If there was one factor that surprised everyone on the first day of practice at Assen, it was the weather. Everyone had been prepared for rain, and had contingency plans for when the rain would eventually come. But it didn’t.
It rained all around the circuit, severe weather warnings were issued for several surrounding towns, heavy rain fell in nearby Groningen, and local beaches were evacuated because of thunderstorms, but the TT Circuit at Assen stayed dry all day.
The wind blew the morning clouds away, and the sun shone down gloriously on the circuit, catching out the unwary, and giving all three Grand Prix classes, plus the many support series a full day of excellent weather.
The riders made good use of the conditions, and the unexpected track time threw up a couple of serious surprises. In the morning, Pol Espargaro set the fastest time, finishing ahead of his brother Aleix. In the afternoon session, it was Aleix who was quickest, though this time Pol could not match the pace of his elder brother.
If you thought that Barcelona could be a track to throw up a few surprises, the first day of practice proved you right. Not in Moto2, of course: Tito Rabat’s dominance was crushing, making Marc Marquez’s earlier reign of terror look like a close fought battle.
In Moto3, Finnish youngster Niklas Ajo topped the timesheets, putting the Husqvarna name at the forefront. That was unexpected, though given the fact that the nominally Swedish Husqvarna is nothing more than a rebadged KTM straight from the factory in Mattighofen, Austria, it should be less of a surprise.
The biggest surprises were perhaps in MotoGP. That Aleix Espargaro would be quickest in the morning is to be expected, especially as he put on the super soft tire available to the Open bikes to set his time. But for Bradley Smith to go fastest in the afternoon was a major change of fortunes, and just reward for the effort Smith and his crew have been putting in over the past few weeks.
His fast time was set with a fresh soft tire, but given that this compound – Bridgestone’s medium tire, the hard being the other option available to the Factory Option teams – has real potential to be the race tire, it is not quite as simple as Smith having pushed in qualifying trim.
Smith’s time, and the way he set it, was emblematic of the conditions at the track. It was warm in the morning, but in the afternoon, track temperatures rose to their highest of the year, reaching 55° C / 131° F. It made the track treacherous to ride, front and rear wheels sliding out everywhere.
The circuit was already in far from ideal state, with riders complaining about the bumps left by Formula 1, and the surface showing more signs of wear. Throw in extreme temperatures, and there is very little grip at all. All of the riders complained of the drop in tire performance after two to three laps.
The weather didn’t really play ball at Mugello on Friday. The forecast rain held off until the last five minutes of Moto3 FP2, before sprinkling just enough water on the track to make conditions too wet for slicks, too dry for wet tires. That left the entire MotoGP field sitting in their garages waiting for the rain to either get heavier and wet the track completely, or else stop, and allow it to dry up.
Dani Pedrosa explained that though the track was dry in most places, San Donato, the first corner at the end of the high speed straight, was still wet. Bridgestone slicks need to be pushed hard to get them up to temperature, and if you can’t push in Turn 1, then they don’t. That leaves you with cold tires, which will come back and bite you further round the track.
One of the items on the list of requirements Dorna sent to Michelin was the need for an intermediate tire. Would anyone have gone out if they had had intermediates? Pedrosa believed they would have. “With intermediates you can go out. I’m not sure whether you get anything out of it, but for sure you don’t have 24 bikes in the box.”
You don’t learn much in terms of set up when you go out on intermediates, but more people might venture out. One team manager I spoke to was less convinced. “We have five engines and a limited number of tires. We can’t afford to lose an engine in a crash. Why take a risk, when it’s better to save miles on the engine?”
The wasted afternoon session left Marc Marquez – who else? – on the top of the timesheets. It had not looked that way for much of the session. Valentino Rossi had led the way from early on, Marquez only taking over in the front towards the end. For Marquez, this was a conscious strategy.
Who can stop Marc Marquez? By the look of the FP2 timesheet, maybe Andrea Iannone can. The Pramac Ducati rider ended Friday just 0.007 behind Marquez, the closest anyone has been to him on a Friday since Qatar.
Looks are, of course, deceptive, and if you dig a little deeper you see that Iannone’s fastest lap, though impressive, was made using a tow from Dani Pedrosa, just as the Repsol Honda rider was setting his fastest lap of the session. Iannone also benefited from using the extra soft rear tire which Ducati is allowed to use, making it that little bit easier to post a quick lap.
Iannone should not be written off too quickly, however. Pedrosa slowed up to let Iannone past immediately after the pair had set their quick laps, and on the next clear lap, Iannone got into the 1’33s again, posting a time equal to Pedrosa’s best lap, but this time, all on his own.
Whether he can convert that to consistent pace in the race remains to be seen. The Italian appears to be circulating around the 1’34.3 mark. Fast, but not fast enough to match what Marquez appears to be capable of.
For real race pace, you have to look a little further down the timesheets. Jorge Lorenzo appears to have refound his mojo, and is starting to grind out the laps. The Movistar Yamaha rider put in 16 full laps during FP2, 5 of which were 1’34.1s, plus a single lap of 1’34.054. This is the Lorenzo of old, working on consistent pace and slowly ratcheting up the pace.
Lorenzo’s pace is still no match for Marquez – the Repsol Honda man seems capable of banging in 1’33.8s at will – but it is clearly the best of the rest. It has taken four races for the real Jorge Lorenzo to make an appearance, but at least he is finally here.
With everyone slowly recovering from the shock of the announcement that Bridgestone is pulling out of MotoGP at the end of the 2015 season, it is easy to forget that we are here for a motorcycle race.
The roar of Grand Prix machinery hurtling around the beautiful Circuito de Jerez on a glorious Andalusian morning soon dispelled thoughts of 2016, and concentrated minds on what is to come on Sunday.
The heat of the afternoon, though, made thinking tough, and riding even tougher. Track temperatures rose to over 50°, robbing the circuit of even more grip, and making it greasier than ever.
Rider consensus was that the track was in pretty good shape, but when it’s this hot, the already low-grip surface of Jerez becomes very difficult to ride. That meant that the number of riders who managed to improve their times in FP2 in all three classes were limited.