They say a picture paints a thousand words, but the photo above, taken by Cormac Ryan Meenan for the Repsol Honda press release, actually needs several dozen just to explain what is going on. No, it's not raining. No, the Honda RC213V has not dropped a rod, blown a valve, or had an oil pipe come lose (Hondas only ever suffer 'electrical problems', of course). That yellow cloud Pol Espargaro is trailing in his wake is sand, strewn all over the track by the strong winds and sandstorm that also played havoc with F1 in nearby Bahrain.
The strong winds and sand rendered the final day of the test completely useless. At one point, the entire session was red flagged due to the conditions. But even when the track was open, few were keen to ride. Only 9 of the 29 riders present even took to the track, clocking up a grand total of 56 laps between them. And that included in and out laps. That is pretty much the average of what each rider was putting in on Thursday.
A lot of those laps weren't even full laps. Pol Espargaro, Takaaki Nakagami, Brad Binder, and Maverick Viñales put in 20-odd laps between them just doing practice starts, starting from the pits, cruising around, then coming in to try another start, after making a few adjustments to electronics and clutch.
But actually riding? It was neither safe nor useful. Miguel Oliveira let his Red Bull KTM Factory Racing teammate Brad Binder do the dirty work (quite literally). "There was a big wind and dust in the air that really went onto the track and was not nice at all," Oliveira told us. "So Brad did a couple of laps already before the red flag and he said it was just impossible to ride." Oliveira took Binder at his word, deciding against venturing out.
Does the loss of the final day of the test matter? That depends on who you ask. As a rule of thumb, the teams tackle the big things first, and work their way down their list of priorities. The major updates and part selection is done as soon as possible, to give more time for refinement as the test progresses. Then comes the work of refinement, of finding the best settings of those new parts ahead of the season.
Finally, if there is time left over at the end, the teams turn their attention to preparing for the opening race, working on the details that would otherwise be dealt with in FP1 or FP2. The aim is to get a head start, reduce the variables as much as possible before the race. If the weather or conditions limit track time at any point during the test, it is the race prep that always gets scrapped from the testing program.
So whether you minded that you lost the final day of testing depended on how far you had worked your way down the list of things to test. The closer you were to the bottom, the easier it was to accept.
Ticking off the todo list
The weather forecast had made it easier to plan around the problem. "We wasted one day and it's a shame, because today the conditions are very bad, but fortunately we already know from yesterday, so at the end yesterday we did all the important job," Valentino Rossi explained. "It's a shame because we have some other things to try and also make a long run for a race simulation."
That put Rossi firmly in the less concerned group. He had made a step forward on Thursday, and so losing that momentum was an irritation. "It's a shame because yesterday I had a good feeling and today I feel good, but we have done already 4 days so I think we've finished 85% of the program," the Petronas Yamaha rider told us. "So it's a shame because we are all here, ready and we don’t make any laps. But I'm happy about the work during the test."
You would have thought that Pol Espargaro would have been upset at losing a day of practice. But the Repsol Honda team's new hire had been on a limited testing program anyway, leaving the assessment of new parts to test rider Stefan Bradl and LCR riders Takaaki Nakagami and Alex Márquez.
As a result, the only real thing he had left on his testing sheet was a race simulation, as did most of the rest of the grid. But it was not a necessity ahead of the season opener in two weeks time. "It's not too frustrating because it's been good," Espargaro said. "But actually, we had plans for today, like race distance with a new tire, which we did yesterday with a used tire with five laps, to be a bit more critical in the front, to learn a bit faster how to be fast with it. So today the plan was to do a proper race simulation. We couldn't make it. Also a fast lap, because I felt faster than I did, but I couldn't make it. So it was a couple of things to test as well."
Espargaro could have used more time on the RC213V, he said. "For sure I'm frustrated because just four days of testing on a bike like Honda before the first race, it's for sure not enough. But it is what it is. It's the same for everyone, and also for the rookies, which I think is the worst part of this Covid thing." But it could be much worse, he pointed out. "So this is for everyone, even for some different manufacturers who were trying different engines, for example, and they could not improve it, so they are still doubting because in a little bit more than a week they need to fix all the problems, to put the stickers on the engines. And this is something very very critical."
But Espargaro's own adaptation to the Honda was not far from complete, at least at the Qatar circuit, he explained. He understood mostly what the bike was going to do, though it was still dependent on conditions. "I need more laps," Espargaro said. "I can tell you that I know where the limit is, but it's sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on the tire, I still need to try different compounds in different race tracks to know what is the performance of the medium, what is the performance of the hard, which compounds are good for me, which casing is good for me."
Understanding what the front tire would do in a given set of circumstances was hard. "It's so complex the situation of the front, for all the Honda riders. Not just the Honda together with Michelin. It's super tricky," the Repsol Honda rider told us. "So it's a matter of time and experience, and at the moment I think I have more or less the situation under control with the front in Qatar. That doesn't mean I won't crash in the race weekend three times, that can happen. But at the moment I feel more or less like I control the situation. Let's see how the track is next weekend, which are the tires which are working, and from that point on we will start to work."
Toward a deeper understanding
The real problem would come at the next tracks, where he hadn't had the luxury of four days of testing to understand how the bike works. "We need to go in different race tracks, like Portimão, Jerez, with different asphalt, with different compounds on the asphalt that makes one tire feel one way, another tire feel another way, and then together with the engineers changing the setting," Espargaro said. "I mean, there are many things you can do on the bike to get more feeling on the front, but this needs to start by trying different compounds, different tires, and knowing what is the limit of each tire."
He was alright at Qatar, but beyond Qatar, he still had a lot to learn, Espargaro explained. "So at the moment I don't know, I just tried three tires, the first day I tried the hard one, but I have been using most of the time the same compounds. So I can say in that compound, I think I have more or less control. But it's still just four days, it's nothing."
Jack Miller was perfectly happy not to have to ride, the Ducati Lenovo team having worked through their entire test program in the previous two days. "I feel prepared, as prepared as I can be for the grand prix here," the Australian told us, speaking before the track opened at 2pm local time. "As I said, the race sim went pretty well yesterday, and my crew chief is talking about doing another one today, which I'm stoked to hear about." The end of that sentence may have contained traces of irony.
Miller was ready for the first race, he said. " I feel like we've done all the work, everything we have needed to get through or test, I have done. And everything I've wanted or needed from the bike, we've sort of found our way around it, to give me that sort of feedback."
Yamaha's Fabio Quartararo took a similar view. "The big things were already done," the Frenchman said. "Today was just to try some small things. It is always good to try more things, but the necessary is done."
The biggest victims of the lost final day of testing were Suzuki. That was the view of reigning world champion Joan Mir, at least. Suzuki had spent much of the test working on 2022, including trying a new engine for next season, and assessing other updates for next year rather than on 2021.
"For us, to not test today, for me it was not positive, because we still have a lot of things to try," Mir told us, looking slightly concerned. "The problem is that the first three days we tried a lot of things, but most of them was not working for this race, it was more to try and to develop for 2022."
Get with the program
Suzuki had put aside Thursday and Friday to prepare for 2021 and the two season openers at Qatar. "These two days, yesterday and today, was more to be focused on the performance, on the race," Mir said. "And we could see yesterday that I was able to make a step, talking about race pace, I was able to be quite strong, I was able to make a not bad lap time, even if we were still trying a lot of things. Today was more the day to make a long run, to make a time attack and it's something that we were not able to do."
Mir felt far from completely ready for the start of the 2021 season. "I feel prepared at 70%. Because like I said, we planned this day as one day to perform in a better way, not to try a lot of things. To adjust a bit more the electronics, to work more for the weekend. And it was not enough, one day. Was probably not enough."
But it was not as if he was completely lost at sea, Mir insisted. He would be competitive in two weeks time. "I feel prepared, I think that the Ducatis are really fast, the Yamahas, this is a track that fits so well for them. Also for us, but probably we are not as strong as them, especially with some Yamahas. And we are one of the fastest, but we are not the fastest. For sure I am not 100% satisfied because I am not the strongest on the test."
Jabs for the boys
The early part of the day had been spent by most of the paddock waiting in line to get their first Covid-19 vaccination, a service offered to Dorna by the Qatari government. From an organizational level, there were question marks over the decision by the Qatari government, creating an appearance that they cared more about temporary high-profile visitors rather than the residents of their own country.
But from the perspective of the individuals who make up the paddock, the decision was a no-brainer. If the vaccine was on offer, taking it was the smart thing to do. Not just for your own sake, but for the sake of your families, given just how much the paddock travels around. From the point of view of Dorna, it is also good PR, a way of reducing the risk posed by the traveling circus composed of thousands of people who make up the MotoGP paddock.
Jack Miller had not hesitated. "No doubts," he said when asked about his decision to get vaccinated. "I think we are very fortunate to get this opportunity to get the vaccine so early. For us to be able to get this, especially as we were working in a high-risk environment with the traveling and all that, I think we are so fortunate that MotoGP and the Qatar government have come together and allowed us to get it."
Miller was a clear supporter of vaccines. "No doubts, vaccines are there for the common good of the people, same as a smallpox vaccines, everything you do as a child. I'm no doctor, sure there's worst things in the world for me than the tiny little insertion of a vaccine. So we will get the other vaccine before the second race in Qatar, I think, and everything should be one then. I know I'm not completely immune, but at least it's one step in the right direction in this coronavirus fight, let's say."
That step in the right direction had been a motivation for Valentino Rossi as well. "Yes, we did the vaccine this morning and I'm very happy because it's a great step for our normal life during the season." The Italian also pointed to another very good reason to get vaccinated. "We can make more normal without having the nightmare to see somebody that who has Covid and miss 2-3 races like happened to me last year. I think that Carmelo with Dorna together with Qatar they give to us a big help and I'm very happy."
If the paddock had started off 2020 with a vaccine – an impossible hypothetical, unless someone discovers time travel – then the chances that Valentino Rossi would have been forced to miss the two Aragon races would have been minimal. Tony Arbolino might not have been forced to miss the Misano round, and scored the five points which would have given him the Moto3 championship. And Fausto Gresini might not have contracted the coronavirus, or if he had contracted it, had only a mild case. With a vaccine, Fausto Gresini might still be with us today.
Stopping the spread
Pol Espargaro had not hesitated. "Yes, I took the vaccine, like all the paddock," the Repsol Honda rider said. "Because I think we need to be responsible about it. We are flying around the globe with thousands of people traveling in different countries, and we can also be contagious to the countries where we go, but also to the people who are surrounding us at home. So it's about responsibility. To do this job, and to take the vaccine for us and for the other people, especially for the ones we love most. So that's why we take it."
That sense of responsibility weighed even heavier on the shoulders of the world champion. "I didn't get the vaccine at the moment, I think that we have in mind to get in the next days." Paddock staff who were not returning home between the test and the race will be vaccinated over the coming days.
It was an offer he couldn't refuse, Joan Mir said. "I cannot say no, give it to other people. It's an opportunity that I have, and also, we travel around the world and probably if I have it, it's an act of responsibility, not the other way around. Because we can infect a lot of people because we travel a lot. Due to our job, not because we are on holidays. So it's true that a lot of people need it, but I have to say thank you to MotoGP that make the possibility to have it, and also to Qatar. I talked with doctors about it, because I don't have any information about it, and my personal team asked if it's any problem or not, and I think that I will get it."
The decision to stay in Qatar had been taken with the entire team, Mir said, and he had decided to remain in Qatar out of solidarity with the rest of the Suzuki staff. "It was a recommendation of the team, all the people in the team are staying," Mir told us. "This means a lot of people with family and children are staying, and I don't see it fair that if they stay I can go back home. It's true that I am a rider, I train. They can work on the computer in the hotel. But I can train anyway in Qatar."
Joan Mir once again showed he has a very wise head on young shoulders, and was not letting his first MotoGP title go to his head. "I stay with my team, and it's not the end of the world, we will be in a luxury hotel. It doesn't matter." There may be no place like home, but if you are to be kept away from home, then there are worse places to be cooped up than the five star Intercontinental Hotel overlooking the Persian Gulf.
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