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.
A week after getting his first taste of a MotoGP bike, Alex Lowes has learned he will spend two full weekends on the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 machine, replacing Bradley Smith.
Smith injured himself when he crashed heavily during practice for the final round of the FIM Endurance World Championship. The Englishman had been drafted in to boister the YART Yamaha team, in response to a request by friend and former World Supersport racer Broc Parkes.
The aim was to help YART win the FIM EWC title, but Smith’s assistance ended before the race had even begun. The Monster Yamaha Tech 3 rider collided with another rider, suffering a very deep cut to his leg and damage to his knee. Fears of a broken femur proved unfounded, fortunately.
Smith’s injury means he will miss both Silverstone and Misano. Alex Lowes was the obvious replacement for Smith, with rumors emerging that the Pata Yamaha WorldSBK rider would fill in for Smith over the weekend.
The tire degradation during the MotoGP race at Brno was still a hot topic on the test on Monday, after so many riders suffered problems during the race on Sunday.
We asked most of the riders who tested on Monday what they felt about the tires, and whether they were safe. We also spoke to Nicolas Goubert, Michelin’s technical director, and he explained why he felt that some riders had suffered problems, while others had been able to finish the race.
The comments below are offered without any further commentary. I do not wish to cloud the judgment of those reading the comments by first setting out my own theory of what happened. The comments stand on their own, and should be read as such.
After a tough race on Sunday, managing tires on a drying track, around half of the MotoGP grid headed back to the track on Monday for a day of testing. Not everyone was enthusiastic about that.
“Usually we hate Mondays, and this is a Monday that we hate,” Danilo Petrucci told us with a wry grin on his face. He pinpointed why testing made a lot less sense for satellite riders than for factory teams.
Satellite teams only really have setup changes to test, and the occasional tires, if the single tire supplier has something new. There was a real downside to working on setup at a track you have just raced at, Petrucci said. “If you are angry because you didn’t get the best set up on Sunday, you getting more angry if you find it on Monday.”
There has been a reversal of fortunes in the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 garage.
Last year, it was Bradley Smith who was the clear top satellite rider, putting in strong and above all, sensible and consistent performances week in, week out, while Pol Espargaro tried hard to get the Yamaha M1 to do things it didn’t want to do, and either crashed or finished well down the order.
This year, it is Espargaro who has the consistency, while Smith is trying (and failing) to get the Michelins to do what he wants them to do.
If there is such a thing as a Honda track, then the Sachsenring is surely it. Of the nineteen premier class races held at the tight, tortuous circuit, Honda have won twelve.
That includes the last six races in a row: From 2010 through 2012, nobody could touch Dani Pedrosa around the circuit. From 2013 onwards, Marc Márquez has been unbeatable at the track.
What makes the Sachsenring such a Honda track? Maybe it’s the two key braking points at the circuit, going into Turn 1, and at the bottom of the hill for Turn 12.
Maybe it’s the ability to use the Honda horsepower going up the hill out of the final corner, across the line and into Turn 1. Or maybe it’s the tight corners, the Honda always a strong bike in turning.
The Sachsenring circuit is invariably described in disparaging terms – “Mickey Mouse”, “a go-kart track” – but that does not do the track justice. It may not challenge the bikes in terms of horsepower, but it demands an awful lot of the riders.
From the moment they arrive at the end of the short, uphill front straight, brake hard for the sharp right-hander of Turn 1, and pitch it into the corner, the bike barely leaves the edge of the tire until the plunge down the Waterfall after Turn 11.
There is a brief moment of respite between Turns 7 and 8, before heeling the bike over again for another series of lefts going up the hill to the circuit’s crowning glory.
The long-awaited news of Johann Zarco’s MotoGP contract has been announced. The Frenchman is to join Jonas Folger in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team for 2017. Zarco’s contract is for one year, with the team holding an option on the Frenchman for a second year.
While Johann Zarco is out in Japan, testing the Suzuki GSX-RR MotoGP bike, the 2017 MotoGP rider line up is starting to solidify further. Ironically, it is looking like Johann Zarco will not be the rider that Suzuki selects to pilot its factory MotoGP bike alongside Andrea Iannone.
Team boss Davide Brivio is in Japan, along with the test team, to finalize their plans for 2017. At Barcelona, Brivio admitted to us that he would be going to discuss Suzuki’s choice of rider for next year.
The Italian acknowledged that both Aleix Espargaro and Alex Rins were under discussion, and though he declined to state a preference, he did say “It’s clear what our choice is.”
The announcement that both Aleix Espargaro and Alex Rins will be in the pre-event press conference in Assen is a further sign that an announcement is imminent.
“I am not a very happy man,” Tech 3 boss Hervé Poncharal told us on the Thursday before Barcelona. His problem? Attracting competitive riders to take the seats vacated by Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro.
Their destination was emblematic of Poncharal’s problem: at Barcelona, Espargaro announced he would be reunited with his Tech 3 teammate in the factory KTM team in 2017 and 2018.
So Poncharal found himself with the looming likelihood of fielding two rookies in 2017. The Tech 3 boss signed Jonas Folger back in Le Mans, while Johann Zarco is the prime candidate to fill the second Tech 3 seat.
Zarco is currently in Japan testing Suzuki’s GSX-RR MotoGP machine. He is expected to sign with Tech 3 once Suzuki have announced they are signing Alex Rins to partner Andrea Iannone.
The original hope was either to keep Pol Espargaro alongside Folger, to ensure consistency of results, or welcome Alex Rins into the fold on a factory Yamaha contract.
Either way, it would ensure the publicity which is vital to keeping sponsors happy. Two rookies and no factory connections is a lot less appealing to the people who help provide the €8-€9 million it costs to run the Tech 3 team.