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Johann Zarco

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Another day, and another factory MotoGP team debut. This week’s entry is actually a two-fer from the KTM camp, as we see in their race livery both the factory-back Red Bull KTM team debut (Pol Espargaro & Johann Zarco), as well as the factory-supported KTM Tech3 squad (Hafizh Syahrin & Miguel Oliveira).

KTM will be looking to make big steps this year in the MotoGP Championship, as the team stalled on its progress last year. This is part of the reason for a two-pronged approach in the paddock, and for the Tech3 outfit getting substantial support and involvement in the development of the KTM RC16 race bike.

Qualifying is a tricky business at the best of times. Having qualifying just half an hour after FP4 – that is, if you don’t have to pass through Q1 – makes it even more complicated.

That final session of practice is the only chance to work on setup without worrying about getting through to Q2 – and in my book, makes it the most interesting session of practice all weekend.

But that also means that if you want to compare two different setups, FP4 is the session you do it. After FP4, you have thirty minutes to get two bikes ready for qualifying, with identical setups.

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.

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.

The weather usually plays a role when racing in the UK, in any discipline, but Saturday at Silverstone, the rain took center stage.

Not just because of the way it forced the MotoGP riders to pick their strategy very carefully, making timing and tire management absolutely crucial. But also because a heavy downpour at the southern end of the track created massive problems, and kicked off a serious debate.

More than that, it caused a bunch of riders to crash during FP4, starting with Alex Rins at Stowe, or Turn 7 as the riders tend to call it, to avoid confusion during debriefs. Then Tito Rabat crashed in the same place.

Then Franco Morbidelli, whose bike hit Rabat who was sitting in the gravel, smashing into the Reale Avintia rider’s right leg, breaking his tibia, fibula, and femur, requiring surgery and putting him out of the running for a long time, if not for the remainder of the season.

Having been the first to fall, Alex Rins did his best to emulate Kevin Schwantz at Donington in 1992, running out into the gravel to warn other riders to take care, while all around him, riders headed into the gravel, unable to brake on the water-soaked surface.

Jorge Lorenzo came flying by, as did others, until eventually the session was red flagged.

Those crashes triggered a chain of events which saw the MotoGP race start moved forward to 11:30am local time, to avoid the expected heavy rain on Sunday afternoon, which could have made it difficult to run the race.

It caused delays as the riders were forced to wait for the return of the medical helicopter, which had flown Tito Rabat to hospital in Coventry. And it created a fascinating spectacle during qualifying, where timing ended up being everything.

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.”