What's the value of testing? Judging by Jorge Lorenzo's time on Friday – a second under the race lap record, and three tenths off the outright lap record – you would have to say that it's good at least for a day's worth of practice. The Movistar Yamahas came to the Motorland Aragon circuit having tested here twice, once after Barcelona, once before Misano. The test in September allowed them to find a strong set up for this weekend, one which works well, as Lorenzo's blistering lap time in the afternoon showed so clearly.
Though Lorenzo set his time, as Valentino Rossi put it, in "a real time attack, 100%," it was one lap in a series of four, three of which were quicker than anyone else. It was perhaps not so much an early attempt at a qualifying lap as it was simulating the start of the race. The partial sectors on Lorenzo's out lap bear that out. His time through sector 2 was relatively slow, seven tenths of a second of Rossi's fastest time through the same sector, but in sector 3, he was just a tenth off Rossi's best pace, and in the final sector, Lorenzo was faster than Rossi's quickest time through that part of the track.
Was Lorenzo going all out while Rossi sandbagged? Racing is never quite as simple as that. Lorenzo seems to have been practicing the first few laps, his strategy being to gap the field from the start and make his escape. Given that this is exactly how Lorenzo won all five of the races he took victory in this year, that should hardly be a secret. Valentino Rossi, meanwhile, was probably working on his race pace, doing slightly longer stints than his teammate, five-lap runs rather than four lappers.
Rossi was not overly concerned at the pace of his teammate, or at least, he was not admitting to it if he was. "The important thing is that we are there," Rossi said, pointing out that he had been competitive from the very first session. All too often, Rossi has struggled early in the weekend, forced to try to play catch up and hoping to pull a rabbit out of the bag on Sunday. Being fast on Friday is a confidence boost, and a confident Rossi is a man to be feared.
So we have on the one hand, a crude – and frankly rather successful – attempt by Lorenzo at striking fear into the hearts of his rivals with his sheer speed. On the other, a brash and confident Rossi, refusing to be cowed. That we should have this kind of confrontation on Friday should leave MotoGP fans rubbing their hands with glee. This could yet be quite the battle come Sunday.
And what of the Hondas? Marc Márquez showed he had strong pace, despite Aragon being full of the kind of corners which bring out the worst in the Honda RC213V, at least from the reigning world champion's perspective. Braking hard while leaned over is the area where the Honda used to excel, before HRC decided that what the bike needed above all was more horsepower, and ruined the engine's throttle response and engine braking. "At the moment, at least in this circuit, it is one of the biggest problems that we have," Márquez said. He has to brake early, giving up his strength, and with the bike lacking grip out of the corner it is hard to match the Yamahas, even at a track where Honda has dominated for so long.
Yet Márquez was not dejected after finishing nearly nine tenths behind Jorge Lorenzo. "Honestly, I expected that the gap would be even bigger today," he said. "But I think in the last run, me and Dani kept the tires, and all the other riders put a new soft rear, and so that also makes the difference." Not that the tires made as much difference as expected. Riders from both classes, Factory and Open, expressed surprise at just how little difference there was between the harder and softer options. Putting either the medium (for the factory bikes) or the soft (for the Open class bikes, Suzuki, Aprilia and Ducati) did not produce a big jump in performance.
There is a clear difference though. For the Yamahas, at least, the hard tire is not a viable race option, at least not according to the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha riders. "I did a longer run on the hard tire," Bradley Smith said. "I don't think it's really going to be a race option for us. It's just lacking performance more than anything else. Not a lot, but enough to make a difference." The hard tire was lacking grip everywhere, just "1%, 2%" according to Smith, the compound not creating the chemical bond to the asphalt which the softer compound offered.
That did not trouble the Honda men, both Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa setting their best time on the harder tire. But then, the Honda lacks grip anyway, and so the added grip of the medium offers less benefit to them than it does to the Yamaha. The Yamaha can use the extra grip to generate drive; the Honda spins regardless of the rubber underneath it.
Things were tougher over in Ducati, where Andrea Dovizioso spent all day going in and out of the garage as his team worked on the electronics. They could not find a set up that worked for them, crucial here at Aragon where tire performance drops off quickly and managing that drop and tire life is absolutely key. That is a shame, as the Desmosedici GP15 is a much better bike than the GP14.2 it replaces, the bike turning much better than the old machine. The electronics problems left Dovizioso frustrated, but he was also realistic. The GP15 may be a big step forward, he told us, but the Honda and Yamaha had made an even bigger step forward in the course of 2015. In the arms race that is MotoGP, sometimes even running flat out can leave you feeling like you are standing still.
That is very much how Suzuki riders Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales feel. The two GSX-RR riders received a minor engine update and a revised exhaust at Aragon, but neither man noticed the difference. Both had problems, Espargaro losing a morning to an underperforming tire which had already undergone one heat cycle, then not finding the speed in the afternoon. The new engine was supposed to be better, but he had not been able to notice. Viñales hadn't even got as far as worrying whether the new engine had more power or not. The Suzuki rookie has been battling a severe lack of grip in the second half of the season, his team unable to solve the problem. Without grip, horsepower becomes a lot less relevant, so having more doesn't make much difference.
At Aprilia, things are starting to look up, albeit very slowly. The Noale factory had brought a new swing arm to Aragon, which they had already tested at Misano last week. There, the swing arm gave a clear benefit, being a little longer and a little stiffer than the one they have been using previously. At Aragon, however, the benefit was less clear, so much so that Alvaro Bautista quickly abandoned it and went back to the old swing arm. Being more flexible, the older one helped the RS-GP turn, the biggest problem facing the bike.
Stefan Bradl, meanwhile, was persevering with the new swing arm. The benefit they had felt at Misano was absent at Aragon, but Bradl believed that was more down to grip than the actual swing arm. "The behavior is very similar to Misano, but this time we are struggling to find the grip," Bradl said. "In the pick up area, the grip is poor." The rear was spinning on exit, and the lack of grip was making corner entry difficult as well. In the cool of the morning, when the track had a little more grip, that had not been such a problem, Bradl posting a very impressive twelfth fastest time. The afternoon saw him back down in nineteenth, four tenths behind his teammate. "It's worrying that we didn't improve in the afternoon," Bradl opined. The direction they had chosen to explore had proven to be the wrong one.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2015 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.