It is a truism to point out that it is just Friday, and too early to be getting excited about who is where on the timesheets. But the reason it is a truism is because (the clue is in the name) it's true. Friday is just the first day of the weekend, and not everybody is up to speed right away. Things change over a weekend, especially once the engineers have had an evening to examine the data.
The weather and the track changes too. The tail end of storm Lola has just passed over Jerez de la Frontera, and temperatures are slowly returning to normal after an unseasonally cold and wet period. The mercury is creeping higher once again, and with every degree of temperature and every ray of direct Andalusian sunlight, track temperatures are increasing, bringing more grip.
In addition, every bike that laps the track lays down a little rubber, creating more and more grip. And there are a lot of bikes turning laps at Jerez: in addition to the usual three Grand Prix classes of Moto3, Moto2, and MotoGP, there are also the Red Bull Rookies and MotoE. The MotoE bikes, in particular, help the MotoGP teams. Like MotoGP, MotoE uses Michelin tires, and the big, heavy machines lay down a lot of Michelin rubber which helps create grip for everyone, and especially MotoGP.
More rubber, more speed
More rubber means faster lap times. So unlike Qatar, not being in Q2 after FP2 is no disaster. Conditions in FP3 should be good enough to launch an assault on the top ten. "I think tomorrow in FP3 everybody will treat it as a mini-qualifying, purely because it will be key to get into the Q2 straight away, which helps quite a lot," Brad Binder believed.
Binder had topped the first session of practice in the morning, but found himself clinging onto a spot in the top ten by the end of the afternoon session. He sat in the middle of an insanely tight field: less than half a second separated the Espargaro brothers, Aleix on the Aprilia in third, and Pol on the Repsol Honda in fourteenth. Less than 1.1 seconds separated Iker Lecuona in 22nd on the Tech3 KTM from Espargaro in third on the Aprilia.
Two riders stood head and shoulders above the rest, however, at least over a single lap. Pecco Bagnaia's best time was just six tenths shy of the outright lap record set by Maverick Viñales last year. That is impressive enough, but to do it on a Ducati – at a track where the Desmosedicis are supposed to struggle – makes it truly remarkable.
Bagnaia is serving as a beacon of hope for the other Ducati riders. "I'm happy that he's going that fast, because it's really the real potential of the Ducati I think," Pramac's Johann Zarco opined.
He is also acting as a warning to everyone else. Brad Binder was surprised to see a Ducati at the top of the timesheets, but less surprised that it was Bagnaia. "Last year they struggled a bit more," the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider said of the Ducatis. "Pecco has been super good this year doing amazing lap times. We can think back to every track we have been to so far and he’s done a lap in some of the sessions where you think ‘that was insane’. I think he has a really good feeling, found a good way to work with his bike and is riding well. It’s clear to see that when he puts in a lap time he is more than capable."
Bagnaia's speed has come in part from working on his major weakness in 2020, a lack of speed in cold conditions. "About this thing I am very happy, because this winter I worked a lot with our training and with a bike on some circuits," the Ducati Lenovo Team rider said. "I’m happy to have solved this problem. This morning was very cold in the morning because we had 13-14 degrees and the tarmac was not so hot and my feeling with the bike was already good. Last year I was missing a lot, and struggling a lot when we found these conditions."
The improvement had come entirely from himself, Bagnaia insisted. "The bike is the same but I have worked to enter on track and push in the first corner," he said. "Last year I was trying to do it but I was not feeling so much the front. It was very difficult and each time I was crashing, so the feeling every time was less. But now I can feel the front very well and it is perfect for me."
One vs many
Bagnaia may be supreme over a single lap but like second-place man Fabio Quartararo, he didn't have the pace on used tires that other riders had. Bagnaia posted a 1'38.5 on a rear that had 17 laps – two thirds distance – on it, while Quartararo, whose flying lap was a quarter of a second faster than Aleix Espargaro's, did a couple of 1'38.3s on laps 13 and 14 of a used medium tire.
The really fast riders were all well into the 1'37s, however. Aleix Espargaro posted a 1'37.9 late in his second run on a used tire, as did Franco Morbidelli and Stefan Bradl, present at Jerez as a wildcard (and benefiting from extra track time here at private tests for HRC). But Takaaki Nakagami ran a 1'37.7 on a medium rear that had nearly half race distance on it.
Where has the LCR Honda Idemitsu rider found that speed? Perhaps from the fact he has gone back to the chassis he used last year. That gave him back the confidence he had felt in some of the strong performances in 2020. "Today was a bit busy because I was trying the two chassis: the new one and the other one, and it was a slightly better feeling with the old one," Nakagami said. " The old chassis has some potential and we have still not decided yet if we will use it for the weekend but tonight I decide with the team and HRC. I need to clear the mind to see more deeply the data."
It looked very positive after the first day, however. "The first impression with back-to-back tests was the old chassis had some potential. I felt consistent with the lap time and I could make a 1'37 with a used medium," Nakagami told us. "It looks good and I really start to enjoy the bike again." It helped that MotoGP is at Jerez, where the Japanese rider has happy memories, including his first front row start. "Jerez is one of my favorite tracks. Today was very positive for us. Able to stay in the top ten and of course tomorrow in FP3 we need a few steps to improve but we have some margin and we are not pushing like crazy the lap times are consistent and we are in the right direction."
Nakagami was at pains not to dismiss the 2021 chassis, however. "Bradl is here and he is always using the brand new items. He looks really competitive which is a good sign for us," Nakagami said. But the general impression was that the 2020 frame was still fractionally better than the newer item. "The first impression is that the old chassis – 2020 – has potential but we cannot forget about 2021 because some areas like handling and corner entry has some potential."
They had gone back to try to address a lack of confidence with the rear of the bike on the new chassis, Nakagami explained. "We have a lack of rear confidence because in Qatar and Portimao we were trying to improve rear grip and stability but always we couldn’t find the solution. That’s why we tried all the chassis."
It Nakagami was pleased, Aleix Espargaro was trying to suppress a Cheshire Cat grin after the first day of practice. The Aprilia RS-GP was fast over a single lap, but also had excellent pace, and the elder Espargaro brother could not hide his pleasure. "I’m satisfied about day 1," the Spaniard said with a feeling for understatement. "The good thing is it looks like Aprilia and Aleix are working well everywhere we are going. It’s not just about one single track."
Espargaro was starting to dare to believe that it wasn't just a one-off, a fluke at a track which happened to suit either him or the Aprilia. "As it’s the first time for us that we’re competitive like this, obviously you always have the doubt if you move to a new track if you’ll still be competitive," the Spaniard said. "From lap 1 lap 2 in FP1 I felt very strong and comfortable with the bike. With the race tire I felt I can maintain a really high pace. Overall satisfied."
Espargaro was still only cautiously optimistic, however, given just how tight the times were on the first day. "I mean, we know how close Jerez is. Three tenths will cover everybody in FP3," he pointed out. "But apart from one hot lap I think we have good pace. I was a bit shocked, we had more than 10 laps in the tire and I was able to a very quick lap. This will give me motivation for the race."
He expected the Yamahas and the Suzukis to close the gap on Saturday, Espargaro said. "Maybe especially the Yamahas and maybe the Suzukis will get closer tomorrow. But it’s difficult to go a lot faster than 1'37 on the race pace. We’re already able to lap in 1'37 on race tire is very good so I hope I can stay with them."
He was trying to remain realistic, though. "The others will catch up," he said "I would like to say to you that I’m ready to win. But it's not true. Every weekend we’re closer to our goal which is to fight for podiums and the victories. In this track it looks like we are a little bit closer. Sure, the rest will catch up. Here the 3 Yamaha boys – Morbidelli, Viñales and Quartararo are the men to beat – but we are close."
Espargaro had found the extra speed from his Aprilia by shortening the bike and making it more willing to turn. "We changed a bit the length of the bike, working on the geometry, on the swingarm," the Spaniard explained. "The bike is more agile. But it didn’t lose stability, which is one of the strong points of this RS-GP 21. Overall, we improve, especially in very fast change of direction we suffer a little bit. But in low speed change of direction like here in Jerez because it’s not a very high-speed track, we improved yes."
After a miserable start to the season, Franco Morbidelli is starting to find his feet again. After his fourth place in Portimão, the Petronas Yamaha rider has a setting that appears to work for his 2019 Yamaha M1. The Italian had resisted the temptation to go back to the bike that he had started with in 2020. "The setting is a little bit more like Portimão," Morbidelli said. "It’s not the same but it goes a but toward Portimao than toward Jerez last year. It’s too early." The Italian was confident in the pace that gave him, though he acknowledged that others were fast too. "I saw Aleix having a great pace. I saw I had good pace. Maybe just a bit slower than Aleix. I saw that. It’s a great starting point but it’s only Friday so we need to wait."
On the other side of the garage, Valentino Rossi's Calvary continues unabated. He and his team have still not found a solution to the problems with rear grip he has suffered for the past few years. "I have a similar problem because I always suffer very much with the rear grip, especially after some laps," the Italian said. "For me it's difficult with the rear tire because I slide a bit too much."
The Petronas Yamaha rider admitted that this was a problem that had been going for a number of years. "Yes, in the last years I suffer a lot of times with this problem," Rossi said. "Sometimes it's a bit different, but it's very similar. Especially in the last years and when we changed also the tire, now it looks like the rear tires are very soft and usually in all my career I always prefer hard tires. So for this reason I suffer a lot, especially after some laps because the rear moves very much." Everyone had the same tires, however, and so he would just have to figure it out, Rossi said. "But, these are the tires and the others are able anyway to be strong with this so we need to try to manage this situation."
Valentino Rossi wasn't the only rider to suffer with tire problems, though his were more down to his issues with the bike and with riding than with the actual black rubber rings. Other riders were having issues with a difference in feel between tires, though they were doing their best to try to talk around the problem. At a guess, an edict has gone out from Clermont Ferrand in France to remind riders they are contractually forbidden from expressing all too colorful criticism of Michelin and Michelin tires. That left riders caught between a rock and a hard place.
Silence speaks volumes
Joan Mir was one such rider. The Suzuki rider had shown reasonable race pace, but suffered as soon as he fitted a soft tire with the objective of chasing a lap that would put him directly into Q2. "With the medium tire I made a 38.5 with 27 laps," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "Then I put another tire and I had some problem. That’s it. We had some problem."
It was not the first time such a thing had happened to him, Mir complained. The most frustrating thing was not being able to manage the situation, he said. "It’s a shame because it’s difficult to control. I expect that the situation would have improved because it’s really frustrating." But when asked directly if this was an issue with the tires, Mir merely sucked his teeth and shrugged his shoulders.
It was not an uncommon problem, Mir agreed when asked. "Yeah, well, probably, once in a grand prix I have this problem. or even a bit more sometimes," he said. "I hope this situation improves." KTM's Brad Binder concurred with that assessment. "You do get some that feel a little bit better than others, for sure," the South African said. "Sometimes you do something and feel a bit lost but you then change the tire and it becomes normal again. I think it is normal – as with everything – that you get some that work a little better than others. Sometimes it is the luck of the draw."
Not everyone was happy to comment, however. Some riders, who had made trenchant criticism of Michelin previously, were now conspicuously biting their tongues. "Sorry, it is not something I want to comment on too much," said Maverick Viñales. "We will just try to do the best with what we have."
For Marc Márquez, returning for his second race after missing eight months with a fractured and then slow-healing humerus, as well as endless complications from multiple surgeries to address the problem, the issue was not managing tires, but managing a limited supply of strength and energy. He was still having issues with his elbow, which meant figuring out how to ride, and how his body was dealing with riding a MotoGP bike after such a long layoff.
"Today I was so concentrated from FP1 to FP2 on how was the evolution of my body," the Repsol Honda rider explained. "In FP1 I felt OK. But immediately in FP2 I felt something was changing. In FP1 I could ride like I want with the elbow and was playing with body. But in FP2 I went out and felt something like I’m not riding like usual."
Márquez spent the session trying to figure out how to adapt to the situation. "I did a few laps just riding to understand my position on the bike," he said. "It feels like a lack of power in the muscle. Especially the back, the triceps, the shoulder on the back, the lack of power and then the position of the elbow is the same."
This is something that will come with time, with rehabilitation, and with training, the Spaniard explained. "It’s just a matter of time to use the muscle. Then when I want to use it, I can use it, when I want to push I can push."
Managing the weekend
He had drawn lessons from his first race weekend back at Portimão, and was attempting to use those to manage the Jerez weekend better, Márquez said. "Today my approach was completely different to Portimão. In Portimão I pushed all the laps. I was riding good. Today I feel OK but I was riding, pushing a few laps. I didn't push on the new tire, because you stress more the physical condition. I’m working there."
The fact that he recognized which problems were coming from the bike, and which from him, helped enormously, Márquez said. "In FP2 I was stopped in the box, and I said I can give some comments, but this, this problem and this problem with the bike is coming from my position on the bike. Forget about it. We are working on the bike on other points. It’s not all of the track that I’m riding uncomfortable. In some points I feel like always."
He had talked about this change in strategy both with the Repsol Honda team and with his own management team, Márquez explained."We also need to use the experience of Portimão. We are not night and day from Portimão to here. The arm is not changing a lot. We are more or less in a similar condition. But we spoke with Alberto Puig deeply, who is not here and with Emilio [Alzamora, personal manager] and Santi [Hernandez, crew chief]. The strategy is when I don’t feel well, just try to save energy."
Márquez was trying to spread his strength and energy more evenly over the weekend. "Tomorrow is the time to push more. We need to see the rhythm and work on the bike and the small details. Then let’s see." The objective was to ensure he could be stronger in the race at Jerez than he was in Portimão. "If I wake up not so bad, then keep the power for Sunday. The experience of Portimão is I arrived on Sunday without energy, here I will arrive to Sunday with a bit more energy to ride better in the race."
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