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.
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.
MotoGP’s Asia-Pacific races tend to get lumped together in the popular imagination. They are “The Flyaways”, formerly three, now four races in parts East, a long way away from the homes of the vast majority of the paddock.
The triple header – Motegi, Phillip Island, and Sepang – is especially susceptible to this, as the three back-to-back races tend to leave the paddock in a state of constant befuddlement, fatigued from jet lag, and spending much of their time on 8+ hour flights between the various venues. Everything tends to become one big blur.
Yet there are vast differences between all four flyaways. Leaving the crushing heat of Thailand, the paddock heads east to Motegi, a track where conditions can be almost Northern European, with mist, rain, and cold mornings.
Across the equator to Australia, and the edge of the Bass Strait, from a massive circuit complex to an old-fashioned facility perched on a cliff above the sea, from stop and go to fast and flowing. Then north again to Malaysia, and more oppressive tropical heat.
Conditions, tracks, and cultures, all are different. Buriram lies in the heart of Thailand, a long way from the tourist-filled beaches. Motegi is up in the hills in central Japan, a place where the 21st Century meets a very traditional culture.
Phillip Island can be boiling hot or arctic cold, those two extremes often within 20 minutes of each other on what is essentially a vacation island. Sepang sits next to Kuala Lumpur, the epitome of a fast-growing Asian city, and a hodgepodge of cultures. The contrasts could hardly be greater.
Is the Chang International Circuit a great track? It depends how you look at it.
“The Buriram circuit is really, really good, the asphalt is working in a good way with hot conditions, that is not easy. Also the runoff areas are really good, the pit boxes,” Marc Márquez said, carefully avoiding any discussion of the layout. Andrea Dovizioso was not exactly complimentary about the layout.
“The track is not the best in our championship, but at the end, everything works well.” Hardly gushing praise.
It may not be the best track layout in the championship, but it served up a veritable feast of racing. Two scintillating support races, with fierce battles both in Moto3 and Moto2, and then the fifth closest podium in premier class racing, and the fourth closest top 15 in Grand Prix history, the gap between first and fifteenth just under 24 seconds.
The last three laps of the MotoGP race were all-out war, with the lead swapping multiple times as a result of impossible passes. And over 100,000 fans braving the searing heat, cheering on their heroes with as much passion as you will find anywhere in the world. Is the Chang International Circuit a great track? It is when you measure it in terms of spectacle and atmosphere. The Thai Grand Prix is a worthy addition to the calendar.
The layout may not be fast and flowing throughout, but the fact that it is split into two halves with very different characters helped to keep the field close. The necessity to preserve tires did the same: Michelin had prepared for a cooler monsoon heat, not the unusual dry heat which meant track temperatures were 10°C higher than anticipated.
All this, combined with a final corner ideally suited to do-or-die passing attempts, and a short run to the line meaning it really had to be all or nothing going into the final turn, and we had a recipe for fantastic racing in Thailand.
So far, the inaugural Thai round of MotoGP has been full of surprises. We expected heavy rain at the track on most days, but it has been pretty much dry as a bone throughout. We expected Yamaha to be nowhere, yet the Movistar duo of Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi have looked seriously threatening all weekend.
We expected the round to be popular: the only surprise here is just how popular it has been. An estimated 65,000 fans came to watch qualifying on Saturday. To put that into perspective, that is more fans for qualifying than fans on race day at six of last year’s rounds.
Nearly twice as many as fans on race day at Phillip Island. Sunday should be packed, with a good chance that this will be the round with the highest attendance.
The hot weather has taken Michelin by surprise as well, not for the first time this year. That is hardly Michelin’s fault, however: after they introduced several changes during the 2017 season, the teams demanded that Michelin set the tire allocation at the start of the year.
That demand is coming back to bite the teams, as it is hard to get the allocation absolutely spot on if you have to predict the weather many months in advance. The hot European summer has caused problems on occasion, and now the heat in Thailand is doing the same.
“The situation is not easy, because the track conditions, they are very different compared to when we came here for the test,” Piero Taramasso, head of Michelin’s two wheel motorsport division, said on Saturday evening.
“When we came here for the test, track temperature was 48°, 49°, yesterday was 53°, today was 57°, 58°.” The heat means that there is less grip and greater tire wear than during the test, with the rear tire spinning up during acceleration.
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.
It is a common enough sight in Grand Prix racing: slower riders cruising around at the edge of the track, waiting for a faster rider to come by so they can get a tow. It is especially common at the Motorland Aragon circuit. With its massive back straight of nearly a kilometer in length, a decent slipstream can be worth an awful lot.
It is less common to see slower riders cruising for a tow in MotoGP. In Moto3, sure: with horsepower at a premium, cutting down on drag equates to free speed. In Moto2 as well, as the fact that the bikes all produce exactly the same horsepower means that riders have to find an advantage anywhere they can.
But MotoGP? A lack of horsepower is not really a problem in the premier class. The bigger problem is usually transferring it to the tarmac to generate drive, and translate that power to speed.
But Aragon is different. Sure, tucking in behind another bike can give you extra speed using their draft, but above all, using another rider as a target makes you that little bit faster. “MotoGP is so close now that if you can follow someone, get a bit of a tow, that’s obviously going to improve your time,”
Bradley Smith explained on Saturday afternoon. “We don’t see it very often in MotoGP, to be honest, as much as it was today, but it shows how important it is here in Aragon.”