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After the drama of Argentina, the first day of practice at the Circuit of the Americas was pleasingly normal. The track was not perfect, but it was the normal kind of not perfect, Friday-green-track-not-perfect. A week ago, a filthy unused track left everyone struggling for grip and worried faces. On Friday, there were a few concerns over tire wear, especially on the right-hand side, but they were minor compared to Argentina. It was just another Friday in Texas.
And just like any other Friday in Texas, Marc Márquez was slaying the field. The Repsol Honda rider was fastest both in the morning and in the afternoon, and though Jorge Lorenzo kept Márquez honest in FP1, FP2 saw him go seven tenths of a second quicker than anyone else. His gap over the rest made the gaps look massive, just six riders within a second. Take Márquez out of the equation, and a second separates places two and fourteen. The field is actually quite close, as long as you disregard the man out in front.
It was a particularly tetchy press conference at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin on Thursday. That may have come from the travel – team staff trickled in throughout the day, as the final stage of their epic journey from Termas de Rio Hondo to Austin came to an end – but more likely it was the questions about the future of Jorge Lorenzo, in particular, which generated a sense of real irritation. Little was said directly by Lorenzo, by Rossi, or by Márquez, but it was clear that the mutual antipathy between the Italian and the Spaniards is reaching new heights. There is a storm coming, and it will break some time this year. When it does, things are going to get very ugly indeed.
First, though, about that journey. Reconstructing the tales of those who arrived in good time after an uneventful voyage, and those who were only just traipsing in towards the end of Thursday afternoon, it was clear that the weather had been the deciding factor. Those who had left on Sunday night and Monday morning had made it to Austin without incident. In the afternoon, though, the clouds rolled down the mountains and into Tucuman, where charters were flying in and out of the regional airport.
Flights were canceled, and teams were sent off, first towards Cordoba, then back to Tucuman, then off to Buenos Aires, then finally to Cordoba once again. From there, they flew to Buenos Aires, then dispersed over half the globe. Sometimes almost literally – one Dorna staff member flew all the way back to Barcelona, then back across the Atlantic to Houston. The MotoGP paddock is much richer in air miles after Argentina, but much poorer in sleep.
Argentina left us with an awful lot to talk about. So much, that most of the discussion focused on just a few points: the problems with Michelin tires; the chaotic process by which Race Direction arrived at a race with compulsory pit stops, and the effect it had on the outcome of the race; and the various ways in which riders found to crash out of the race, and how it affected the championship. That overshadowed several aspects which will affect the championship down the line. Time to take a look back at what we missed.
It was a surprise podium, not least to those who actually ended up in second and third spot. Valentino Rossi had resigned himself to another fourth place until Andrea Iannone made what Race Direction colorfully described as an 'overly optimistic pass' on his teammate Andrea Dovizioso, and robbed Ducati of an outstanding double podium. He was not surprised when it happened – Rossi criticized Iannone's earlier pass as being too aggressive, saying it lost him two places – but he had not expected to be on the podium. Ducati's strong showing at Termas de Rio Hondo bodes well for Austin, but more of that later.
If you had to sum up this weekend's racing in Argentina in a single word, it would have to be "eventful". The Termas de Rio Honda round has more twists and turns than a mountain trail, and just as many dangers lurking round every corner. On Friday, the riders found a track still dusty, dirty and green from disuse, causing slow lap times and a fair few falls. On Saturday, as the track cleaned and speeds increased, the rear Michelin of Scott Redding's Pramac Ducati delaminated, throwing the schedule into chaos. Rain on Sunday added even more complications, the plan for the MotoGP race changing hour by hour, as Michelin, Race Direction and the teams all tried to figure out how best to proceed.
Sunday felt chaotic, and it was chaotic, but by the end of Sunday, it was almost entirely forgotten. In Moto3, rookie Khairul Idham Pawi took the first ever Grand Prix win for a Malaysian rider in a style that made Danny Kent's wins from 2015 look positively pedestrian. In Moto2, there was a tough and close battle among the title favorites, with reigning champion Johann Zarco taking victory in very convincing fashion in the final laps. And crowning the weekend, a fascinating MotoGP race, shortened and spiced up with a compulsory pit stop, with a heavy dose of incident and drama added in for good measure. The chaos of the morning was all but forgotten in the excitement of three fantastic races.
Race Direction have once again revised the procedure for the MotoGP race in Argentina. The race has now been shortened to 20 laps, with a compulsory pit stop between laps 9 and 11. The official statement is below:
New Statement from Race Direction, Argentina
PROCEDURE FOR MotoGP RACE, 03 APRIL
The race distance is changed to 20 laps.
IN THE CASE OF THE RACE STARTING IN DRY CONDITIONS
Riders must change bikes at the end of their 9th. 10th. or 11th. Lap.
Race Direction issued the following statement on the procedure for the MotoGP race today:
Statement from Race Direction,
Gran Premio Motul de la República Argentina.
The warm up starting at 10:40 will now be for 30 minutes, finishing at 11:10. This will apply whether the track is dry or wet.
If the track is dry for the warm up riders should use the replacement rear tyre (Option Tyre).
The problems with Michelin tires yesterday have combined with wet weather at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit to force Race Direction to put a string of contingency plans in place to deal with variable conditions. Here is the plan as it stands:
We have been here before, of course. The history of problems with spec tires is long and varied. In 2012, at Assen, the tires of several riders, including Valentino Rossi and Ben Spies, ended up losing chunks, causing huge problems in the race. The cold tire highsides of 2009 and 2010, which saw Hiroshi Aoyama crack a couple of vertebrae, an injury which ended his career as a competitive racer, and Valentino Rossi break his leg, forcing him to miss a race for the first time in his career.
Michelin has taken the highly unusual step of withdrawing not just one, but both rear tire compounds from use at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina. Instead, a different rear tire with a stiffer construction will be issued in the morning, with the teams being given an extra 30-minute session of warm up in which to find a set up for the tires.
One statistic captured the state of play in Argentina after the first day of practice. Of the eighty-three (83!) Grand Prix riders who took to the track on Friday, just a single rider failed to improve their time from FP1 to FP2. That rider was Tatsuki Suzuki, and the reason he did not manage to improve his time was because he crashed early in the session, leaving himself too little time to go faster.
Why is this remarkable? Normally, there would be somewhere between four and eight riders who do not manage to improve their time between sessions on Friday. At Mugello in 2015, for example, there were six in MotoGP, five in Moto2, and eleven in Moto3, a grand total of twenty-two, and broadly representative of a normal race weekend. The fact that almost everyone managed to go faster illustrated the problem with the track perfectly.
The problem? The track is filthy, to put it simply. As a result of a lack of use, the dust and dirt which settles on any uncovered surface just settles into the asphalt, and is never swept from the track. With no bikes or cars circulating regularly, the track remains green, its virgin surface unsullied by the dark rubber of motorized monsters. No vehicles on track means no grip.
Winglets are to be made compulsory in MotoGP from 2017, MotoMatters.com can exclusively reveal, using a spec design to be implemented much along the lines of the current unified software introduced this year in the premier class.
The decision was taken in response to concerns over costs spiraling out of control should all of the factories become engaged in a winglet war. The marginal gains to be had from increased spending on CFD computer modeling and wind tunnel work were a red flag for Dorna, who have spent the last seven seasons since the start of the Global Financial Crisis tweaking the rules to reduce costs and raise grid numbers. With the grid now healthy, and set to rise to 24 in 2017, Dorna and the FIM feared all their hard work could be undone, and teams would once again be forced out of racing by rising costs.
Though Ducati was strongly opposed to any form of intervention - which went against an agreement by Dorna not to interfere with the technical regulations for the next five season, the length of the current commercial agreements with the factories - they eventually gave in when the proposal for a spec winglet design by committee was put to them. Under the proposal, leaked to MotoMatters.com, the spec winglet would be designed using input from all of the factories in MotoGP. Those proposals would then be forwarded to a technology partner, who would test and refine them, based on the factories' design parameters.
The vast amount of work I have had to do to over the past five days to upgrade the software MotoMatters.com runs on has left me desperately short of time to write a proper preview for the Argentina round of MotoGP. This is a shame, as the Termas de Rio Hondo track is utterly magnificent, and deserves all the praise it can get.
So instead of a full preview, here are my notes on this weekend. What to watch out for, and what is likely to be important. For a fuller review, listen to the latest episode of the Paddock Pass Podcast, where Steve English and I look forward to the weekend ahead.
Though Qatar was the first race of the season, it was hardly a leap into the unknown. It may have been the first race with new tires and new electronics, but the teams and riders were hardly unprepared. Just two weeks previously, they spent three days testing at the Losail circuit, giving them time to figure out a lot of the intricacies of the technical changes.
That this Silly Season – the (bi)annual round of rider contract negotiations – was going to be remarkable has been obvious for a very long time. Only very rarely have the contracts of nearly every rider on the grid ended at the same time, leading to a frenzy of speculation and rumor about who could and will be going where for the 2017 season. That this year is special was made obvious at Qatar, where both Valentino Rossi and Bradley Smith announced they had already signed two-year deals for 2017 and 2018 before the flag had even dropped for the first race.
Jorge Lorenzo has been the key figure in this year's Silly Season, however. Of the four current MotoGP Aliens, he is the most likely to move, and to be offered big money to do so. Valentino Rossi is nearing his retirement, and his long-term future is tied up with Yamaha, so re-signing with the Japanese factory was a no-brainer. Marc Márquez may leave Honda at some point in his career, but at the moment, he has too many ties binding him to HRC. Dani Pedrosa may be a proven winner, but he is the only one of the four not to have won a championship. It is Lorenzo who is attracting all of the interest.
It now appears that Lorenzo's future may already be settled. Well-informed sources inside the paddock have told MotoMatters.com that Jorge Lorenzo has already signed a deal with Ducati, and perhaps at a record price. Certainly at a price which Yamaha would be unwilling – and probably unable – to match.
The Octo Pramac Yakhnich Ducati team yesterday confirmed that Michele Pirro will substitue for Danilo Petrucci during the Italian's absence. Petrucci was forced to pull out of the Qatar Grand Prix after bone fragments from his the broken metacarpals in his right hand displaced while riding. Petrucci had broken his hand in a crash during testing at Phillip Island, and had tried to ride despite it being just 22 days after surgery, where normally the recovery periods is at least 4 to 6 weeks.