It feels as if MotoGP has been talking about nothing but aerodynamics for a while now. It has been growing in importance since the advent of spec electronics made winglets a viable method of managing wheelie control, but the protest and subsequent court case against Ducati's use of its swing arm-mounted spoiler has meant we have spoken of little else since then. The decision of the MotoGP Court of Appeal did nothing to quell the controversy, but then again, whatever decision it made was only going to make the arguments grow louder.
But there is reason to believe that we are approaching the endgame of Spoilergate. On Friday night, reports say, Honda submitted its design for a swing arm-mounted spoiler to Technical Director Danny Aldridge, and had it accepted. This would not normally be remarkable, were it not for the fact that Honda had also submitted the same spoiler on Thursday night, and had it rejected as illegal.
How did this happen? On Thursday, Honda presented the spoiler, saying it was to generate aerodynamic downforce, reportedly. That goes against the guidelines issued by Danny Aldridge, and so he had no choice but to reject it. On Friday, Honda submitted the same spoiler, but told Aldridge it was to increase the stiffness of the swing arm, according to British publication MCN. Because that is not prohibited under the guidelines, Aldridge had no choice but to allow it.
How can this contradiction exist? Because of the phrasing of the guidelines issued by Danny Aldridge, and drawn up in response to queries from the manufacturers. The guidelines state that swing arm attachments are permitted as long as "their purpose is not to generate aerodynamic forces with respect to the ground". When Honda presented their spoiler on Thursday, they said this is what the purpose of the spoiler is. When they presented it on Friday, they said the purpose of the spoiler was something else.
"Purpose" is the key word here. "Purpose" implies intention, and intention is whatever the manufacturer – Honda in this case – says it is, as long as they can back that intention up by data. Any secondary effect can be ignored, as that is an unintended consequence of the stated purpose of the component.
If the word "effect" had been used in the guidelines instead of purpose, then no discussion would have been possible. If the guidelines had read that swing arm attachments were allowed as long as "their effect is not to generate aerodynamic forces with respect to the ground", then both the Honda and the Ducati spoilers would have been ruled illegal, unless HRC and Ducati could have proved that their spoilers did not generate any downforce.
Bring your own petard
Honda's gambit has exposed this gaping loophole in the rules, but I am not sure that the core working group who formally codify and monitor MotoGP's technical rules will be terribly upset about this. That group - Technical Director Danny Aldridge, MotoGP Director of Technology Corrado Cecchinelli, and Race Director Mike Webb - have only limited say. Their job is to analyze and interpret the rules presented by the MSMA, the joint association of manufacturers racing in MotoGP. The reason for the gaping loophole was because the MSMA had put it there in the first place.
"The rules are actually written by the MSMA – the manufacturers," Danny Aldridge told Neil Morrison. "Every single word in there has to be approved by them. It was there choice, their decision to have this wording. The Technical Director then decides what is legal and what is not. This is how it works."
It is obvious that the rules need to be clarified, and Aldridge is keen for that to happen. "Once it’s been settled and calmed down, we will make changes to the regulations to make it clearer for us and for the manufacturers," he said. "Day in and day out we work with the manufacturers. If we need to clarify something we will do it. If they agree we will change. But we can’t change the rules without their permission."
A rod for their own back
So Honda's gambit in exposing this loophole in the rules has also forced their own hand. If Honda want the rules changed – and we know that they do, along with KTM, Aprilia, and Suzuki, and probably Yamaha as well – then it is up to them to reach a consensus inside the MSMA. Under the terms of the contracts the factories have with Dorna, the MSMA has sole control over the technical rules, as long as they agree unanimously among themselves. If they don't like them, then it is up to the MSMA to change them or propose alternatives.
What happens next? It is all in the hands of the MSMA. There has been little willingness for the manufacturers to impose a clear and unambiguous set of rules on aerodynamics. It needed a crisis to force their hands, and this crisis may be just that. There will now be a series of meetings where the manufacturers will try to thrash out a series of compromises and clarifications among themselves. Given that Ducati is heavily invested in aerodynamics, while the other manufacturers are more reticent to start going down the aerodynamic route, that is no easy task.
Does this mean we can expect to see Marc Márquez' Honda RC213V suddenly sprout a spoiler on the bottom of the swing arm? I would be surprised if one does appear. The purpose of Honda's application to use the spoiler was symbolic rather than practical. They wanted to expose the issues surrounding the way the rules were being applied, and for their sins, they succeeded.
It's only Friday
Believe it or not, there were motorcycles on track in Argentina. And they made it easy to forget the politics and the infighting, the last 8 minutes of MotoGP FP2 providing some of the most intense track action we have seen. With about 7 minutes to go, Aleix Espargaro shot up to second place. By the time the flag waved for the end of the session, he was twelfth, despite having improved his time. It was as if the entire grid had entered berserker mode.
They had been provoked by two things: firstly, the Termas track, always dusty, got much better through the day, as more rubber was laid down. And secondly, spots of rain fell briefly as the end of FP2 neared. With no guarantees that conditions would not get worse on Saturday morning, a quick time on Friday afternoon was imperative.
At the end of the day, it was Andrea Dovizioso who was the last left standing atop the timesheets. But his advantage was negligible, at best. The factory Ducati rider was just nine thousandths of a second faster than Pramac's Jack Miller, and a little over a tenth faster than Yamaha rider Maverick Viñales.
In fact the entire field is close. The top five is covered by 0.176, with the impressive rookie Fabio Quartararo taking fifth spot. 0.448 separates the top ten, and the first eleven riders are all within half a second. In fact, 21 riders, all but Tech3 KTM rider Hafizh Syahrin, are within a second of Dovizioso. An illustration, perhaps, of why factories are willing to spend money on aerodynamics: hundredths of a second really matter now. Tenths of a second are the difference between being comfortably through to Q2, or having to face the free-for-all that is Q1.
Eyes on the prize
Andrea Dovizioso was suitably unimpressed by topping the timesheets. "It was a surprise, but first position is not important, especially when we are very close," the factory Ducati rider said. "So that is not the point. It's good to be in the top ten. I think tomorrow the track will be faster, and I don't know if my lap time will be enough to be in the top ten. It's important for that, but not for thinking about the podium, which is our goal."
What Dovizioso was much happier with was the fact that he was competitive at a track where he has struggled so badly in recent years. "I'm really happy about that," he said. "Because last year and the year before we struggled a lot, I struggled a lot in this track. But our base is better than last year, I am really happy about that. Our bike is a bit different compared to last year. So happy to confirm that, happy to have a good feeling from the beginning, and already this morning, I felt really good. I was able to be consistent when the tire dropped, that's the main thing."
The improvement was not so much down to the arrival of the GP19, but to improvements Ducati made in the middle of 2018, Dovizioso said. "Last year we did a step in the middle of the season. So that's why the bike is very different from last year. That's why the bike is not too different from the last race. So that's why I think our base is much better than last year."
The challenge he faced was the lack of grip at the circuit, Dovizioso explained. "The grip is very low, like every year," the Italian told the media. "This is the characteristic of this track, front and rear. So everyone is struggling with that, so you have to play with that. So it's very difficult. Because when you want to be faster, normally you put more intensity, but you are not able to do that at this track. So it's difficult to find a good balance and be really fast in the middle of the corners. But our base is good, so I was able to have a good lap time without pushing a lot, and that gave us the possibility to work on some setup and we were able to improve the feeling a little bit the feeling. But still the grip on the rear is not a lot. And we have to try to improve a little bit."
It was clear the Ducati was working well from the fact that Jack Miller took second, on the Pramac Ducati (with title sponsor Alma's boss under arrest for tax fraud, their name has been erased from the bike, at least for the moment). There wasn't a particular corner or section where the bike was working especially well, it was pretty good from start to finish, Miller said. "I think in general [it's good] everywhere," the Australian told the media.
"We've had a really good bike so far this year. They've done a really good job with the GP19. I think the bike itself, especially through Turn 3, over the bumps, it seems to really absorb the bumps. It doesn't even phase me to be honest. Normally that off camber Turn 3 is always a bit of a b*****d to get through, it really upsets the bike. But it seems to be staying really calm through there. Also how well it's finding the grip. I feel in a lot of corners like turn 1 and turn 15, the long corners you accelerate out of. I feel all I have to do is be patient through there, keep it at a partial throttle and wait until there is a lot of rubber around and then once you arrive to be blackest part of the corner where everyone has been laying the rubber, I'm able to whack it on quite aggressively and not get the bike out of shape or upset. It seems to really track out nicely."
Of course, the bike can only work with the grip available, and if you run off the racing line and into the dusty part of the track, you're in trouble, Miller explained, something which had happened to him. He had been sizing Valentino Rossi up, and had made the mistake of going slightly off line going into Turn 13. "I braked maybe a meter inside because he was on the racing line, and when I grabbed the brakes the actual whole bike went sideways. I had to release and grab again and when I got back on the racing line I started running wide and then got off it again and just tried to commit to the corner and you saw as soon as I leaned it over and started releasing the brake to try and bring the bike back in it just went on me."
The more it moves, the more Márquez likes it
A lack of grip is where Marc Márquez excels, in stark contrast to his teammate Jorge Lorenzo, who ended up well down the order, and it was by Marquez' advantage over the rest that the grip levels of the track could be measured. With the track at its dirtiest during FP1, the Repsol Honda rider spent most of the session over a second faster than the rest of the field. Only as the track cleaned up towards the end did the others catch up, Jack Miller ending up just over a third of a second slower than Márquez.
In the afternoon, as more rubber went down, Márquez' advantage declined further. The Spaniard ended the day in eighth place, three tenths behind Dovizioso. He was untroubled by this, however: where everyone else had thrown a new soft tire at the bike, in pursuit of a fast lap, Márquez had kept a single tire for the entire session. On lap 18 with that tire, he set a time under a tenth slower than his quickest lap, and still good enough to get him through to Q2.
Márquez was all too aware of how improving conditions militated against him. "Since I went on track this morning, I felt very, very strong, I felt good," he said. "The lines were there, and I was happy. It's true that the pace on the paper, I'm the fastest one in reality, but it is Friday. It would be better if it's like this after the warm up, but at the moment, I think everything will get closer and closer, because the grip of the track will improve a lot. And we know that when the grip is poor, it's one of my strongest points, and it's where I feel better with the bike."
Márquez' decision not to put in an extra tire in pursuit of a lap time had allowed him to focus on tire wear. Other riders had complained of tire performance dropping off after the first ten laps or so, but Márquez was not concerned. "At the moment, no," he said. "At the moment we are working on this. In this racetrack, to be fast in one lap is easy, but one of the most difficult points is to be constant during all the race, it's a very long race. It's a demanding track for the tires, and we are working on this to keep the pace, try to keep the lap time. At the moment we are able to do it, but there are still many things to improve."
Aleix Espargaro was one of the riders who was worried about tire wear. "I'm sure that on lap 10, a new race will start," the Aprilia rider said. "There are two places where we spin a lot, and the tire will drop. I don't think we are able to race with the soft rear tire, and this is already something significant, because normally for us, it's quite easy to race with the soft, and I don't think that we are able to race with the soft here. So it means that the consumption is high. But I think that's the same for everybody. We saw in the second part of the race, the time drops, and there are two places where you spin a lot."
With three Yamahas in the top six, and all four in the top ten, things were looking positive for both the factory Monster Energy squad, and for the satellite Petronas team. Maverick Viñales made a late adjustment to find some grip, and jump up from way down the order to third place at the end of the session. Valentino Rossi finished sixth, and was positive about the day overall. "It was a good start, because we worked well with the bike, I feel good. We worked well with the tires also. And we worked on the pace with used tires. So I'm quite good, I'm not so bad," the Italian said.
But more impressive than the factory Yamahas was the fact that rookie Fabio Quartararo finished fifth on the Petronas Yamaha, less than two tenths behind Andrea Dovizioso and just ahead of Valentino Rossi. Quartararo confirmed his potential and ability to post a quick lap, backing up his fifth place in qualifying at Qatar.
What made this especially impressive was the fact that this was the Frenchman's first time at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit on a MotoGP bike. "Really positive," Quartararo said, "I made a good pace, I made a really good lap. I didn't expect so much, because without testing, first time with a MotoGP in Argentina. I adapted quite fast to the track, and I think we made a really good Friday."
Rookie rocks up
Race pace was something he had been working on, Quartararo said, but he knew it was something which would take a few races to get a grip on. "I have been, not fully working on the pace, but I've been working on it, and I think that the most difficult will be to keep the tires fresh for the end of the race. Normally, it should be good. We need to work on the experience of saving the tires, that doesn't come in one race, so step by step we will make improvements on that part."
His lack of experience also made it hard for him to judge where the Yamaha was gaining or losing. But Quartararo felt that the package he had – one step down from factory-spec machines of Viñales, Rossi, and his Petronas teammate Franco Morbidelli – worked pretty well everywhere. "I have ridden five tracks, and at five tracks, it has been working well," he said. "I have not so much experience with the bike that I can say which part it is working well, but I'm feeling awesome with the bike, nothing really to say for sure, but I think some details in every bike I have been on are always the same. You always want a little bit more of grip, turning, but that's the normal things a rider asks from his crew chief. But if not, the bike is going well."
Can Quartararo carry that momentum through to Saturday, and qualify somewhere close to the front of the grid, as he had in Qatar? It would be difficult, as the field is so incredibly tight. "It's worse than Moto3!" Quartararo joked. "For sure it will be really difficult to go to Q2. We will need to stay focused, I think one mistake can take you out of five positions. I checked the lap times, and if I you lose two tenths, you can miss Q2, so you need to make the perfect lap at the right moment to go straight into Q2. But I'm happy about today, I'm thinking more about the race pace, and let's see in FP3 what is going on with the riders."
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