Saturday was the kind of day that makes you question the wisdom of allowing Qatar to be the first race of the MotoGP season, and to hold the race at night.
Doing one or the other – either being the first race of the season but holding it during the day, or taking place later in the year and racing at night – is feasible, but doing both is a risk.
If it wasn’t for the fact that the sanctioning fee the Losail International Circuit at Qatar pays to Dorna for the privilege basically covering the overseas travel budget for the teams for the entire season, the MotoGP season opener would be very different.
It was an entirely wasted day. Or perhaps not entirely wasted: we learned that the Qatar circuit badly needs the drainage fixed. Whatever the decision on racing in the rain, when it does rain, the track and the run off areas just don’t drain fast enough.
That led to Loris Capirossi, Dorna’s representative in Race Direction, trying to explain in increasingly exasperated tones that there was no point trying to test during the day or at night, because there was simply too much standing water in the gravel traps and in certain sections of the track to allow it to be used safely.
Capirossi was speaking at an impromptu press conference organized directly after the qualifying press conference, to explain why all on-track action had been cancelled on Saturday.
It had started with the cancellation of the Asia Talent Cup, and a revised schedule was issued containing a track inspection, then a twenty-minute session for the riders to go out and see whether it would be possible to ridein the wet under the floodlights.
But as each schedule approached, events were delayed. In the end, the entire day was cancelled. The track was unusable after such intense rainfall.
A growing sense of, not panic, perhaps, but certainly concern is enveloping the MotoGP paddock in Qatar. The ever unstable weather is forcing the series organizers to make contingency plans for every possible scenario the conditions in the desert may throw up.
Heavy rains that have been sweeping across the peninsula have made it uncertain how and when the race is to be held. It could be Sunday night in the wet, it could be Sunday afternoon, it could even be Monday.
Despite the bizarre weather – hailstones fell in the afternoon, then a downpour flooded the country in the night – practice has been pretty much unaffected. The advantage of rain in the desert is that it dries up pretty quickly when it stops.
The track was a little dirtier when the MotoGP bikes took to the track for FP2 at 6pm, but it was still dry when FP3 ended, nearly four hours later.
The downpour only started at 1am, and stopped an hour later. Which suggests that the weather is weird enough for all of the emergency planning being made to be in vain, and qualifying and the race will take place as planned, in the dry, with no disruption.
Still, not preparing for the possibility is a sure-fire guarantee that it will rain.
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.”
And then there were five. Should that statement have a question mark after it? On the evidence of pre-season testing, definitely not. Maverick Viñales earned the right to add his name to last year’s list, dominating testing and finishing fastest in all four.
Marc Márquez demonstrated why he is reigning world champion, and why his rivals have reason to fear him even more this year. Dani Pedrosa finished fifth at Valencia and Sepang, then third at Phillip Island and Qatar.
Jorge Lorenzo found the process of adapting to the Ducati tougher than expected, but was third quickest on his first day on the bike, and fourth fastest at Qatar.
And the man with the worst pre-season results of the lot, Valentino Rossi is, well, Valentino Rossi. You only ever write off Valentino Rossi after the final race at Valencia is done and dusted. And not a millisecond before.
So we head into the first race in Qatar with five Aliens, all of whom are likely to win at least one race this year. Some, like Viñales, will win a lot more this year than they have in the past. Others, like Lorenzo, will win far fewer, but will surely end up on the top step at one race, at the very least.
Unsurprisingly, a hot topic of that conversation was about Ducati’s aerodynamic unveil – what is lovingly being called the “hammerhead” fairing for the Ducati Desmosedici GP17. The guys also talked about Honda’s pre-season testing strategy, as HRC searches for its 2017 engine setup.
The MotoGP conversation ends with a long discussion about the progress and state of all the top MotoGP riders, before the attention is turned on the Moto2 and Moto3 championships.
Of course with the pre-season now over, David and Neil can’t resist picking their riders for who will win the 2017 season, and whether they will be placing any bets for yours truly, by proxy.
As always, be sure to follow the Paddock Pass Podcast on Facebook, Twitter and subscribe to the show on iTunes and SoundCloud – we even have an RSS feed for you. If you like the show, we would really appreciate you giving it a review on iTunes. Thanks for listening!
Testing is over. Sunday was the last chance for the MotoGP field to work on preparing for the 2017 season, to tweak, refine, and experiment.
The next time bikes take to the track, in two weeks time, there will be much more at stake than pride and a little bit of psychological advantage. There will no longer be anywhere to hide.
The last day of the test meant a busy schedule, though that is a relative thing at the Losail International circuit. For the best part of two hours, nothing stirred on track bar the bored chatter of riders, mechanics, and photographers as they waited for the sun to go down, and the track to cool off enough to go testing.
Once testing started, riders started grinding out the laps. Temperatures stayed high enough to stave off the dew, and it was possible to ride until the track closed at 11pm, without the risk of crashing on an invisible patch of moisture.
As veteran MotoGP journalist Dennis Noyes pointed out on Twitter late on Saturday night, on Sunday, we will start to see some of the real truth of where everyone stands.
Sunday is the last chance for the MotoGP field to do a full race simulation, putting together everything they have learned during winter testing. The last day of the test at Qatar will serve as a dress rehearsal for the race.
But Saturday gave us a quick peek at everyone’s hands. The work now is more about refinement than revolution, and genuine speed is coming to the fore. The final timesheets from Saturday do not tell the whole story, but a general picture is starting to form.
It is looking increasingly like the 2017 MotoGP championship is going to be fought out between Maverick Viñales and Marc Márquez. And while they focus on each other – which they are doing more and more – other riders, primarily Valentino Rossi, are waiting in the wings to strike.
The testing season is nearly done. The MotoGP grid assembles in Qatar for three final days of testing, in preparation for the season ahead. Much has already been done, but there is still a lot of work to get through.
Every factory, every team, every rider has things they want to try, in the hope of improving their chances in 2017. In most cases, those are just minor details, the nuances and finesses that will give hundredths of a second, not tenths. But not always.
There are always a couple of last-minute gambles to take, big ticket items that need one last decision. At Qatar this year, it is Honda’s turn to make a big decision, on which spec of engine to use for the season.
They tested one spec at Valencia, then another one at Sepang and Phillip Island, and at a one-day private test at Jerez.
It looks like they have made their decision, to go with the revised big bang engine tested for the first time at Sepang. But the cool air and hard acceleration of Qatar will be the deciding factor.
To double check, they will be bringing an extra engine to give to Jack Miller, the Marc VDS Honda rider, who has so far only used the Valencia engine.
If the Repsol riders, LCR’s Cal Crutchlow, and Jack Miller all agree, then HRC will pull the trigger on their latest engine, and race with it in 2017.