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.
One circuit, three races, all of them utterly different in nature. The wide, flowing layout with a long straight, fast corners, and multiple combinations of turns present very different challenges to Grand Prix racing’s three different classes.
For Moto3, escape is impossible, the race coming down to tactics and the ability to pick the right slipstream. In Moto2, it is possible to get away, but it’s equally possible to chase an escaped rider down.
And in MotoGP, the fast flicks make it possible to both defend attacks and launch your own counter-attacks. Mugello is a wonderful circuit, and it served up a spectacular portion of racing on Sunday.
The paradox of the motorcycle racer is that every race is a big race, yet no race is more important than any other. The pressure on the MotoGP elite is so great that they have to perform at their maximum at every circuit, every weekend.
Every race is like a championship decider, not just the race which decides the championship. There may be extra pressure at a home race, or on a special occasion, or when a title is at stake, but the riders cannot let it get to them. There is too much at stake to be overawed by the occasion.
Still, Mugello 2014 is a very big race indeed. It is Valentino Rossi’s 300th Grand Prix, and a chance for him to return to the podium on merit again, and not just because the crowds were calling his name.
It is the best hope of a Jorge Lorenzo revival, the Yamaha man having won the last three races in a row at the spectacular Tuscan track. It is the best hope for Ducati, the Italian factory having run well here in the past.
And it is the first realistic chance for Marc Marquez to fail, the Spaniard has never found the track an easy one, though it did not stop him winning there.
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.
As the MotoGP circus descends upon the charming French town of Le Mans this weekend, there is one question at the front of everybody’s minds: can he do it? Can Marc Marquez continue his incredible string of poles and victories by winning at Le Mans?
On the evidence of the 2014 season so far, you would have to say he can. But Le Mans is a different circuit, and one where a gaggle of Yamaha riders have gone well in the past. This could possibly be the first race since Qatar where Marquez is made to work for it.
Marquez has a lot going for him in France. Leaving aside his form – a perfect record of poles and wins this year, as well as being fastest in over half the sessions of free practice so far – the track looks to play to the Honda’s strengths, on paper at least.
The stop-and-go nature of the Le Mans track sees the bikes spend a lot of time under hard acceleration, with slower corners needing hard braking. The Honda’s ‘V’ approach to the corners – brake late, turn hard, stand the bike up quickly and get on the gas – seems to be a much better fit to the Le Mans circuit than Yamaha’s ‘U’ style – brake early, enter faster, carry more corner speed and smoothly wind on the throttle.
And yet Yamaha riders have won four of the last six races at the circuit. Jorge Lorenzo has won the French Grand Prix at Le Mans three times, and each time with a very comfortable margin over his competitors. Valentino Rossi has won here twice on a Yamaha, in 2005 and 2008, and finished second behind Lorenzo in 2010.
It’s even a track where Colin Edwards has shone in the past on a Yamaha – and where perhaps he can do well once again, despite hating the current Yamaha chassis he is riding at Forward Yamaha. This is the first in a series of circuits where Yamaha riders have dominated in the past.
If Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi want to start fighting back against the might of Marquez, Le Mans is as good a place to start as any.