What is the point of free practice? It is to prepare bike, rider, and team (not necessarily in that order) for Sunday's race. On a good weekend, you spend Friday testing your base setup and getting an idea of which tires to use. On Saturday, you refine the setup and check how your preferred tire lasts over something approaching race distance. In warm up on Sunday morning, you might try a final tweak in search of more tire life or a fraction more performance.
The goal of all this is simple: to arrive on the grid on Sunday afternoon with the best possible setup. To eliminate as many unknowns as possible, and provide the rider with the sharpest possible weapon with which to do battle. From that point on, it is up to the rider.
That's the theory. In practice, of course, it rarely runs quite that smoothly. There is always something cropping up that makes the whole process a good deal more complicated than anyone hoped, unexpected obstacles to be overcome along the way.
Then there are weekends like this. Where conditions in each session change so much that it is impossible to do any meaningful work, other than hope that race day will see conditions similar to at least one of the sessions you got some practice in. Where you have been mixing and matching tires, going from soft wets in the pouring rain to medium wets as a drying line appears, to full slicks halfway through the session. But the track never quite dry enough to get more than a couple of laps at something resembling a respectable race pace.
Roll of the dice
So there is nothing to do except make your best guess, take your base setup and take your best shot at what changes are needed, look at data from previous years and ignore the fact that bikes, engines, and tires have all changed since last year, and try to choose which tire compounds will give you the best chance of the win. You have to put your faith in fate, or Lady Luck, and hope they will look kindly on you come Sunday.
That is the situation which the MotoGP field find themselves in at Valencia for the European Grand Prix. With the weather set fair for Sunday, none of the data gathered during practice is of any significance. After practice in all sorts of wet conditions, they have no idea of a dry setup, other then the last 10 minutes or so of FP2. They have no data on tire life, or how they will last over the duration of a race.
Teams and riders have no idea whether the medium or hard front will give the necessary grip, or they will be forced to go with the soft front to be on the safe side, and hope it can withstand the pummeling a front tire takes over race distance. Nor will morning warm up give any better clue. At best it will be too cold to test front tires properly. At worst, the track won't be completely dry.
Warm up, but in the cold
"I hope that tomorrow warmup will be 100% dry, because it looks like in some parts of the track it's still so wet during Moto2 qualifying," Alex Márquez told us. "So I hope that during the night with the warm temperatures that we have here it will dry. If not, it will be quite difficult to prepare the race, to know which front tire, which rear tire, everything will be tricky." No one had any idea how it might work out, the Repsol Honda rider said, but it was the same for everybody. "It can be a really good race for us, or it can be a disaster. But for everybody it will be these options."
Tire choice is going to be the real gamble on Sunday because of this, Jack Miller confirmed, especially for the front. "The medium is the hard from last year," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "I know it can make the race, I did it last year. Pace I don’t think will be same as last year just because we haven’t had the time to test here. I know tire life is an issue here, especially on the left side. Run a safe map. Going to be hard to do that because it’s going to be cool tomorrow morning. Little bit too cold to run the medium front. Medium front is our plan in the race. We’ll probably be putting it in the race untested."
A lot will come down to the rider, and how they approach the race on Sunday." This weekend has been really a riders’ weekend because the conditions have never been super clear," Aleix Espargaro said. "We ride in the full wet, in the full dry almost yesterday, in mixed conditions. So every time you went out of track was completely different. You have to adapt in very quick time. So tomorrow in the race will be some similar. In the warmup it’s difficult to understand which tire is better. Hopefully I’m able to try the hard option front. It’s the most important thing. In the last years I struggled a little bit because I had to race with the soft option due to the cold conditions. So I’m really hoping to try the hard option front."
Luck of the draw
With three races left to go in this topsy-turvy season, the riders need a helping hand from fate, Joan Mir said. The championship leader was confident, especially after qualifying on the second row in a thrilling session made strange by being held on a soaking track under blue skies. "These conditions are normally good for me, because I get used to the conditions, used to the bike quite fast," the Suzuki Ecstar rider told us. "But it's not only the rider. It's a bit about luck. Because some tracks, you put the bike on the track and it is working straight away and you don't touch the bike a lot. And in other tracks, you start struggling, and then you have to put the bike in a good way for the race. This will be a little bit of a lottery for a lot of riders, for a lot of manufacturers also. So I don't know. We will see."
Qualifying played out nicely for the championship leader. The front row consists of three riders who are 30+ points behind him. Pol Espargaro took a sensational pole on the KTM, at a track where he has a strong record. He finished ahead of Mir's Suzuki teammate Alex Rins, meaning the Suzukis ended up on the front two rows of the grid. And Takaaki Nakagami made it two front-row starts in a row, qualifying third with an impressive time in the wet, after his outstanding pole at Aragon two weeks ago. Mir starts from fifth, with Johann Zarco and Aleix Espargaro on either side of him.
But he has little to fear from the riders around him. Pol Espargaro trails Mir by 47 points, Rins is 32 points behind, Nakagami has a 45-point deficit. Zarco and Aleix Espargaro are already mathematically eliminated from the title chase.
Mir's rivals for the title start from a long way behind. Franco Morbidelli will line up on the grid in in ninth, while his Petronas Yamaha teammate Fabio Quartararo starts from twelfth. Maverick Viñales starts from pit lane, after taking an extra engine beyond his permitted allocation. Both Quartararo and Viñales are complaining of a lack of feeling and a lack of grip, and neither showed any real pace. Morbidelli is the only rider with some fire in his belly, and the intention to attack from the start. But Morbidelli is heading into the unknown just as much as anyone else on the grid.
Joan Mir isn't counting his chickens just yet, however. It was still way too early and way too complicated to be focusing solely on the Yamahas. "If it's the last Grand Prix and you have to fight only with these two riders for the championship, then you can do that," the Suzuki rider said. "But with three races to go and six riders as contenders, you can't think about this. I think maybe some contenders are starting to think about the others, and then you can see that it's not working well for them. So it's better to think about yourself, to do your season. Of course it's really difficult because it's not easy when you are fighting for a MotoGP world title, but it's our job."
Mir didn't really have a clear idea of which of his championship rivals he might have to be fighting with on Sunday. "Well, about the main rivals, I don't know because in the wet, I can think about this, I can imagine," he said. There was data on his rivals in practice in the wet, but dry conditions were very different. "In the dry, I don't know who will be fast and who won't. We know that the Yamahas are really strong always, and also we see that the Ducatis are quite strong, also the KTM. So it will be quite difficult to answer that question, but we will see."
All in the mind
But Mir is exuding confidence going into the race on Sunday, and in the face of the rest of the championship. He feels he has an advantage which is rivals lack. "I think that mentally I'm really strong," the Suzuki rider told us. "There's a lot of riders that are really strong, really fast, but not a lot of them are mentally really strong. So this is something that you cannot train. It's about your lifestyle, about everything about your life, how your life was. It's something that life teaches you a little bit. And I think that actually in this type of things, to be mentally strong, when I had to show this kind of strength, I showed it. So for sure I can make a mistake, but normally I'm quite good in this position."
Is this mind games? Joan Mir does not give the impression of being the kind of rider who feels the need to indulge in such games. His confidence comes from within, a faith in his abilities and in the versatility and ability of his Suzuki GSX-RR. He handles pressure by putting it into perspective. "Pressure is what is happening with the coronavirus, or with people who can't pay their rent," Mir told Spanish media. "I am fighting for a MotoGP championship, and if it goes well, things will be great for me. If it goes badly, things will still be good for me. There are a lot of people who are in a much worse position."
Then again, Mir doesn't need to indulge in mind games. His main opposition is doing their best to take themselves out of contention. Fabio Quartararo has had a face like thunder all weekend, with a complete lack of feeling from the bike. For him, it was all or nothing. "The position I am tomorrow is that I really have nothing to lose," the Frenchman said. "The goal is to win the championship. If I don’t take a risk tomorrow I don’t think I will win. Now I’m in the mood to be aggressive tomorrow, I will be. If I crash or something it’ll be for a good reason. I want to be in the best way possible. It’s really important for us tomorrow that we make a good race."
The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away
Maverick Viñales has pretty much given up all title aspirations, having to start from pit lane. Like Quartararo, he had no feeling from the bike. "It worries me because the grip is very low," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "In FP2 when I was riding the grip was very low so I was in a lot of trouble with the bike, so for sure the grip will be low and we won't have time to set-up the bike and this is a big problem for us. Anyway, I don’t want to think too much. I want to do the race, to be happy and calm and that's it."
Staying happy and calm isn't easy, however, when it felt like the trouble he had had all year had meant a lost opportunity to win the title. "For sure, yes," Viñales replied when asked if this was a lost season. "Because we have to be clear that Marc is not here so it was a really good opportunity. Honda and Marc are on another level, as they've shown, so for sure it was a perfect situation to win the title. But you know we have lost 2017 and 2020 by the same mistakes."
Who to watch out for on Sunday? Pol Espargaro starts from pole, is strong in Valencia, and has a podium here previously on the KTM. The KTMs have benefited from the fact that Dani Pedrosa has already tested here not long ago, and so the Austrian factory already has some setup data here. That is an advantage in the dry, when nobody else has dry track time at Valencia.
"You can see," Joan Mir said, pointing to Espargaro's pole as an example. "They have more information, for sure it will be really positive for them, and even more in these conditions when nobody tried the bike in full dry. So for sure they have a big advantage, not a small one. Really big. And they have to take the opportunity for sure."
Pol Espargaro contested that idea, pointing out that the test was held in very different conditions. "At the moment we couldn’t use anything from them because they were riding here with 22 degrees on the air," the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider told the press conference. "We are cooler and with rain and damp conditions, so not much we could use from that test. At the moment practically nothing."
Even though the weather was better, Pedrosa and Michele Pirro, who had been testing for Ducati, were unable to really get up to speed, Espargaro insisted. "They were struggling a little during that test because they couldn't be really, really fast. When I say they couldn’t, it was also Ducati here and Pirro struggled to go down below a certain lap time. It was not fast, and also Dani."
Happy Hondas here?
Espargaro and the Suzukis look to be strong favorites, but don't rule out Takaaki Nakagami. The LCR Honda rider had lost his head when leading from pole position at Aragon 2, but an important lesson had been learned. "The last time I made a big mistake, but it was a great experience for me for my career," Nakagami told the press conference. "Already I’m very calm, more than last time, so hopefully I can try to follow these two guys," he said, sat beside Alex Rins and Pol Espargaro.
Fellow Honda rider Alex Márquez certainly believes in him. The fact is that Valencia has often been a very good track for Honda, with Dani Pedrosa and Marc Márquez having won at the circuit in recent years. "Dani in the past was really really strong here, with Honda but also with 125, 250," Alex Márquez said. "Marc was always fast also. But it looks like it can be a good track for Honda bikes. I think tomorrow Nakagami has a good opportunity to get his first victory. Honestly, because I think he can be so fast."
While all eyes will be watching the battle for victory, this race could prove to be crucial for the 2020 MotoGP championship. Joan Mir starts from the front of the field, while his rivals are much further behind him. Mir can see an opportunity to strengthen his lead and whittle down the field. "It is true that the other title contenders start more behind, and this for sure is a positive thing if you look at that," Mir said. "But every race now is more important than the last one, it's important to continue being in a good shape, continue being on the podium, trying to win. And if I do that, for sure some contender can be with me on the podium, but not all of them. And this is the main thing."
This could be the race in which Joan Mir takes a big step towards the title.
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