The normal build up to a MotoGP weekend sees the teams and riders spend FP1 figuring out which tires they think will work, then FP2 working on setup and then chasing a preliminary spot in FP2, leaving themselves plenty of work for Saturday, especially in FP4.
But Qatar is not a normal weekend. For a start, MotoGP arrives here after a total of five days of testing (well, four days, strictly speaking, as the last day of the test was lost to strong winds and a sandy track). Setups have already been found, tires have already been chosen.
Qatar's peculiar time schedule simplifies tire choice even further: the hard tires are built to handle the heat of daytime practice, and are too hard for the cooler evenings when qualifying and the race happen. So the choice is merely between soft and medium, and that choice, too, was largely made during the test.
So the teams arrive with less work to do, and can get straight into perfecting their setup and chasing a spot in Q2. That turned FP2 on Friday into a more frenetic affair than usual, the dash made even madder by the fact that the track is a second or more slower during the day than it is in the evening. If you missed out on Q2 in FP2, the chances of making it through during FP3, held in the afternoon heat, are slim indeed.
"Yeah, It kind of was a Quali, "Jack Miller said, the factory Ducati rider having come out on top of the timesheets, getting within seven thousandths of a second of the outright lap record on the first day of practice. "We know in FP3 the times aren’t easy to do in the afternoon. I can’t really see too many people improving tomorrow arvo."
The very particular conditions of the afternoon – hot track in bright sunshine – needed some adapting to, moving more towards something you might use in the wet, rather on a normal afternoon. "Setup wise I tried to change bike a little bit for this afternoon, but I went back to the test bike for this evening. Grip levels were a little lower this afternoon. We went a little higher, a little softer, but as soon as the grip went back on the normal setting," the Australian said.
It was a good day for the Ducatis, the three experienced Ducati riders finishing in the top four. Even the three Ducati rookies impressed, Jorge Martin setting the thirteenth quickest time just eight tenths off Miller's phenomenal time, Enea Bastianini in fifteenth, five hundredths behind Martin, and Luca Marini in seventeenth, just over a second slower than Miller. The fact that sixteen riders ended the session within a second bears witness to just how close the class is.
The factory Ducati Lenovo Team riders finished first and second, Jack Miller leading Pecco Bagnaia by just a few hundredths. Fabio Quartararo bullied the Monster Energy Yamaha M1 to the third fastest time, while Johann Zarco sits in fourth, ahead of the Suzuki of Alex Rins, followed by three more Yamahas separated by an impressive Aprilia. Maverick Viñales and Franco Morbidelli lead Aleix Espargaro, with Valentino Ross rounding out the top ten.
Despite the fact the Yamahas were quick, they were still not quick enough. The Yamaha M1 has to start from the front row if it is to be competitive. It is the only way to keep the Ducatis behind them, Maverick Viñales explained. "Ducatis are starting so fast, and this year they are starting even more fast than before. So we know our only chance is to arrive first in the first corner and push like hell."
That was why he had used every pit lane exit to practice his starts, something he had also spent the afternoons doing during the test in Qatar. "The starts are getting better, so we are in a good way, but we are not yet where we want to be before the race," Viñales explained. "So I will continue practicing and I will continue spending time on that, because it's very important."
Top and tail
Both Viñales and teammate Fabio Quartararo bemoaned the fact that the Yamaha only has a holeshot device at one end of the of the bike, rather than at both ends like Aprilia, Ducati, Honda, and KTM. The Yamaha system lowers the rear of the bike, but not the front. "I'm really pushing, and I think all the Yamaha riders are pushing to make the front system for the start, because I feel like it's so easy to make a mistake with the Yamaha at the start, and it's so difficult to make it fast. And even when we do a perfect start, it's really slow compared to everyone," Quartararo told us.
It should be an easy fix, the Frenchman insisted. "It's a weak point that can be solved really fast, so I hope Yamaha can do something really fast to improve this, because I feel like it's something that is not so complicated. Everyone has it and I saw that the Suzukis are really really fast, and they don't have the down system in the rear. So I hope they will bring something as soon as possible."
Viñales agreed with his teammate. "For me it looks so easy, because right now, we didn't have any device that could make us start faster," the Spaniard said. "So I don't really know if we are going to improve it during the weekend, but we need to try. I'm working hard on that because many races, the second part of the race I'm riding like the top guys or sometimes faster. So we need to improve the start. This is the main point of this weekend, the start."
The Aprilia does have a holeshot device at both ends – a motocross-style system to lock down the front fork, and an extra piston in the rear suspension linkage to lower the rear – and Aleix Espargaro was clear this should help with the starts. "We had the holeshot system on the front fork, like motocross. The truth is that this worked very well," Espargaro said. From this season, we also have the rear link as well for the start, and we also have a new electronics package for the launch and start, which his better than last year. So everything is better in general."
The added advantage of a system that lowers the rear is that it can be used during the race to improve traction, but for Espargaro, that advantage was still more theoretical than practical. "We do have both systems, which is positive," the Spaniard told Lucio Lopez of Motoracenation. "We can also use the rear link on the track, but that's not easy. You can't think that you just push the button, the bike goes down, and you go faster. It's really difficult to figure where to push the button in the right place." The advantages of the system would need some working out, he said. "It's something that I haven't spent a lot of time on, it's work for the test team. We have it, but we only use it for the starts."
Luxury test rider
The test team of Aprilia could soon be expanded. Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport reported that Aprilia are lining up a second test in May for Andrea Dovizioso at Mugello, to take place after he has made his debut on the bike at Jerez in April. And if Aprilia can find a sponsor to foot the bill, then Dovizioso could take over the seat of Lorenzo Savadori, and return to MotoGP full time alongside Aleix Espargaro.
Espargaro did his best to hide his enthusiasm, though not always successfully. "Which team in this paddock doesn't want Andrea Dovizioso as a second rider?" the Spaniard replied when asked about the prospect. "About the future let's go step-by-step. For Aprilia it's unbelievable to sign a rider like Dovi to test the bike. So let's give him some space. I'm very curious to see his reaction because he's been riding the Ducati for a long time and I think the Ducati and Aprilia are very different in many aspects, engine, chassis electronics. So let's give him some time to try the bike, enjoy riding after a lot of months and then the time to decide."
It is inconceivable that Aprilia won't be able to find the money to pay Andrea Dovizioso. After all, investing in the Italian is cheaper than trying to find performance purely through engineering. And Dovizioso's experience and keenly analytical mind can help accelerate the development process and shave months off the time needed to make the RS-GP truly competitive.
Why does Andrea Dovizioso want to get paid so much to take what is his only chance of a full-time ride in MotoGP? A big salary is a sign of commitment, not just to Dovizioso, but to the project itself. If Aprilia are willing to invest a lot of money in a top rider, there is not point in them skimping on development on the bike. Paying a rider big money is a sign they are serious, and committed to spending what it takes to make the bike a success.
If the Yamaha riders are concerned about the one-lap pace of the Ducatis, they should be even more worried by their race pace. The peculiarities of Qatar make teasing out the riders with genuine race pace even more difficult than usual, as the combination of a very long track (meaning fewer laps to judge by), and the irrelevance of FP1 means you have only a few laps in FP2 to try to understand who is genuinely fast.
Going by pace on what passes for used tires at Qatar – medium and soft rears used for a second run, with a little under half race distance on them – the factory Ducatis are looking very dangers, as is Alex Rins on the Suzuki. Jack Miller posted a 1'54.2 on used tires, as did Alex Rins. Miller's Ducati teammate Pecco Bagnaia was not far off with a 1'54.4 on old tires, following it up with a 1'54.6.
Miller did his best to play down his own chances, though. "As you see, times are incredibly close," the Australian said. "It’s FP2. I was top but Zarco was fourth and not even two tenths away from me. I’m a little scared of qualifying, where that’s going to lead us. There are many guys going fast."
Miller had his eye on Franco Morbidelli on the Petronas Yamaha, he told us. "Right off the bat Frankie was incredibly fast and strong. He did the fastest lap this afternoon on the third run and he didn’t change tires like a lot of them." Miller had intended to try to emulate the Italian, but a crash put paid to that idea. "My plan was to do the same, to be like Frankie. But I had to change tires but when I threw the bike at the gravel. I had no other choice."
Miller was clear about who was favorite for the weekend in his eyes. "Frankie at the moment in my books is the guy to beat. But we’ll see what happens." He had also been impressed by the performance of his teammate. "I was in the box when Pecco did his lap time. To watch it was impressive. When you see someone getting along with the bike like that it’s always nice to watch."
There is a big group of riders just a little off the pace, the most interesting of which is arguably Pol Espargaro. The Spaniard had also crashed on Friday, in both sessions. But he had also done a 1'54.5 on used medium tires, a pace which puts him right in the ballpark to be competitive.
He had been angry with the FP1 crash, but happier with the one in FP2, Pol Espargaro explained. It was a step forward in understanding where the limit was with the Honda RC213V, and yet another marker along the path of adapting to the bike, the Repsol Honda rider explained. "Every crash I have trying to get to the limit," he said. "This morning was a silly crash. The medium tire was not working for us. It was a stupid crash, and I was angry. This afternoon I was pushing too much. Now I know when the tire says no. I couldn’t save the crash, I wasn’t expecting it but this is part of this knowledge and I’ll take it for the future."
"I found the limit and that’s what I need," Pol Espargaro said. "I’ll know for next time. This is knowledge. Ok it’s wild. I’m a little out of control at the moment. To ride in 1'53 it means we are fast. Everyone is very fast. Just the first day with Honda here. Honda here is not wow. But even like that I could be fast. This is amazing. Why when I crashed I was happy."
Reigning world champion Joan Mir was less happy, despite having very strong pace. The Suzuki Ecstar rider had circulated in the 1'54.6s with a used soft rear, which would put him in the same ballpark as his teammate, and within shouting distance of a podium. Unlike his teammate, however, he had made his life difficult by not managing to get into the top ten at the end of FP2. That is likely to force him to take the tougher path through Q1.
Mir himself put his problems down to the lost final day of testing, which the weather had brought to an early end. "It was a difficult day because we probably missed that last day of testing and we have to adjust a bit more the bike to be more competitive," Mir told reporters. "We were strong, but again not probably enough, so I think the important thing is that we know what is more or less happening, we have to adjust a little bit more the electronics and to continue improving."
To get into Q2, Mir would have to do better than Pol Espargaro's 1'53.901. That is an improbable target, given that Espargaro's time was a second quicker than Franco Morbidelli's best time in FP1, set during the heat of the day. Finding a second in the difficult grip conditions of the daytime looks difficult, so Mir will have to hope he can fight his way through to Q2 from Q1.
There is one more complication the riders face this weekend. Strong winds are set to hit the track from Saturday night, blowing in hard from the northwest, creating a strong headwind along the front straight. If that wind also brings sand, it might make conditions very tricky on race day, making warm up all but impossible, and give Race Direction something to think about. On the plus side, with another race the weekend after this, there has never been a better time to delay a race. Nobody will need to rebook flights or extend their hotel rooms. They are here anyway.
Brad Binder is in favor, at least, the KTM rider having tried to ride on the blustery final day of the MotoGP test. "I was one of not many who rode the last day of the test and it was a disaster, so if it is the same then please let’s race Monday!" he said. "It will be a lot safer and better for everybody."
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