Despite being back to something resembling relative normality, MotoGP is off to a strange start in 2022. The season opener at Qatar saw the favorites fall short, and a surprise winner and championship leader. The second race, at Mandalika in Indonesia, nudged uncomfortably close to farce, the rain saving the MotoGP race from disaster. But like many wet races, the result was far from representative.
For round 3, MotoGP heads to Argentina, and the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit. The track in Argentina is a lesson in contrasts. The layout is magnificent, a fast, sweeping track with challenging corners, a straight that emphasizes acceleration over outright horsepower, and plenty of spots to pass other riders. But the location – near a modest town, and some distance away from major population centers – means the track gets little use outside of the MotoGP weekend. That usually leaves the surface of the track a mess, covered in dust and dirt, making preparation difficult.
It is also a venue where the unexpected and surprising always seems to happen. There was the start of the Rossi-Marquez feud, when Valentino Rossi cut across the front wheel of Marc Marquez' Honda, knocking him off, which Marquez and Honda staff believed was done intentionally, but Race Direction saw differently. There was Scott Redding's exploding tire in practice in 2016, the first year Michelin had the contract, which forced a shortened race with a compulsory pit stop.
There was Andrea Iannone taking out Andrea Dovizioso two corners from the finish in 2016, as they were on the verge of a double podium for Ducati. With Jorge Lorenzo already signed for 2017, that incident sealed the fate of Iannone, Ducati choosing to stick with Dovizioso alongside the Spaniard.
There was the half-wet, half-dry start to the 2018 race, which saw everyone bar Jack Miller abandon their wet bikes on the grid and start the warm up lap from pit lane. That meant they would have had to start from the back of the grid, but when 23 of 24 riders start from the back of the grid, the back of the grid becomes the front of the grid again, and so Jack Miller sat alone on pole on the front row, while the rest of the field started the race from 6 rows further back.
There was also Marc Marquez stalling then starting his bike on the grid, then riding the wrong way back to his grid position, incurring a ride-through penalty. That produced the breathtaking and terrifying spectacle of Marc Marquez slicing his way through the field on a track with sketchy grip, lapping 3 seconds faster than anyone else, and rudely and sometimes dangerously forcing his way past other riders. It was mesmerizing to watch, but rightly incurred a 30-second time penalty, and was demoted from 5th to 18th. And it kicked off another battle in the long-running Rossi-Marquez feud, as Rossi was one of the riders Marquez had barged into.
This year's surprise is something a little bit special. Freight problems are not unknown in Argentina – after the first two editions, where the race was a week after Austin, they switched the order of races to hold the US round after Argentina, to avoid freight getting held up in customs. But nobody ever imagined that a delay in delivering cargo to the track could cause a day of practice to be lost.
What has happened? As usual, the politics of the real world has intervened. Firstly, thanks to the pandemic and rising fuel prices, the cost of air freight has already gone through the roof, particularly for flights which cross the Pacific. Freight crossing the Pacific costs up to five times as much as going the other way.
Then, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, and started a war. To punish this aggression, countries around the world imposed sanctions, including a ban on Russian aircraft using their airspace. In retaliation, Russia banned those countries from their airspace. Aircraft belonging to Russian companies were subject to be seized in countries around the world.
This had a remarkable knock on effect. Russia has an outsized portion of the global specialist air freight business. That business is further constrained by aircraft type. The specialist containers used by MotoGP are configured for particular types of aircraft, particularly 747s, most of which have now been converted to air freighters. In this segment, around 10% of the aircraft used are owned by Russian companies, and have ceased operations outside of the country. That has reduced available flight capacity by 20%, according to Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, who gave a special press conference on Thursday.
Even that would not have been a problem were it not for mechanical issues with the planes which were available. One of the five planes chartered to transport freight from Mandalika to Termas de Rio Hondo broke down, and so one of the other four returned to Lombok to transport that load. But because of the flight schedule, that took some time. The 747-200 which had landed at Tucuman airport, near Termas, took off on March 26th, and flew via Caracas in Venezuela, Lagos in Nigeria, Colombo in Sri Lanka, and landed in Lombok on the morning of March 29th.
The plane left Lombok again the next day, March 30th, and flew back to Colombo. On the next leg, presumably from Colombo to Lagos again, the plane developed an engine problem, and landed in Mombasa in Kenya on the evening of the 30th. Parts were ordered to rectify the problem, and dispatched from London and Paris to Nairobi, and then on to Mombasa. But by the time the problem had been identified and parts located and dispatched, it was obvious the plane would not make it to Tucuman in Argentina in time for the teams to get the bikes ready in time.
Among the missing cargo were a few important items. Such as the bikes belonging to the Gresini Ducati team, leaving MotoGP championship leader Enea Bastianini without a ride, and without his leathers, and all sorts of other kit. It wasn't just the MotoGP championship leader: the bikes belonging to the Le0pard Moto3 team were also in the missing cargo, leaving Moto3 leader Dennis Foggia bikeless as well.
In addition, the bikes of the VR46 MotoGP squad, the Ajo Moto3 team, the Marc VDS Moto2 team, and more were missing. As well as the spare leathers and helmets for most of the equipment suppliers. It would be impossible for everyone to take part on Friday, and so the decision was made to cancel practice on Friday, and add an extra session on Saturday, and an extra 10 minutes of warm up for everyone on Sunday.
It was a matter of fairness to cancel action on Friday, to give everyone an equal chance, the Dorna boss insisted. "It is clear, we need to provide everybody with the same conditions," Ezpeleta told us. Every team and rider had to have enough bikes and equipment to take part in practice. "For us just one is enough to postpone things."
Cutting it tight
Postponing the action until Saturday should give the teams enough time to prepare the bikes for the track – the MotoGP bikes, in particular, are still filthy from the wet race, and will need several hours just to clean and get ready – as long as the aircraft carrying the cargo arrives in time. But as of this writing, the plane is still stuck on the ground. If the plane makes the flight from Mombasa to Tucuman via Lagos and Caracas, or Lagos and Salvador in Brazil, then including refueling stops, you are looking at a flight time of at least 16 hours, and probably more. That would mean the bikes arriving in the evening at Termas – figure 2 more hours of unloading, and then 2 hours to transport from Tucuman to Termas de Rio Hondo – then it is cutting it very fine for action to start on Saturday, and would mean little or no sleep for the mechanics of the teams.
If anything goes wrong, then all bets are off. At the moment, Dorna and all involved are starting from the position that there will be practice on Saturday, and a race on Sunday. But that is not an absolute certainty as of this moment.
Incidentally, F1 has faced similar problems in the past. That series has reconfigured some of its transport packages to fit in a Boeing 777, allowing for a greater choice of carriers and aircraft. That flexibility comes at a cost, though, starting with ditching all of the existing flight cases and buying and building new ones. Flight cases for between 400 and 500 tons of bikes, equipment, and parts are a sizable investment.
Even if the action goes ahead without any further glitches, this year's Argentina round will stand out because of the compressed schedule. "Saturday will be so hard with a lot of practices," Alex Rins commented. The physical demands of qualifying are always tough, so adding in an extra session of practice in the morning was extremely hard.
"For everyone it’s a very difficult, stressful situation," Pol Espargaro said. "The qualifying day is the most stressful day of the weekend, apart from the race. Having everything like qualifying to Q2 in one day is going to be super super stressful."
If it was bad for experienced riders like him, just imagine how tough it will be for rookies, Espargaro pointed out. "I have experience with big bikes at this tracks. I think I can plan this situation in a better way. I know pretty much what to expect. But there are many rookies in MotoGP that haven’t ridden here before. So it’s already difficult for them. They need to do everything in one day."
There really is a lot of work to do. The last time MotoGP was here was 2019, and the bikes have changed significantly since then. So the teams and riders have to find a setup which works in FP1, and decide what tires they think will work best. Then check tire consumption in FP2, before chasing a quick time to attempt to get into qualifying. FP3 (the weekend's version of FP4) they can just focus on tires and race pace, before unleashing all their spare energy into qualifying.
Concentrate on the essential
"FP1 will be important to get the feelings, then clean a bit the track, and to prepare the bike a little bit for FP2, to find better conditions, better grip and to try to attack for the lap time," Joan Mir said. Even then, they will be working on limited information. "I expect that in FP2 that it will not be perfect. So it will be like this, if we have luck and everything is how the schedule says, it will be the same for everybody. The things that we cannot control, we don't have to lose energy with that. So we have to stay focused."
As if that wasn't complicated enough, there is also the dust on the track throwing another curve ball into the mix. "I did one lap walking, and the track is dusty, it's super dusty," Alex Rins told us. The Suzuki Ecstar rider hoped that the extra rest day would give circuit staff a chance to clean the track som more and improve conditions. "Let's see if tomorrow they can take that day to clean it a little bit more. But the track is quite dusty."
A dusty track with relatively little grip makes riding difficult, Joan Mir said. "This track is a little bit critical, because the grip is so low, you have to find the lines well, to find the grip, to control the throttle." Managing the throttle so you don't spin the rear too much and keep as much of your tire for the end of the race as possible is the key to success at the circuit.
A dirty track means leaving the bike alone as much as possible, Pecco Bagnaia explained. "Our plan will be to adapt the bike to the track and the tarmac at the moment is brown so it's very dirty. In this situation it's always better not to test anything, just to leave the bike the same and do laps to clean the track and understand things. I'm sure it will not be an easy weekend for anyone. We have just to adapt to everything in the fastest way possible because we have less time to do it."
Into the unknown
All this means there is no point expecting the Argentina race to be representative of what the rest of the season might bring. And that's if it happens at all. While the weather is set fair for the entire weekend – forecasts show bright sunshine, few clouds, and relatively light winds for all three days – history has shown that the track always finds a way to surprise.
With even less time than normal to prepare, everything is up in the air. Past history is almost irrelevant, made subservient to just having a package which works out of the box. Even that is a lottery. Joan Mir gave the example of his experience in the first two races of the year. "Normally, sometimes you put the bike on track – Qatar - and straight away the bike is fantastic. Perfect. But then sometimes you put the bike on track – Mandalika – and then it's a complete disaster."
All he could hope for was for the bike to feel roughly like it did at Qatar. And with the normal Michelin tires, that was at least one variable out of the way. "I hope to get back the good feelings with the bike. Try to make some good evolutions that I think we need to work with the correct tires, the tires that we use all the year, to try to improve the bike for the next races and also to make a good race here." Joan Mir told us. "I'm optimistic for sure, but honestly I don't know what I have to expect."
To be honest, neither does anyone else. Friday is April 1st, or April Fool's Day, the day on which people in most of Europe and America make up improbable stories to prank readers. With the way the Argentina round of MotoGP is going, and the things which have happened here in the past, it is pretty much impossible to outdo reality. Anyone writing an April Fool's Day story is certain to be found severely lacking in imagination compared to what the real world is capable of serving up this weekend.
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