With 21 riders covered by less than 1.3 seconds at a track over 5 km long, it is hard to pick a winner after Friday. Take Jack Miller's stellar lap out of the equation, and it's even closer: the gap between Aleix Espargaro in second place and Joan Mir in 21st is precisely 1 second; Espargaro to Enea Bastianini in tenth is exactly two tenths of a second; Espargaro to Danilo Petrucci in fifteenth is half a second. If ever you needed an example of just how close the current era of MotoGP is, Friday at Aragon delivered.
Of course, Friday being Friday, it is a little early to be reading anything into the times. Especially at a track like Aragon, where the lap is 1'49 long. You don't get very many of them to the pound, as the saying has it, with riders doing 18 or 19 laps a session, rather than 22 or 23 laps at a track like the Red Bull Ring. Mess up a lap, or crash out, as Valentino Rossi, Marc Marquez, Pecco Bagnaia, and Iker Lecuona did, and you can lose a lot of track time. And that, in turn can mess up your plan for the day.
That is very much what happened to Marc Marquez. After blitzing the field in the morning session in FP1 – the Repsol Honda rider was nearly a second faster than Suzuki's Joan Mir, though Mir had another lap within half a second of Marquez' time canceled for exceeding track limits – Marquez had a frustrating crash in FP2.
A momentary lapse of judgment
The Spaniard was following his brother, Alex Marquez, down Aragon's long back straight, gaining ground and got right on the LCR Honda's back wheel. But when Alex started to brake, Marc was left with nowhere to go. He picked the bike up, ran a little wide, and tried to hold enough lean angle to still make the corner. That proved to be a bad idea: the Repsol Honda drifted out on to the dirty part of the track, and down he went.
Marquez was furious, literally hopping mad, doing an angry little dance as he walked over to his bike, a move which naturally got turned into a meme on social media. "It’s true with the crash I was angry," the Repsol Honda rider admitted afterward. "I felt under control. I went wide, said, OK, pick it up. But on the dirty track I lost the front."
The crash had taken him by surprise. "The crash, I picked it up, but I didn’t pick up enough! I went wide but my intention was not to push," Marquez explained. It was something he had done many times before, so he hadn't expected to end up on the floor. "I did that action 100 times in my career. It always works. You just go wide, then come back," he said. "But for some reason it was not working and I crashed. Anyway, the speed was not bad but was a small crash."
Marquez was most angry because it threw the plan he and his team had for the session out of kilter. "I was angry for that. I knew with that crash I didn’t follow the plan, but it was a situation I felt under control but lost the front in a place I didn’t expect."
Marquez' crash masked his real pace. It is easy to look at the fastest times, and see that he was merely 20th in FP2. But on his final run, the Repsol Honda rider posted a 1'48.827 on a hard rear tire which had 20 laps on it. The only riders to go significantly faster than that on used tires were Jorge Martin, Pecco Bagnaia, and Takaaki Nakagami. Nakagami was the only rider to use a medium rear tire on his race runs, but with a time of 1'48.574 on his 7th lap, and 1'48.773 on his 13th lap, the Japanese rider's pace is looking respectable.
While other riders may have posted the occasional 1'48, the most impressive run was by Fabio Quartararo. On his first run in FP2, the Frenchman banged out series of consecutive 1'48s: after warming the tires on his first hot lap, he hit 1'48.9, 1'48.7, 1'48.8, 1'48.8. Precisely the kind of metronomic consistency that has been the foundation for his considerable lead in the championship.
The Monster Energy Yamaha rider had been surprised to find that he was the only rider capable of running that pace. "That’s really good and I didn’t expect because I saw I was P4/P5 and thought everyone was doing the same as me, and I was not pushing like hell," Quartararo said. Even his normally impassive crew chief Diego Gubellini had been impressed. "Normally my crew chief has no emotion, and he tell me like this," Quartararo explained, giving the thumbs up signal. " I said, 'okay that must be a good pace'.
Aragon's high-speed back straight remains the Yamaha's Achilles heel, and Quartararo was further hampered by using an engine which was getting to the end of its life and lost some of its edge. "Sector four, I don’t think I need to tell you so much things," the Frenchman remarked wryly. "We compared with Cal, Cal managed to get a really good sector four, he had a good slipstream. Unfortunately I had an old engine, the bike was geared really long, the RPM really low and then we know that the power is not the best. All three things mean we are not so good there, and the last corner is a corner where I struggle. Sector four I think is one of the worst sectors on the calendar, but I’m ready for everything and tomorrow we have some good ideas to improve sector four."
So who is really fastest at Aragon at the moment? Jorge Martin had a pretty clear idea. "The pace, I can see that Marc I think is one step in front of the rest, and also Fabio is quite strong," the Pramac Ducati rider said. He was relatively satisfied with his own pace, but was surprised he wasn't faster. "I thought it would be easier, but it's really physical. I was struggling quite a lot in FP1 with the conditions."
It went against his previous experience, Martin explained. "Normally here I'm quite fast in the morning," he said. The soft front had been difficult for him to use. "I didn't feel confident with the front, I was struggling a lot with the feeling. But as soon as we put the medium front I was super competitive from the beginning, straight away in FP2. And then it was easier. But I mean, it's difficult because it's really physical, and the first laps were really difficult. But normally every day I improve a little bit, so I hope tomorrow it's better."
Martin was one of five Ducatis in the top ten, including Jack Miller, Pecco Bagnaia, Johann Zarco, and Enea Bastianini. Bagnaia's experience had been the opposite of Jorge Martin's, expecting to feel bad after what had happened in 2020, but being surprised to find he was both comfortable and fast.
"Today was a great day," the factory Ducati rider exclaimed. "When I started the session and I was thinking that I will start struggling after the first lap, because I was with new tires, but then already in the second lap, everything started working well, in a perfect way. After FP1, I already said to the team to not change anything on the bike, because at the moment everything is perfect on the bike."
That was in stark contrast to 2020, Bagnaia explained. "It's incredible how things can change from one year [to another]. Because last year I was struggling a lot, everything was very difficult for me. I was crashing a lot and every session I had less grip. And today was the opposite, completely. FP2 I started with a hard rear and I did a 1'48.6, and it was an incredible time with a hard, and the pace was very good. So I'm very happy in this moment."
Fastest man of the day Jack Miller saw the difference in the Ducati Desmosedici GP21. "For sure corners like Turn 10 and the last two corners, it's just fantastic. You really notice the big difference," the Australian said.
The bike was starting to turn now, the Ducati's biggest weakness for over a decade or more. "We're still struggling a little bit with set up, just little things, but these corners where you have a really long time on lean angle, and you're trying to keep a neutral position on the gas or even slowly winding it on, the bike continues to turn more than before," Miller explained. "Before you’d have to play a little bit more, either roll off the edge of the tire, or just have to go wide. So immediately from the first laps today I understood it was nice and we could take advantage of this for sure."
Where did the improvement come from? "I think for sure it's got to be in the chassis, swingarm, that sort of setup. The way the bike has developed." But there wasn't one single thing that you could pinpoint, Miller told us. "I don’t think there's a certain area or just one piece, because if it was, we would have fixed it a long time ago. But I think it's a combination of everything, and the way the bike's been developed over the last years. And even engine character, the way that it's working. So I think it's hard to say exactly what piece it is, but I'm not complaining about it, that's for certain."
Fun with frames
Honda are also looking for improvement from their chassis, with Marc Marquez using another slightly different iteration of the RC213V chassis, building on the frame which Marquez used at Assen and has favored ever since. "I received a new updated chassis in Assen, and I worked in Assen with one chassis," Marquez explained. "In Austria 1 there was another update. Austria 2 we used the Assen chassis. At Silverstone we used the Assen chassis. Today I ride most of the time with Assen chassis but also another chassis that we are trying." He wouldn't be drawn on the details. "I don’t know if I can say. But it’s not really an update."
The strong point of the Assen chassis was stability, Marquez explained. "Especially in Assen I feel a better stability, especially in the fast corners, but we struggle more in the slow corners. Always it’s a compromise. For us it was working well."
He and the team had been working on improving the bike for the end of the year. "For Austria 1, we did just a testing plan. We rode with many different things. Then in Austria 2 we came back to something we know, which was the last race in Assen, something that was working well."
This chassis would form the basis for the future, with HRC looking for data to build a chassis which Marquez would like. "Now in the next races, especially this one, Misano and the Misano test, we need to understand which way to follow for the future in the chassis area," Marquez said. "The other Honda riders are using another chassis and are going in another way. But when they try my way sometimes they like, sometimes not. We are still a little bit confused. But from my side of the box everything is a bit more clear. Just I need to understand well between here and Misano which direction for my riding style we need to take."
Takaaki Nakagami is trying to set up his 2021 Honda RC213V better by adapting what he had on the bike in 2020 to this year's machine. "In FP1 we tried to compare two bikes, one is 2020 stuff and the other is from Silverstone," the LCR Honda rider said. "Not a huge difference, just the geometry the same, but the swing arm length and height [are different] but I tried to compare in the session and it was slightly better."
While all this might matter on Sunday, it wasn't the center of attention on Friday. For the first time, the general public got to see Maverick Viñales ride the Aprilia RS-GP. Though the Spaniard looked good on the bike, it became immediately apparent that he still has some work to do before he is completely adapted to the new machine.
That was apparent from the way he structured his practice. Where most riders were doing three runs, and changing tires and setup in between, Viñales did two runs of 11 and 10 laps in FP1, then started FP2 with another run of 11 laps, before switching to shorter runs in pursuit of a time. This was Viñales in search of understanding, not in pursuit of a hot lap.
Impressions of other riders who rode with him were instructive. "When I saw him on the bike, he looks his usual self, he looks comfortable, and his normal riding style as such," was Cal Crutchlow's verdict. Alex Rins was a little more critical. "I rode a little bit with Maverick in FP1 and he was struggling a little bit to make the bike turn."
That was probably down to the different engine layout, a V4 instead of an inline four, Rins theorized. "For sure it's a different engine compared to the Yamaha with has the inline four and the Aprilia a V4. So maybe it's a little bit difficult for him, but he already rides fast. I mean the level in MotoGP is super high and it's not easy to change the team, change the bike and be fast again. For sure his teammate Aleix was second today, super fast, but he was quite impressive."
Working it out
Viñales himself was aware of just how much work he still had ahead of him. "Just adapting to the bike honestly," the Spaniard said. "It is quite hard to doing all the laps together and the good sectors." Yet improvement was coming. "For me it has been very positive because from FP1 to FP2 we make a big jump not only with the lap time but also with the feeling and I think tomorrow we will make another. Step by step I am improving."
The shortness of a session during a race weekend made it difficult, Viñales said. "It is pretty hard to improve in 40 minutes, so hard. You cannot touch nothing, just run and ride the bike. So overall it is very positive. It is true that it is very different, so the way I do the track is on another way. It is hard to still continue doing it in the way the bike wants because I’m used to a different way and that’s why I could not split all the sectors in a perfect way."
The biggest problem Viñales was facing was having to rethink his braking, he explained. "Actually I am still braking too early," the Spaniard told us. "That is the main issue, because I was used to a different kind of riding style but we are getting much closer. In Misano I was getting closer and here by the days and the practices we will get closer. For me the most difficult part is the braking because the acceleration is very good and I can control well the slide. It is not an issue but I need to get used to the braking area cos it is different to what I used to ride and makes a difference to the lap time. I think we will arrive. It is about doing laps and trusting the front more than anything else."
Surprise of the day came from Cal Crutchlow. From running around near the back at Silverstone, suddenly Crutchlow put himself into third at the end of the first day at Aragon, not bad for a test rider. But he wasn't going to let his imagination run away with him, he said. "Realistically, I could be 20th in the morning, that's the reality of it," the Monster Energy Yamaha substitute said. "So as I said, we're not bothered about position, we're not looking for that."
Yet he was pleased he had been able to bend the Yamaha M1 to his will sufficiently to squeeze a quick single lap out of it. "It's nice to do a lap, because on the Yamaha, I've never done a fast lap in my life. I've done good testing, in Jerez I had fantastic pace, but I couldn't go fast at all, as in over one lap," Crutchlow said.
The difference was just down to having spent some more time concentrating on the 2021 Yamaha M1, Crutchlow explained. "It's just time on the bike, simple as that. Silverstone was not great, we did our job, but it was not easy. It was just difficult to jump from the 2019 bike to the 2021 bike again, and it's just about getting used to it again. And in Silverstone, I was messing about with the handlebars, with the brakes, because it's a completely different sizes to an extent. The way you sit. I didn't feel comfortable, simple as that. So now I feel a little bit more comfortable, I'm able to start pushing a bit more, my pace was OK."
Making Fabio faster
Being fast wasn't his job, Crutchlow insisted. As Yamaha test rider, he was there to help the other Yamahas go faster, and especially to help Fabio Quartararo win the 2021 championship by figuring out a few things which the Frenchman might be able to use at the end of the year to keep his advantage over the opposition.
"It was a good session, because I know we have been testing something that the other guys have not been testing this year. And that's my job, so it worked perfectly," Crutchlow said. "In the garage at the moment, it's working perfectly, because I can do what I want. We can do what we want, because it makes no difference, and we're hoping to put Fabio in a better position later on in the year. Now he's got no time to test it, he's got a championship to concentrate on, he's concentrating on going fast and getting good results, where for me it doesn't matter."
What Crutchlow had tried was the hard rear tire, though he was no real fan of it. What concerned Crutchlow slightly was that all three rear tires look to be raceable, conditions permitting. That made the job of the riders and teams much more difficult, the Englishman said.
Strategy vs choice
"The hard rear tire with the Yamaha doesn't really suit my style, but on the other hand, it could be a potential race tire, as could the medium, as could the soft," Crutchlow said. "And that's when you're always in the ****, because when there's three potential race tires, everybody will run something different."
Experience could come in handy here, in knowing how to combine strategy and experience to your advantage, but things were easier when you knew what your rivals would run ahead of the race, Crutchlow explained. "I'm not saying it's not a fair fight then, because you can do the tricks of the trade, and pick your own choice best. But I quite like it when everyone's on the same tire, because you sort of understand the level, the level of the bike, etc."
More will become clear on Saturday, when the riders get a chance in FP4 to finalize their tire choice. And with more rubber on the track, things should get a little easier. Then again, Crutchlow pointed out, all that might be meaningless once the MotoGP riders line up on the grid on Sunday after the Moto2 class has smeared Dunlop rubber all over the track. "But then we always have to take into account after the Moto2 race, that rubber's not particularly matching our rubber. But it's the same as always."
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