Plus ça change... if you put the top four from FP2 of Qatar 1 from a week ago next to the top four of FP2 from today, what difference would you see? The same four names, with only the names of Johann Zarco and Fabio Quartararo swapped around, the Yamaha rider now fourth instead of third, as he was last week, the lone M1 amid an army of Ducatis.
Even the times are virtually identical: the time difference between Pecco Bagnaia's second place last week and this is just 0.036. The time difference between the third-place times is 0.038. And the difference between the fourth-place times was 0.003, a mere three thousandths of a second.
Only Jack Miller really improved his time. In fact, Miller set a blistering lap, improving his time from last week by nearly a quarter of a second. That was faster than he had been in qualifying last week, though he still would have started from fifth on the grid.
The factory Ducati rider was satisfied with his days work. As well he might be: he set his fast lap after having a huge moment in Turn 15 on his previous run, when he was thrown out of the seat and forced to come straight back in again. He was not phased, banging out his quickest lap on his first flying lap out of the pits.
"I went out and did what I needed to do," the Australian said. "The temperature - what we had this evening - was nearly double but I still went out and did three runs of four laps just working on mapping and stuff like that. We don’t change the settings too much, we wait until the evening to change a few things. The grip feels a bit different to what we had the last grand prix but I felt that my riding was more similar to what I was riding in the test in terms of brake pressure and things like that. I wasn’t able to use that last week."
The much higher temperatures, combined with a fresh coating of sand dumped by the strong winds at the beginning of the week made conditions much more difficult. The Yamaha riders, especially, complained about a lack of grip.
"I felt pretty bad on the track today," Fabio Quartararo told us, despite having finished the day with the fourth fastest time. "I felt there was no grip on the track, and we know that the Ducati is more stop and go but the strong point of our bike is to turn, having the grip, which today was really bad and the feeling was not great. Hopefully tomorrow we will have better conditions, and we can be a bit faster, because today I was not feeling so great." He was struggling to stop the bike and suffering with chatter, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider explained.
The very different conditions made a Qatar FP2 even more complicated than normal. The window to work on bike setup is always narrow at Qatar – the first 30 minutes of FP2 are useful for assessing tire life and looking for strategies to mitigate it – before attention turns to chasing a spot in Q2. Because if you don't make it in FP2, there is no chance of matching those times in the heat of the FP3 session during the day on Saturday, and so you have to pin all your hopes on getting out of Q1. That is hard, when there are 11 other riders all with same plan, and only 2 tickets up to Q2 available.
Just to make things interesting, the MotoGP riders were thrown another curveball. The tire allocation for the second race at Qatar included a number of tires from the first race, the unused remainder of the allocation from last week. These tires have not turned a wheel on the circuit itself. But they have been put into tire warmers and racked up, ready for use if necessary.
The process of heating them up, then letting them cool again, takes the very sharpest edge off the performance of the tires. So in addition to having to thread the needle in search of the best conditions for chasing a quick lap, the teams and riders also had to balance out their tire allocation to ensure they used the preheated tires at the right moment, and saved the fresh and unused tires for their flying laps.
That was not easy. "On the tire allocation we have some preheated tires, which the performance is lower and we need to use them as soon as possible," Repsol Honda's new signing Pol Espargaro explained. "When we put them the grip level is low and is lower than the ones that have not been heated from the week before. The point is when we put them, they are very different."
For a rider who has just switched bikes, that made things much more complicated than normal, Espargaro explained. "So when we put the proper tire to make the time attack, the bike changes a little and this makes me do a lot of mistakes. It is not an excuse because everyone has the same trouble, but for example in the past with the other bike I know where to push and I had everything super clear on the way of making things. And now I’m missing these sparks of the first lap knowing the limit of the front, the rear, how to open the throttle to make the traction and I’ve been out of the top ten by two tenths."
Learning multiple lessons
That made his life difficult, Espargaro explained. "So this is a problem for me. Also I’m not performing well in this place, never performed well in this place and this makes the job even harder. Today I have not been good enough in one lap, that’s it."
Everyone faced the same problem, of course. "We all have on the allocation two preheated tires, of each compound," Espargaro explained. "So it means we use today two soft tires on the time attack in FP2. One of them was preheated and one was not. So we still have one preheated that we don’t know when we are going to put it and we have all the others in a good performance."
"But I don’t want to let it be an excuse, because this is like that for everyone," the Repsol Honda rider told us. "Everyone has the same allocation but just the knowledge of the bike, it makes the others, even if they have one bad tire, they make the lap with the other one and make a good lap time. Or they put three tires on this session and have been better on the strategy."
Saving the softs
Some riders preferred to avoid the preheated soft rears altogether, opting instead for a new medium rear to get a feel for the bike. "I think we need to save the tires for the race," Fabio Quartararo explained. "And honestly, I felt really bad, because I saw Maverick that was really fast with these tires, but for me was a total disaster. I'm just using it to save the soft."
Quartararo's Monster Energy Yamaha teammate Maverick Viñales was no fan of the mediums either, though he was at least quick with the tire. "Actually I felt really good on the track," the Spaniard said. "Honestly in FP1 and then FP2 with the medium tire, I feel fantastic. We could ride quite fast, in 1'54 medium, 1'54 low, which is an amazing pace, so I didn't expect to go that fast with the medium."
But Viñales, like others, suffered when he tried to use the preheated tires to set a fast lap. "When I went to the time attack, there were two preheated tires," the factory Yamaha rider explained. "So I didn't have the grip I expected, we were sliding a lot. So actually I think our problems were that one, that maybe it was not on the maximum performance of the bike. But luckily we were able to go to Q2, because when I saw I didn't have the feeling, I spin a lot, I said, oof, it will be difficult to go into Q2. But at the end we made it, and fantastic, I'm really happy, because the feeling was not there, but on the other hand, with a normal medium tire, I get an amazing feeling on the bike, and this is positive because the soft is better than the medium, basically."
The biggest victim of the preheated tires was reigning champion Joan Mir, though the Spaniard was also a victim of a mistake of timing by his Suzuki Ecstar team. "On these days we have to use the preheated tires from the other Grand Prix," Mir explained. "And this is something, the tire doesn't perform in the same way as a brand new one. Everyone knows this, and we just wait for the good one for the last and that's it."
That was what he and his team had done, Mir explained, but they had called him into the pit to swap the preheated tire for a new, unused rear soft too late to get more than a single flying lap. And that meant he had come up short and was out of Q2.
"In FP2, when we put the tires that were not preheated, I only had one lap, I wasn't able to make the second one. We run out of time," Mir told us. "So we missed the strategy and we cannot miss it. We don't have the package to be easily in Q2, and if we miss something then we are out. We miss Q2 by less one tenth probably, and I'm sure that in the second lap I could improve my lap time but I ran out of time."
Mir was not optimistic of reaching Q2, given he was still struggling to get a fast lap out of the Suzuki. "I don't know what I will be able to do with this package," the reigning champion said. "It will be hard to go through Q2, but if not we will have to take risks always in the first laps of the race. I'm struggling more than ever to make a lap time. The harder I try the worse it is. Everyone is improving a lot their bikes, I see a very high level of bikes, and we have to continue improving our bike. So I'm not happy about today."
His race pace was strong, though. Mir posted a 1'54.7 on a tire with ten laps on it, a sign that the race setup was working. There were others with a similar pace on old tires, including Pecco Bagnaia, Fabio Quartararo, Maverick Viñales, and Franco Morbidelli. On the sparse evidence of FP2, those riders seem to be in the best shape.
Franco Morbidelli's pace was good despite his weekend getting off to a horrible start. The Italian had not one, but two bikes start billowing smoke, forcing the flag marshals to show him the meatball flag, the black flag with an orange disc which means get off the track as quickly as possible, you have a technical problem.
The problem looked horrific, with white smoke billowing out of the rear of the bike. But Morbidelli insisted he was not concerned. "It was a good day for us. It didn’t start very well, we had a problem on two engines but luckily the problem was not so big so we will be able to use again those engines," the Petronas Yamaha rider insisted. "Anyway we decided to change one, because we couldn't afford to risk anything in FP2. So we decided to change one engine because FP2 is a really important practice, here in Qatar especially."
It was not like Jerez 2020, when engine problems for Morbidelli, along with Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales, were a portent of a valve failure which would dog them all season long. " I'm confident that it's not a major problem because my technician told me so," Morbidelli insisted. "It didn’t feel like a flashback of last year because last year the engine just shut down, while this year I stopped because I saw black and orange flags around the track with my number. I couldn't see or hear or feel any problem. So it is different compared to last year." There were no warning lights on his dash, he insisted.
In a way, he had been lucky, Morbidelli said, that the issue had occurred in FP1 the least important session of the weekend. "FP1 is the best session that a problem can happen, you have time to react, you have time to solve it," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "I would like also to thank every single guy in the crew that started working in order to change the engine as quickly as possible and also we needed to make other changes too. Huge thanks to my crew today, they really did an extra job and they did it spot on."
So what could Morbidelli's problem have been? And is he to be taken at his word, or does the problem signal problems ahead? If Morbidelli is spinning a yarn for reporters, he will get found out soon enough. Engine lists will be published after warm up on Sunday morning, ahead of the race. If Morbidelli really has abandoned two engines, it will be all too apparent then.
If, however, Morbidelli is telling the truth, what might have been the cause? The amount of white smoke billowing out of the back of his M1, together with the observation of MotoGP.com's ace pit reporter Simon Crafar, that there were no spots of oil on the back wheel (a sign of an oil leak), but there were what looked like soot deposits on the grill of the exhaust, which keeps stones out of the exhaust and away from the valves in the case of a crash, suggest that oil had entered the engine and burned up.
How could this happen? The engine problem occurred at the end of the straight, after Morbidelli had run off onto the hard standing on Turn 1. If it were a problem caused by stress – a valve going, or a seal blowing, or oil blowing past the piston rings – it would have happened under full load, so well before Morbidelli started braking.
Taking a breather
A possible explanation is to be found in the system used to avoid oil leaks. The engine is filled with oil, and a breather pipe is fitted which exits into the airbox. The idea is that any excess oil in the engine is blown into the airbox, where it enters the engine is burned up. Normally, that would only be fumes, or the occasional drop.
But if, for example, the Petronas team had put too much oil into the engine, or not fitted a return valve correctly, or any of a hundred other small mistakes which are easily made. And if the oil had all been forced forward under hard braking, and forced up through the breather pipe and into the airbox, and eventually poured into the engine in relatively large quantities, that would have produced a great deal of smoke. And at the same time, the engine would have kept on running just fine, and no warning lights would have lit up the dash.
This explanation is certainly plausible, and covers all of the known facts. Whether it is the actual truth will become apparent soon enough. There is no hiding from Dorna's official engine usage lists.
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