It seems fitting that a year which has seen some pretty wild weather – from the heatwave in Brno to the deluge at Silverstone – should end at Valencia amid thunderstorms and torrential rain. It was so heavy at one point that the FP1 session for MotoGP was red flagged for 30 minutes, as pools of water gathered in a few corners around the track.
Echoes of Silverstone? Not quite. The company which resurfaced Valencia ensured that water drains quickly. The amount of rain having fallen was unheard of at the Ricardo Tormo circuit, yet the surface was quickly usable again. Was there more rain here than at Silverstone, Jack Miller was asked?
“Way, way, way more and we are still out there riding,” he replied. “It is night and day compared to Silverstone as the track has really good grip in the wet for one and I felt I could almost get my elbow down in some places this morning. So the track has got really good grip and there are some puddles but they are quite close to the kerbs so you can avoid most of them. Much more rain here than Silverstone – I am no meteorologist but I think so.”
“For me, everything depends on the amount of water, because the track worked well,” Valentino Rossi said on Friday afternoon. “The asphalt has good grip in the wet and also good drainage. The problem is if it rains like this morning at 10 o’clock, you cannot race, because there is too much water and these big bikes make a lot of spray, so if you are in a group you cannot see. This morning it was enough to wait 10-15mins and after the conditions were better, so we have to do like this.”
It wasn’t just raining in the morning. It rained on and off for most of the day, sometimes heavier, sometimes drying up briefly. As we left the paddock sometime around 8pm, the torrential rain had returned, flooding the paddock and leaving small rivers flowing between the hospitality units. It is fair to say that the weather was pretty bad.
Given the severity of the storms that have washed across the Malaysian peninsula, you might expect practice for MotoGP to be a wet one minute, dry the next.
So far, however, only the Moto3 class has had a problem with wet conditions, the day starting out on a drying track, then rain disrupting FP2 for the smallest class in Grand Prix racing. MotoGP was a good deal more fortunate, left with a dry track in surprisingly good condition.
That might explain why the times were so good: there were a handful of riders knocking out 1’59s in both the morning and afternoon sessions, times which normally only appear once qualifying starts. In 2017, only Valentino Rossi got into the 1’59s in free practice. In 2016, only Maverick Viñales managed it.
“Lap times were fast today,” said an impressed Bradley Smith of KTM. “1’59s were like a miracle in the past. Guys were on 1’59s from the first session and there in the second session as well, it wasn’t just when the track was cool. We’re still a little way away from a 1’58, which I think Jorge did in the test, but not that far away that I think it’s the track conditions.”
There is no obvious explanation for why the track would be so fast, Smith said. “Here we know, from February 1st to February 20-something, the track can be half a second slower, or faster, whichever way the conditions are going. I really can’t put my finger on one thing or another.”
Whatever the reason, there is no denying the track is fast. Seven riders got inside the two-minute bracket on Friday, Danilo Petrucci, seventh fastest man, just two tenths slower than the fastest man of the day, Alex Rins.
Phillip Island is a magnificent circuit. Perched on the edge of the Bass Strait, it is a visceral thrill in a spectacular setting. It is fast, flowing, the very essence of what a race track is supposed to be. But all that glory comes at a price. It is also a dangerous place. When you crash at Phillip Island, then it hurts, and more often than not, it hurts a lot.
Veteran US journalist Dennis Noyes points out that in the 1990s, the FIM commissioned a study into crashes at various tracks. The track with the most crashes, Estoril, had the fewest serious injuries. The track with the fewest crashes was Phillip Island.
But it was also the track with the most injuries. The difference? Estoril was the slowest track on the calendar, thanks to a couple of tight turns, while Phillip Island was the fastest. Newton’s second law is immutable, and enforced 100% of the time.
The weather makes things even more complicated. A freezing wind blows in with great force off the Bass Strait, sucking any heat you may have generated out of your tires. Cold tires plus high speeds are a recipe for disaster, and hospital food. “Obviously the weather is really strange here,” Aleix Espargaro said on Thursday.
“Very cold, not easy to warm the tires. I would say that it’s one of the more, close to being dangerous tracks that we have on the calendar, but I don’t know why this makes the track enjoyable, and I think almost all riders like this layout.” Behold the dilemma of Phillip Island.
Will we see a Ducati vs. Honda showdown at Motegi? After the first day of practice at the Japanese track, it looks like that is still on, though we lost one potential protagonist. Jorge Lorenzo went out to test how well his injured wrist would hold up, but found his wrist unwilling to play ball.
He did two out laps, but couldn’t cope with the immense strain that the braking zones at Motegi – the toughest on the calendar – put on him. After those two laps, Lorenzo decided to withdraw from the Japanese Grand Prix.
“Yesterday my feelings weren’t very positive and unfortunately today I had confirmation not only of the pain, but also that there was a serious risk of making the fracture worse,” he said afterwards.
“On hard braking I couldn’t push with my left wrist and I had a lot of pain in the left corners and especially in the change of direction. I wasn’t fast, I wasn’t comfortable and I wasn’t safe, so there was no meaning to continue.”
Despite the loss of Lorenzo, Ducati are still in a very comfortable position, Andrea Dovizioso having finished the day as fastest, despite sitting out FP2.
The Italian wasn’t alone in that choice: Marc Márquez, Cal Crutchlow, Pol Espargaro, and Jordi Torres all elected to skip the afternoon session, which started out damp, the track never really drying out fully by the end of the session, though half the field managed to squeeze in a couple of slow laps on slicks on a drying track at the end of the session.
One of the best ways of avoiding disappointments is to lower your expectations. Set the bar low enough, and it becomes almost impossible for reality slip below it.
That has been the strategy adopted by Maverick Viñales recently, and with good reason: Yamaha’s run of form recently has been pretty dismal.
No podiums for four races, their longest run off the box since 2007. No victory for 23 straight races, the worst losing streak in their entire history in the premier class.
“I feel more positive about myself, but the expectations are the same,” Viñales said on Thursday. “I have zero expectations. I want to just enjoy riding and see if we can take something positive from this weekend.” It was a message which he repeated on Friday. “As I said, I don’t want to make any expectations. I just want to go riding, enjoy.”
There had been plenty for Viñales to enjoy. The Movistar Yamaha rider’s expectations may have been set low, but he far exceeded them. In the morning, Viñales was fastest, with his teammate Valentino Rossi in second.
In the afternoon, Viñales missed out on the top spot by three hundredths of a second, but Andrea Dovizioso only beat Viñales by putting on a fresh set of soft tires. Viñales had been circulating on hard tires, and lapping consistently in the low 1’31s.
What is the value of a MotoGP test? About a morning, if Aragon is anything to go by. At the end of FP1, before any real rubber had built up on the track, four Ducatis topped the timesheets.
When I asked Davide Tardozzi whether he was happy with the Ducatis looking so strong so early, he replied that this was just the benefit of testing. Watch and see what Marc Márquez does in the afternoon, Tardozzi said.
Sure enough, by FP2, Márquez had caught up and then passed the Ducatis. The Repsol Honda rider ended the day on top of the timesheets, a tenth ahead of the factory Ducati of Jorge Lorenzo, and half a second quicker than Andrea Dovizioso.
Cal Crutchlow was just behind Dovizioso on the LCR Honda, while Andrea Iannone was a fraction over a half a second behind Márquez. The advantage was already gone.
For Yamaha, there wasn’t any advantage at all. The Movistar Yamaha team had come to the track and found some gains, Maverick Viñales in particular taking confidence from the test, which he carried into the Misano weekend. That lasted all the way until Sunday, when the grip disappeared in the heat, and the Yamahas slid down the order.
Friday at Aragon was more of the same: competitive in the morning, when there was some grip, but nowhere in the afternoon, when the grip went. Rossi and Viñales made it through to Q2 by the skin of their teeth, though with no illusions of a podium, or more. Yamaha are in deep trouble, with no end to their misery in sight, but more on that later.
Surely the teams who tested at Misano prior to Silverstone would have an advantage once MotoGP arrived at the Italian circuit? With a day to set up the bikes ahead of time, they would start the Misano weekend with a head start.
That is the theory, anyway. But when I spoke to one of Johann Zarco’s mechanics, he dismissed the idea out of hand. “You have an advantage for about five laps,” he said. The problem is the period of time between the test and the race. Conditions change too much. “What you find is a setup for the conditions on the day. When you get there for the race, the track is dirtier, the weather’s different, the temperature’s lower.”
The track definitely changed a lot between the test and the race weekend, as those who were at the test pointed out. “When we came here for the test, the grip level of the track was higher,” Valentino Rossi said. “But for some reason, also for the rain yesterday, the track even if it’s a bit colder is more slippery.”
“The track condition when we tested here was fantastic,” Cal Crutchlow said. “And today, it was not very good. I don’t know why, but it was.”
For the past couple of months, the UK, along with the rest of Northern Europe, has been sweltering under one of the hottest summers in recent memory. That, of course, was before MotoGP arrived.
The arrival of Grand Prix racing brought an abrupt end to the British summer, with temperatures struggling to get anywhere near the 20°C mark.
Add in a strong and blustery wind, and a late shower in the afternoon, and the MotoGP paddock faces a very different prospect to recent weeks. And let’s not talk about the heavy rain which is forecast for Sunday.
Before the bikes took to the track, there had been much talk of just how bumpy the new surface would be. On Thursday, the riders were wary, wanting to ride the track at speed before making a judgment. After Friday, the verdict was pretty devastating. For the majority of the riders, the bumps are worse, if anything.
We knew it was going to rain at some point on Friday, the only question was when. Well, not quite the only question.
The other question was, if it did rain, would the MotoGP riders go out and ride in the rain? Or would they deem the Red Bull Ring to be too dangerous to ride in the wet, and sit out practice, as they had threatened when rain had caused Moto2 riders to fall like skittles last year?
It started to rain in the early afternoon, right at the end of Moto3 FP2.
Thankfully, not heavily enough to claim too many casualties, though Nicolo Bulega did suffer a massive highside after the checkered flag had fallen, his bike flying through the air and clouting Nakarin Atiratphuvapat around the head, the Thai rider trying to fend off the airborne KTM with one hand, while trying not to fall off with the other.
From that moment on, the rain started to pelt down. A rivulet started running across pit lane exit, and standing water formed on the steep downhill sections of Turns 1 through 4.
It rained so heavily that MotoGP FP2 was delayed for 20 minutes or so, as the safety car circulated testing conditions. But the session was eventually given the green light, and riders were free to enter the track. Would anyone attempt it?
Alex Rins was the first to test the waters, venturing out and then heading straight back in. Johann Zarco was the next, the Monster Tech3 Yamaha rider the first to put in consistent laps, though conditions were not really up to it.
“When I start, even if we have mapping for the rain, there is too much power and I was fifth gear and spinning in fifth gear all the time,” Zarco said. “Also I have to have half-throttle to go and to make the straight.”
It is hot at Brno. It was hot at Assen, it was hot at the Sachsenring, and it is positively scorching at Brno. Air temperatures are at a relatively bearable 34°C, but the asphalt tentatively broke the 50°C during FP2.
That is officially what is known colloquially as a scorcher, testing riders, teams, and above all, tires on the first day of practice at Brno. Where last year, the riders concentrated on the soft and the medium Michelins, on Friday, the MotoGP riders spent their time assessing the medium and the hard.
The downside of forcing Michelin to choose tires for the entire season back in February is that sometimes, their crystal ball fails them, and the weather deviates wildly from what might reasonably be expected. The heatwave which has Europe in a vice-like grip is just such a case.
There are upsides to the heat, though they are perhaps unexpected. There were just four fallers at Brno on Friday across all three classes, less than half the number from last year, a third of the number in 2016, and a massive five and a half times fewer than the 22 crashers in 2015. It’s hot and dry, so the tires will definitely grip.