The Circuito de Velocidad in Jerez is not just a single circuit, it is three. It is a highly abrasive, very grippy track in the wet. It is a grippy, flowing track in the dry, when track temperatures are below around 35°C. And it is a treacherous, greasy, low-grip track when it is above 40°C. It didn't rain today (nor will it for the rest of the weekend) and so we only got to see two of the three tracks on Friday. But boy were they different.
Different or not, the same man ended both MotoGP sessions at the top of the timesheets. In the cool of the morning, when track temps were low and grip high, Lorenzo went out and dominated, hammering out a string of low 1'39s, well below the lap record pace. In the afternoon, the Movistar Yamaha man took his time, experimenting with then discounting the harder of the two tire options, before putting the soft back in and running another string of mid 1'39s, five of which were better than Marc Márquez' second fastest lap. It felt like the real Jorge Lorenzo was back.
Was Lorenzo's down solely to the fact that he was running the medium tire, where others were struggling to make the hard tire work for race distance? To an extent, but that is to misunderstand Lorenzo's intention. The Movistar Yamaha man believes he will be able to race the softer of the two tires, that tire being better for the Yamaha over race distance. It is better because of the way Bridgestone have changed the allocation this year, widely hailed as an improvement. For all three tires – the medium and hard for Yamaha and Honda, the soft and medium for the rest – the compounds have been changed slightly, going just a fraction harder. That has left everyone with two viable choices of tire for the race, the option of endurance with the hard, or early speed and a more predictable drop.
For Lorenzo the choice is clear. The hard rear tire was supposed to be the same as last year, but it simply was not giving the same feeling. "It spins a lot in all the corners, especially on the left," he said. The compound was supposed to be the same on the right hand side of the tire, but that felt different too, Lorenzo said. "It doesn't give you the same confidence as the soft. A lot of spinning from the first lap, also coming worse and worse." The soft tire was, in Lorenzo's opinion, the tire of choice for the race. "The softer one is much better for the spinning. Obviously after some laps it arrives, but even after eight, ten laps, it's better grip than the first lap of the hard."
Bradley Smith concurred. "I think the soft is good to race. I mean it’s going to move around a little bit but it grips. The hard tire moves around but it doesn’t even grip. I’d rather have a bit more movement and have grip than have a more stable bike and not do the lap times. It’s clear it can do the race no problem." Smith expects two drops in tire performance over the course of the race, and the rider who manages that best will be the man to win. Finding the right set up would be key, he said. "If you can work out a setting to get just the one that’s where you’re really going to make a difference. With such high speed corners you have to be so careful to keep that entry grip, to keep the side grip and drive grip. You’ve got to keep the speed. There isn’t two ways to ride this track. There are other tracks that when the tire drops you can brake a little bit deeper, point and squirt. But you spend so much time here on the side. If that goes away you’re a sitting duck."
So will all the Yamaha men be racing the softer tire? "I hope no!" Pol Espargaro protested. "Jorge is really fast with this tire but me not. In the end I hope everyone use the extra hard front and rear because with this type of tire we are really good. The rhythm was good, consistent and the confidence with the bike is really good. Maybe tomorrow we have to test the soft tire and see what is the plan for the race."
Valentino Rossi was equally skeptical, preferring to follow the tactic which worked so well for him in Argentina. Rossi spent most of the day searching for a set up which will work with the hard rear tire, and allow him to be competitive for most of the race. Rossi's problem with the hard rear was similar to his teammate's, the rear was simply spinning too much, and not providing forward motion. But the Italian appears to be chasing set up for the hard, and using the medium solely as a qualifier. He needs to find something, but the success he had in Argentina leaves him feeling optimistic.
Over in Honda, the hard tire appears to be the best option. Marc Márquez was convinced that was the tire he will be racing, though he too has some work to do to improve grip in the greasy conditions. But those are conditions which the Honda handles well, and so he will not be too disconcerted by it. What he is finding distracting is the pain in his little finger. It is ironic that such a small and seemingly insignificant bone should cause such serious problems. Márquez rode a few weeks after breaking his leg at the start of last year, yet that did not slow him down. You do not use your legs as much riding a motorcycle, however. Certainly nowhere near as much as you use your fingers. Márquez has a slim, carbon-fiber brace piece taped to his finger, to help protect and support the little finger. He has specially made gloves from Alpinestars, with the little finger widened just large enough to allow him to fit his finger plus brace inside it. And he has a modified handlebar grip, made broader, allowing him to grip the bars without bending his little finger so much.
Márquez rode without painkillers on Friday, often the preferred option for racers. Painkillers can dull the senses, and cause a little bit of wooziness, just enough to take the edge off the hyper focus motorcycle racers need to be competitive. Pain can distract, but it can also help concentrate the mind, so they prefer to have the pain and hope to cope with it. The question Márquez was worried about was not so much the pain he was having, as how his injured finger would react overnight. Injured bones can sometimes respond to being loaded with swelling and inflammation, and that would make riding truly difficult. As it was, Márquez said, he was waiting for Saturday, and what a night's rest would bring.
Actually riding was not as bad as anticipated, though Márquez was suffering both in hard braking and in acceleration. Fortunately, Jerez is mostly right handers, putting less strain on his injured left finger. How the finger will react over race distance is another question altogether. Clearly, Márquez' injury has not had that much impact on his raw speed. It is his endurance which is something to worry about.
Cal Crutchlow is also suffering, though he managed to put his suffering, and that of all motorcycle racers, into some kind of perspective. "My physical condition isn’t the best. I’ve had the flu. I actually got it on Wednesday so I feel a bit ****," Crutchlow said. "You look at it on the grand scheme of things I have the cold and the flu but I’m still here and I can still ride a motorbike. On the other side of the world there are 6,000 people that can’t do anything." The tragedy in Nepal is a stark reminder that breaking bones or getting ill is far from the worst thing that can happen to you.
While the Yamaha was strong in the cool of the morning, and the Honda strong in the heat of the afternoon, the Ducati now appears to work whatever the conditions it finds itself in. Andrea Dovizioso was fourth fastest both in the morning and in the afternoon, the bike responding well to whatever the weather threw at it. The Italian was delighted to be so quick, and to have the bike work well at a circuit which has traditionally been Ducati's bogey track. The bike was good on corner entry, it was turning very well. It worked well in the morning, it worked well in the afternoon. The only problem is whether they can get the tires to last, an issue which everybody faces. But this was yet another confirmation that the Ducati Desmosedici GP15 has speed everywhere, and is a far more capable bike. Gigi Dall'Igna has produced a machine that has gone from being fatally flawed to the best machine on the grid. Impressive work for just a single season.
The Suzuki isn't too bad either. Aleix Espargaro was delighted that Suzuki had found a solution to the chatter which had plagued the bike after a few laps. The issue was not actually chatter, but more an undamped vibration from the tire, one which also only appeared on the right hand side of the bike. Espargaro was incredulous when he heard what the solution to the issue was, replacing a very cheap part with one with different damping qualities. Though no one would speak directly, there are good reasons to suspect the cush drive, which was vibrating at the same frequency as the tire.
Those with a long memory will remember the RC213V in 2012, when the bike had to cope with extra weight. That, too, had a vibration on the right of the bike, Casey Stoner explaining that the problem was solved by changing "a $2 part". Sometimes, it is the small things which count.
Casey Stoner's name was dropped a lot during a press conference held by HRC, featuring HRC vice president Shuhei Nakamoto, and Repsol Honda team principal Livio Suppo. Billed as a chance to discuss the Repsol Honda team's progress so far in 2015, the atmosphere between the HRC managers and the media soon grew very chilly indeed. The Honda pairing faced question after question about Dani Pedrosa, and why Casey Stoner had not been brought in to replace him while he recovered from surgery. The answer was always the same: no chance to give Stoner the test he needed to get himself up to speed and embedded with a completely new crew. Surely, the press insisted, there had been plenty of time for Stoner to fit in a test at some time. No, Suppo and Nakamoto insisted, there was no time, and the testing program was so full this year that there would be no time for him to test for the rest of the season. If Stoner were to come back, then the earliest he could come back would be next year. Rightly or wrongly, that statement was met with a great deal of skepticism on the side of the press.
Suppo and Nakamoto were also asked about rumors of Dorna having blocked a Stoner wildcard at Phillip Island in 2013. Both Nakamoto and Suppo dismissed this out of hand. "Bull****," said Suppo.
The pair dodged questions of what would happen if Pedrosa were to be out for longer, by insisting they were optimistic that this would not happen. Whether they have plans in place for this contingency or not, they refused to reveal them. In the short term, Hiroshi Aoyama will continue to fill in for Pedrosa. In the long term? At the moment, there is no long term.
After the press conference, a few journalists stood and asked Suppo and Nakamoto a few more questions. That provided some interesting information, though not directly linked to the question of Pedrosa. Asked whether HRC was unhappy with Márquez having made mistakes at both Qatar and Austin, Nakamoto insisted the problem at Qatar had not been a mistake by Márquez, but a mechanical issue which had caused him to miss the corner, running into other riders and dropping to the back of the pack. Nakamoto refused to say what the issue was, but two of the paddock's most respected journalists from Spain and Italy tried to get them to admit it was a problem with the clutch. Given the description of the problem, they were probably right.
They also spent a few words on new riders inside Honda's fold. Jack Miller's performance so far had been a little disappointing, Nakamoto said, but what was positive was that he was open-minded and listening to the people around him, and keen to learn. Scott Redding had also not been performing as expected, but they hoped the new chassis would help. Redding's chassis was physically different to the other Honda frames, to cope with the Englishman's giant frame. It should give him the range of adjustment other riders have, without compromising because of his height.