It was a good day for attention-grabbing headlines at Mandalika. Pol Espargaro ended the day with a scorching lap which took him under the WorldSBK Superpole by four tenths of a second. There were six different manufacturers in the top six. The lead on the first day changed hands time after time in the last couple of hours.
But the headlines don't really mean very much. Times were dropping because the track started off filthy and only really started to clean up in the last hour or so of the day. This is the first outing at Mandalika for MotoGP, so the teams and factories have very little data to go on, with teams working on such basics as figuring out the best gearing for the track.
The track was incredibly dirty, because it is still in the middle of a building site and has not been used since WorldSBK left the circuit back in November of last year. There has been plenty of building work done, the pit complex is much closer to completion than November, but the combination of building work and torrential tropical rains left a lot of dirt and mud on the track.
The track would have stayed dirty if Dorna hadn't stepped in and forced everyone to put in laps. All the riders hate a dirty track, but the only way to clean a dirty track is to ride on it. But everybody wants someone else to ride on it, rather than them.
Alex Marquez came up with an ingenious solution, after the entire paddock had retreated back to the pits after a few early laps. "In the morning it was very dirty," the LCR Honda rider told us. "Everybody was waiting for somebody to clean the track or something like that, but nobody went out. So I gave the idea to Race Direction to make it mandatory to make 20 laps per rider until some hour. So they made it mandatory to make 20 laps per rider before 3pm."
That demand worked. "So at that moment, everybody started to clean the track, it was quite good. The line is quite clean." Off the racing line, conditions are still tricky. "It's true that if you make a small mistake you are out and and you can crash. But the line is not bad, and the grip from the tarmac and track is not bad. It was just dirty."
Going off the racing line caught a fair few people out, including a number of Ducatis, and Takaaki Nakagami. "I had a crash at Turn 10 around 5pm. That crash was totally my mistake, on the braking point I was a little bit too deep, and I tried to stop the bike, but it was too fast, the speed was a little bit over the limit. I tried to stop the bike into the apex, but I lost the front grip."
There was a mixed reception to being forced to go out and clean the track. "Once it dried off the only logical thing was to get out there," Jack Miller agreed. "It was only going to get better and better and the Dorna guys were pushing us and it was only for everyone’s benefit. The track was not in bad condition by the end of the day."
Brad Binder felt much the same way. "For me it was the right decision to make everybody ride. They cleaned Turns 1 and 2 the way they would clean the whole track but it was not that good. It needs rubber. It still filthy and so sketchy off line and easy to wash the front or the rear, especially at the beginning. It was really hard to learn the track because you were not really on the perfect line. You couldn’t go in deep and couldn’t always trust it braking into turns. But, it was a good decision to let us all ride and it was more up to pace later on."
Jorge Martin was far more ambivalent about it. "We were all on the track riding. I think it wasn’t the most logical way but the fastest to ride. Finally, It wasn’t bad. It was really dangerous at beginning. But it is what it is. Nothing crazy happened which is good."
Aleix Espargaro, however, was livid. "The track was not safe enough to ride. Not at all," the Aprilia rider said. "We are quite used to arrive in circuit that has a lot of dust. I remember in Qatar in Thursday. It’s OK. But today wasn’t a matter of a bit of dust, today the track was unrideable. It was completely unsafe. The decision they take, the teams with Dorna to force us to ride all together just to clean the track, I didn’t like it at all. I was very angry."
Espargaro may have been angry, but he couldn't deny that the move had been effective. "Obviously it works. If you put 25 bikes on the track lap by lap it cleans it. But it’s not the solution. I’m not here to clean any track."
It wasn't just dirt and dust. There was also a problem with stones on the track. Alex Marquez showed us a big red mark where the bike ahead of him had thrown up a stone which had hit him right in the throat. "I was behind somebody, and it's like, unbelievable. I felt like it was a gun or something. Boom! On my neck," the LCR Honda rider said.
The issue was at Turn 1 and Turn 17, where the stones in the aggregate were breaking up and being ripped loose from the asphalt. That made that part of the track very rough in the early laps. "The worst part is Turn 1 and the last corner. It's like different tarmac, and in Turn 1, you can get hit by a stone," Alex Marquez said.
"There is another point that we have to speak about tomorrow in the Safety Commission, which is the asphalt, the material, everywhere is like that," Andrea Dovizioso agreed. "And when you follow other riders you have pain, because in every corner you get [hit by] the small stones. So maybe that can be a problem, I don’t know."
The problem of dirt and dust should be relatively easy to fix. At the moment, it is very reminiscent of Qatar a decade or so ago when they were building the Lusail Sports Arena, the massive indoor sports stadium opposite the track. Construction work on that threw up masses of dust, which made the normal sand which would blow onto the track from the desert to the west even worse.
The situation is similar to the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit in Argentina as well. Termas sees very little use outside of MotoGP, so when the series returns, the track is always covered in a thick layer of dust and dirt. That is also what happened at Mandalika.
There are other similarities with Termas de Rio Hondo. Mandalika invited favorable comparisons to the track in Argentina, both being fast and flowing with lots of fast corners. "A bit like Argentina in some places," Jack Miller said. "It’s got its own character, really cool, really fun to ride. It’s got a bit of everything. That whole fast section is unreal. I’m really excited to come back and race here."
Miguel Oliveira felt much the same way. "Difficult to compare it with another track. The last corner before the last right reminds of Argentina. Something new is the fast right hand corners. After sector one. And the fast change of direction after Turn 7, 8, it’s pretty nice."
Joan Mir was similarly enthusiastic. "The circuit I enjoyed. It’s a nice layout combined with slow corners and also a fast section, the second sector." That second sector, Turns 5 through 9, is very fast and quite scary. A little too much for Marc Marquez, the Repsol Honda rider joked. "The first sector, I like it, I really like it. T3 is also a nice sector and also T4. Sector 2 I don’t like, it’s too fast!" he joked.
Alex Rins thought it was more like the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, Austria. "This track is so similar to Austria, but the change of directions are faster, so it's an easy track," the Suzuki rider said. Aleix Espargaro felt something similar. "The track is nice," the Aprilia rider said. "Not very difficult. A lot of fast changes of direction."
For Rins, the layout was likely to produce some close racing with a sizable group at the front. "I think at race time, there will be a lot of riders at the front, there can be a group of four or five riders." That was borne out by the WorldSBK races in November last year, which both featured close battles for much of the race.
Pol Espargaro, who finished the day as fastest, was obviously enthusiastic. "It’s nice, I really like it," the Repsol Honda rider said. "It’s quite fast, so that makes the lap very short, very fast. For sure when the track improves we can be close to 1'29, so under 1'30 on this track is pretty fast. And it’s not so short, it means the track speed is quite high. There are sectors where the bike is very slow, but there are also some sectors like sector 2, sector 3 which are pretty fast. It's a little bit of everything which is nice."
As happy as Espargaro was with his fastest time, he was under no illusions that it meant very much in the wider scheme of things. "Yeah, it’s important to start well, but this is just the beginning," the Repsol Honda rider said. "For sure we are happy with the result, the bike is working decent here, it’s fast, it’s quick in one lap and in the race pace. But it’s just the beginning. The first day."
There was not much real work being done on that first day, precisely because of the conditions. Beyond sorting out gearing, riders worked a little on basic setup. The low grip in the first part of the day also made it ideal to help figure out electronics settings, to help manage and control slides. But for testing major hardware, conditions were far from ideal.
So the hope is that conditions will be better on Saturday. Grip levels should continue to increase as more rubber is laid down on the track and more riders circulating cleans a wider racing line. Today was about getting acquainted, and brushing off the cobwebs of a tropical slumber between events. Tomorrow, work begins a little more in earnest. Conditions willing.
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