It is always hard to tell where things stand in MotoGP on a Friday. The track is green, riders are working through the tire allocation to assess the best choice, factories with new parts will send the riders out to test them, to get feedback in the least important part of the day. Teams are still working through their checklist of ideas, some of which won't work, but having crossed an idea off the list, that can send the rider in the right direction. Or not.
It is even harder at a track like Brno, where a lap takes the best part of two minutes to complete. For a race which is 21 laps long, six laps counts as a long run during practice. Trying to assess race pace from six laps during FP2 is a very tricky proposition indeed. And as FP2 is usually the session where new parts are tested – the idea is, first establish a baseline with your existing setup, then put the new parts on to try at the end of FP1 or sometime during FP2 – that makes identifying patterns even more difficult.
What we did learn is that the Brno track is incredibly bumpy, more bumpy than it has been in the past. There are bumps at some crucial points in the track: Turn 3, the left hander at the end of the short back straight. Turn 8, in the stadium section. The chicane of Turn 11 and 12 and up the hill. Turn 13, the first corner of the final chicane before the finish straight. Complaints were shared equally, but opinions were divided on whether the track was becoming unrideable.
Frank Brno assessment
"The track is in quite rough condition," Jack Miller said, with his customary frankness. Does the track need resurfacing? "100%. It needed resurfacing last year but this year is even worse because you've got this two really long right hand corners where you are on the angle for such a long time, Turn 1 and Turn 10, and you're going it around it just… I feel sorry for the poor Moto3 boys because they've got a tiny surface area on the ground and they are bouncing around through there."
The problem is the sheer amount of asphalt that needs to be laid to resurface. "It's probably one of the most fun tracks on the calendar but at the moment you get to corners like that and you don’t really feel too comfortable," Miller said." She definitely needs resurfacing. I understand being how wide and how big it is, it's a massive amount of money, but I think they've been putting it off for a few years now and it's about time."
Some bumps were more costly than others, Fabio Quartararo felt. "In the corners where there are bumps, you feel it a lot, in the change of direction at Turn 11 and 12. Also for us it's difficult in the climb uphill, so if we make a small mistake in acceleration, we lose a lot of power from Turn 12 to 13, so there, even in my fast lap time, we need to be really precise, and not make any mistakes, and don't lose time with our bike." Make a mistake out of Turn 12, and you lose drive up the hill, a huge disadvantage for the underpowered Yamahas.
But the bumps are not necessarily a risk, Quartararo said. "In Turn 13 there is one big bump, also in Turn 3. But in the end you get used to these bumps, and it's the same for everyone. So everyone has these bumps. But you feel it quite aggressive. There is always a risk! Normally, the bumps are quite early, so it doesn't affect the apex."
Familiarity breeds contempt?
Valentino Rossi was the most flippant of the riders about the bumps. "The bumps of Brno are famous because they are there from 1996 exactly in the same places," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider joked. "We call the bumps with a name. You have entry to turn eight, entry to turn ten, last corner. And for me it’s like this. Every year the asphalt drops the condition but for me it’s not so bad."
Marc Márquez agreed with Rossi. "Yeah it’s bumpy but we have worse tracks on the calendar," the Repsol Honda rider opined. "I mean of course it's bumpy, there are two or three corners with some bumps, but they are inside the limit. Of course you would like to have a flat track because you enjoy it more but it's still inside the limit."
The fact that it might rain on Saturday also meant that the teams were compressing a lot of test work into the first day, including chasing a time quick enough to put them through to Q2. Ducati, for example, tried a new fairing, with a reshaped intake, and very different upper and lower wings. The fairing was meant to make the bike easier to turn, while retaining the positive aspect of providing anti-wheelie.
Andrea Dovizioso liked the fairing, but with so much to test, it made it hard to draw any real conclusions. "I don’t have the answer unfortunately, because tomorrow it looks like the weather will be wet so we tried a lot of things," the factory Ducati rider said. "Something on the setup, but we wanted to try the fairing because if tomorrow is wet we won’t be able to test the fairing before the race. We put a lot of things together and it’s not the best way to analyze the things together. I couldn’t make the comparison so I don’t have the answer. Also because when you try something like that the change is not big and you need a comparison to understand the details. It looks good but I don’t have a clear answer."
Yet he would not rule out using the new fairing during the race. "We want to try the new stuff. We don’t have a lot of time to test the new parts. We wanted to test that before the test. There was a chance and we did that. If the fairing is better we wanted to try it and use in the race as well."
Reading between the lines, the fairing provides a clear advantage, but Dovizioso did not want to tip his hand. And with so little time, the factory are having to draw conclusions based on the evidence at hand. But Ducati will already have a lot of data from test rider Michele Pirro, and given that they only have one update for the year, and they have chosen to use it on this new fairing, it seems safe to assume this is better.
Sincerest form of flattery
Alex Rins was much more open about Suzuki's new fairing. "We tried a new fairing here, with the new winglets, that works much better, sincerely. We need more information, but the initial feeling, it's working good," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. The new fairing, looking for all the world like the Honda top fairing on steroids, helped reduce wheelie a lot.
The good news was that Rins could find no discernible downsides to the new fairing. "At the moment, no. We need to check during the Monday test, because the plan was to try on Monday. But we were pushing a lot last night to try it today. But for sure we will need to compare more." If Rins was able to persuade Suzuki to let him homologate the new fairing, he must have been confident in the work done by Sylvain Guintoli to ensure that it was an improvement.
Honda's new carbon fiber chassis cover is an example of what happens when the advantages of a design are not absolutely clear. Marc Márquez tried the chassis at Assen, and again at the Sachsenring, but chose to race the standard frame in both those races. The carbon chassis got another run out at Brno, the Repsol Honda rider back-to-backing it with the standard frame in both the morning and the afternoon sessions.
But he will probably race the standard frame once again, he said, despite being faster on the new chassis. "Today I tried both chassis in FP1 and again in FP2, because tomorrow the weather looks like not so good and that it will be half-half, some storms, and it's important to have two exactly the same bikes, exactly the same chassis" Márquez explained. "I did the fastest lap with the new one, but the old one is the old one and I know everything about that chassis. And I know the reactions of that chassis. So now the engineers are trying to analyze everything, the pace with both chassis was very similar, but with the old one is there, with the new one still we need to work and it looks like tomorrow the weather will be not so good. Still it's not decided yet but we have a Monday test so maybe we will retry on Monday."
The new chassis may potentially be better, but Márquez is still in championship mode, and is consequently still risk averse. He understands the old frame, knows its strength and can work around its weaknesses, and so racing the old frame should leave him with no surprises to deal with. He needs more time on the new frame before he is confident enough to make the switch for good, time which the Monday test will afford him. Even then, he may well hold off until he is confident that his advantage over his rivals is enough to be able to risk making a mistake, and possibly losing points as a result.
What Friday turned out to be good for is testing tires, though even that managed to throw up some surprises. The poor grip of the asphalt meant that tire performance was good for three or four laps before it dropped off a cliff. Figuring out the best option to deal with that was causing everyone headaches.
"The rear tire drops a lot, so for that reason the pace is quite difficult to understand because when you put new tires then you improve by nearly two seconds," Marc Márquez explained. "Then when the tire drops you lose 1-1.5 seconds per lap. So it's important to work with the used tires and it's what we did. We tried to analyze all the things."
Jack Miller was confounded by both the medium and the hard. "I felt the medium was the worst, he said. "I went out this morning, was getting quicker and quicker, came back in and then went out again and couldn’t get back in the 1'57s again no matter how hard I tried. The hard felt like it was getting better and better, but my medium front this morning let's say felt overpowered by the rear. It was just pushing a lot like I said through those long corners, especially on the right hand side."
Valentino Rossi believed that everyone was struggling with the rear tire. "For me the bigger drop for everybody is the rear tire," the Italian said. "All the specs have a big drop. This will be the key on Sunday: to try to be fast, but also to try to not stress the rear tire, because after three or four laps there is already a big drop."
Softs are super
Maverick Viñales may have stumbled on the right choice for the race. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider put in a soft tire in the middle of FP2, in search of a fast time to secure a slot in Q2 on Saturday. Once that was locked up, he went back out again on the same rear tire and did half race distance, stringing together 1'57s with consummate ease. Nobody, not even Marc Márquez, was capable of running that pace that consistently on any of the other tires.
Viñales' pace certainly caught the attention of Fabio Quartararo. "It's strange, because even with medium or hard tires, you feel the drop quite fast. But with the soft at the end, when I see Maverick doing 1'56.0, I said, woah, that's a really fast lap time, even if it's with the soft. But as soon as I put the soft, it was a big difference with the medium and the hard, so I was really impressed. Because since the beginning of the year, when we swap to a soft tire, we improved at least half a second, six tenths, but now it was a big, big step, and I was quite impressed to get down to the 1'56s."
"I didn't check the pace of Maverick, but my mechanics tell me that even with the soft, he can make a really good pace, and I think we need to analyze this tire to see if we can make the race with this one," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "We need to check how it is dropping also. Because if it drops the same as the medium or the hard but has a lot of performance, we need to analyze. So I think tomorrow we need to work a little bit with the old soft tire to see if it can make the race distance."
If it doesn't rain on Saturday, or if the track is dry enough in either FP3 or FP4, expect to see a lot of other riders going out on the soft rear. The soft seems to be significantly quicker than the medium and the hard, and if it can hold up for as long as the other two tires, it could be the right choice, at least for those who can run it.
It wasn't just the rear tire which was causing problems, however. The front was an issue for some of the riders, the consensus being that the allocation Michelin have brought is a little on the soft side. "I think all the riders have the same problem with the front tire," Alex Rins said. "Because it looks like are all the tires are soft, even the hard one. So we need to take care, because after five or six laps, the tire performance goes down."
Andrea Dovizioso confirmed that some Ducati riders had an issue with the front as well. "I had a good feeling with the hard front and I did the lap time with the hard front, because I normally brake quite hard and am quite good to create temperature in the front tire," the Italian said. "It worked for me but it didn’t work for some other Ducati riders, who normally use the same front tires as me. I think it’s about the way you ride and to create the right temperature on the front tire, to push and make a lap time."
Did this affect the Honda riders, and especially Marc Márquez, who uses the front harder than most? Paradoxically, Márquez suffered least, as he was used to the front tires being too soft for him, and has learned to work his way around it. "The front tire was already too soft last year, especially the softest option, but maybe Michelin checked the weather and brought the same one," Márquez said. "But we are always on the soft side. One of the things that we are working this year is to try to know how we can work with the soft tires, because it’s what we have."
Blowing a gasket
Tires were almost rendered irrelevant during FP2, when Valentino Rossi appeared to blow an engine and then cruised around half the track, smoke trailing out of his Yamaha M1. It was behavior which earned him a reprimand from his fellow riders during the Safety Commission on Friday night, telling him that if an engine breaks, his priority should be to head to the side of the track and stop immediately, no matter how inconvenient that is.
But Rossi told us on Friday night that he had made sure that he was not leaving oil on the track when the engine went. "During the practice I had a problem with the engine of bike one," the Italian said. It was an old engine with quite a lot of kilometers. Something broke but I don’t know exactly what. Fortunately I could pull the clutch before the engine broke. I felt it lose performance. When you are able to be fast enough with the clutch the engine normally don’t lose oil because it’s the moment before it breaks."
He had checked to make sure that the bike wasn't losing oil. "I checked both sides," Rossi said. "I saw some smoke. I tried to stay off the line. But usually you have some oil from the chain and the foot or boot becomes full of oil. I checked both sides and I continued for this reason." The proof for Rossi that he was not losing oil was that he was able to continue with the same rear tire in his second bike. "In fact I just moved the tire to the other bike and we started again because I don’t have any problem."
More races, young blood?
Outside of the track, developments are starting to warm up both for 2020 and beyond. Rumors are starting to circulate about the 2020 calendar, which looks like have 20 races, including Brno and Finland. There could be a shake up to the schedule, with more races back to back, and some races being shifted from their traditional slots.
The introduction of Finland is one of the complicating factors, logistics for the Kymiring meaning that the trucks cannot get there and back within a week, meaning it will have to have a free weekend either side. In the past, Finnish rounds at Tampere and Imatra were held in late July or late August, and those seem the most likely slots for 2020. But a late August slot would mean bumping Silverstone from the August Bank Holiday weekend.
More changes are expected, with a provisional calendar likely to be drawn up some time in early September.
As for 2021, I had a conversation with a rider manager today, asking about the entire grid all being lined up for new contracts at the end of next year. This is the last time this is likely to happen, I was told: with riders such as Andrea Dovizioso, Cal Crutchlow, and Jorge Lorenzo all approaching their mid-thirties, factories may not be inclined to offer then a two-year deal, opting instead for a one-plus-one deal. That would allow them to move on to a younger rider from Moto2 should the opportunity present itself, and also allow for riders deciding to retire of their own accord. Cal Crutchlow, certainly, has been hinting at stopping for some time now, and with a young family, and his daughter Willow approaching school age in a couple of years, he may decide to stop sooner rather than later.
Those were just three names we bandied about. There could be up to seven riders being nudged out for 2021, I was told. The arrival of this year's crop of rookies could signal the start of a new era. In 2021, MotoGP could see a wave of young riders force out the old guard.
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