The danger with making predictions is that it can go horribly wrong. Yesterday, I confidently predicted that it would remain dry all weekend. That prediction lasted until the end of Moto3 FP1. As the final minute approached, the dark clouds which had been slowly creeping up on the Circuito Ricardo Tormo started to sprinkle the track with rain. Just a little at first, then growing heavier once MotoGP got underway.
The rain stopped during the Moto2 session, leaving the track wet throughout (and giving Sam Lowes the opportunity to suffer a horrible highside and injure his right foot), the cool, overcast weather meaning the track dried out quite slowly. There were still a few damp patches by the time MotoGP FP2 started in the afternoon, though by the end, only Turn 1 and Turn 12 still had moisture in places.
Turn 1 was the last part of the track to be resurfaced, a whole stretch of new asphalt laid down from the start straight through to the exit of Turn 1 in 2016, after the whole track had been resurfaced in 2012. The Turn 1 resurfacing had vastly improved the grip into the first corner, the hardest braking zone on the track. But it had not helped the drainage, that spot taking a long time to dry out.
What this effectively meant is there was very little consistent dry running to be had at Valencia, except perhaps briefly in Moto3 in the morning, when it was the usual November chill, and in Moto2 in the afternoon, where Remy Gardner pipped Raul Fernandez by just 0.008 of a second, despite cracking three ribs in his crash on Friday at Portimão.
The conditions caused a fair few slips during the day. Moto3 got off lightly, with just Adrian Fernandez crashing in FP2. Moto2 saw six riders crash in FP1, including Sam Lowes' big highside. But MotoGP had eight crashes on Friday, with Danilo Petrucci, Luca Marini, and the factory Ducati pairing of Jack Miller and Pecco Bagnaia going down in a wet FP1, Fabio Quartararo, Enea Bastianini, Iker Lecuona and Pol Espargaro all crashing in the dry in FP2.
The explanations were varied. Or in Jack Miller's case, barely an explanation at all. "I had no chance at all," the Australian said. "I went in there a bit hot. Felt good, thought 'it’s FP1, just run wide, it’ll be OK'. I didn’t want to force and have chance of crashing. I went on the painted stuff, wasn’t too leaned over. I didn’t think it was too bad. As soon as I hit that stuff, I hit ice. I don’t know if it was the combination of paint or standing water on it."
It had been a very unpleasant experience, Miller said. "There's no depth perception over those lines, it caught me off guard." It was just one of those things, he acknowledged, but that didn't make it any easier to take. "When you have a **** one like that it's never nice. But anyway, we were able to turn it around in the afternoon so that’s positive."
Fabio Quartararo was similarly nonplussed. "I was lost. I had the crash and I don’t know why," the newly-crowned champion told us. "This is the worst thing you can have. The front just goes so aggressive and closes so aggressive and you don’t understand why. The bike was aggressive and I could not ride like all year."
After crashing out at Portimão, the Frenchman carried his dissatisfaction on to Valencia. "We have to find something because like that is hard to find the lap time and be consistent. We are really slow so we need to find a solution," Quartararo complained. "Similar to last year. You don’t know what is going on. You don’t where you are, the front feeling. The bike is turning pretty well but no feeling from the front. We are a bit lost. I am lost today but the team is looking for something strange. In many corners it was like that." Quartararo will have to hope a full day of dry practice on Saturday will help him find his equilibrium again.
At Repsol Honda, Pol Espargaro had crashed in the afternoon, and he had all too clear an idea of what had gone wrong. After being careful in the morning, he had just pushed too hard in the afternoon, and paid the price. "In the afternoon I wanted to just try to prove how I could manage myself this weekend a little bit. It was pretty good, I'm happy. The only problem was I was asking too much, I knew I had a problem with the front in some corners, and I overpushed and I crashed," the Spaniard said.
Espargaro had been visibly angry with himself after the crash, knowing he had no one to blame but himself. "That's why I was angry, I was angry with myself. Not with the team or the bike," the Repsol Honda rider told us. "Sure, as it's the first day, there are problems, you always have problems with the bike that need to be improved. The thing is that I knew that could crash if I was overpushing in some places, and I overpushed and I crashed. That's why I was angry with myself, because I could have avoided it in a day that was very good. So that crash was for nothing."
But Espargaro had been second fastest in the afternoon, just behind Jack Miller. The cooler conditions had worked well for the Repsol Honda rider, so well that they had tempted him into a crash, in the part of the track where he felt strongest. "T2 is one of my stronger points, in the right corners I was risking a little bit more maybe on the right, even if the temperature was not there and I was taking quite a lot of advantage," he said, while the final section of the track was where he was weakest.
The drying track had exposed the fact that the front tire allocation Michelin had brought is a little on the soft side. "I had some problems in the front tire. I saw some guys were maybe using the hard front already, I think the tires in the front are in the soft area, so I think we will be able to use the hard when the track is going to improve," Pol Espargaro said.
Locking the front, wearing the rear
Jorge Martin was one of the riders who had quickly abandoned the medium front. "I think it was really useful today, because I was impressed with how fast we were with these conditions," the Pramac Ducati rider told us. "And I feel like we are working well, and we are fast. We could try to push with the medium, to see the pace, but just one session we pushed a lot to try to be always on the front, and sometimes we ask too much from the tire and it's difficult to understand how they are working."
His experience with the medium front had convinced him the hard would be the race tire. "I tried the medium to start, and on the second lap already I was locking the front, because it felt so soft," Martin told us. "Normally the hard here is the medium in other tracks, it's the K, the one I always use. So I feel confident with this tire, and let's see how the rear is, it's difficult to understand at the moment, because we just did 15 or 16 laps, but the front for sure will be hard."
Saturday will be spent evaluating the rear tire, with special attention paid to how quickly it wears. The many long lefts at Valencia are particularly punishing on tires. "You have to work to try to be fast and try not to use a lot the rear tire on the left, because Valencia as everybody knows is a strange track, where you have to keep the angle for a long time," Andrea Dovizioso explained. "So tomorrow we will work more on the race pace."
The Italian had been fastest Yamaha for the first time since he jumped on the bike at Misano. He was pleased, but wasn't reading too much into it at the moment. Was it his best day on the Yamaha? "For sure, because from the first few laps on the track, I was feeling quite good," Dovizioso said. Not wonderful, because the bike is very particular, you have to be so smooth to be fast."
Dovizioso was learning the paradox of the Yamaha, that the harder you try, the slower you go on the M1. "Normally when you try to be faster, you are more aggressive, you put more intensity," the Italian veteran explained. "But with this bike, you have to be careful about that, and not work in that way. So at the beginning in the first few laps, I was feeling a bit too aggressive, but when I tried to stay calm, the lap time came, and from the beginning the lap time was quite good. I was happy to feel that."
The tricky track conditions had flattered him in terms of position on the timesheets, but Dovizioso was happy with just how much he had cut into the gap of the faster riders, he told us. "I think the conditions were a bit strange, and not every rider was 100% so I think tomorrow it will be more difficult. But in any case, I'm closer, because as we can see I'm six tenths instead of 1.1 seconds, normally I'm 1.1 seconds at the end of the practice. So a bit better."
It was the very last Friday practice for Valentino Rossi in MotoGP, and the Italian veteran had not particularly enjoyed it. He had sat out the first 20 minutes of a wet FP1, then gone out for two flying laps, before heading back in again. It was very much the opposite of fun.
"It's a difficult day because the conditions are very bad already from this morning, have a lot of water and was very cold," Rossi said. Things improved in FP2, but the Petronas Yamaha rider was still not in great shape. "In the afternoon fortunately the conditions were better and was dry but not completely dry, but we can do something on the dry. And I don’t feel very good. It's always difficult Valencia because the layout of the track and grip level is difficult. But I hope that the weather remains good and the conditions come better because for sure the track can improve. I was not fast enough today but I think with the better condition our potential can be a bit better, so we have to try."
It is hard to escape the conclusion that Rossi's heart isn't completely in it this last weekend. That is understandable, with retirement imminent, a season of mediocre results behind him, and little obvious chance of improvement. Especially at a track which holds bad memories, and at which he has not really gone particularly well for many years. You cannot really blame him, however: everywhere you look around the track there are tangible reminders that this weekend is the race where Rossi retires. It is hard to maintain the razor-sharp focus required to compete at the very highest level of racing when surrounded by posters, paintings, banners that this is your very last race.
VR46 abides, but where are the sponsors?
It may be Valentino Rossi's last race, but his name will continue in the paddock. The VR46 team finally announced its rider line up for 2022, though it only did so through a statement by team manager Pablo Nieto. There were no surprises in terms of riders – Luca Marini and Marco Bezzecchi in MotoGP, Celestino Vietti and Niccolo Antonelli in Moto2 – but to choose to announce it in a pit lane interview on MotoGP.com seems unusual.
The reason? Probably because the rumored deal with Saudi money, bringing the Saudi state oil company Aramco into the paddock, is still not forthcoming. Reliable sources in the paddock say the Saudi money was never going to materialize, yet other sources insist that the team still believes the deal will come together. It seems a bit late in the day. This time next week, the 2022 MotoGP preseason will already be underway, at the MotoGP test at Jerez.
Whether money does arrive from Saudi Arabia or not doesn't matter all that much. VR46 is a big enough name to raise the sponsorship needed to go racing. And it is too big a name for Dorna not to bail them out for any shortfall, should that be needed. The VR46 team is happening in 2022. The rider line up is settled. The only question is who will be footing the bill, and for how much?
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