Every day that sees MotoGP motorcycles circulating in earnest is an interesting day, but some are more interesting than others. Friday at Misano was one of those days which last, throwing up surprises and shattering preconceptions.
We found out that we need to throw overboard a lot of the things we thought about the current state of the MotoGP championship.
First, to the things that were not a surprise. That Yamahas should top both sessions of free practice, and establish themselves as favorites for the race was entirely to be expected.
That Valentino Rossi should impress is no surprise either: Misano is his home race, and a win here is his best chance of getting back into the championship. Jorge Lorenzo finding his feet again, and laying down a withering pace raised one or two eyebrows among those who had written him off.
But the real shocker was Pol Espargaro topping the second session of free practice, and ending the day faster.
Has Yamaha smuggled a few go-faster bits into the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha garage? The answer to that question is quite simply no. Espargaro’s pace has a very simple explanation: the Spaniard has been strong throughout this season, the switch to the Michelins playing to his strengths.
“This is a track where I am fast,” Espargaro told us. “If we add here the new tires which are really grippy on the rear and quite good performance on the front, I feel like I can ride in my style, aggressive and opening the throttle really early with full lean angle. I feel really comfortable riding the bike.”
Plus, of course, the small matter of time gained by using another fast rider as a target. “For sure, I was behind Márquez, and it helped me two tenths more or less.” Taking away two tenths of a second would put him third rather than first, but as he was second fastest in the morning, Espargaro’s time in FP2 was no fluke.
“It’s just Friday, and is early.” Valentino Rossi repeated his weekly mantra when asked about the speed of Andrea Iannone and Maverick Viñales at Silverstone.
It is a point he makes every race weekend: a lot can happen between the end of practice on Friday and 2pm on Sunday (or in the case of Silverstone, 3:30pm BST on Sunday, two and a half hours later than normal, so as not to clash with F1 at Monza).
The times set by the grid on Friday were, if not entirely meaningless, at best a very distorted image of the true balance of power on the MotoGP grid.
Honda have won four of the five last races held here at Brno. Casey Stoner has won one race, Marc Márquez has won one, and Dani Pedrosa has won two of those races between 2011 and 2015.
After the first day of practice for this year’s race at Brno, Marc Márquez sits atop the timesheets, with a lead of a tenth of a second over Andrea Iannone, and a shade more to Jorge Lorenzo. Does that mean that a fifth win for Honda is on the cards?
For the answer to that, see Marc Márquez’s improbable save during FP2 at Brno. As he turned in for the penultimate corner at Turn 13, he lost the front of his Repsol Honda RC213V.
With the steering at full lock, he hung on to the bars as his right foot slipped off the peg, trying first to lever the bike up with his elbow, then with his knee. Eventually the front slipped sideways, gripped, and the bike jimmied itself off the horizontal.
It had lost just enough speed for Márquez to regain control, and buck it back to the outside of the corner, and head straight into the pits.
Was it Márquez’ biggest ever save at Brno? “Still the 2014 save was bigger,” Márquez laughed, “But this one was very long. I leaned 67.5°, in 2014 68.3°.”
Even Valentino Rossi was impressed. “He tries a lot, is his position on the bike, and is his ability,” the Movistar Yamaha rider said. “First he tried with the elbow, then with the knee, and at the end, he saved it. So it was quite impressive. I don’t know if I can do the same. But I go slower, so I don’t lose the front!”
It’s the Sachsenring all over again. Or almost: when the MotoGP bikes were here in July, air temperatures were in the low 30s, and track temperature was around 50°C. During FP1, the air temperature was just 9°, and track temperature was 14°C.
“The temperature this morning was pretty extreme,” Jorge Lorenzo said after practice was over. “Only a few times in my life have we been riding in such cold conditions.”
Cold temperatures meant cold tire crashes, especially in the morning. The most obvious was Dani Pedrosa’s crash, who fell at Turn 9 as he touched the front brake, the front folding as if the track were wet.
The crash caused the session to be red-flagged, as Pedrosa’s Honda ended up puncturing the air fence and landing on top of the tire barrier.
The crash seemed to be a warning of the excesses of tarmac run off, but Pedrosa was happy that there wasn’t a gravel trap at the edge of the track. “I crashed in fifth gear, so I was going very fast,” Pedrosa said.
“From one point of view I think, most of the run-off area was asphalt so maybe the bike didn’t decelerate enough. But on the other side I was very lucky it was only asphalt, because I crashed so fast that if I went into the gravel I would have tumbled over and over with a lot of speed.”
There are upsides to asphalt run off sometimes.
It was a wasted day at the Sachsenring. The day started cold but with a dry track, then, ten minutes into MotoGP FP1, a fine mist of rain started to fall, making already tricky conditions positively terrifying.
A few journalists walked through the Sachsenring paddock up towards the end of pit lane, where the fences give you great views of Turn 1 and Turn 11.
Just as we arrived, Scott Redding’s battered Pramac Ducati returned to the paddock in the back of a recovery trailer. When we turned around to watch the bikes coming through Turn 11 again, Jorge Lorenzo slid through the gravel towards us, his foot caught up in his bike for a while.
While we were watching Lorenzo hit the gravel, we heard another bike scrape across asphalt and into the gravel. It was Stefan Bradl’s Aprilia, the German having lost the front at Turn 11, just as Lorenzo had.
The rain continued, never really heavy enough to soak the track properly, only lifting towards the end. A few riders went out on wet tires to check their repaired bikes, coming straight back in again.
The morning session was lost to the weather conditions. The afternoon session was a little better – at least it was dry – but the track temperatures meant that the tires never really got to the operating range they were designed for.