We say it pretty much every Friday of a MotoGP weekend: it’s hard to draw conclusions from the first day of practice.
The first day of practice is usually spent trying out different setups and then assessing which tires are the best compromise between performance and durability for the race, so just glancing at the timesheets doesn’t tell you as much as you would like.
The first day of practice at Mandalika is even more complicated to unravel. First, there is the fact that it rained heavily on Friday morning, leaving the track damp at the start before drying out.
Then there’s the fact that nearly half the track has been resurfaced, the work finished not long before MotoGP arrived.
Finally, Michelin changed the construction of the rear tire from the one used at the test, in response to the heat at the track, the new surface, and the data from the test.
Fortunes in MotoGP can change fast. Before the opening weekend of the 2022 MotoGP season, Pecco Bagnaia was the most tipped rider to take the title, the Ducati GP22 was the hot bike to have.
The question was not whether a Ducati would win one of the early races, but rather which one, and how many Ducatis would end up on the podium at them.
That prediction turned out to be accurate, but not in the way those making it expected. Enea Bastianini rode an outstanding race in Qatar to win the first race of 2022, and the first for the Gresini squad since Toni Elias back at Estoril in 2006.
After the first MotoGP race of 2022, the Qatar Grand Prix was over, an observant Twitter follower asked me why the symbol used for Marc Marquez’ front tire choice was different to everyone else.
Watching the replay and then consulting the analysis PDFs on MotoGP’s new results section made clear what Marquez had done.
He and his team and chosen to fit a soft front tire that had been scrubbed in, and consequently, had been used for one lap already.
It was a day we had been looking forward to for a long time: March 14th was the day that MotoGP Unlimited was to be launched on Amazon Prime. The series was due to be available in 170 different territories around the world.
As midnight passed in Europe, social media lit up with responses to the series. And unfortunately, those responses were very far from positive. Not because of the content of the documentary series, but because of the editorial decisions apparently made by Amazon Prime.
In the UK and US, the only version available was the dubbed version, where actors have voiced over everyone speaking in their own language. In Australia, India, and some Southeast Asian countries, MotoGP Unlimited was not available at all.
The problems reported seem to be a result of decisions taken by Amazon, rather than either Dorna or The MEDIAPRO Studio, the producers of the show. But the process by which these decisions were made is very hard to fathom.
The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic threw a spanner into the works for MotoGP in all sorts of ways. In response to the pandemic, the MSMA decided on an engine and aerodynamics freeze for 2020 and 2021, to limit costs in a time of uncertainty.
That went a long way to restraining costs, but as the world adapted to the pandemic, and it became clear that a global economic crisis had been averted, development budgets started to rise again.
If it has felt like a long wait for the season to get underway again. And Saturday at Qatar showed us just what we have been missing. A surprising FP3, where eight riders managed to improve their lap times, despite the session taking place in the heat of the day, and the wind having picked up and bringing a dusting of sand to the track.
Among those who improved were Enea Bastianini, who jumped up to fifth, threatening Pol Espargaro, Pecco Bagnaia, and Fabio Quartararo. Espargaro and Bagnaia bettered their times, Quartararo did not, setting up another thrilling contest to get out of Q1 and into Q2. If you were looking for drama, you got everything you could have hoped for, and more.
You even got the customary yellow flag drama in qualifying, with laps being canceled due to yellow flags having a significant impact on the grid in all three classes. A yellow flag waved at the end of Q1 for a crash by Darryn Binder meant Johann Zarco had his best lap canceled, put in right at the end of the session.
Although fans don’t like the rule, it was put in place after a couple of horrific incidents, most notably when Tito Rabat had his leg destroyed at Silverstone in 2018 when he was hit by Franco Morbidelli’s bike. The aim is to slow riders down when they see a yellow flag, something which the change has been largely successful in doing. But it comes at the price of laps being canceled.
Whenever an important lap gets canceled, there is an outcry to find a better solution. Unfortunately, a better solution is almost impossible to find. All of the alternatives proposed just introduce other problems, as you would expect when the law of unintended consequences kicks in.
Testing is all well and good, but at last, we have real, actual data from a race track on a bona fide race weekend. All 24 bikes on the track at the same time, trying to figure out as much as possible in two short 45 minute sessions.
No running separately, or trying to figure out how the conditions for the 8-lap run done at 11am compare to the 12-lap run at 2pm, or the 7-lap run at 5pm.
The first day at Qatar may have been genuine competition, but the picture was also confused by the schedule. With FP1 at 1:40pm, in the heat of the day, and FP2 shortly after sunset, at 6pm, conditions were completely different, the air temperature 7°C lower, and the track a whole 16°C cooler.
“Well, for sure now it is hard to see who has the better pace than the other because we don’t have the normal day schedule,” Miguel Oliveira reflected after the first day.”The hour is not that different but for the temperature and the wind it changes quite a lot.”
From time to time, when I stray from talking about motorcycle racing to share something political on Twitter, I am told by some random Twitter user to “stick to bikes”.
What they mean, of course, is that I should not share political opinions or articles they do not agree with, but that’s a different question.
Talking about politics is, of course, still “sticking to bikes.” Circuits have to be built somewhere.
The Yamaha YZR-M1 and the Suzuki GSX-RR have a lot in common. Both are inline four cylinder machines, and both rely more on corner speed and maneuverability than outright speed. And the riders of both machines have complained about a lack of speed at great length.
So great was Joan Mir’s frustration with the Suzuki’s lack of power in 2021 that he made a veiled threat to seek solace elsewhere. “A lot of people finish their contracts in 2022 and we are hoping to renew, or to take a different decision,” the 2020 world champion said before the test at Sepang.
“Honestly, the test will be important for me. It will be important to understand everything. As a Suzuki rider now, I feel great here, I feel like I am at home, but it’s true that a change is something that in some moments can be good, also. But at the moment, I cannot speak more about it, because there is nothing decided. But let’s see.”
The biggest difference between Suzuki and Yamaha is that where for Fabio Quartararo those complaints continued after the tests at Sepang and Mandalika, Joan Mir and Alex Rins pronounced themselves happy.
In 2021, the Yamaha M1 was the fastest motorcycle around a grand prix race track.
The evidence for that is clear: 2021 MotoGP world champion Fabio Quartararo. Quartararo had five race victories, more than anyone else, and five race fastest laps. He also had five pole positions, one less than Pecco Bagnaia.
So the bike was good, despite the chaos elsewhere making it look otherwise. Quartararo was the only constant in 2021.
Leaving the Sepang MotoGP test, all eyes were on Ducati. In part, perhaps, because they had brought yet another technical innovation that is set to upset rival manufacturers, and captured the imagination of fans and media. We were all talking about Ducati’s front ride-height device.
That enthusiasm was supported by the fact that there were two Ducatis in the top three after Sepang, and three Ducatis in the top six.
Take away the Aprilias (who had had the benefit of extra days riding and testing during the shakedown test), and there were three Ducatis in the top four. Things were looking ominous.