Racing is back. No more messing about trying to extrapolate data points from testing to hypothetical performance on race weekends. This is a race weekend. Now, we have actual data from free practice to extrapolate data points from to hypothetical performance during the actual race. Yes, it sounds identical, yet it is subtly different. There are only three more sessions of free practice, qualifying, and then the warm up before the race. No more engine updates, no time to test new parts. Only time to nail down a decent set up and give it everything you've got, or "my 100%", as non-native English speakers like to say.
The MotoGP field were lucky to get a session of free practice in. The weather in Qatar has been extremely unstable, and storms keep blowing in and out of the peninsula. The possibility of rain has caused a bevy of emergency measures to be taken. Previously, racing in the wet had been regarded as impossible, due to the reflection of the floodlights on the wet surface, but last month, FIM and Dorna safety representatives Franco Uncini and Loris Capirossi did some laps of the track at night.
Capirossi and Uncini decided that the track is safe enough to ride, even in the wet. But the race would only happen if the riders had all had time on a wet track under the floodlights, to judge the situation for themselves. "[Capirossi] has been behind a car," Cal Crutchlow said on Wednesday. "But it's different when there are 23 people on the grid. A lot more can happen."
Can't stand the rain
So an emergency schedule was drawn up for Thursday. If it rained, an extra session of practice would be scheduled for MotoGP, so that all three classes would have two sessions, with at least one in the wet. Michelin had already brought wet tires to the circuit, but the decision to have the Moto2 and Moto3 classes race in the wet had been taken very late. Dunlop flew wets into Qatar, but they were held up in customs. They got to the track in the end, but it was a close run thing.
Rain tires went unused, as it happened. Leaden skies and blustery winds threatened the circuit all day and through the evening. The wind was a real issue, especially for the Moto3 bikes during FP2, but it never managed to halt proceedings. And it didn't rain. What that means for the rest of the weekend is a mystery. Forecasts are all over the place, and as always in unstable weather, highly unreliable. This looks like a situation which will be taken day by day.
The on-track action was more than worth the wait. Philipp Oettl topped the first Moto3 session, while Bo Bendsneyder was quickest in the second. Tom Luthi went quickest in the first session for Moto2, but crashed in the second, letting Pecco Bagnaia take top spot in the second. An impressive showing for Bagnaia, as the Italian is a rookie in the Moto2 class. Just as impressive was Fabio Quartararo, who ended the second session in third. A German, a Dutchman, an Italian, and a Swiss rider: it is safe to say that the days when a single nation dominated all three classes are behind us.
Blowing the rest away
The Spanish domination persists in MotoGP, however, though it was far from monotonous. Maverick Viñales took another step towards eliminating all doubt about his status as a genuine title contender. Viñales was quicker than everyone by a significant margin in race trim, then destroyed the rest when he switched to a soft rear tire.
Despite conditions being worse than during the test, Viñales improved his time from the test, lapped under the race lap record (and Jorge Lorenzo's pole time from last season) and got within four tenths of Lorenzo's pole record from 2008. Lorenzo set that time on special super-soft Michelin qualifying tires. Viñales set his time on a soft race tire, capable of fifteen or twenty laps.
There is a real performance gap at the front. Viñales ended up nearly six tenths faster than Marc Márquez, the man who is to be his main rival for this season. Dani Pedrosa follows in third, three tenths behind his Repsol Honda teammate. Pedrosa, in turn, is nearly four tenths quicker than the fourth place man, the astounding Jonas Folger. The gap from first to third is 0.894 seconds, the gap to fourth is 1.271 seconds.
Spread out, then close together
Behind the top three, the situation is reversed. The difference between Jonas Folger in fourth and Andrea Dovizioso in eleventh is just 0.286 seconds, or less than three tenths. The gap that separates Maverick Viñales and Dani Pedrosa, first to third, is roughly equal to the gap between Jonas Folger in fourth and Alex Rins in eighteenth, just nine tenths of a second.
The gap to eleventh was particularly frustrating for Dovizioso. The Ducati man was the only rider not to fit soft tires, and found himself stranded in eleventh, just one thousandth of a second behind Aleix Espargaro. Should the weather take a turn for the worse on Friday, he will find himself out of the top ten, and forced to go through Q1. "I take full responsibility for the decision," Dovizioso told the Italian media. He had elected to continue working on race pace, conditions being similar to what we might expect on Sunday. The Italian is gambling on the weather holding, knowing he has a lot more pace up his sleeve.
The real revelation of FP1 is that Maverick Viñales' pace is no illusion. He is blisteringly fast, and in the zone. "When I do my best on this bike I go really fast," he told reporters. "When you feel like this, and you have confidence in the front you can push. Everything was working good." There are still details to work on, especially in electronics, but he is pretty much ready to race as he is.
The danger when riders get so deep into their comfort zone is overconfidence. When everything is clicking so perfectly, riders can often overlook the danger lurking in hidden corners of the track. "I push 100% today. The same tomorrow and the next day. I always want to push," Viñales said. But that can be a risk, as Jorge Lorenzo found out in 2013, when a run of outstanding results and a fantastic feeling with the bike lured him into taking just a little bit too much risk in the wet.
But Viñales has a wise head on young shoulders. "You know, I’m that type of rider that, when the track is not good, I don’t risk. I want to bring back the bike to the box," he said. He knows when to push, it seems, but he is also all too aware of what stepping over the limit is.
Engines and electronics
Can Marc Márquez stop Viñales? The Repsol Honda rider was happy enough at the end of the first day, despite the major deficit to the Movistar Yamaha. "We started the weekend better than we finished the test," he said. "We changed something on the bike and I feel better, more comfortable."
That setup change had helped Márquez cope with the new Honda engine. At the Qatar test, the Honda riders had collectively settled on the latest (Sepang) version of the RC213V big bang engine, and now the riders and teams were learning to deal with it. That meant adapting riding style, but it also meant working on electronics looking for improvement. "On corner entry, I try not to be fast like last year," Márquez explained. "I try to sacrifice the brake point a bit to use more corner speed. There is a little bit more corner speed with this engine, but at the moment, we cannot really use it, because the exit is still not correct."
That is mostly a matter of electronics. "This is our problem with regards to the bike," Cal Crutchlow explained. "We again haven't figured out the electronics to make the best out of the bike with this engine. So when it does happen, hopefully it will be better. But it will be more like last year, it will come stronger in the middle to the end of the year. The problem is we don't have time to wait. But it's competitive, which is not too bad."
Dani Pedrosa chipped in along the same lines. "We still have to learn more about the bike. We’re still in the development period in understanding the new bike. With no race done, you know some tires are different this year. This counts." A new engine needs different engine mappings, and different engine braking settings, and different traction control settings, and each of these has an effect on the tires. With the tires changed from 2016, a point of reference is lost, and though the difference between the tires from last year and this year is only small, it adds an extra complicating factor into calibrating tire wear. Motorcycle racing remains a tangled web of interconnected factors.
The big surprise of the day was Jonas Folger, who finished in fourth. Or perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised when the Monster Tech 3 rider is fast, as he has demonstrated his speed throughout preseason testing. The German was phlegmatic at the end of the day. "I'm not surprised because we already did that lap time. We went fast already in testing. At the moment I'm happy, but not surprised." The bike needed a little bit more work, but Folger was struggling especially with the wind. It was pushing the bike wide on corner exit, making wheelies much harder to handle.
With Folger in fourth and his teammate Johann Zarco in eighth, that made Valentino Rossi the last Yamaha rider. The Italian finished nearly a second and a half behind his Movistar Yamaha teammate, a huge gap. He had struggled in the first part of the session with the tires, the softer rubber and construction of the Michelin front punishing his style on corner entry. The bike was moving around a lot, robbing him of entry speed, which also cost him mid corner.
Rossi had expressed his displeasure with the tire from the first time he used it. "But it looks like the other riders like it, so these are the tires we have," he said. He is not entirely alone in struggling with the front tire, as both Marc Márquez and Cal Crutchlow have similar problems. Any rider loading the front through heavy braking is in the same boat. Unfortunately for them, they are the exception, rather than the rule.
But Rossi remained optimistic. At the end of the session, they had found a modification which had helped, and worked with the soft tire to improve grip. Rossi's concern remains the medium tire, and whether the setup change will also work with the medium tire, which is almost certain to be the one they use in the race.
Lorenzo's Bologna Challenge
Jorge Lorenzo finished in fifth in his first official session on the Factory Ducati. More importantly, he finished as first Ducati, and well ahead of his former teammate and arch rival Valentino Rossi. But he was still far from satisfied, as the improvement had only really come with the soft tire. The setup he and his crew had found with the bike worked well with the soft tire, but the soft dropped off after only a couple of laps. With the hard tire, he simply did not feel he was competitive.
Lorenzo is still struggling with braking. He is not as fast as the other Ducatis on corner entry, though he is good once he gets to mid corner. The issue is that the way the weight transfers was not allowing him to slow the bike with the rear. "For the moment, the transfer is too aggressive so I don’t use the rear tire to stop the bike," Lorenzo said. "We need to try and have more confidence when braking on the rear, to trust more the bike when braking, and also in the entry of the corner." The less rear grip there is, the worse the problem is.
Lorenzo had tested a thumb brake setup again on Thursday. Though 'thumb brake' is really a misnomer: it is a setup similar to that used by Andrea Dovizioso, a second, smaller brake lever on the left handlebar used to activate the rear brake. That, though, is not used on corner entry, but rather in the middle of the corner, to help get the bike turned. Dovizioso uses it because he moves the ball of his foot onto the footpeg before entering right-hand corners, and cannot move his foot to brake. Lorenzo brakes less mid corner, and so gains much less from it. He said he will not test it again on Friday. "We have bigger things to focus on at this moment."
The mystery of aerodynamics
People were surprised not to see Ducati use their "hammerhead" fairing at Qatar, after all the hype surrounding it at the test. That immediately set the paddock abuzz with gossip. Had they homologated it at all? Had they abandoned the project? What of the packages of Yamaha, Honda, Aprilia? They had also used their standard fairings. Had they missed an opportunity?
Crash.net's Peter McLaren went in search of answers, and found them from Danny Aldridge, MotoGP's Technical Director. The Suzuki had used their aerodynamics package, and so we knew that they had homologated their fairing. But what about the others? Aldridge (rightly) would not reveal whether other factories had homologated fairings, but he did explain the situation.
Firstly, every manufacturer has one fairing from 2016 they are allowed to use, as long as it does not have winglets attached. Next, each manufacturer had to present one fairing for homologation purposes to Aldridge at Qatar, or forfeit the the chance of an upgrade. Each factory is allowed only one upgrade during the year, but if they did not homologate a fairing at Qatar, that would leave them with only the 2016 fairing, until they brought something new.
But just because they have homologated a fairing does not mean they will actually have to use it. Ducati chose not to use the hammerhead fairing because they had found during the test that it was producing too much drag on the main straight, and they were not gaining enough in acceleration to counteract what they were losing on the straight. Other manufacturers must have felt the same way, as everyone except Suzuki had used a standard fairing.
Suzuki were using their aerodynamics package, but Aldridge also revealed that the ducts containing the aerodynamic vanes were in fact removable. What that means is that it is a "two-in-one" fairing: Suzuki can either run it with the ducts fitted, and use it as an aerodynamics package. Or they can remove the ducts, and use it as a standard fairing. Whether they had stolen the idea from Honda is unknown. But it is likely that more factories will go down this path.
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