One statistic captured the state of play in Argentina after the first day of practice. Of the eighty-three (83!) Grand Prix riders who took to the track on Friday, just a single rider failed to improve their time from FP1 to FP2.
That rider was Tatsuki Suzuki, and the reason he did not manage to improve his time was because he crashed early in the session, leaving himself too little time to go faster.
Why is this remarkable? Normally, there would be somewhere between four and eight riders who do not manage to improve their time between sessions on Friday.
At Mugello in 2015, for example, there were six in MotoGP, five in Moto2, and eleven in Moto3, a grand total of twenty-two, and broadly representative of a normal race weekend. The fact that almost everyone managed to go faster illustrated the problem with the track perfectly.
The problem? The track is filthy, to put it simply. As a result of a lack of use, the dust and dirt which settles on any uncovered surface just settles into the asphalt, and is never swept from the track.
With no bikes or cars circulating regularly, the track remains green, its virgin surface unsullied by the dark rubber of motorized monsters. No vehicles on track means no grip.
That this Silly Season – the (bi)annual round of rider contract negotiations – was going to be remarkable has been obvious for a very long time.
Only very rarely have the contracts of nearly every rider on the grid ended at the same time, leading to a frenzy of speculation and rumor about who could and will be going where for the 2017 season.
That this year is special was made obvious at Qatar, where both Valentino Rossi and Bradley Smith announced they had already signed two-year deals for 2017 and 2018 before the flag had even dropped for the first race.
Jorge Lorenzo has been the key figure in this year’s Silly Season, however. Of the four current MotoGP Aliens, he is the most likely to move, and to be offered big money to do so.
Valentino Rossi is nearing his retirement, and his long-term future is tied up with Yamaha, so re-signing with the Japanese factory was a no-brainer.
Marc Márquez may leave Honda at some point in his career, but at the moment, he has too many ties binding him to HRC.
Dani Pedrosa may be a proven winner, but he is the only one of the four not to have won a championship. It is Lorenzo who is attracting all of the interest.
It now appears that Lorenzo’s future may already be settled. Well-informed sources inside the paddock have told me that Jorge Lorenzo has already signed a deal with Ducati, and perhaps at a record price.
Certainly at a price which Yamaha would be unwilling – and probably unable – to match.
They call it Silly Season for a reason. Every year, the MotoGP paddock engages in intrigue and speculation as to where certain riders will land for the upcoming season.
Lately, this means that the MotoGP Silly Season has its ebbs and flows, as the contract cycle for many of Grand Prix racing’s riders have come into synch with a two-year cycle. As such, it is game-on for this year, as the 2016 season has turned into a perfect game of contractual musical chairs.
We have already seen Valentino Rossi sign a two-year deal with Yamaha Racing, likely The Doctor’s last contract in MotoGP, as many expect the nine-time world champion to retire at the end of that stint.
We have also already seen Bradley Smith sign a two-year deal with KTM’s new MotoGP entry, which is perhaps the ideal situation for both the Austrian factory and the British rider.
These are both important pieces to the Silly Season puzzle, but the seat that everyone is watching the closest is that of Jorge Lorenzo, and whether the reigning world champion will remain as a Yamaha rider, or try his hand elsewhere – likely at Ducati.
The first race of the 2016 MotoGP Championship is finally in the bag, and the boys at the Paddock Pass Podcast have all the analysis and insight from Qatar that you have been waiting for.
There’s a great discussion about how the Michelin tires and spec-electronics have changed/not-changed the racing in the MotoGP class; of course the events in the Moto2 class cannot go without some discussions; and the boys wrap-up with a quick chat about Moto3 and who they have their money on this season.
Since there were some contract announcements at Qatar, the lads also have a wee chat about the current state of affairs in the MotoGP silly season. If you’re a true motorsport fan, you won’t want to miss this one.
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!
Practice, like testing, doesn’t really count for much, riders will tell you. When you talk to the afterwards, they will tell you that they didn’t set a really fast lap because they were working on setup, trying to figure out which tire will be best in the race, or working on race pace rather than one lap pace.
Maybe they were saving tires, maybe they ran into traffic, or maybe there wasn’t enough time left in the session to go for a fast lap. Even the rider who is fastest will tell you they were surprised, they were not really pushing for a time, but it just came naturally.
All valid explanations, but not necessarily true, of course. After all, free practice is just free practice, and as long as you are inside the top ten, with a good chance of advancing straight to Q2, then there is no reason not to dip into your Bumper Book of Excuses to fob off journalists with.
They are unlikely to challenge you on such excuses, because as long as your explanations are plausible, they have no way of countering them. It is impossible to know the mind of Man.
Qualifying is different. Qualifying matters, because there is something at stake. Not as much as on Sunday, and the forty-five minutes for which motorcycle racers sacrifice everything, the only forty-five minutes during which they feel truly alive.
But still, riders know the excuses afterwards will sound a little hollow. Qualifying is not the time to be laying all of your cards on the table, but you do have to be able to ante up, and to maybe call for a card or two.
So the first shoe has dropped. Valentino Rossi is to remain at Yamaha for two more seasons, signing on to compete for 2017 and 2018. The signing of Rossi will have major repercussions for the rest of the MotoGP rider market, and has made it all a little more unpredictable.
That Rossi would renew his contract with Yamaha is hardly a surprise. The Italian has a long and storied history with the Japanese manufacturer, from his triumphant and daring switch to Yamaha at the start of the 2004 season, in which he won both a memorable first race on the YZR-M1, going on to become champion, through a total of four world titles and a seemingly endless string of wins.
Rossi was welcomed back into the fold, suitably chastened, after his failed adventure with Ducati, and after a slow start, returned to being competitive in 2014, and especially in 2015.
Even the bitter aftermath of the 2015 season, when Rossi lost the title to his Movistar Yamaha teammate Jorge Lorenzo could not sour the relationship.
When Yamaha awarded its MotoGP merchandise contract to Rossi’s VR46 Racing Apparel business, and then signed a long-term support deal with Rossi’s VR46 Riders Academy, it was obvious that Rossi would stay with Yamaha, though it was uncertain that he would still be racing.
Rossi repeated publicly that he wanted to take the first few races of 2016 before making a decision, but it was clear that the decision would be continuing with the Movistar Yamaha team and retirement.
No doubt Rossi could have ridden elsewhere if he had chosen to – though the doors at Honda were almost certainly closed to him, after his defection at the end of 2003 – but realistically, Rossi’s future was tied to Yamaha.
When he retires, Rossi will continue as a figurehead for Yamaha, in much the same mold as Giacomo Agostini. The press release from Yamaha states as much, Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis saying “When Vale returned home in 2013 it was ‘a decision for life’.”
That is worth a lot more to both Yamaha and Rossi in the long run. Though financial details of the deal were not released – they never are, the world of MotoGP salaries being one which is shrouded in secrecy and myth – the money part of the equation was most certainly not an issue.
Rossi has been racing for glory and the chance to win another title for the past few years, rather than financial compensation. Ironically, the most financially valuable of the four MotoGP aliens is probably on the lowest salary.
What is a surprise is the timing of Rossi’s announcement. The general expectation was that Rossi would stay on at Yamaha for another two years, but that the announcement would come some time in May or June.
Instead, the deal has been announced ahead of the first race of the season. The question everyone is asking now is, why the hurry?
Yamaha Racing and the MotoGP Championship as a whole will enjoy two more years of Valentino Rossi, as the Italian has agreed to extend his contract with Yamaha for another two years.
Rossi’s continued interest to race in MotoGP likely doesn’t come as a surprise to many in the MotoGP paddock, as Rossi once again is at the pointy end of the stick when it comes to speed, team, and race package.
While he may not be the top pick on every journalist’s list to win the Championship, there is no denying that The Doctor is certainly in title contention, as we head into the season-opener at Qatar, and could easily prove “the experts” wrong with his 10th World Championship this year.
Rossi’s contract extension is also the first piece of the Silly Season puzzle, and now all eyes will be trained on the other side of Yamaha’s garage – to see what Jorge Lorenzo does in response. This is because paddock pundits are busy dissecting whether the Spaniard will stay with Yamaha, or if he will defect to Ducati in 2016.
If the second day of practice for the 2016 MotoGP season taught us anything, it taught us that everything is still wide open.
Yesterday, the Movistar Yamahas were clearly a cut above the rest during FP1. During the two free practice sessions on Friday, the top of the timesheets looked a little different.
In FP2, it was a wild mixture of Ducatis, Hondas, and Maverick Viñales on the Suzuki GSX-RR. In FP3, when the stakes were raised with direct entry to Q2 on the table, Jorge Lorenzo put his Yamaha M1 back into contention, but his previous clear superiority from Thursday was gone.
The reason? There isn’t a single cause you can put your finger on. In FP2, the Movistar Yamaha riders spent their time working on tire choice, and especially the tricky task of figuring out which front tire to use in the race.
That differs depending on which bike you happen to be riding: the Hondas are trying to make the hard front work, with different success, the Yamahas have abandoned the hard for the medium, and may even race with the soft, while the Ducatis are caught in a similar dilemma.
The Hondas – at least, the factory bikes – made a big step forward with electronics, and that made the competitive. Or rather, it was a step backwards, reverting to the settings Marc Márquez had tried in the test.
“Yesterday, we changed a small thing that we expected normally would not be a big difference on the bike on riding, but this time was a big difference with these electronics,” Marc Márquez explained. Dropping that change made a massive difference, and Márquez was competitive in both sessions on Friday.
The one constant through all three sessions of free practice has been Andrea Iannone: third fastest on Thursday, fastest in both FP2 and FP3 on Friday. “A perfect day,” was how he described Friday. He was far from complacent, however. “Just because I am first, it doesn’t mean we are completely ready.”