"It was a very tricky day in Le Mans, like always," was the verdict of Fabio Quartararo on Friday evening, after a wet morning session and afternoon practice on a track which was rapidly drying, but never quite dry. He spoke for just about everyone, the track proving especially treacherous in the afternoon, ending FP2 almost completely dry with a few damp patches, enough to catch a few riders out, including Aprilia's Bradley Smith and Aleix Espargaro, Ducati's Andrea Dovizioso, KTM rookie Brad Binder, and the LCR Honda of Takaaki Nakagami.
Most were just harmless falls, the front washing out on a damp patch, but Bradley Smith found himself propelled into the air when the traction control on his Aprilia RS-GP couldn't react quickly enough to the rear spinning up when he hit a damp patch on track. "I was feeling alright this afternoon, the wet patches were quite scary," he said. "I felt like I was managing the situation quite good but just got caught out by that one. TC didn’t catch me in time! And down I went."
It was his own fault, he acknowledged. Riding in nearly-dry conditions, lapping 4 or 5 seconds off record pace, means that riders are much less aggressive on the throttle, rolling through the corners more, opening the throttle later. As a consequence, the rear tire is never spinning enough to start to engage the traction traction control, Smith explained. "You've just got to understand that in those type of conditions, when you do have wet patches you're spinning maybe 50% less than you normally do. So you're well underneath when the TC should start working in theory."
Hitting a damp patch on the track means the rear starts spinning up at far to great a rate for the traction control to respond to, Smith said. "Obviously if you hit a wet patch at that point your slip goes super quickly up and then the TC has no chance to catch that, because it's not working at that point." It was up to the rider to bear that in mind, he said. "It's one of those joys of riding in tricky conditions and it catches you out."
Cold and wet
It wasn't just the damp patches that made the session so dangerous, Valentino Rossi pointed out. "Today the conditions were very dangerous," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "Very much at the limit, because it's not just wet but also very cold and this afternoon with the slick tires, with this temperature that is less than 20°C on the ground, it was very difficult and very dangerous. Also because of wet patches."
Difficult and dangerous it might have been, but Jack Miller certainly didn't make it look that way. After a quick foray out on wets at the start of FP2 to figure out where the drying line was, the Pramac Ducati rider was the first rider to swap to slicks, and within a lap was a second or more faster than anyone else. It resulted in an almost Marc Márquez-esque domination of the session, Miller only relinquishing top spot while he was in the pits.
Márquez-esque is the trick he uses to being so quick in such sketchy conditions. Miller explained how the secret was to push as hard as possible from the outset to get the Michelin slicks up to temperature, and use the grip they will then provide. "The biggest thing with these conditions that I've found is that the harder you can push straight away, the safer it is, because you're getting the temperature in the tires," Miller told us. "So that's what my mentality is, go out and try to get temperature into the tires, because if you can get the temperature into the tires, I can make the me work, and they work a lot better."
Push on through
They key was to know where the dry line is and then exploit that, Miller explained. "The biggest thing is that especially on the out lap, just find the dry line. That's why I went out on the used wets originally just to understand where the dry line was. When I put the slicks in, it was drizzling a little bit, but I knew where the dry lines were, so I just had to go out and immediately on the out lap really start to force the front in the braking zones to get temperature in both sides of the tire, and really force the rear on the exit. Even though there are a couple of wet patches, with the bikes they way they are, we can get them to sort of absorb the wet patches as much as possible."
The front tire was key, Miller said, but that also depended on having a bike which can turn and hold a line, and not drift off of the dry line."That's the biggest issue, because if you've got a bike that struggles to turn, and you can't keep it on the dry line, that's always a disaster, especially when you've got the slick tires. But if you're able to get out and keep it on the dry line – some of them are on a bit of a strange line, but it doesn't matter – if you're able to semi keep it on the dry line, and only go across the minimum wet patches as possible, and really try to force the front tire, especially on the out lap."
That meant pushing hard in some places he might not normally. "I knew that down the hill at Turn 5, it was semi dry just about a meter off the kerb on the inside, so I really forced the tire into there, almost like I'm on a qualifying lap. That sort of braking pressure, even though I'm going a lot slower, just to try to squish the tire and get it to start to work."
The Márquez Paradox
This is the paradox Miller highlighted. There is no time to build confidence on slicks on a drying track, you have to go out and push hard, have faith in your ability to get the tires up to temperature, then use those hot tires to go even faster. If you tried to take your time, the tires would never get hot enough to generate the full grip potential they have. "That's been my biggest thing," Miller said. "If you go out and you wobble around, or you go out and you're not 100% convinced, that's when I feel it's more dangerous, because you're not pushing the tires, the tires are going cold, and they're not working any more."
It is right to make the comparison with Marc Márquez here, because this is how the reigning world champion has managed to dominate flag-to-flag races and tricky conditions in the past. That is why the Repsol Honda rider has been able to be seconds quicker in conditions other riders fear. It is why he could win by such convincing margins at Brno in 2017, for example, or win the insane race at the Sachsenring in 2014, when half the grid started from pit lane. And it is why he was handed a 30-second penalty in Argentina in 2018, after bouncing off his rivals on his way through the field on a drying track.
It is a pity that dry weather is forecast for the rest of the Le Mans weekend. If Miller has mastered the same trick as Márquez – and previous performances suggest this is very much the case – then there is reason for the rest of the grid to fear him in a flag-to-flag race. In the space of a handful of laps, Miller could put 10 seconds or more into the field, as others ride around tentatively waiting for their tires to get up to temperature.
The nature of the Ducati could also be helping Miller here. The bike is capable of braking very hard in a straight line, which can put load into the front tire. And with 300 or so horses corralled inside the fairing of the Desmosedici GP20, putting heat and force into the rear tire is no issue either.
That is not the case for the Suzukis, however. Joan Mir had been happy enough in the full wet morning session on the GSX-RR, he said, but mixed conditions in the afternoon had been a very different kettle of fish. "The second session was more difficult than the first," Mir said. "The track was not completely dry and I was struggling to make the front work in good way. I was not able to be fast."
The problem was getting heat into the front tire, he acknowledged. "I had this problem a bit today. We are working on that. We can see clearly that we were not able to use the front fork, the front part of the bike in a good way." It is perhaps a corollary of Suzuki's qualifying issue, which is also down to an inability to put a lot of load into the tires in a short time frame. The benefit of this is that the GSX-RR has fantastic tire wear, and is unbeatable at the end of the race. But the downside is that you can't extract more from the tire when you need it in short order.
With dry weather expected for Saturday and Sunday, what could be learned from a wet and a damp session on Friday? That depended on your perspective. "Not much," was Franco Morbidelli's judgment. "Sincerely, from a day like this you can only ride the bike and enjoy. The only thing you can do."
Others disagreed, among them Maverick Viñales. "Today was useful to try the new bike in the wet, because we didn't make one practice on a really wet track," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "The bike was good, I felt really positive, I could ride really good, and at the end of the practice, I did good lap times in a row, which is important to get a good rhythm. Then in mixed conditions, it's always very difficult for us, but somehow I could find the right feeling very fast, and finally we arrived fast. But tomorrow will be dry, so things will be different. Anyway, if the bike was working good in these mixed conditions, it means tomorrow we will work well."
Normally, Viñales said, he would except to be around 1.5 behind Jack Miller in mixed conditions. To end the session under two tenths behind the Pramac Ducati was a very positive sign.
Losing a championship is easy to do
In a compressed season, with six races in the next seven weeks, conditions like Friday also posed a serious risk. As Moto2 championship leader Luca Marini found out after suffering a massive highside in FP2. The crash was so bad he was taken to hospital for further scans on his injured ankle, the Sky VR46 Racing team fearing Marini had fractured his malleolus, the protrusions on each side of his ankle. Fortunately for Marini, the scans came up negative, and Marini should be able to continue this weekend. But things could have turned out a lot worse for the Italian.
That was something which championship leader Fabio Quartararo was acutely aware of. "In these conditions I take care, because it is not two laps in FP2 that will make a big difference during the weekend," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "You saw Marini’s crash in Turn 4, and here with Maverick there was a big difference in terms of lap times. So, in these conditions when it is tricky and we know that the day after will be better, I prefer to stay calm, to not do stupid mistakes. That's why today I took it really easy and I think that was really important. In conditions like this you can lose the championship really easily."
Quartararo had looked off the pace, and he acknowledged that he was having problems on corner exit. "I can say that in the braking zone, I was like them, but actually our bike position was not the correct one, and during the mid corner grip, acceleration, our bike was really different, and I had zero grip," he said. "But the positive thing is that before checking any data, I knew where the problem was, in FP1 and in FP2. So I think that helps me a lot, and that gives me a lot of confidence for tomorrow, because I know that at the moment I need to go on the limit, I will be fast. And I think that this is really good and it's one of the first times that I have this confidence."
Quartararo's focus is very much on Joan Mir, the man he expects to be fighting for the title with, and this concentrated his mind on what was needed. "We need to adapt quickly," the Frenchman said. "I’m fighting with Joan. He doesn’t have wet race experience. Of course Maverick and Dovi have a lot of experience. If it’s raining it’s the same for everyone. We need to be clever. It looks like we found something that can help us improve. Of course I prefer the dry but if it rains we will adapt and do our best."
On Friday, one technical novelty made its appearance. The KTMs finally got their holeshot device, working similarly to the one on the Ducatis, where a hydraulic piston is inserted into the suspension link to lower the rear of the bike for the start. Pol Espargaro and Brad Binder had clearly been briefed to say as little as possible about the device, but they could not avoid questions being asked about it.
KTM had been caught in an arms race off the starting line, Pol Espargaro said, and had no choice but to respond. "We were the only ones not using it and we put it on now, here," the Spaniard explained. "Dani was testing it in Portimao. We are trying it and it works OK but we need more info and more starts. We only did two, one in the wet and one in the dry so we need more experience with it, but it looks OK."
Brad Binder was similarly vague. "I did try a start this morning and we did plan one for the afternoon, so I didn’t get a chance to really test it out," the South African said. "The thing feels quite cool. So far so good and we just need more time to really try it out to see how everything works."
Whether they will use it remains to be seen. The biggest issue for Le Mans is the fact that the first corner after the start is the fast and sweeping Turn 1, where the bikes don't brake much. The holeshot devices are all automatically released once the bike undergoes heavy braking, but that doesn't happen at Turn 1, the real braking happening shortly afterward for the chicane. That left the KTM riders with a dilemma. "We don’t know if we will use it for the race," Pol Espargaro said. "We need to know if it will affect us for the first corner which is a very fast right. We don’t want any problems." They will need more practice starts to understand how it reacts before being confident enough to use it.
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