The trouble with raised expectations is that they are so often trumped by reality. After all the hype about Misano's new surface, there was much puzzlement among the MotoGP riders, and among the teams. Danny Kent's reaction after Moto3 practice was typical. "Having heard so many people say that it's two seconds a lap quicker than last year... I'd love to know where I can find two seconds!" So much had been expected that it could only ever end in disappointment.
That's not to say the surface was poor. Praise for the new track was universal, and the times were definitely quick. In Moto3, Danny Kent beat the race lap record. In Moto2, Tito Rabat was over a tenth quicker than the existing pole record. And Jorge Lorenzo managed the same feat in MotoGP, breaking the existing pole record by a few hundredths. To do so on a Friday, when the track is still relatively dusty, and fairly green (new and not yet worn in), means the track really is a lot quicker, and times will probably drop quickly on Saturday, once the riders start to turn up the wick.
But teams and riders had been caught off guard. Several teams tried something a bit different on Friday morning, partly with an eye to a much grippier surface. With temperatures much cooler than during the MotoGP tests here in July, the reasoning went, the track should be faster, and so bikes were set up to deal with that. Such experiments were quickly abandoned in favor of the base setting which worked at other circuits, and this provided an instant improvement. It turns out that a solid base setting is the best starting point for just about any circuit, no matter what you might hope to encounter.
As is so often the case, Bradley Smith explained the situation best. "The track is not as good as I expected," Smith told us. "Everyone was chirping up about it being seconds quicker. I mean, it's better, for sure they have done a good job with the bumps, and I don't know if anyone has ridden it in the rain yet, but it certainly seems to have better grip out there. But it's not made me go, oh wow, that's amazing! It's just given the track back to the grip that other tracks have. It's back in the normal realm of what is acceptable for MotoGP, whereas before it was dangerous. It was an ice skating rink to ride round here. They have just brought it back into the right safety regulations in terms of performance. But like I said, in a few places the bumps are a bit better, but the track still has exactly the same feel to what we had before. The front still closes in exactly the same places, overheats the tire in exactly the same areas, so as I said, it's nothing like the step I expected. It looks like Misano, it feels like Misano, it is Misano." It is Misano, but a better Misano than it used to be.
Those who have ridden the track regularly, such as Valentino Rossi and Simone Corsi, had reported that the grip had already dropped a lot as the track bedded in. When it was new, the surface was amazing, but as it wears, it becomes much more like a normal track. "I expect this a little bit because the surface was very, very dark at the beginning," Rossi explained. "There was a lot of grip the first time that I tried. But after you see already the asphalt colour has changed and lost a lot of the side grip. For me now it is halfway between the old surface last year and this year, the first time that they resurfaced. But it is like this and quite normal."
All those hours circulating on a Yamaha YZF-R1M had not been as much help as the conspiracy theorists had projected. Rossi was struggling in the morning, and though they made a change to the bike for the afternoon which was a big step forward, Rossi is still of the pace of his teammate and the two Repsol Hondas. Rossi and his team had worked well, and improved step by step, but there was still plenty of work left to do. "I don’t feel comfortable at 100 percent and we have to work to try to improve. I’m still not fast enough in braking and the entry."
No such problems for Jorge Lorenzo. The Spaniard was fast right out of the box in the morning, ending just under a tenth slower than Marc Márquez, despite the fact that Márquez had tested here back in July. By the afternoon, the roles had reversed, Lorenzo taking over at the front, and looking serene and in charge. Standing track side to watch in the afternoon, Lorenzo looked his usual imperious self. Smooth, unruffled, going fast while at the same time seeming to move his body around in slow motion, shifting his weight in a single, unhurried motion. He looked smoother at record pace than I have ever looked on a motorcycle riding around well within the posted speed limit. It is a truism by now, but that smoothness really doesn't come across when watching on TV. Seeing it in the flesh, especially from the privileged position of the circuit slip road, Lorenzo exudes control, power, calm. It is a sight to strike terror into the hearts of his opponents.
Marc Márquez was quick to anoint Lorenzo as the favorite, saying "Jorge will be the strongest one this weekend." Márquez had the pace, but not quite at the level of Lorenzo, perhaps caused by the amount of experimentation he and his team were engaged in. They had come expecting to continue where they left off at the test, but that had not been the case. Márquez also tested a new swingarm both in the morning and the afternoon, but shelved it after the first day. It had a few positives, Márquez explained, but they did not outweigh the negatives, but in reality, the swingarm was more about 2016 than 2015. He will not be using it again this weekend.
Márquez had praised Lorenzo's pace, but he was quick to point to his teammate. "We cannot forget Dani," Márquez said, impressed by Pedrosa's pace. Pedrosa himself was not impressed by his best time, but took comfort in the race pace he had achieved. "I would be happy to be a little bit faster on the lap time but I think the key also on this track is to have a good rhythm so I’ve been working on that." He managed that alright, lapping close to the pace of Lorenzo.
That Misano is a strong track for the Yamaha was evinced by the fact that the two Tech 3 Yamahas were also inside the top eight, making half the bikes in the top eight Yamahas. Pol Espargaro finished ahead of his teammate for a change, the first time for a while, but Smith too was pleased. Smith was one of those riders who had not chased an exotic set up in the morning, and that had paid off in the afternoon.
Andrea Dovizioso benefited from the test, though he too was mystified by the lack of grip. It was different to the test, but despite not having a good feeling with the bike, Dovizioso was still fast, ending the session in fourth. The Ducati rider pinpointed the wind as a possible confounding factor, blowing in the opposite direction (from behind along the main straight, instead of as a headwind) to normal. That meant it was easy to miss braking points and get things wrong. Danilo Petrucci also had a good outing, ending in seventh on his first outing with the GP14.2.
The Suzukis were the riders suffering the most. Though both Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales praised the grip of the new circuit, they were left frustrated by the lack of pace, and especially acceleration. Out of the many first and second gear corners, they could not keep up, Espargaro said, unable to match the Yamahas and the Hondas, let alone the Ducatis.
There was some discussion of tires, though consensus was that the medium rear (the softest for the Hondas and Yamahas, the hardest for the Ducatis and Suzukis) was going to be the race tire. The medium is only a little softer than the factory hard, and asymmetric, which helped. The hard is symmetric, using the same rubber on both sides, but with Misano being short on left handers, that tire would only work in very hot conditions. That Bridgestone should bring a completely symmetric tire left them open to a few jokes. It was, one crew chief joked, a completely normal tire. "What are Bridgestone doing bringing a normal tire?" he quipped. Despite being "normal" the hard rear was good enough. Jorge Lorenzo was lapping in the mid-to-high 1'33s with the hard tire, before cutting several tenths a lap once he switched to the medium. Even on the hard, there were few who could follow his pace.
The front tire is a little more tricky. Everyone we spoke to were caught between the hard front and the medium front, there being a decent step between the two. The medium tire turned better, but lacked stability in braking. It also had a tendency to overheat, Bradley Smith said, especially at the end of sequence of right handers from Curvone into Carro. By the end, he said, you were riding on chewing gum. The hard was better in terms of stability, but did not turn as well, but rising temperatures could perhaps cure that ill. Gambling on the temperatures getting hotter was tricky, though, especially as there was the first obstacle of qualifying on Saturday.
The big talking point on Friday were the winglets which made a magical appearance on Jorge Lorenzo's bike at the end of FP2. They had been tested at Aragon, Lorenzo explained, and he had wanted to try them at Misano. There was no clear difference, the Spaniard said, adding that he had yet to study the telemetry. "It's not a big difference, because if it was, we would notice so much from the first lap," Lorenzo explained. Rossi did not try the winglets, though he said he may give them a whirl on Saturday.
Do the winglets really help? It is hard to say. An area of roughly 500 cm² is unlikely to generate a huge amount of grip until the bikes start to exceed 300 km/h. The lack of clear feedback – both from Lorenzo and from the Ducati riders – suggests that any effect is minimal, at least in the physical sense. The fact that they appeared on Lorenzo's bike and not Rossi's speaks volumes. When Rossi is trying to win a championship, his focus is on extracting the maximum from the existing package, rather than testing something new. Lorenzo, on the other hand, is always looking for an advantage, to the extent that he may find himself trying something that has no effect, the advantage existing solely in the mind of the rider. One old paddock hand was skeptical, describing the winglets as being used to "tweak Jorge's mind" rather than actually change the bike much. Lorenzo's extreme corner speed style requires ultimate confidence. Small, but potentially ineffectual changes may yet help Lorenzo, giving him the feeling he can go faster. And when Jorge Lorenzo believes he can go faster, he does go faster.
In the end, the winglets could well be just another totem. Like favorite numbers, the reluctance to run the #1 plate, certain rituals before a session, lucky clothing and more, what counts is what goes on in the mind of the rider. At the very peak of motorcycle racing, it is not talent which separates the riders, but strength of will. Anything that helps boost that is by definition a performance booster, no matter what the data says.
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