Thursday was the first chance most of the media got to talk to the MotoGP riders after the test at Misano two weeks ago, and find out what they really thought about the test, rather than trying to decode the meaning of the press releases issued.
That clarified a lot about the test, answering some of the questions we had been left with, and intriguingly, raising yet more questions which had slipped under the radar.
As always, however, when you ask different riders about a subject, they will have different opinions. Even if they are teammates, like Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli. Asked about the state of the track, Quartararo expressed concern about the lack of grip, especially in certain places.
“For me, [track grip] was terrible, but some corners were good, some corners were less, and one corner was totally a disaster, corner 14,” the Petronas Yamaha rider said.
“I think many riders crashed in this corner. I heard that when Marc crashed, he thought it was the white line which they just painted, but as soon as you want to put lean angle in this corner, you crash. And I have a lot of big moments in this corner. Let’s see if it improves this weekend, because in the test it was a really critical place to ride.”
Better the Devil You Know
Yet Morbidelli, who knows the track better and riders here a lot as part of the VR46 Riders Academy, was positively surprised by the state of the track.
“When I rode here before the test with an R1, and the grip was poor, I have to say, and I was a bit worried. Because they cleaned the track,” Morbidelli explained. “But when we came here with a MotoGP, from the first lap I was impressed, because the grip didn’t look awful at all, because I was feeling quite good.”
The track may have been relatively slow, but the surface felt fine, Morbidelli insisted. “Maybe the performance level of the track was poor, because the lap time wasn’t incredible for a two-day test – it was good, it was fast, but usually when you make a test like this in MotoGP and you put the rubber on the ground, you beat the record.”
“Fabio was able to get close to the lap record, but couldn’t beat it, and also the pace was quite bad. But the feeling on track wasn’t bad. This impressed me in a positive way, I was happy about that.”
Morbidelli was definitely in the minority with that opinion, but his vision may well be colored by the fact that he does ride at Misano so often, and so knows the track more intimately than others.
When you arrive at a track not knowing how the surface will feel, then you are more likely to be disappointed. If you come to a track expecting there to be no grip, and finding a little bit of grip, you might end up surprised in a positive way.
Some Positives, Some Negatives
Had the test borne fruit? Yes, for most riders, both satellite and factory. The Petronas Yamaha riders, and LCR Honda rider Takaaki Nakagami had been able to work on settings for the race, giving them a head start for the race weekend.
The factory Yamahas, KTMs, and Hondas had all spent time testing their 2020 material again, which had proved very useful. The data from that test will go toward preparing updates for the Valencia and Jerez tests in November, when 2020 starts in earnest.
Not every factory tested new parts, of course. Ducati focused more on race setup, Misano being a crucial race for the Italian factory. Danilo Petrucci had worked more on his riding than on anything else, trying to figure out why he suffered so badly when the grip was low.
That, he confessed, had been more of a question of mental approach rather than anything physical. If he just relaxed and focused on riding, he went faster. If he sat and worried about his lap time, trying his best to go faster, he went slower.
That is the paradox of most MotoGP machines, which truly require a kind of Zen Buddhist approach to getting the maximum performance out of them. The less you try, and the more you let the bike do what it wants, the faster you go. The harder you push a bike, the slower it becomes.
This is not true of all of the MotoGP machines. The KTM, for example, needs to be bullied and mastered to go quick, much to the pleasure of Pol Espargaro. Espargaro hated the Yamaha for being the polar opposite, one of those Zen machines where the rider submits his will to the bike, rather than trying to impose it.
The one factory where there was no real pleasure in the test was Aprilia. With nothing new to test, Aleix Espargaro could barely contain his frustration. “We used the two days to prepare for the race, we had nothing new to try at all,” the Spaniard told us. Why were there no new parts to test? “Good question. I don’t know.”
That was a source of frustration. “I just arrived here and everybody was trying many things, my brother had five bikes in the garage and also Yamaha and Ducati had a lot to new things to try. We had nothing to try so we used the two day test to try different geometry settings and finally we have a good base for the weekend.”
Had he asked why he had nothing to test? “Yeah for sure I asked,” Espargaro said. “But you have to ask to Aprilia bosses and the engineers. I have no answers. I mean, I’m just one more worker of this big group… ”
He could see that change was on the horizon, but in his third year on the bike, he was finding it hard to keep the faith. “Looks like this year everything is changing a little bit and for next season… new engineers are coming, the team is changing quite a lot with the arrival of Massimo, so I hope that next season everything will change.”
“But obviously my patience is getting in the limit because it will be my fourth season with Aprilia. So we will see.” Espargaro said he believes he can be competitive on a competitive bike, but that is where Aprilia have so far kept coming up short.
Added to this problem is the divide in the Aprilia garage. While Aleix Espargaro is hammering on about needing new parts, and wanting parts to arrive early, Andrea Iannone is quietly forging a place in the Aprilia factory team.
After a disastrous first part of the season, his results have improved in the last few races. Since Barcelona, Iannone has outscored Espargaro, racking up a couple of top ten finishes where Espargaro has had DNFs.
Iannone is also making subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – digs at his teammate. “Before we receive something new it’s important to know what we want,” the Italian said. “At this moment Aprilia start to work on the new bike and the people are completely focused on it.”
“It’s important we continue to understand and take the information. I don’t expect a new bike from now until the end of the season. Many people remain surprised by my comments but everyone started following me. This is an important step. I believe a lot in this work.”
Among those surprised by his comments were Aprilia’s engineers, Iannone said. “Sometimes they are surprised by some comments. Many top teams have a different situation with the bike. I think Aleix is a really good rider. But he started to ride MotoGP at first with the Open bike. His first year with the Open class it was like without electronics.”
“Then he switched to Suzuki but Suzuki had just come back. So not a complicated system. When I arrived I was surprised. [I said] ‘Guys, no, this is not a MotoGP bike. A MotoGP bike is like this, this and this.’ We improved a lot in this area. We need time and patience.”
Perhaps Iannone has more faith in the future because he is only in his first year at Aprilia, arriving at a time when big organizational changes are happening. Espargaro, on the other hand, has been at the factory for three years, and it can be hard to keep believing when the changes seem to make no difference.
Only the appearance of the new bike will help persuade him otherwise, and only that bike being a big upgrade will make a difference.
But Espargaro continues to grouse about the choices being made by Aprilia. “I talked quite a lot with Romano [Albesiano, Aprilia chief engineer] during the test and sincerely I don’t know what they’ve told the press… the engine will be quite different, or this is what it’s supposed to be. Also the aerodynamics will change. So I hope the electronic we also have to change quite a lot,” he said.
All this focus on the new bike without trying out new ideas on the 2019 bike was a mistake, Espargaro said. “But sometimes this can be a mistake because I’m not sure that we have to change 100% of the bike.”
“We have to update the 2019 bike so if you want to update the 2019 bike you can start to receive some parts to see how the bike is with the new engine, fairing, winglets or swingarm. I think that’s more the normal way. I’m not saying the best way or a bad way, but the normal way.”
Back to Fitness
There were riders back from injury at the Misano test, and ready to ride at the Misano race. Andrea Dovizioso had shaken off the concussion he had in the Silverstone starting crash quite quickly, and felt close to fully fit.
“I feel good fortunately as we worked really hard after the race and I was able to test which was very important, to make the test here before the race,” the Italian said. “The feeling wasn’t perfect at the test but it was important to make some laps. I feel good and I am happy, I feel 100%, I did some motocross training to be sure if everything worked well.”
There had been concerns about Dovizioso after Davide Tardozzi told us that he hadn’t known what had happened during the crash. But his memory had returned soon enough, Dovizioso said. “I remember everything, it came back after 40 minutes,” the Italian said.
“At the beginning I was normal and after I forgot the way I crashed and when I went to Tardozzi and he explained it to me again I realized it wasn’t my fault so I became so angry. After that it was normal and all was good.”
Fitter than ever
Joan Mir was also back on the bike at the Misano test, after a layoff of a few weeks after his monster crash at the Brno test. With badly bruised lungs, he had not been able to do any kind of training, and that had taken its toll, Mir explained.
“This is the problem, I couldn’t do anything. No strength training, nothing. I was stopped completely for two weeks, without moving or anything, and you lose muscle mass. I remember I went training with a motocross bike and I was doing five minutes and I was destroyed. But this I have improved a lot.”
When he got back on the bike at the Misano test, he quickly found out once again that the muscles used in riding a MotoGP bike can’t be trained in any other way.
“Now I’m like normal, and it’s more that I missed two races and I need to adapt again the muscles to a MotoGP bike. You can always train as much as you like, but the day after the MotoGP you always have pain in your muscles. It’s always like this.”
He had had to ease off at the end of the second day, as he reached the limit of his endurance. But after two weeks of being able to train freely, he felt much better and in good shape to resume the season.
Mir could remember everything about the crash, after ending up in the gravel in Turn 1 at Brno. “I crashed in the first corner for a technical problem, it was not my fault,” Mir said.
“At the end, I remember that it was difficult for me to breathe, I had blood on my mouth, but the medical people came really fast, and it was quite fast everything. I also have to say thank you to Karel Abraham, who came to the hospital with his father to ask if everything is OK and if we need something.”
How do you put such a massive crash behind you? By not thinking about it, Mir explained. “All these negative things, you have to avoid in your head. This is something, the more you think about it, the worse it is, sincerely.”
“I want to be at 100% as soon as possible, I don’t have time to think about these things. In the end, I’m young, I don’t have time to think about the crash, about the confidence, no way. I need to be at 100%.”
Rough with the Smooth
It is not easy for everyone, of course. Riders can cope with a panoply of injuries, and brush them off as just part of the job. But spinal injuries and head injuries, those are different things.
Riders don’t mind ending their lives in arthritic pain, accepting that as part of the job. But ending up with spinal injury and a loss of motion, or a severe brain injury stopping them from riding again, that they take very seriously indeed.
That was something which Jorge Lorenzo was at pains to point out. He had left the MotoGP test in Misano after half a day, his fractured vertebrae inflamed and causing him pain. Instead of risking riding during the test, Lorenzo chose to sit it out and go back home to prepare.
“I could have stayed and finished the test, it was a possibility,” Lorenzo told the media, but he did not believe that justified the risks he would have been taking. “But we all thought that after my feeling in my body after the race, the injury didn’t have time – it was inflamed and I felt even more pain (at the test) than before Silverstone.”
“So there was no meaning to keep pushing the injury because it was just a test. I didn’t feel strong enough to be competitive, I was riding about three seconds slower than the fastest times and for the team and for me there was no meaning to keep testing. That’s why we decided not to push the injury more and recover well for this weekend.”
Perhaps coming back at Silverstone had been too early, the Repsol Honda rider conceded, but he didn’t feel he had much choice. “That’s the rider mentality, no?” he said. “That’s what we all have. We know the history of MotoGP riders and I’ve made even crazier things in the past.”
“I was two months out of competition, sooner or later I needed to come back. For me it was too soon at Brno, too soon in Austria, but in (Silverstone) I could ride like I did. Yes, very slow and very far from the fastest, but I felt it was the moment to come back to get some pace and some rhythm, because after three months out of the bike would be too much.”
His problems with the Honda were very different to the issues he had had in his first year with Ducati, Lorenzo explained. “You cannot compare with the first year in Ducati because I didn’t get injured at that time. I struggled also in the first year at Ducati, but I struggled more this time.”
“But it’s true that already before the season started I had two big injuries, in Aragon in the foot and Thailand with the wrist,” Lorenzo explained. “Then in the preseason I broke my scaphoid. In Qatar I broke some ribs and the big one was in Assen. So I’ve never been 100% fit to ride the Honda, so I could never push to my maximum.”
“So like this in MotoGP is difficult, even more when you don’t feel completely comfortable on the bike, that’s the feeling I’ve got with the Honda for the moment. Never felt really safe, especially in the front part of the bike. It’s all the circumstances together, especially the injuries, that make my situation or my results so bad.”
Maybe Push Less, Not More
There had been some veiled criticism of Lorenzo by Repsol Honda team principal Alberto Puig, though the media articles had tended to sensationalize the story perhaps a little more than it deserved. But Lorenzo wasn’t afraid of giving this criticism some pushback.
“Well, he’s the boss and a person that I have a lot of respect for because I think he knows about bikes and this world,” Lorenzo said.” But [how] anybody can tell that I didn’t try and I didn’t risk with this bike – because I have huge crashes, always because I wanted to try to get good results.”
“Probably that was the problem. I pushed maybe too much before knowing exactly the bike and that’s why I crashed and I got injured and this made everything much more difficult. Because everything [comes] from the injuries. Without the injuries I’m sure I would be able to, maybe not win races, but finish sometimes on the podium and in the top five.”