We say it pretty much every Friday of a MotoGP weekend: it's hard to draw conclusions from the first day of practice. The first day of practice is usually spent trying out different setups and then assessing which tires are the best compromise between performance and durability for the race, so just glancing at the timesheets doesn't tell you as much as you would like.
The first day of practice at Mandalika is even more complicated to unravel. First, there is the fact that it rained heavily on Friday morning, leaving the track damp at the start before drying out. Then there's the fact that nearly half the track has been resurfaced, the work finished not long before MotoGP arrived. Finally, Michelin changed the construction of the rear tire from the one used at the test, in response to the heat at the track, the new surface, and the data from the test.
Engineers usually like to change one variable at a time. Here, they've had multiple changes thrust upon them, with a shortage of dry track time due to the conditions. No wonder that Fabio Quartararo's best time at the end of the first day was three tenths slower than Luca Marini's quickest time on the second day of the Mandalika test (the first day with a relatively clean track) and nearly six tenths better than Pol Espargaro's overall best time at the test. Quartararo was also over half a second slower on the first day of the grand prix than he was at the end of the test.
As if that wasn't bad enough, there were even more confounding factors. Marc Marquez and Enea Bastianini went down in the final moments of FP2, thwarting any attempt at riders improving their lap time. Pecco Bagnaia, Luca Marini, Alex Rins, and Joan Mir all explicitly pointed to the yellow flags as costing them a fast lap. So the fact that the two factory Yamahas head the times on day one does not automatically mean they will win.
Nor does the fact that the two Repsol Hondas are well down the order, Pol Espargaro 19th overall and Marc Marquez down in 22nd mean much, after Espargaro was fastest during the test. Or that Pecco Bagnaia is currently languishing down in 21st, after finishing the test in 6th, less than two tenths behind Fabio Quartararo in second.
But being out of Q2 can be an issue. The weather is expected to get worse over the weekend, with rain forecast for both Saturday and Sunday. A wet FP3 would rule out any chance of direct passage to Q2, turning Q1 into a very tough obstacle indeed. If FP3 stays wet, then that would put Pol Espargaro, Joan Mir, Pecco Bagnaia, and Marc Marquez fighting for the two spots in Q1 which allow passage to Q2. And that fearsome foursome will first have to reckon with Luca Marini, Takaaki Nakagami, and perhaps even Maverick Viñales for a shot at getting through.
At least the track is in better shape than many feared. Though it is still being punished by the heat – the oil component in the tar used to create tarmacadam starts life very dark, takes time to dry out, making it sticky and quite soft at first – the surface is holding together. The new aggregate is not throwing up stones the way the surface which had to be replaced did. But there are still small stones coming out of the track.
"It’s different," was how Fabio Quartararo described the track." Last time there were big rocks coming out, now they are small, so it is better." At the test, the large stones were raising ugly welts and bruises on the necks and arms of any rider foolish enough to follow another. That was not an issue any longer, but there were still risks.
"This morning I spent half of the practice in the garage, because a stone hit my radiator and broke it," Luca Marini said. It had taken his mechanics a long time to figure out what the problem was. "I lost a lot of time because we didn't understand what was happening in the bike, then the mechanics found the problem." It was not necessarily unique to Mandalika, though, the Mooney VR46 rider told us. "It's something that happens in a track like this, that is a little bit dirty every time. It can happen. So just unlucky this morning."
The new surface did feel different to the old one, despite being much cleaner. "It is difficult to know because in some areas you feel grip and in some areas no, so we need to get more rubber on some areas," Fabio Quartararo explained. "In some places it is good but in the braking zone I feel like the grip is not so great. There are two kinds of grip on the same tarmac."
The schedule had been changed to address these problems, with 10 minutes extra in between each session, to give the circuit staff a chance to go out and clear the track of debris and give the surface a sweep. But sweeping is no substitute for the rubber laid down when motorcycles rode around the track. As a result, there was only a relatively narrow line which was properly rubbered in.
"It looks like the ideal line is still super-small," Brad Binder explained. "It has helped a little bit having Moto2 and Moto3 here because they seem to cross over our lines a bit more, so it is getting a little bit wider."
But Binder had hoped the track would be in much better condition than MotoGP found it after the resurfacing, he said. "I was really shocked this morning at how dirty the track was. I thought it would be at a much better level than it was. The first five or six laps we were just trying to stay on this tiny line and going off it was filthy." That was particularly evident for the Moto3 class, who were the first to go out, the bikes returning at the end of the session filthy, in part due to the track still being wet from the rain.
The surface should improve as it was used more over the weekend, Binder explained. "It was difficult to understand but the track is getting better and as the weekend goes on it is going to get more and more clean and put down some extra rubber." But the heat was the biggest issue. "The biggest thing here is that the track is melting! It is so hot. I believe there was over 60 degrees track temperature and you don’t often see that. There is not a lot of grip to start with and when you go off and onto the dirty part it is not ideal either."
A narrow line poses particular problems when riders have to overtake. It is almost impossible to get passed a rider in front without deviating from the ideal line, and running out onto the dirty part of the track, where there was suddenly a lot less grip.
"I passed two people and both times were quite sketchy," Brad Binder said. "You have to pass right close to the guys. If you go a bit more inside then you are in the dirt and it is so easy to lock the front." That made it easy to make a costly mistake, not just for the rider trying to overtake, but also the one being passed. "It is going to be difficult in the race and important to be clear with your moves. It is going to be very easy to make a mistake and it won’t just be you that goes down at the end of the day."
But the track was in good enough condition to race, Jack Miller asserted. "The track is 100% ready for racing," the Australian told us. There was still an issue on the front straight, because the grid itself needed cleaning. "I would like to do a practice start on the front straight just to see how it’s going. Because I saw a couple of guys going where the practice start area is at the moment and it's probably on the dirtiest, least used part of the track. So it's not ideal to gauge a good feeling on doing a start."
At the Safety Commission, the riders agreed to measures to address that. On Saturday morning, all three classes will do practice starts after FP3 from the grid, in an attempt to clean the dirt off the grid. Pole position is on the left of the track, to give the best run into Turn 1, but if the track is much dirtier from on the pole side, starting from third, the section of the track on the racing line, and already clean and rubbered in, would give a big advantage. Practice starts by all three classes should go a long way toward remedying this.
The heavy overnight rains left some patches of the track quite slow to dry on Friday morning. The area around Turn 2 was particularly bad, Luca Marini putting that down to the fact there was no drainage on the inside kerb, despite the track having positive camber and the water running off to the inside. "In the other parts of the circuit, there is something between the white line and the kerb and the tarmac to help the water to run off. I think there is no drainage in that corner." That had been the reason Pedro Acosta had crashed there during Moto2 practice, Marini believed. "The white line was a little bit slippery, and I saw the crash of Acosta, I think it was because he touched the white line."
It is not just the new surface which has less grip. The rear tire, brought to Mandalika by Michelin and previously used in Austria and Buriram, helps reduce the temperature of the tire and prevent blistering, but it also has less grip than the rear Michelins used at the test. That required recalibrating electronics, setup, and riding style.
"It's a completely different tire, it's much more difficult to manage the rear spin," Luca Marini explained. He had been very fast in the test, and felt like the Mooney VR46 team had the Ducati GP22 dialed in perfectly. The stronger construction tire changed all that. "In the test it looks like I had everything under control, while with this tire, it's particular, it's very sensitive about the temperature, the tire, and in every corner where you spin a lot, the next corner is a disaster because the tire is really hot on that side. I think it's a problem that everybody has."
KTM's Brad Binder had similar issues, thanks to the rear tire. They had to revert to using the softer rear to figure out where their issues lay. "Once it dried out we had a lot of issues entering the corners and it was difficult to understand why, so we went back to the settings we had at the test for the first two runs and when we put in the soft rear at the end it felt a bit better. The whole bike started to work a bit easier and the way it has been. It seems that this different casing we have on the rear definitely makes a difference. It has much less grip on corner entry so it is a lot more difficult to stop the bike and to trust the bike on corner entry."
Ironically, the lower grip helps the bike which was struggling most with a lack of rear grip at Qatar. The Monster Energy Yamaha riders finished one and two on Friday, Fabio Quartararo a couple of hundredths quicker than teammate Franco Morbidelli, and nearly three tenths faster than the rest of the field.
Quartararo wasn't really surprised to be so quick, he told the media. "You never know what to expect from new tarmac and a new carcass, but if the conditions were the same as the test then I would expect to be in the top five or six," the reigning world champion said. "Of course when you have P1 it's better, but in the test I was one of the fastest and on the pace and on one lap. It is more or less what we expected today."
Franco Morbidelli, on the other hand, was surprised to be so fast. "Strong day, strong day," the Italian mused. "I wasn’t expecting anything. I was just ready to go out and do my job. Positive. We take it. We try to go ahead and bring this kind of performance also tomorrow and especially Sunday."
The easy-going nature of the Yamaha M1 helped, Morbidelli believed. "Our bike is really easy to ride. The Yamaha is very immediate to ride and rider friendly. Every movement and every ‘upsetting’ it very smooth and very mellow. So you get too afraid or scared when things happen." The biggest issue for Yamaha is the lack of power, though. "The problem is that sometimes we are not able to put the same power on the ground as the other guys. Today wasn’t the case."
Here is where Yamaha's lack of power and grip helps them. It is the grip of the track and the rear tire which dictates how much horsepower and torque can be converted into acceleration, setting the upper bound for useful power. When there is a lot of grip, bikes can get more power down, and the Ducatis and Hondas can benefit from their extra torque.
In low grip conditions, that maximum limit of transferrable power comes much closer to the Yamaha's maximum output. Where the Ducati has to either cut power or risk spinning the tire and burning it up, the Yamaha can transfer more of its power to the track and remain inside its normal operating parameters. There are a lot of tracks where a lack of power is a clear disadvantage. So far, Mandalika is not proving to be one of them.
Despite not being able to use all the available power, the Ducatis looked strong. Desmosedicis occupied the four places from third to sixth, the two Pramac bikes in third and fourth, Enea Bastianini, fresh from victory in Qatar, taking fifth, and factory rider Jack Miller in sixth. The Australian was happy with how his day had gone. "I had a lot of fun. The pace is there. I did a long run in FP2 and felt pretty good," Miller said. "I tried the softer tire because that’s new here and to try and understand how it behaves after some laps on it."
Surprisingly, his teammate was also pleased, despite being way down in 21st, and out of Q2 if it rains on Saturday morning. "I am happy," Pecco Bagnaia told the media. "We’ve done a really good job today. It's the best day of the year. Also from the tests. So I'm very happy with my feeling on the bike."
From testing to racing
Yellow flags had cost him a provisional spot in Q2, Bagnaia explained. "We were just a bit unlucky. I found the two yellow flags of Marc and Bastianini so I didn't do a time attack, but in any case the pace with the medium, doing laps, I was second and my pace was very strong. So I'm very happy about that. Compared to the test I feel so much better on the bike and also compared to Qatar day one and day two, the same. I feel better. I can brake, I can be constant and my feeling the front is back and I'm very happy about that. I also like the new tires that they bring here because they are more stable for me so I prefer."
Bagnaia was particularly pleased that Ducati had stopped testing parts and were just letting him focus on his feeling with the bike and understanding how to get the best out of it at Mandalika. "I didn't touch anything from Qatar, I'm just riding and understanding how to do different things at this track," the Italian said. "But the feeling today was very good and it was the first time this year that with used tires I was in the top three because I was second and the pace was very competitive. About that I'm very very happy."
One of the things which Ducati have ditched is the front ride-height device, lending credence to the theory that it was to blame for the poor start of all of the GP22s at Qatar last race, as I laid out in an article on Wednesday. If you look at the photo of Pecco Bagnaia above or Jorge Martin below, you can see that the teardrop-shaped front fork covers have a flat bottom, rather than the curved one they had at Qatar and at the tests.
For comparison, here is the front fork cover which hides the front ride-height device. Note the bottom edge curves down toward the axle at the front. That longer section hides the hydraulic cylinder which operates the device.
The "old" system has a simple latch which locks the front down at the start, turning it into a basic holeshot device, released when the riders brake for the first corner. The idea of lowering the front on corner exit, to drop the center of mass and improve acceleration even further has been dropped entirely.
Jack Miller was reticent to confirm anything, as is often the case in such situations. "I don’t really want to comment too much," the Australian said when asked about it directly. "We are trying devices and testing stuff. And yeah, not much to say."
Whether it will make a return remains to be seen. It is looking increasingly likely that front ride-height devices are going to be banned. Ducati appears to have lost the argument in the MSMA, with a proposal to go forward to the Grand Prix Commission to ban front ride-height from the start of the 2023 season. Whether it would be worth continuing to invest in a technology which is clearly tricky to perfect and may only start to work properly in the second half of the season is an open question.
The risk of developing during the season is that getting it wrong can be costly. Even old fashioned and well understood technology can cause problems. Both Joan Mir and Pol Espargaro lost a lot of time and a shot at Q2 thanks to issues with their front brakes, an issue which was particularly frustrating for Espargaro as he had been so strong at Qatar and at the test here a month ago.
"I had no front brake on the last run," the Repsol Honda rider said. "I was angry because if it rains tomorrow we are not in the Q2. That was the opportunity and we also had a good chance to be top three, because we have good speed here. Suddenly the front brake stopped braking, we had an issue with no brake. We have many parts on the bike and that can happen. It is a technical thing and important to understand so it doesn’t happen in the future."
It was particularly frustrating because Espargaro believes he can be competitive at Mandalika. "I am fast, we have good speed and the bike is working good. We have good grip with both tires and enough to make a lap or good rhythm so I feel comfortable," he said.
His teammate had a far worse day, despite also showing a strong turn of speed. Marc Marquez had a very fast crash at Turn 11, the Repsol Honda rider tumbling through the dirt after losing the front. He came away relatively unscathed, though covered in bruises.
Marquez was most upset about the timing of his crash. "It was not the time for a crash," he joked. "But when you push for a single lap it can happen. It’s true that overall I’m happy with the day. With that crash we cannot be happy because we are out of the top ten and that was the target. Anyway, now it’s time to pray for dry conditions tomorrow morning and try to be in that top ten."
Marquez will not be the only rider beseeching the weather gods to hold off on the rain on Saturday morning. But their calls are likely to go unanswered. Rain looks to be on the cards. And if it is, then Q1 is going to be one of the most hectic and high-pressure qualifying sessions we have seen for a long while in MotoGP.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, supporting us on Patreon, by making a donation, or contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.