Testing is all well and good, but at last, we have real, actual data from a race track on a bona fide race weekend. All 24 bikes on the track at the same time, trying to figure out as much as possible in two short 45 minute sessions. No running separately, or trying to figure out how the conditions for the 8-lap run done at 11am compare to the 12-lap run at 2pm, or the 7-lap run at 5pm.
The first day at Qatar may have been genuine competition, but the picture was also confused by the schedule. With FP1 at 1:40pm, in the heat of the day, and FP2 shortly after sunset, at 6pm, conditions were completely different, the air temperature 7°C lower, and the track a whole 16°C cooler.
"Well, for sure now it is hard to see who has the better pace than the other because we don’t have the normal day schedule," Miguel Oliveira reflected after the first day."The hour is not that different but for the temperature and the wind it changes quite a lot."
The difference in track temperature was a known concern, but at least the MotoGP riders didn't have a lot of sand to deal with. Normally, the first day at Qatar is spent playing the broom, sweeping the sand which accumulates on the track off the line and making it rideable. But the circuit had spent a lot of effort cleaning the track in preparation for the MotoGP weekend.
"Perfect! Especially after being at Mandalika!" was how Jack Miller described the grip. Normally, the first few laps, riders have to be careful going into Turn 1, because if you run wide, it is easy to crash on a dirty track. "I was kind of scared, because it's kind of always a little bit dusty here on the first day, but the first couple of laps, going into Turn 1 and going deep, which is generally you've got to kind of stand the bike up and go all the way out of the track, but they've done an absolutely amazing job with cleaning this track. And also I guess they mustn't have had too much wind in the past days, because the track is phenomenal. To do these times this early in the weekend is unheard of. I can't complain."
Alex Rins agreed. In previous years, he explained, they would still be cleaning the track on the first day, even after spending three days testing at the track. Not this year. "Today was a good day in terms of dirt and dust," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said.
A good day for the Suzukis too. Rins topped the timesheets in FP2, with Joan Mir third fastest. The bike was exceptionally quick over a lap, but it wasn't just all down to corner speed. The GSX-RR had a pretty decent turn of speed down the front straight as well. Alex Rins posted the highest top speed, clocking 355.2 km/h through the speed trap at the end of the straight, but Joan Mir was not far off, hitting 354 km/h on a whole string of laps. "The biggest surprise to me was Suzuki," Jack Miller said. "Playing possum all winter and then coming out with 355 km/h today, so clearly they found some ponies there in Japan."
The speed came as something of a surprise even to Suzuki's own riders. "It was amazing!" Alex Rins said. "It never happened before in the 5 years I’m in MotoGP. In the afternoon I repeat the speed." That allowed Rins to overtake one of the Gresini Ducatis on the front straight. That inspired one journalist to ask Rins' teammate Joan Mir if it meant that Hamamatsu now had the same speed as Borgo Panigale. "Borgo Panigale is big words!" he joked. "But I'm really happy. They know how to make engines in Suzuki. Just a bit of work."
The speed was the effect of the changes made over the year, and specifically in response to the demands made by Rins and Mir over the course of 2021. "As a rider you always want to improve things. We pushed so hard to improve the aerodynamics side. Since last year we have here a new engine, we have the ride height device, which we didn’t have last year." The added speed allowed them to relax a little, without having to try to squeeze the last drop of performance out of every inch of the track. "It helps us to at least breathe on the straight. Before there was more tension, now with calm."
It was more evolution than revolution, Mir said. "It’s not that we made a huge step in the engine. OK, we improved it quite a lot. But we are comparing with the bike without the device." The combination of a new engine, revised aerodynamics and the ride-height device had been a big step forward. "Last year I remembered here we were struggling a lot on top speed, on acceleration side. We were not using the device. With the device and the engine, we make a great job at the end of last year."
The best thing was that the additional power had not been bought at the cost of a more aggressive engine character. "This normally happens when you change completely the engine. In our case it was not like this," Mir said. "The character of the bike is the same. Now we just have a little bit more on top and this doesn’t make our life more difficult on the change of direction or in the middle of the corners because the power delivery is really similar."
The ride-height device had come a long way too, since the first prototype appeared at Austria last year. That initial device had dropped the rear of the bike very quickly, upsetting the balance of the machine. "That was the first prototype – it was heavier than the one we are using now. It was a bit faster," Mir said. Now, Suzuki were working on a system which would lower the rear of the bike more smoothly. "This one we are working in that direction. You can see a lot the Ducatis, Aprilias going down really slowly. We are still going down quite hard at the moment. But yeah, we improved a lot."
The other big surprise was the pace of the Hondas. Taka Nakagami, Pol Espargaro, and Marc Marquez had made it three Hondas in the top five in FP1. In the evening session, Marquez had been second quickest. But that is mostly only over a single lap, Marc Marquez warned. "In race pace I expected something similar, in a single lap it was better than what I expected. And maybe second position is not my pace in race pace, but overall it was better than what I expected."
Marquez' expectations of his race pace were in part due to the fact that neither he nor Honda had gotten on particularly well with the Lusail International Circuit. "It's true that here in the past, it was not the strongest track for the Honda bike, but also for my riding style. In all categories here, I was not very very fast." But things were looking up, he said. "Today, the race pace was not the best one, but it was not far from the best. This I like, and it makes me feel comfortable, but it's true that we need to improve minimum two tenths if we want to fight for the podium. At the moment, we are not ready to fight for the podium on race pace."
The Repsol Honda rider also revealed that they have only barely begun to play with the bike, and explore its potential. "Today, we didn't touch the bike, I was riding with the Mandalika setup, because we still don't understand. And lap by lap I was faster and faster, and then tomorrow we will start to play a bit."
That suggests that once Marquez and his team get some track time under their belt, they will start to get significantly faster. The first test at Jerez will be key here; with a whole day to explore setup, and a better understanding of the bike, they should learn enough to be able to fix the area where Marquez is still struggling most, the feeling with the front of the bike.
"I'm not pushing a lot on the entry," Marquez said. "Before I was very fast on the entry, now I'm not very fast, but also I don't feel the front in that part. I feel strange, I don't feel the limit, I don't feel the front, I still don't understand where the front is. But honestly I feel slow, while the lap time comes. This is good. But if you try to be faster, you are slower. It's a bit strange." Ironically, that is how Yamaha riders have described the M1 over the years: the more you relax and let the bike do the work, the faster you go. The more you push, the slower you go.
What Marquez was happiest with was the shape his shoulder was in. For the first time, he said, he had been able to ride without having to change his style to accommodate the weakness in the shoulder. A month of riding a MotoGP bike and being able to train had returned some strength. "Today, riding the bike was not any physical condition that stopped me. So I was riding like I want, like I can."
Teammate Pol Espargaro was happier too, glad to be able to use the riding style he had had all through his career. "I’ve come more to my old riding style, using more the rear brake, hammering more with more engine brake going into the corners, sliding more with control. When the track is cleaner and better I’ll be stronger. I’ll be able to use the rear brake which gives me a lot of speed."
Espargaro also made an interesting comment on the lack of swingarm spoilers on the Ducati and the Honda. The reason, the Repsol Honda rider said, was because they were too effective at cooling the rear tire. "For us it was not a clear advantage from the beginning. Sure everyone, especially Ducati, were saying these spoons were for aerodynamics. But this is not true. They were to throw air to the tire and cool down the rear tire."
The remarkable thing about this admission is that when Ducati first debuted the rear swingarm spoiler, at Qatar in 2019, the other teams had protested, and even taken them to the FIM MotoGP Court of Appeal. Ducati had won that case, because they could prove with data that the spoiler actually reduced tire temperatures by several degrees. Despite their victory, factories continued to believe the spoiler was to generate downforce on the rear swingarm and generate rear grip, rather than to manage rear tire temperature.
Whether they were producing downforce or not, they were also causing problems for tires, Espargaro insisted. "Everyone started to use [the spoilers] but last year we faced trouble with the tire temperature. It was too low. There was no sense to use this device. It was putting more fire into the problem. We took it out and this year it’s been OK. Maybe they have problems with temperatures now and that’s why they take it out."
The fact that this change also coincides with the new rear Michelin, which uses a different construction, is likely linked. The rear tire changed, and consequently, so did the way it absorbed loads, and therefore the temperature.
Faster than they appear
On the face of it, the first day of Qatar did not look too rosy for Yamaha, despite Franco Morbidelli being fifth fastest in FP2. Fabio Quartararo had already had a frustrating day, when the clamp holding his electronics switchgear worked loose, and got pushed out of place when he adjusted the electronics mapping. He spent a lap trying to bash it back into place, the unit getting stuck behind his thumb brake lever.
Yet both in terms of race pace (follow the excellent race engineer Chris Pike on Twitter for regular pace analysis), and in terms of rival assessment, the Yamahas were felt to be quick. "On this race track in Qatar, we are not the fastest ones, and it looks like Yamaha and Suzuki bikes, which are a different style – as you know, the engine is a different way – are more consistent and are faster than us," Marc Márquez said.
That didn't stop Fabio Quartararo from worrying about his race pace, though. " I expected much better," the reigning world champion said. "To be honest, it's a strange day, more than bad or good, because I felt quite on the limit, quite good, but basically we missed a lot of grip, and my feeling on the bike was not so bad, but the lap time was just super slow."
The Frenchman was looking askance at Suzuki's top speed, and hoping that Yamaha engineers were taking notes. "I hope they are investigating, because now it's starting to be too much. And basically I don't understand how it's possible. So now we are in 2022, we can't make anything more, so I will not complain from now to Valencia. But I mean it's not normal to be more than 10 km/h slower."
Too early to tell
The most confusing situation was that of Ducati. The hot favorites coming into the season, and yet they were not really making that much of an impression. Pramac's Jorge Martin was fourth quickest, a noted specialist over a single lap, especially around Qatar. The two factory Ducatis managed to get into the top ten, Jack Miller fifth and Pecco Bagnaia scraping into tenth to secure a spot in Q2.
Marc Marquez warned against complacency. "I will say after the race, we are only Friday," the Repsol Honda rider joked when asked for his opinion of the Ducatis. "You know, Ducati, Gigi... I don't believe they are in that situation, especially here in Qatar. It's true that the track is improving, the grip of the track will improve in the weekend. This means that then you can use the torque." The more rubber on the track, the more grip, and the more grip, the faster the Ducatis would go.
But the truism stands. It is only the first day of the first race, so it is difficult to draw too many conclusions. "We are in the first race, and we are on Friday. We cannot say they are in a difficult moment, or this bike is amazing," Marquez said. "We will understand on Sunday's race."
Naturally, there was also discussion of Ducati's decision to switch back to a version of the 2021 engine for the factory riders of Pecco Bagnaia and Jack Miller, while putting the Pramac riders and Luca Marini on the 2022 engine. Bagnaia and Miller, especially, faced a barrage of the questions, the Italian eventually getting quite testy about it, asking journalists if they were also asking other factories about their engine specs. We pointed out that, yes, that was what the job was, to spot the differences and updates on all of the MotoGP bikes, and try to find out what those differences were and what they entailed.
The engine was not a 2021 engine, Bagnaia and Miller insisted, despite the fact that the exhaust on the bike is quite clearly identical to the one used last year. It was instead somewhere between the 2021 and 2022 power units. "It's not a 2021, it's not a 2022. It's the Ducati engine that they have chosen for us with the factory team," the Australian said.
The reason for choosing this engine was because it gave the best performance. "They want the best for us, they want us to have the best chance, so I trust 100% their decision," Miller insisted. "And yeah, just got to ride the motorbike that I'm given. So it is what it is. I'm not complaining, they're investing millions of dollars into this project, and to think that they're not going to give us the best that they can will be silly."
"It's not last year's engine, not completely this year's engine," Pecco Bagnaia said. "It's a mix and during the test I was riding with it and I was happy with it. We decided to use it because we were working on different thing on this engine, because it was a big change, and we decided to use it just because in the test I was better. In Mandalika we decided to use it."
Whether that was the right choice or not, we will know more about on Saturday. Despite its unfortunate timing exactly around sunset, FP4 should teach us more about where all of the factories and riders stand. But even then, it is just the first FP4 of a 21-race season. There is a long, long way to go.
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