tenths of a second would put him third rather than first, but as he was second fastest in the morning, Espargaro's time in FP2 was no fluke.
Look out world, Yamaha is coming
Espargaro may be the fastest single lap, but it is the two Movistar Yamahas which set the most impressive pace. Valentino Rossi got off to an outstanding start, dominating the timesheets in the morning in race trim. Rossi suffered in the afternoon, though. With track temperatures 15° higher than in the morning, the hard rear tire was not working as expected, and Rossi ran into problems with tire life at the front. Where others improved their pace by three or four tenths in the afternoon, Rossi's pace stagnated.
"We have a lot of work to do, especially with the balance of the bike," Rossi told us after FP2. "We will try to improve the performance of the front tire because the race will be very long, 28 laps. We need to find the way to improve the feeling with the front." The weight may need to go more towards the rear, to spare the front tire a little, and create more pressure on the rear. Rossi has returned to the older chassis, after racing the new one at Silverstone, the differences being too small, and Rossi and his team preferring to use the weapons they are more completely familiar with.
A set up change is what helped Jorge Lorenzo. After a string of five bad races, punctuated only by a podium in Austria, many inside and outside the paddock had started to write the reigning world champion off. That, as ever, proved to be premature. Lorenzo can still command the same intensity and focus, but in the past few races, had been unable to translate that into speed.
Lorenzo finds his mojo
That all changed at Misano. Lorenzo was off to a reasonable start in the morning, but in the afternoon, the old, relentless Lorenzo was back. In the middle of the session, the Spaniard's pace was devastating, pounding out one mid-1'33 after another. His decision not to fit a new tire at the end of the session, where most others did saw him drop down the final order to fourth. But Lorenzo was clearly the fastest man on Friday, two or three tenths quicker than the rest.
Lorenzo's wasn't the only revival of fortunes. All of a sudden, Dani Pedrosa is also back at the front. Had the much higher track temperatures than we have seen in recent weeks helped? "I think this is one factor which is positive," the Repsol Honda rider said. Higher track temperatures meant that Pedrosa could get heat into the tires, and with heat comes grip and feeling. At Silverstone, the Spaniard had been stuck with the softer tires due to the colder temperatures. At Misano, he can use the extra support of the hard tires, without sacrificing grip.
The Suzukis were another surprise on the first day of Misano. In theory, higher temperatures mean less grip, especially in drive out of corners, which is historically where the GSX-RR has suffered. But Suzuki have made big steps on that front, much of it coming at Silverstone. Maverick Viñales used the hard rear for most of the afternoon, and had strong pace, putting in the fastest times through the second sector, before everyone slung a new tire in and pushed for a lap time. The softer tire was not working for Viñales, the rear spinning up as it had done in the past. The ability to get the harder tire to work could turn out to be Maverick Viñales' magic bullet.
Aleix Espargaro was almost as quick as his teammate. The ECSTAR Suzuki rider had not used a new tire at the end of FP2, meaning he dropped down the order and just out of the top ten, and Q2. But his final lap had been a 1'33.741, set on an old tire which had some twenty-odd laps on it. 1'33.7 is the pace of the podium battle, the times which Valentino Rossi, Maverick Viñales, Dani Pedrosa, and Marc Márquez showed on Friday. Right now, Lorenzo looks unbeatable, with a strong group likely to be chasing him. But it's only Friday. Much may change tomorrow.
A question of perspective, and actually having some
Aleix Espargaro also managed to draw the ire of Valentino Rossi. On an in lap, Espargaro was slowing down just a little too close to the racing line, as Rossi flew by on a hot lap. The Movistar Yamaha rider was irate, his reaction informed perhaps more by the intensity with which he wants to win his home Grand Prix, rather than the severity of Espargaro's crime. Rossi gesticulated at Espargaro, and Espargaro responded in kind. "I say to him, ‘What are you doing?’" Rossi told us. "And he say to me 'va fanculo'", an Italian phrase which is usually translated by a similarly pithy two-word phrase in English, the second word of which is "off".
The incident got blown a little out of proportion, as is common when such things happen to Valentino Rossi at his home Grand Prix, fans taking sides one way or another (though to be frank, the vast majority were taking sides one way, rather than the other). Espargaro was unrepentant. Race Director went down to Aleix Espargaro's garage, to have a quiet word in the Suzuki rider's ear. Espargaro was unimpressed. "It's not normal, because he never comes to the pits, he always calls you to go there. But I imagine, since it's Valentino, he came to the pits."
Espargaro's version of events differs from Mike Webb's. "He told me to be more aware, but I asked him if they checked the video," Espargaro told us. "[Mike Webb] said 'yes, and you are not in the middle, you did not disturb him'. And he said, 'but anyway, be more aware', and I said, 'I will not be more aware if I didn't disturb him.' I repeated three times to him, 'I disturbed him? Did you check the video?' And he told me no, I didn't disturb him."
The other view
I asked Mike Webb about it later that day. There was clearly some kind of misunderstanding, Webb told me. He had told Espargaro that although it was a long way from being the worst example of interfering with another rider, he still needed to be aware of other riders on fast laps behind him.
Espargaro also seemed to be unaware of Webb's routine: the Race Director will commonly go down to the garages of MotoGP riders (though not for Moto2 and Moto3, the youngsters are summoned to Webb's office to make a greater impression on them) to talk about incidents that did not warrant a penalty, but did need a friendly warning. Webb told me that this year, he had been down to see both Repsol Honda riders, showing no fear nor favor in dispensing cautions.
The similarities with events here last year had also come up. During qualifying in 2015, Rossi had been riding slowly in almost exactly the same place as Espargaro, and had slowed Jorge Lorenzo on his final fast lap. Rossi had been awarded a penalty point for that offence, while Espargaro's infringement had gone unpunished, beyond a few hard words from Webb.
Why the difference? "The middle of FP2 is very different from the last lap of qualifying," Webb explained. Espargaro was not sitting right in the middle of the racing line, causing a real danger, but he was impeding Rossi on a fast lap. But Rossi's fast lap had no direct influence on the outcome of qualifying or the race, and so having to slow up fractionally had little impact. The 2015 incident may have prevented Lorenzo from posting a faster lap, though Lorenzo had already set a time fast enough to be sure of pole.
The crew chief shuffle
While the action on track is intriguing, things are also starting to hot up off track and behind the scenes. Silly season for the riders is over, and now it is crew chiefs who are the center of attention. Two riders triggered the crew chief reshuffle: Jorge Lorenzo's move to Ducati meant he needed a new crew chief, and Cristian Gabarrini – currently with Jack Miller – has been hired back to Ducati to work with Lorenzo. At Repsol Honda, Dani Pedrosa has not gelled with Ramon Aurin, and has been fishing around for a replacement. He had a refusal from former Nicky Hayden crew chief Juan Martinez, as the Spaniard is too content working for Spanish TV. Now, Pedrosa has poached Scott Redding's crew chief Giacomo Guidotti. Aurin is to replace Gabarrini in Jack Miller's garage, though Pedrosa would like to see him return to his duties as data engineer for the Repsol Honda rider.
I will be writing much, much more about this in due course, as there are a lot more changes going on up and down the grid. But it is a subject which needs time and space of its own: the complexities of the rider-crew chief relationship cannot be captured in a few sentences.
On retired racers
Finally, I ran into Ben Spies at Misano, the former World Superbike champion coming down from his home in Lake Como to see old friends in the MotoGP paddock. We had a long and illuminating (and private) conversation, in which I learned a lot about what motivates riders. The greater pleasure (and perhaps surprise) of that meeting is experiencing how the relationship of journalists changes once they retire.
While a rider is still active, you cannot be friends with them as a journalist. There is a conflict of interests which cannot (and should not, if you want to write objectively as a journalist) be reconciled. When they retire, that barrier tumbles, and exchanges can be more frank and open, with no fear that riders are having to conceal the truth to comply with instructions from their team, nor that journalists will seize upon an off-the-cuff remark and blow it up into a headline story.
Spies is now happily retired, and back riding enduro bikes, though his shoulder injury prevents him from pushing too hard. His business interests are well looked after, and he spends his days with his wife and young daughter. As it is for all former racers, the first few months of his retirement was hard on him. But Spies looked relaxed and happy. Having seen just how much they give to succeed at racing, the physical and mental pain, the sacrifices, the monomaniacal pursuit of hundredths of seconds, it is nice to see that weight fall away from them. Though the fire, the ambition and competitiveness still burns inside them. They may hang up their leathers, but racers remain competitors till the day they die.
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