Once upon a time, Barcelona was regarded as one of the great motorcycling tracks, all sweeping corners demanding the utmost concentration and skill. So much of a motorcycling track was it that a couple of sections had to be put into it to make it a better track for cars, and especially for F1. The grand sweep of La Caixa had a hairpin inserted, to give the cars somewhere to brake. And Turn 13 had a tight little chicane added on the inside, to slow the cars down before they got onto the straight. Four fat tires meant they were at risk of going through the final corner so fast that would be within spitting distance of the sound barrier by the end of the straight.
Then Luis Salom died when he crashed on the outside of Turn 13, hit by his bike as he slid into a wall along a section of hard standing which nobody thought needed gravel, something which turned out to be a misconception. Questions about safety were raised, and the F1 layout was adopted. A great motorcycle track ruined.
To their great and unending credit, the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya did all they could to restore the track to its former glory. Turn 13 was reprofiled, more run off was created, a grandstand was moved back. That went half the way to fixing the track. Then earlier this year, the circuit altered Turn 10 to remove the F1 hairpin and restore something resembling the original layout of the sweeping corner at La Caixa. They cleverly found extra run off by the simple expedient of shortening the straight leading toward it, and moving Turn 10 closer to Turn 9.
Fast and faster
Friday was the first time the MotoGP riders got to ride the new layout on board a MotoGP machine. Plenty had done so on production bikes, but a stiff-as-a-board 300 hp Grand Prix prototype shod with MotoGP Michelins proved to be a slightly different affair, much to the embarrassment of Jack Miller.
The Australian had told Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna that the circuit had loads of grip. "Gigi, one of his big concerns was how the grip was of the track," Miller told us. "I feel like a t*** now because I was here the other week with the Panigale. It was fantastic. But riding a Panigale here and a GP bike are two different kettles of fish, the Panigale feels perfect here with heaps of grip. The GP bike definitely doesn’t."
The corner, however, is magnificent, was the universal consensus among the riders. "It feels natural. It feels like a proper motorcycle corner, or a proper racetrack corner with a run off area to go wide or to crash," said Pol Espargaro.
Valentino Rossi agreed. "Turn 10 is a difficult corner, it's very technical," the Petronas Yamaha rider told us. "It's difficult to find the right line and to find the apex in the entry. But I like it. I prefer it compared to the Turn 10 of last year. Also because this Turn 10 is very similar to the classic Turn 10 of Catalunya circuit before."
Jack Miller felt very much the same. "T10 itself is fantastic," the Australian said. "Much better than the bus stop before. It follows a more natural layout of the track and is how every other corner is. It suits it rather than sticks out like dogs b***s. That’s definitely the biggest thing."
The one curiosity was that different riders had a very different view of the grip between the new of Turn 10 and the old asphalt that led into the new corner. "The grip is maybe a little bit more in that corner, because the tarmac is new," was Luca Marini's assessment. "So that corner is one of the best corners in this track for the grip."
Maverick Viñales saw it rather differently. "The grip in Turn 10, it's not that bad, it's just different," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider told us. "When you brake, and then you enter the new asphalt, it's a difference. But for me it's OK. It feels better. A little bit less grip. But I think by the weekend, it will be better."
The problem is the transition from one tarmac to another. That happens right in the middle of the braking zone for the new corner, which can cause confusion. "You start braking on the old asphalt, then change, and in my opinion, there is much more grip in that phase," explained Luca Marini. "In exit, it's all new. The next corner is all new, so the grip level is quite constant, but you brake, there is not so much grip, then you feel that the stopping power of the brake increases, but after some laps you adapt on this."
Pol Espargaro voiced the feeling, shared by every rider we spoke to, that the circuit had responded to the concerns raised previously. "The grip is not so high because Barcelona has never been a place with huge grip because the activity here all the year is a lot. But the transition of the grip is good. The kerbs are well made. Nothing to complain about. We asked for something. It’s not because I’m a pro circuit of Catalunya. It’s something that they did well and we should but we should accept and say when things are well made after we ask for it." Riders are free with their criticism when they feel a circuit is lacking. But they can be just as free with praise when a track does something right.
The reason for the confusion over whether the grip in Turn 10 was better and worse stemmed mainly from the fact that the grip was fairly terrible overall. Barcelona is remarkable for combining a lack of grip from the asphalt with a surface that is notoriously harsh on tire wear. Michelin have added to the confusion by bringing three rear tires which are all close enough in grip that they are all probably raceable.
As a result, we saw all three compounds given long runs, and riders fast on all three tires. Franco Morbidelli tried the hard rear and found it to his liking, clocking low 1'40s on a well-worn H rear. Fabio Quartararo concentrated on the medium rear, and was also posting low 1'40s on a used rear. Pecco Bagnaia put in respectable times on a used soft rear, while factory Ducati teammate Jack Miller put longish runs on both the medium and soft rears.
What all this means is that there is no consensus over which tire to race. "The pace was great, but the grip not so great," Fabio Quartararo quipped. He had run medium tires, but was taking a sly glance at the hard rears. "We saw riders using the hard tire, I think it's a great option for us, we saw in Portimão that it's really good," the Frenchman said.
Franco Morbidelli was one of the riders who had tried the hard rear, and liked it. "I found some benefits with the hard," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "We need to think. I felt a bit better with the medium for sure. But there are some things I like about the hard. We need to choose. We are in doubt. And the fact that we are in doubt is positive." Being in doubt means having the ability to make choices.
Jack Miller had been through two different compounds, and was set to try the third in FP4, he explained. "My FP1 was all the same tires, 20 something laps. Then in FP2, I was trying to go with the soft. Was moving quite a lot. The grip was not bad. But it was moving so I wanted to do a back to back to check how was the M in the afternoon when the track was a bit cleaner. I did some more laps on that. I wasn’t expecting to do a time attack at the end but the team wanted it. We went for it. But yeah, the plan was always in FP4 to try the hard rear and put some laps on that and see how it behaves over some distance."
The reigning champion had tested all three tires on Friday, precisely because of the lack of grip. "I think everybody complains today about the grip," Joan Mir told us. "The grip level low and the tires drop quite a lot. That’s why the people try so many different options to find more consistency. That will be important. The tire degradation here in this track is huge. It will be really important the tire management of the end of race. That will be the key for sure."
Tire wear has played a critical role in previous races at the circuit. Andrea Dovizioso rode a masterful race in 2017, conserving his tires to take a convincing victory. Last year's race was marked not just by the way Fabio Quartararo managed the race at the front, but also by how close he came to losing the race as the Suzukis charged through the field, while the tire performance of others dropped and the GSX-RR's cossetting of its tires paid dividends at the end of the race. Another lap, and it would have been a Suzuki 1-2.
"It’s always like that here in Barcelona, ever since I’ve been coming here with MotoGP," Jack Miller explained. "It’s one of those things. If you’ve got nothing at the end of the race you can lose a lot of time real quick."
That was a lesson learned from personal experience, the Australian explained. "Going back to my first top ten in MotoGP was here. I remember I was just picking guys off at the end of the race. I caught up to Barbera, I think it was. And he had literally no right hand side of his tire left whatsoever. He couldn’t tip in on a right hand corner. It’s definitely always been a key here."
There was a simple explanation, according to Miller. "It’s because there are so many long corners here, turn 3, turn 4, even going up turn 7 up the hill and then 9. And then the 3 last corners. You’re on that right hand side of the tire and they are all high spin areas. You definitely have to be gentle with your right hand because it can come to bite you in the *** quite severely at the end of the race. You drop off really quick."
Honda's lost playground
Low grip is usually a happy hunting ground for Marc Márquez and the Honda RC213V, but that was not necessarily the case any longer, the Spaniard insisted. "It's true that normally when the grip was very low, we were fast," Márquez told us. "But the problem is that the other manufacturers have improved."
Yamaha, for example, were able to find grip where others struggled, Márquez said. "Especially in Sector 2, for example, that there you need grip if you want to be fast. The fastest guys are Yamaha riders, but not a little bit, they are like three tenths, four tenths faster than everybody. So that means that sometimes here the torque and the power is not the most important, the most important is how to get the grip, and we are struggling."
That was why he had tried the soft rear tire, the Repsol Honda rider explained. "I tried the soft tire to try to understand if it's a real option for the race, and it's an option. But still I don't' know which tire I will use." He would most probably let the rest of the grid make his choice for him, he admitted. "Honestly speaking, maybe I will keep going with the soft and the medium, both tires – maybe I will try the hard like Morbidelli – but then on Sunday, I will check the list of the tires, and if there are more mediums on the track, I will choose the medium. If there are more softs, I will choose the soft. So for me, I'm not really with the sensitivity enough to decide which tire is better."
Friday was also the first day for Maverick Viñales working with new crew chief Silvano Galbusera. That was a positive experience, he said, but it also left them with more work to do than usual. "Well, actually we tried a different balance on the bike," Viñales told us. "Basically the objective was to find front feeling, and we accomplished this today, so I'm quite happy about that. But anyway, now we have other problems, this is clear. We solve one problem at a time."
Viñales had been surprised at Galbusera's way of working, he said. "Today we tried many different bikes during FP1 and FP2. It's something that I'm not used to doing, but it's not bad. I'm quite happy, honestly. I'm quite happy because we found very positive things, for sure a few negatives, but we can work on that a little bit more tomorrow, and see if we can make an improvement. It's important to look now ahead, and to the future. So we are trying to work hard."
He didn't want to get ahead of himself, however. "Basically we need to match step by step," Viñales told us. "We cannot try too much, if we go too fast, it's not good. We need to go slowly, building the confidence. I felt good."
It wasn't the first time working with Galbusera, Viñales said. "I worked a little bit with Silvano in the test in Qatar, and I think that he's a smart guy, he has a lot of experience, also with Vale which he has been on a high level for the last years. He can help me in a few things, and for sure, every rider is different, but he will understand me. Because today, honestly I've been quite calm during the day, I understand right now our job, and it feels very nice, honestly."
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