Though it is always a pleasure to have wildcard riders to spice up the grid, you expect them to add a bit of color, and then ride around in the vain hope of a top ten. What you don't expect – at least, not since the demise of the 500s at the beginning of the century – is for a wildcard rider to turn up at a circuit and top the first session of practice immediately. Shades of Norick Abe at Suzuka in 1994.
I had been tipped about Dani Pedrosa by someone who was at the private MotoGP test at Jerez before Austin. Word was he was fast, and looking determined. That tip proved to be golden, the KTM test rider, entered as a wildcard at Jerez, ending the morning session of practice as fastest, and third fastest overall on the first day.
"Very happy and a good day," Pedrosa said in his usual understated way. "Unexpected obviously. Happy for the team and for the fans. It was a surprise, this morning especially. I had a good feeling. It is my first ’36 in this track. I am happy to improve the lap time with my age! It’s nice."
Pedrosa was unable to improve on his best time in the afternoon, as the temperatures rose and the wind picked up. "In the afternoon it was more difficult, the condition of the track with the wind and the temperature so I was not able to improve but some of the other riders were really fast because the track was worse. But, overall, we are very happy because going directly to Q2 is something, and not easy to do."
Should we be surprised that Pedrosa is so quick at Jerez? "People forget he is a three-times world champion, and runner up, what, three times in the MotoGP class? He is a Legend and he has a corner on this ****ing track named after him," Jack Miller pointed out. "People act surprised when he does well but he has been here testing and he has plenty of laps on the bike. There is a reason why he is a legend."
Miller has a point. Pedrosa is undoubtedly an incredible rider, and still one of the fastest riders in the world. That, after all, is why KTM hired him, because he can find the limits of a MotoGP bike and point the development in the right direction. Just how competitive the KTM has been since the start of the season is proof that Pedrosa's work with the development team is paying off.
This is now the best version of the KTM RC16 he has ridden, Pedrosa avowed. "Because the team did a great job developing these years and it is the whole thing; getting more balance and in the track you have many things: the straight, turning, braking, fast, slow, acceleration, deceleration, leaning. The bike has become more balanced through all these aspects of the track."
The bike is much better, but Pedrosa was always special around Jerez. He has 10 podiums and 3 victories at Jerez, and as Miller pointed out, he has a corner – Turn 6, formerly Dry Sack – named after him. Pedrosa chose Jerez to do a wildcard, because he knew this is where he could be competitive. The last wildcard he did was at the Red Bull Ring in Austria, where he finished tenth. That was at the behest of KTM. This is coming much more from Pedrosa. As there is a test here on Monday, it made the perfect return.
Would Pedrosa be competitive if he returned to racing? It is a pointless question, because he doesn't want to race again full time. He was offered Pol Espargaro's seat after the GasGas Tech3 rider injured himself at Portimão, but Pedrosa turned it down, saying he did not want to compete again. One offs are different to full time rides.
As an aside, Pol Espargaro is on the mend, recovering slowly from the injuries sustained in that horrific crash in Portugal, in which he suffered a broken jaw and fractured vertebrae. He is finally back on solid foods again, and out of the corset he was wearing to assist his vertebrae in healing. But he is still a long way from being race fit. (Pol being Pol, he would jump on a bike tomorrow if he could. Motorcycle racers are not like you and I – statement does not apply to any motorcycle racers reading this...).
What is the benefit to Pedrosa doing the wildcard at Jerez? As he explained yesterday, firstly it gives him a lot of new tires to throw at the weekend, so he and KTM can run a lot more tests on new tires. The testing allocation all factories get from Michelin is 100 sets of tires, which means they spend most of their time riding around on used tires. Yet the direction MotoGP has been moving in means that qualifying and the ability to do a single fast lap has become ever more important, which the advent of the sprint races has only exacerbated. A race weekend gives a test rider a lot of chances to try pushing for a quick lap.
Perhaps the biggest thing to be gained from a wildcard, however, is how the bike behaves when it is in the draft of a bike ahead. Testing tends to take place at empty tracks, and finding another MotoGP bike to follow can be hard. That is much easier on a race weekend.
"Basically because I always ride alone, and as I said yesterday, with the aerodynamics we are testing things and today I was able to ride sometimes behind other riders so I could already feel how different it has become to follow someone," Pedrosa explained. "In the past it was little but now it is big, the bike changes a lot when you are behind or not. We are still analyzing what we are learning but so far it is a good day."
Understanding how a bike ahead affected the RC16 was important not just for KTM, but also for Pedrosa's input during the test. "It is really helpful to learn the difference between following and not following, for example," the Spaniard said. "So that when I am not following in the test I can say 'OK, this is better…but there is a question mark for following'. I can understand what to check and in what condition. It gives me more experience to be able to switch to a bigger picture."
Should we expect to see Dani Pedrosa on the podium? If you analyze his race pace, he seems to be a couple of tenths behind the fastest riders, and at the back of the second group of riders. A podium looks improbable, but a top five is not out of the question. Even though Pedrosa has something special at this track, and even though he already has two whole days of testing which he used in part to prepare for this weekend, that is still an impressive result.
But we shouldn't underestimate the value of those two days of testing, especially for helping to set the bike up properly, especially in terms of electronics. The other riders, and in this case specifically the KTM riders, are half a step behind Pedrosa at the start of the weekend. "A few teething issues that we have with this new bike and the new tracks we have," Jack Miller explained. "We get it pretty close but with the engine braking and stuff like that and the way it is working and the way we want it; we had to manage or iron it out. We were able to do that and tidy the lap up this afternoon." No doubt other factories and riders will be doing the same with the data collected on Friday.
Who will be finishing ahead of Pedrosa? Judging by the pace in Practice 2, the two factory Aprilias will be right up the front. Both Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales were quick over a single lap, setting the two fastest times of the day. But they were also a tenth or more faster than others on race pace as well, easily capable of rolling in the very low 1'38s on used tires.
The day left Aleix Espargaro highly optimistic. "We've been fast here last season and I had the feeling that this year we are stronger and faster than last year, so it's good to reconfirm," the Spaniard told us. The improvements over the winter were translating into improved performance in every area of the bike.
"The bike is better everywhere," Espargaro explained. "It's a little bit better on the aerodynamics, on the turning, is a little bit better to stop it, which we have to still work there. We have some ideas for tomorrow to try to stop better the bike. The traction is good when it's hot like this and the engine revs a little bit more. So in some places that last year I touch the limiter, this year I have a little bit more margin, so the bike is good and I feel good in Jerez."
Perhaps the biggest advantage the Aprilia RS-GP has is that it is better able to hold a line in the long corners at Jerez, especially with the wind. The open expanse where the fast Turn 11 and Turn 12 are is a sitting target for the wind, which blows across and underneath the bikes, pushing them wide. "I hate that point!" Jack Miller explained. "Especially when the wind starts blowing here in Jerez, you are trying to get the bike stable and carry corner speed through there but across the kerb it starts to bounce and you don’t really do anything with it."
The Aprilias were the bikes which seemed to handle the wind there best. They could hold a line better despite the wind coming from the inside of Turn 11 and trying to push the bike wide.
Much will depend on the start, of course, and that was an area Maverick Viñales, especially, had focused on on Friday. Viñales had done regular practice starts out of the pits, much of the Aprilia garage emptying when he did so in order to watch how he did. From pit lane, it looked fine, but a pit lane practice start is a very different beast from the real thing.
If not an Aprilia, who? Behind Espargaro and Viñales there is a group of six or seven riders all capable of doing low 1'38s on used tires. Jorge Martin was particularly impressive, as was Alex Marquez, Luca Marini, and Marco Bezzecchi, despite Bezzecchi's engine blow up mid-session.
The Mooney VR46 rider insisted it was no big deal, but the amount of white smoke billowing from the rear suggested otherwise, especially as it seemed to be coming from the exhaust. "The bike is back in the garage and running," Bezzecchi insisted. He did not say whether it was running with the engine he had been using at the time, or whether a new engine had been fitted.
Two more surprising names which appear to have the pace of that second group are Takaaki Nakagami and Fabio Quartararo. After Alex Rins' victory at Austin, Nakagami seems to have taken over the role of Designated Fast Honda, though like Rins in Austin, Jerez is a circuit where Nakagami has something special.
The Japanese rider was far from optimistic. "Really difficult to stop the bike," Nakagami told us at the end of the afternoon. "Mainly we cannot generate rear grip, always the lack of edge grip and the drive area not the same feeling as this morning. The fast corners were good. Somehow I'm able to carry on the speed, but the slow corners and stopping and also turning and exit we are losing a lot."
Fabio Quartararo's speed is even more surprising given just how badly the Monster Energy Yamaha rider is suffering. The Frenchman was capable of low 1'38s on tires which had one-third race distance on. That is not race distance, but those are not fresh tires either.
Quartararo himself is not optimistic. "It's bad to say this, but even on the pace we are not good," the Frenchman told us. "If the pace was good the time attack was bad, you can still manage. Say the team tell me the pace is not so bad, but the pace is bad. Because with a new tire I was slower than many guys. So at the moment, today, it's impossible to make any kind of race like last year."
The problem both Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli have is that the bike is extremely nervous, giving them a completely lack of faith in the front end especially. "The feeling that we had with the bike, every time I was going into a corner, I didn't know if I was going to finish it," Quartararo explained. He pointed to his final flying lap, where he lost a chance of a better time when he saved a front-end slide at Turn 7. "The problem is that we don't know why we are that slow," the Frenchman told us. And the bike is super aggressive, we are missing turning, so it's difficult."
"The behavior of the bike is in general super aggressive, nervous." Quartararo told us. That was the very opposite of what used to be the strongest point of the Yamaha M1. "To be honest, every year we are losing our strong point from the past. The turning and corner speed we had four years ago was better, more stability, and that's what we lost. And actually here, the top speed is not so bad, because you come from a fast corner, and you don't have so much wheelie, and it helps. But the problem is not only that. It's many other things, and this is one of them, that the corner speed we are carrying is not good, and the bike is super aggressive, not because we are going so fast and it's aggressive, we are not going so fast and we are shaking a lot."
When Quartararo talks about the bike being aggressive, he does not mean the engine, he means the way the bike responds to rider input. Where once the bike was silky smooth and required an almost zen-like touch to get the best out of it, now it nervous, twitchy, and constantly on the edge. It has gone from meditative contemplation to methamphetamine agitation.
The old Yamaha M1 is a thing of the past, Franco Morbidelli bemoaned. "It's gone. As you saw last year, the bike is much more difficult." The Italian pointedly referred to the criticism and doubts he has faced over the past couple of years, making it very clear that those making them were very much mistaken. "Everybody might think that I got stupid or the knee injury did something or affected something in my riding, but actually not."
It was the bike that changed, not him, Morbidelli insisted. "The thing is that the package that I jumped on last year is completely different to what I was used to, and it takes a completely different style. As I always say, you have to be more aggressive to make this bike work. That's how it is, but at the same time, we keep our rear grip issues, and that's the thing that itches the most."
Yamaha found itself at a crossroads, Morbidelli believed. "I think – and maybe with time this will happen – either we reset our understanding of Yamaha, either we reset our base thoughts on Yamaha, or maybe we will work until Yamaha will get back to what your idea of Yamaha is."
While it looks like the Yamaha is struggling for the long term, Pecco Bagnaia is barely faring better in the short term. The Ducati rider is struggling at Jerez, his team turning the bike upside down in pursuit of lost grip. The second session of practice is where teams will try one or two things in terms of setup, but Bagnaia's team had two different rear shocks to hand to test, and even resorted to trying a different final drive ratio. These are not things you usually try unless you have gone a long way adrift.
Bagnaia was frankly mystified. "We were arriving from last year where my feeling on this track was unbelievable, was incredible," the Italian said. "And today – not as much this morning, but this afternoon I was struggling to find some consistency. I'm struggling a bit with the front feeling of the bike."
The changes his team had been making were aimed at trying to understand the problem so they could fix it for Saturday, Bagnaia explained. "We were just trying to understand a way to follow tomorrow, but we didn't find one. So tomorrow it will be important to improve that feeling, because comparing with last year, last year I was very competitive in Sector 3, where I was turning a lot, and today, it was very difficult for me to enter, I was feeling a lot of losing the front and I was going wide everywhere. So it was a bit different. Compared to last year the balance of the bike is different. So maybe it's for that reason, and we have to change a bit the setting, because we are arriving from circuits that are very big, very wide, and this one is a bit more different. So the new bike has a different balance, and we have to find a solution for sure."
Though Bagnaia has his teammate back, Enea Bastianini has not been of much assistance so far. The Ducati Lenovo man is still struggling with weakness in the shoulder he injured in Portimão. "The feeling was like the Monday test in Misano with the Panigale – not really good. I’m with a lot of pain. My situation isn’t good. My shoulder isn’t strong and it’s difficult to do many laps and to be fast." Bastianini will undergo another assessment in the morning, to see whether it is worth continuing.
After the first day of practice back in Europe, the season is taking on a new shape. The first sprint race at Jerez should shake out some of the current order, with further order imposed on Sunday. MotoGP is hitting the ground running.