It feels like the two days of practice we have had at Misano are set to come to naught. With a cold first day of practice, a cool morning on the second day, and a hot afternoon, conditions have been hard enough to track, especially after heavy rain on Thursday scoured any rubber from previous events from the surface. But the riders have had no practice in the wet, and with rain set to fall on Sunday – exactly when, we don't know, but fall it will – everything is very much up in the air.
The five factories who tested here should be used to it. The track feels totally different from the test here back in August, grip levels radically lower. Tires feel very different too, despite Michelin insisting they are using the same tires this weekend as they brought to the test. It's all a bit topsy turvy, so why should adding a bit of rain make it any more complicated.
A wet Sunday would be a shame in more than one way. The Misano races in all three classes are shaping up to be fantastic spectacles. In Moto3, four of the top five in the championship start from the first two rows, with Enea Bastianini thrown into the mix for good measure. Moto2 pits Franco Morbidelli against a resurgent Mattia Pasini, the Italian veteran making it four pole positions in a row. Tom Luthi may be on the third row, but his qualifying position belies his pace. Sadly, Alex Márquez will be absent, the Spaniard having banged up his hip badly enough that it's trapped a nerve.
The battle we've been waiting for?
As for MotoGP, the lap analysis intimates that we could have the makings of a titanic battle on our hands. Marc Márquez has been quick all weekend and all weathers, whether it be sunny and hot or cool and cloudy. Maverick Viñales has made a big step forward, thanks to the 2018 chassis and an electronics update tried at the test. If it were going to be hot on Sunday – it won't be – then Jorge Lorenzo would be right there with Viñales and Márquez. And almost certainly, Andrea Dovizioso would be along for the ride.
Dovizioso almost took pole, his first since Sepang last year. But Maverick Viñales had other plans, the Movistar Yamaha rider posting a searing time with his final lap. Dovizioso might even have been bumped into third had Marc Márquez finished his last flying lap, but the Spaniard ran wide, touched a white line, and slid out.
Fortunately, Márquez bounces
It was his nineteenth crash of the season, already over the seventeen he had in 2016, and there are still six races and five full weekends left to go. He was untroubled by the crash, as usual. "I’m pushing my 100% like always, but this championship is so tight and looks like we are working well in a good way, but I’m riding on the limit all the time. Also it’s a little bit my style but of course, I don’t want to crash. But I prefer to find the limit in the practice."
Cal Crutchlow was impressed by Márquez' resilience in the face of so many crashes. "It doesn’t matter to him," the LCR Honda rider said. "I know riders that would end their career if they crashed as much as him. Marc, it’s not going to knock him one bit. He’s crashing because he’s having to push so hard. How many times have you seen Viñales crash this year? He’s not having to push as anywhere near as Marc is to go the same speed."
Fast and slow, hot and cold
Above all, Márquez was happy, being fast in every session so far, no matter what the conditions. He was fast when it was cold, on Friday and in FP3, and he was fast when it was hot in FP4 too, though his advantage over the other riders shrank as temperatures went up. If it is dry on Sunday, it will be cold, and if it's cold, Márquez will be fast.
That was very different to almost everyone else, most improving as the track grip got better in the afternoon heat. A notable exception was Dani Pedrosa, but the Repsol Honda rider was struggling with the setup direction the team had decided to go. "Today we struggled more than yesterday, and we didn't find a good feeling on the bike," he said. "I think it was a more difficult day. So we need to see what the weather is tomorrow, and what the right tire choice, and this depends a lot."
Will Lorenzo burst onto the scene?
The rider who has perhaps benefited most from the heat is Jorge Lorenzo, who has been transformed into a genuine threat as grip levels have risen. Lorenzo has been on the eve of a breakthrough with the Ducati, his results not yet reflecting the greatly improved feeling he has with the bike, now it has winglets fitted.
But it was a setting change in the afternoon which brought the biggest improvement. "In each practice we were getting closer and closer, reducing the gap. Especially in FP4 we tried some settings that gave me much more confidence. Suddenly when I tried this setting I improved by half a second from 1'34.0 to 1'33.5, so I was really happy about that. This gave me the confidence to push also in the qualifying. I made the lap time in qualifying with the medium rear, so that is a good sign in case of a dry race. So yeah if I make a good start and don't lose the same distance that I lost in Silverstone I can be there with the front group for all the race. For sure it will not be easy and the level is high and Marquez, Viñales and Dovizioso have a good pace but I don’t see myself much worse than them."
Chassis, electronics, riding style
What about Maverick Viñales? If it's dry, the pole sitter is on for a very strong race. The 2018 chassis (as a reader pointed out on Twitter, the 2018 chassis should really be called the 2017 chassis, as this was the first year it was used) is an improvement, as is the electronics upgrade Yamaha tried at the test. "Today the bike was working really good, especially on FP4. I was happy how the bike was going. So, I know if I was riding well the Yamaha that I could try to make the pole. Same as Silverstone. In Silverstone I ride in my way – be aggressive trying to make the lap time. Today I try to ride smooth, trying to be careful on the gas. So, I think we found something to improve, especially on the riding style. It’s something really important. But the bike is improving now race by race. "
That riding style change is a much bigger deal than perhaps many realize. Neil Morrison and myself spoke to Wilco Zeelenberg about Yamaha's new chassis, and the Dutchman explained how Viñales was adapting his riding style in response to the benefits of the new chassis and electronics package. "The chassis is not very different," he told us. "It’s just the feeling is a bit better. That’s why they are using it. As they said in Silverstone, the bigger improvement was on the traction control side in the electronics. It gives them more feel and better controllability. For them that’s more important than the chassis."
That improvement was allowing Viñales to work on his riding style. "As you know, since the package improves and he is so motivated to do well, he is always braking very late and deep into the corner. With the Yamaha it’s not always ideal. There are some corners where you shouldn’t do that. You should brake a bit earlier and release earlier. The bike is able to carry the corner speed. He is not used to doing that, even with the Suzuki, it was completely the opposite."
"It is one part of his riding style that he learned himself from the past. Some moments it’s good because if you compared him to Jorge, we always asked him to brake later and deeper. And with him it was the opposite way. With Jorge, releasing so early the brake and putting the load on the front so gently it didn’t create enough temperature in the front tire. Maverick is a little bit the opposite. With Jorge there were always problems with graining. With Maverick never. So they ride different. But it’s not easy to accomplish and to be always spot on and I think in the qualifying he understood that he had to do it, and he had to try it. Let’s hope and we need to mention it every practice, but this is there. Just don’t brake too deep into the corner."
Viñales' riding style, and the improvements offered by the chassis, may point the way to how the new frame has been modified. Viñales said the improvements have come in corner entry, and Valentino Rossi also much preferred the new frame. If the frame is better on corner entry, and Viñales has a tendency to brake late, hard, and deep into the corner – something Rossi also tends to do – then perhaps the chassis is a little stiffer at the front, offering more resistance in braking. That is only a guess, however. What changes Yamaha actually made are an unanswered question, at the moment.
What works in the dry, doesn't in the wet
Viñales' aggression is what could cause him problems if it rains on Sunday. The Spaniard has been poor in the wet, especially since he came to MotoGP. Zeelenberg had a theory on why that is. "You’re a rain rider or you’re not a rain rider. If you know his style, he’s not very smooth. He’s quite aggressive on the brakes. You cannot load the tires as you load them in the dry conditions."
The solution to that is simple, according to Zeelenberg. "He needs to ride much more in the rain in my eyes than he had been doing. It’s difficult to practice this. You cannot jump on a MotoGP bike and just try it. If you’re going to hurt yourself, you’re going to be out for a couple of races." That, too, is a question of confidence, Zeelenberg added. It had taken Dani Pedrosa years to find his way in the wet, so for Viñales, it was merely a matter of time.
So the rain may come too soon for Maverick Viñales on Sunday. Marc Márquez is good wet or dry, hot or cold. Dani Pedrosa transformed himself into one of the best wet weather riders in the world a few years ago, and as long as Michelin's rain tires are not too hard for Pedrosa to get heat into, he can also be competitive. The Ducati is renowned for being strong in the wet, and Andrea Dovizioso's recent run of wins kicked off in Sepang last year, in a race that saw the rain pouring down and the track soaking wet.
If it's dry tomorrow, we could see a three- or four-way battle between the title favorites plus Lorenzo. If it's wet, well, we could see the same, only without Viñales. Whatever happens, we are in for a good day's racing.
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 2017 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.