It has been something of an irrelevant day at Misano. On Friday morning, the track was soaking, rain keeping it wet. In the afternoon, it started off wet but a dry line started to form. "At the end, the last 10 minutes to go, we had one dry line, but lap by lap it was getting wider," was how Takaaki Nakagami described it. With damp conditions expected on Saturday, and a cold and dry Sunday, nothing of importance was learned on Friday.
It was a wasted day in terms of finding race setup, perhaps, but it was still useful in overall terms. MotoGP is full of young riders who haven't had all that much time in the wet, and so Friday offered a chance to gain some valuable experience. "Not a wasted day because I don’t have so much experience in wet conditions, and a day like this is good for me," Suzuki's Joan Mir said. "I improved a lot and could understand. When I started in MotoGP, from then to now I ride in a different way and I am able to be a lot more strong."
All that experience might be useful for the future, but not necessarily for the rest of the weekend, the reigning MotoGP champion acknowledged. "It looks like we will start from zero after today." But if, as expected, it is damp on Saturday morning, Friday could still provide useful data for trying to get through to Q2. "I think FP3 can be mixed conditions, not completely dry so it is important that we suffered at the end of the session. It’s what we took from today," Mir said.
Friday may have been a lost day, but that didn't matter all that much. MotoGP was here just over a month ago for the Misano 1 race, and then had a two-day test in cool conditions much more like what we can expect on Sunday. Everyone has pretty much everything dialed in already.
Especially the riders of the VR46 Academy who train at Misano all the time, such as Pecco Bagnaia. "We have worked a lot on this track. I know everything about this track," the factory Ducati rider pointed out. "Also on the last day of the test, we had conditions which were more similar to this weekend, because the second day of the test was colder. So we already know everything, which tire to use and see what will happen. But I'm sure that our potential is still the same as last race here."
Bagnaia had a crash in the morning, and unusual event for the young Italian. That crash brought his yearly total to 4 for all of the sessions of practice and races in 2021, and putting him level with his title rival Fabio Quartararo. It is remarkable, or perhaps not so remarkable, that the two riders with the fewest crashes throughout the season are also the two vying for the championship.
The Italian was still fast, though, like all of the Ducatis. Johann Zarco topped the morning session, Jack Miller was fastest in the afternoon. There were four Ducatis in the top six in FP1, five in the top ten in FP2. The bike is good in the wet, as are its riders. "I don’t want to blow our own horns, but myself and Zarco are pretty quick in the wet," Miller pointed out. "Always have been. Zarco also on the Yamaha. Myself also on the Honda."
The bike itself is good, though. "I think it comes down to mechanical grip. You have a lot of rear grip in the wet. But it also comes down to how the bike behaves," Miller explained. "The way the Ducati works, it’s definitely more user friendly. You get a lot more feedback and understand what it’s doing."
That makes it easier when it is wet, and also when the track starts to dry, the Australian explained. "Days like today, you don’t stress about going out in the wet. Even when the bike lets go, when we were struggling with the temperature, it was letting go but it gives you plenty of reaction time." The bike is telling the rider what it's about to do, and that makes it much easier to deal with. "It’s the same with the front. Using the carbon brakes in the wet, you’re able to react so quickly on the lever, you’re able to react in those little quick ones you get in the wet, you’re able to react and avoid a crash which is really, really nice." Being able to react and prevent a crash builds confidence, and confidence is the secret to going faster.
What is mechanical grip? Basically it means getting the tires hooked up as a result of the basic design of the bike. The combination of geometry, weight distribution, and the materials used helps the tires dig into the asphalt and find drive, braking, cornering. It is, if you like, 'natural' grip inherent in the motorcycle, rather than grip which comes from using the electronics to alter the behavior of the bike. The bike itself wants to grip; you don't have to find ways to make it grip.
That was the contrast with the Yamaha. Jack Miller had spoken to the man he replaced in the factory Ducati team, Andrea Dovizioso, now that Dovizioso was on the Petronas Yamaha, and was struggling in the wet. "Just listening / speaking to Andrea, someone that rode the bike for many years and knows how it performs in the wet, seeing him struggle more on the Yamaha, and we all know he’s one of the faster guys in the wet. But he seems to be having more issues with the Yamaha than the Ducati."
The problem is not so much a track with water on it, however, as much as a track in which the water is starting to go away. As the track starts to dry, that is when the Yamahas really suffer. In the morning, on a fully wet track, Franco Morbidelli set the sixth fastest time, while Valentino Rossi was twelfth. In the afternoon, on a track where a dry line was appearing, Fabio Quartararo was the best Yamaha, down in 16th.
"To be honest, I'm happy about full wet, because this afternoon, straight away I felt really good on the bike, and until we stopped, we were in P7. So I was pretty happy," Quartararo said. "And then as soon as it dries, if you can maybe ask all the Yamaha riders this can be useful, because it's like you are riding a bike that is totally different. The bike doesn't turn, the bike doesn't want to pick up, the bike has no grip. All the defects you can have in these kind of conditions are there."
The lack of grip was not specific to the front or the rear of the Yamaha M1, Franco Morbidelli explained. "It's a little bit of both. We struggle with both tires, we start to struggle with the whole package. The feeling is that the grip fades away instead of increasing." No grip means going slow, the Italian said. "When you don't have grip, you cannot ride well or fast. This is what happens to us. Instead of when the track gets dry, instead of the grip getting higher, it's worse."
The trouble is that when the track starts to dry, the dry line is faster than the wet. But it is precisely on that damp and drying line where the Yamaha suffers most. "As I said, exactly on the dry lines, we struggle. But you are forced to take the dry lines if you want to make a faster lap time. But the lap time doesn't get so much faster. You need to go on the dry line, because it makes you faster but the feeling is really poor on these conditions. While everybody else is able to have a good increase in grip by going on the dry lines," Franco Morbidelli said.
Fabio Quartararo had gone slower as the track dried out and he had swapped the the soft front wet tire for a medium wet. Theoretically, that should give more support in braking and allow him to go faster. But that was not the case. "As soon as we stopped for the medium front, which I felt it was time to go for it, with a new soft rear, I was spinning so bad. I had no grip, we were almost 1 second slower than the lap time I had before, even though the track was more dry. And basically, a lot of riders that were not super strong in full dry, they made a massive step in the mixed conditions."
This was an area which desperately needs fixing, Quartararo insisted. "We need to understand why we are so bad in that condition. But not only me, it's all the Yamahas are struggling in those conditions. So it's something that we need to find and try to improve."
Choose your fighter
Why is the Yamaha slow in mixed conditions while the Ducati – and the KTM, and the Aprilia – are so fast? Perhaps the explanation should be sought in the Yamaha's thirst for corner speed. The Yamaha needs corner speed to go fast, and so the bike is built to ride on rails on the edge of the tire, and to accelerate early while the bike is still on its side. That is an inherently risky part of the corner, but one which offers a lot of benefits. There are more corners than straights, and a few hundredths in 16 corners adds up to a big chunk of time.
But corner speed necessarily requires grip. In the wet, when there is no grip for anyone, the playing field is level again, and the Yamaha can use the available grip to carry corner speed. In mixed conditions, the grip mid corner is unreliable and difficult to judge, giving the riders a lack of feel. Riders on point-and-shoot bikes like the Ducati can pick the bike up earlier and open the gas on corner exit, exploiting the bike's mechanical grip to maximize acceleration. Yamaha riders have to completely change their riding styles if they want to attempt the same, but even then, the M1 doesn't have the mechanical grip of the Desmosedici.
Can this be fixed? It is most likely an innate quality of the design philosophy chosen by Yamaha. The issue has been there for a decade or more: Jorge Lorenzo was very fast in the wet, and incredible in the dry, but absolutely nowhere when conditions were not one thing or another. At best, the Yamaha riders can hope to limit their disadvantage on a half-wet, half-dry track. And pray it rains as little as possible during the season.
Slip sliding away
Honda also have problems with grip, but their issues are of a different order. The RC213V lacks rear grip, both wet and dry. (At least, in its current incarnation; we will have to see how it changes next year when they introduce a radically revised version of the bike.) On a drying track, that is no different. The one advantage the Honda riders have is that they are used to a lack of rear grip, and are consequently always working on finding a way to maximize the grip they have, whatever the conditions.
Marc Marquez had expected a little more from Friday, and was mildly frustrated to be down in 14th in FP2. He had been unable to find the speed to get through to Q2, while riders on other bikes had been able to make a step forward on a drying track. The key lay in finding some confidence in the rear of the bike, the Repsol Honda rider told us. "We need to understand, because all Honda riders are struggling in the same areas, in the same points, that is try to believe in the rear contact, try to believe in the rear tire, and it's there that we are losing more."
Marquez had also been hampered by the fact that he had been swapping between chassis in FP2. He was still trying to figure out if the chassis being raced by Repsol Honda teammate Pol Espargaro was better than the frame he raced – and won on – in Austin. That meant doing several short runs in FP2, leaving less time to chase a quick lap time. "It was the plan, but it was not going like we want, because we tried both chassis again, one chassis that Pol is using, and the one that I used in Austin, for example."
Testing these in the wet was far from ideal. "So it's also in wet conditions, it's difficult to understand which one is better, because the track conditions are changing." Despite that, Marquez said he would try to make a decision on Friday night on which chassis he will use for the remainder of the weekend. At the time he spoke to us, he was tending toward the chassis used by Espargaro.
Detracting our attention from the start of FP2 came the announcement by the Permanent Bureau – basically, the FIM and Dorna, but in this case, backed by all of the organizations involved in running international circuit racing championships – that a number of steps would be taken to attempt to improve safety.
The cliff notes version (you can read the full story and announcement here) is that minimum ages will be raised in a number of classes, including WorldSSP300, the Red Bull Rookies Cup, FIM CEV Junior Moto3 Championship, and all the various Talent Cups around the world. For the three Grand Prix classes, the minimum age would be raised from 16 to 18. In addition, grid sizes would be cut to around 32 for most classes, and airbags had been made compulsory for all classes engaged in short circuit racing.
Work had also begun with protective equipment manufacturers to find ways to reduce the effect of bike and rider impacts, which have been the cause of the most recent spate of fatalities. And communication systems would be investigated and improved to try to provide automatic, near-instant warning of a crash up ahead on the track, to give riders a chance to slow down and avoid fallen riders and being involved.
A step in the right direction
The move was met with praise from most quarters, though several people were quick to point out that this was only a partial solution. It should be noted, of course, that this is just the beginning, a first step in the right direction, rather than the solution put in place to completely address the problem. Motorcycle racing is working to make the sport as safe as possible, but that cannot be achieved overnight.
For the most part, the riders welcomed the raising of the minimum age, even though many of them had benefited from the younger age limits when they started racing. Marc Marquez was one such rider. "It's true that maybe I'm not the rider to say, because I arrived in the world championship with 15 years old, I moved to MotoGP with 20 years old, one of the youngest ones," the Repsol Honda rider acknowledged. "But it's true that now the tendency is like if you are not in MotoGP with 20 years old, you are not a good rider. And it's not like this. Sometimes some riders need more time than the other ones, and to move the age means that everybody will be more ready, and everybody will be more mature."
The consensus was that riders would be more mature when they entered the Grand Prix paddock at 18 rather than 16, though there were one or two dissenting voices. "It's OK that you have to have more maturity from the guys, but I don't think they change too much from 16 to 18," Pecco Bagnaia pointed out.
For most riders, the rush to get kids onto big bikes as early as possible was the biggest problem. What was needed was for young riders to spend more time on smaller machinery on smaller tracks. "This needs to be a consequence from the smallest category," Marc Marquez said. "I mean, now it looks like that if a baby with 4, 5 years old is not on the bike, it's too late already. And it's not like this, you can start on the bike with 7, 8, 9 years old with a small bike. Just for fun, it's not necessary to compete and go racing."
Minibikes on kart tracks were the ideal environment for kids to learn to race, Aleix Espargaro pointed out. It was much better than putting them on big bikes at Grand Prix circuits. "The most important thing is to educate kids to arrive in big tracks like Barcelona, Mugello a little late," the Gresini Aprilia rider said. "All over Europe we have very nice karting tracks where kids can learn and improve their skills. If they crash in the middle of the track, and another mini bike hit them, the bike weight is half. We don’t need to allow kids with 10 years 12 years old to go on a track with 200kph on big circuit. They have to wait, improve skills on a karting track."
One thing which the rule changed didn't address was the need to change the bikes being raced, to prevent the huge bunches of riders all drafting each other in what was a recipe for inevitable disaster. That was what needed to come next, according to Jack Miller, as older riders could be just as stupid as kids of 16. "Something has to be done with the bikes and the tires. There are some guys well over 18 and acting like fools. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not just the young guys."
The motorcycles needed to be more difficult to ride, Miller said. "The bikes need to be harder. Give them more horsepower or give them less tire. There is too much tire for how much horsepower they got and it makes it too easy to ride. You see highsides at end of race when the tires are knackered and they don’t have an idea of what’s going on. But when it comes to a qualifying lap you don’t see highsides because the tires are good enough and the bike doesn’t have enough power to spin it."
The announcement by the FIM and Dorna is a step in the right direction. But it is a first step, and the road is long. Motorcycle racing is dangerous, but everyone is now committed to finding ways of reducing that danger as much as possible while allowing the sport to retain its essential character.
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