MotoGP got off to an inauspicious start at Assen. Just a couple of minutes into FP1 on Friday morning, the red flags were already out. The cause? Andrea Dovizioso's Ducati Desmosedici GP17 had started spewing oil all over the track on his out lap, causing first Jonas Folger to take a massive tumble through the gravel at Duikersloot. It also took down Dovizioso's teammate Jorge Lorenzo.
"I felt some movement a few corners before," Folger said of his crash. "I had a highside, and then the bike hit me as well." After a brief check up at the Medical Center, Folger was sent on his way again. Fortunately for the Tech 3 rider, it took the best part of half an hour to clean up the oil left on the track by Dovizioso, so he had plenty of time to get back to the garage and get ready again.
Surprisingly, the crash left him with few ill consequences. Folger was able to get back out, and build up his confidence again. So much so, in fact, that he ended the day as second fastest, with only a masterful Maverick Viñales ahead of him. Where had his speed come from? Confidence mainly. He had gained confidence from the past couple of rounds, and especially at Barcelona. Being fastest during warm up in Barcelona, and seeing Marc Márquez struggle to match his pace had given Folger a boost. This, and working out that he needed to brake later, had made a world of difference.
What had caused Dovizioso's oil leak? As usual in such cases, the rider was deliberately vague about the details. The problem had not come from an engine blow up, he said. The engine had not been damaged, and he had used the same one in the afternoon. The most likely explanation was that a hose or clamp had worked loose, though the fact that Danilo Petrucci's GP17 did the same thing shortly afterwards suggests a slightly more serious issue.
Whatever the problem, it did not slow Dovizioso up. The Italian finished the session as fourth fastest, just behind Marc Márquez. Two wins in two races had made Dovizioso confident, though he reiterated that winning at one track did not necessarily mean much at the next. But he was not too surprised to be quick. "We were fast in FP3 last year," he said. He was not strong in braking, and it was still hard to get the bike to turn in the long, fast corners, but Dovizioso was pleased with where he was. He had good pace, and was only really concerned by the pace of Marc Márquez on used tires.
Well, that, and the astonishing speed of Maverick Viñales. "Viñales confirmed a really strong situation," Dovizioso said with his customary sense of understatement. Viñales was much happier at Assen than he had been in Barcelona two weeks ago. "From the first moment, already I was feeling good on the bike," he said. That showed: Viñales was over a third of a second quicker than Jonas Folger, and two thirds of a second faster than Marc Márquez.
Maverick hearts grip
The cause? Grip, and lots of it. "When we have grip, the bike is really nice to ride," he said. Viñales was evasive over which chassis he used, both he and Valentino Rossi having one each of the new chassis tested at Barcelona, and the "standard" 2017 chassis he started out the season with. He fobbed us of with a few platitudes about "trying and discussing the chassis," but at Barcelona, he had not been particularly enthusiastic. "The difference is not very big," he said.
Valentino Rossi saw things rather differently, which suggests a split in the Yamaha camp over the direction of development. "We can work more on the new chassis, and I confirmed the good feeling which I had in Barcelona and I can be a bit more competitive," Rossi said. "I prefer the new one." It left Rossi in sixth at the end of the day, just a couple of thousandths behind Cal Crutchlow. The fact that he could be quick gave him some breathing space, and a chance to work on the details which can be the difference between a podium and a win. But there was still a long way to go before he could dare to start thinking along those lines. "For sure we have a lot of work to do, because I think that the balance of the bike is still not at 100%. I suffer, I have some chatter, so we have to work. So especially in the fast corners, I'm not fantastic."
Rossi may have been sixth, but the entire field beyond third place was incredibly close. Marc Márquez may have been two thirds of a second behind the fastest rider Maverick Viñales, but he was also only three tenths faster than Alvaro Bautista in ninth spot. In fact, the same two thirds of a second which covered Viñales to Márquez also covered Márquez in third to Aleix Espargaro in thirteenth. Third to eighteenth place was covered by a single second. Once you look past Viñales, there is very little in it beyond him.
The aero loophole?
One interesting development was that Cal Crutchlow spent some time using Honda's aerodynamic fairing, trying it out in both sessions of free practice. Crutchlow was rather ambivalent about the fairing, saying that it was hard to evaluate, as it really needed some work on suspension and geometry to get the best out of it.
"At the moment it seems a little difficult to understand," Crutchlow said. "We need to maybe adjust the settings of the bike. I know it's only a fairing, but last year with the wings we adjusted the bike quite a lot setting-wise and suspension-wise. And now we maybe have to do that again, if we want to continue with it. I don't know whether we will continue with it over the weekend or not. We'll see tomorrow."
It was obvious that it was not a huge step forward. ""If it was completely better, you would see Marc and Dani using it. That's not me making an off the cuff comment, that's logical. But, I'm also trying to work and see if we can improve it and what works best with the package." That is, in part, why Crutchlow has been handed the fairing to test: to lighten the workload on Pedrosa and Márquez. Pedrosa dismissed the idea of testing the fairing, saying he had "no time" to test it properly. There is already so little time each weekend, he said, so adding even more work in evaluating what difference a fairing made was not useful.
What is particularly intriguing about Honda's aerodynamic fairing is the way in which they have chosen to go about it. They have read the rules very carefully, and are exploiting every possible loophole which they can. Firstly, HRC have chosen only to use the fairing for Cal Crutchlow. The rules say that factories can homologate fairings for each rider separately, so by handing the work of to Crutchlow, they leave all of Pedrosa's and Márquez' options open for the rest of the season.
Breaking the law
But there is also a question of how the rules should be interpreted. Section 18.104.22.168.10 d) of the FIM regulations contains the following exception:
It is allowed that some parts of a homologated Aero Body component may not be mounted on the motorcycle (eg. hand guards used in wet weather only).
How to distinguish between permanent and temporary parts of the fairing? If the part is detachable, such as with hand guards, then they are considered temporary parts, and not necessarily part of the homologated aerodynamics body. That would appear to open a loophole, through which Honda may be about to drive a coach and horses. The outer shell of the aerodynamic structure on Crutchlow's LCR Honda was affixed with some very visible rivets. That means that the structure is removable, and as such, is a temporary part of the fairing. As such, does that mean it is not subject to the aerodynamic homologation requirements? Right now, we don't know. But if HRC turn up with different shaped ducts for Crutchlow to try, then we will quickly find out.
Strong and stable
There was one rider who had a particularly bad day at Assen. Jorge Lorenzo finished in fourteenth, and well outside the top ten. Though he was only seven tenths down on Marc Márquez – a spot with plenty of margin for improvement – he was not at all comfortable on the Ducati. "It was a very difficult day. I expected it to go much better but it was not like that. The reality was quite different and today I struggled so much from the beginning," he said.
The problem is a lack of stability, especially in the fast corners. Lorenzo is a rider which thrives on stability, so when it is missing, it becomes very difficult for him. For that instability to manifest itself at Assen, a track which has bitten Lorenzo so very severely in the past, makes it very tough for the Spaniard to get his head around.
"I expected a much better feeling from the beginning," Lorenzo explained. "It was not what I found. I expected to solve those last two sectors where I have struggled a lot in the last two years. But for the moment I couldn’t. I couldn’t ride like the fastest one and I lose four or five tenths in these two corners." Stability is an issue for many riders – both the Honda and the Ducati is shaking its head in the high winds and fast corners – but Lorenzo's extra sensitivity to bike movement makes it even worse. It looks like it will be a long weekend for Lorenzo.
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