I am starting to suspect that the 2022 MotoGP season might be cursed. The Sepang test happened, and was relatively incident free, but it's all been downhill from there. The track coming apart at the Mandalika test, an almost normal Qatar, the track coming apart at the Mandalika race, freight problems in Argentina, an almost normal Austin (or as normal as Austin can be, the same going for Qatar), and then rained out practice at Portimão.
So we arrived in Jerez with the weather forecast looking promising. Some rain on Thursday night, but all dry for practice and throughout the test. Friday night dawned sunny and bright as promised, but nobody had told the track. Though the surface was mostly dry, a few persistent damp patches remained throughout the day, stubbornly resisting all attempts to remove them. When I left the track at 10:30pm, circuit staff were still out with special blowers trying to dispel the remaining water.
Those damp patches claimed a couple of important victims in MotoGP. Though the number of crashes was modest – just 14, fairly normal for a Friday at Jerez, and a stark contrast to the 41 racked up in one day a week ago in Portugal – the damp patches claimed a couple of high-profile victims, though at relatively slow speed.
Fabio Quartararo came off worst, nearly highsiding when he hit a damp patch in Turn 13, the final corner. When he pushed his bike back into pit lane – Turn 13 is convenient for that, situated right next to pit lane entrance – he squatted down in obvious extreme pain. It was obvious where it hurt: to put it politely, he had seriously imperiled his ability to pass down his prodigious talent to any potential progeny.
Perhaps the most embarrassing part of the crash was that Quartararo hadn't even been injured in the crash. When asked which part of the bike hit him, he rather shamefacedly admitted the injury had been self-inflicted. "It was myself," the Yamaha rider told us. "It was not even the bike. When I jumped on the bike, we’d put something new on the fuel tank, and I jumped on it and…."
That was it, we asked? "Yes. So I feel a little bit stupid! Because I crashed and had nothing but then when I got the bike and jumped… Maybe it would be better to lie that it was the tire! I have to say I was stupid!"
At least Quartararo crash itself had happened in predictable circumstances, at the end of his first run as he ran over a damp patch. "There was nothing strange," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "Just pushing and at the end with the wet patches I had one crash, then I had one moment I braked too late and with the medium front I felt super bad, because I felt there was basically no support. I felt the tire moving quite a lot. I didn’t want to take any risks to try to turn and crash again, so I preferred to go straight."
The same could not be said for Marc Marquez. In FP2, he managed to crash twice in the space of three corners, once understandably, once embarrassingly. He washed out the front at Turn 6 pushing on a lap. Then at Turn 9, as he cruised back to the pits, he was trying to stay out of the way of Miguel Oliveira and Darryn Binder, when he hit the damp patch off line at Turn 9 and folded the front again.
The first crash was typical of Turn 6, Marquez said, the second he blamed on the track. "I crashed once – well the real crash," the Repsol Honda rider explained. "The second one was one of the problems of this circuit; after not raining all day I did not expect that. I was out of the line and riding very slow. Oliveira was going inside and I was going into the box after the crash. It was a full wet patch that was coming from the surface. It is something they must fix for the future."
Though the track was mostly dry during the afternoon, and times were pretty good – Fabio Quartararo's 1'37.071 is over a tenth faster than Jack Miller's best time in FP2 last year – those damp patches remained a problem. "The grip level on the track was not super," Alex Rins said. "For us especially in the morning, places like Turn 2, Turn 6, Turn 13, some patches were a little bit dangerous.
Things were better, but still not perfect in the afternoon. "In the afternoon, these patches disappeared, but still in some corners they were there," Rins told us. "For example, in Turn 8 the normal line was going through the patches, so we were going a little bit wide and then closing the line."
Miguel Oliveira summed up conditions succinctly. "The morning was weird, but I’d say the afternoon was normal, expect for Turn 2 and the last corner. You cannot really go wide but it’s pretty OK," the KTM rider said.
Fabio Quartararo's time was impressive – two tenths faster than the next-fastest rider, Enea Bastianini – but, as everyone kept pointing out, it's only Friday. Joan Mir had missed out on a spot in the top ten, but was not particularly worried. A mistake on the single fast lap he attempted meant he ran wide and ended up in twelfth. But the cooler conditions in the morning, and the guarantee of good weather on Saturday for FP3, made him confident of getting through directly to Q2.
"It’s always really important to stay inside the top ten, because the conditions can change but it looks like the weather will be great tomorrow," Mir explained. "So normally FP3 is where you can make the better lap time for the cold. Here when it’s colder there’s more grip and you are able to make a better lap time."
Why can we safely ignore the times from Friday? A glance back at 2021 is instructive here. The fastest time set on Friday last year was by Pecco Bagnaia, a lap of 1'37.209. That time would not have been good enough to get him into the top ten on Saturday, Jack Miller's tenth place time a 1'37.188. Tomorrow, everyone will be faster. And everyone will have a better idea of their base setup after FP4. And everyone will know roughly where their pace lies.
Qualifying will be important, though. "Absolutely," Joan Mir agreed. "This track, when you follow somebody you always overheat the front because there are a lot of stop-and-go corners." In previous years, he told us, he found himself stuck in P5 at a distance from the rider in front, and with a similar gap to the rider behind. If they got any closer to the rider in front, then the tire would overheat, and they'd lose performance and drop back again.
But the preliminary and cautious conclusions from the first day are that Fabio Quartararo and both Suzukis are quick, the Ducatis are comfortable, and have a base setting that appears to be working. Aleix Espargaro is also strong, while Aprilia teammate Maverick Viñales remains frustrated by his inability to convert a solid pace – a tenth off the best riders, according to the Spaniard – into a single fast lap, the bike unable to turn. The KTMs are struggling in braking, while Miguel Oliveira is also looking for grip. Franco Morbidelli had found a step to regain some of his former speed, but he was not at the level of Fabio Quartararo. Then again, it doesn't really look like anyone is at the moment.
The Hondas are in full test mode. Spending both sessions wandering up and down pit lane, a couple of things struck me. Firstly, Honda are still experimenting with exhausts. The exhausts on the two Repsol Honda bikes and the LCR of Alex Marquez are an updated version of the original, more of a megaphone and made of three sections rather than just one.
The exhausts on Stefan Bradl's bike are different again. The HRC test rider is at Jerez as a wildcard, and both the lower and upper exhausts are a little longer and more of a megaphone. Clearly power and engine character is something Honda are chasing, in addition to more feeling from the front end.
The other notable item is a sensor – an accelerometer and gyroscope – on the end of the swingarm of the Hondas. The sensor is standard on the Ducatis, who place enormous store in the behavior of the rear tire. But the sensor was only fitted to both Marquez' Honda RC213Vs, as well as one bike of Stefan Bradl.
The sensor records very precisely the motion of the rear axle, and consequently, the rear wheel, in three dimensions. That allows data engineers to map that motion to grip, measured in terms of lean angle, braking and acceleration. The fact that the sensor is only on the bikes of Marc Marquez and Stefan Bradl suggests that HRC have something major to test. Either they are testing a new swingarm, or they are throwing everything bar the kitchen sink at the Honda in the hope of speeding up the process of getting the balance of the bike right.
Marc Marquez acknowledged that Honda are making big changes to the bike in pursuit of more front end feel. "As I said yesterday, we take a risk to try big things and that means one bike and a different bike. In the afternoon I started to try some things. Unfortunately with the bike that I felt well with, I crashed and could not continue. The other bike was a big change, a massive change and I didn’t feel well with it. A big change can be very good or it can be a disaster," the Repsol Honda explained. It is work which will continue on Monday at the test, Marquez said, with Saturday devoted to setup and qualifying.
Alex Marquez confirmed that finding the right balance was key. "For me the rear is bad because the front is bad," the LCR Honda rider told us. "It’s a consequence. I mean, if you have a good front we can turn and pick up the bike while keeping the speed, the rear will be good. I think the way we need to follow is to lose a little bit the performance on the rear and to understand the front. This is the main way for the future."
Finally, it seems as if there is movement on the contract front. German-language publication Speedweek is reporting that Yamaha are closing in on a deal with Fabio Quartararo. I had a brief conversation with Jarvis on Thursday, in which he expressed his belief that what would matter to Quartararo is not what Yamaha could bring in the next days or at the next test – Yamaha had new parts at Portimão, and more new parts at Jerez, to help with top speed – but whether they could convince the Frenchman that they could produce a competitive bike for 2023 and beyond.
Yamaha had brought a new engine for the preseason tests, but reliability issues caused them to shelve it temporarily and use a revised version of the 2021 engine. If those reliability issues can be fixed for 2023, then Quartararo should have a very adept tool with which to attack the next couple of championships. Even seriously down on power, the Yamaha M1 is exceptionally potent in the hands of the Frenchman.
Quartararo staying at Yamaha sets wheels in motion elsewhere. The next big domino to fall will be Joan Mir. Suzuki are doing their best to keep both Mir and Alex Rins, but Mir is still wavering. HRC are doing their best to tempt him away to join the Repsol Honda team, an offer he had previously rejected in favor of Suzuki. But, as one insider noted, joining Repsol Honda is stepping into Team Marc Marquez, the six-time MotoGP champion – rightly – having his hands tightly on the reins at HRC.
Whatever happens, it looks highly likely that Pol Espargaro will be out of Repsol Honda at the end of the year. Paddock rumor has it that Alberto Puig is not particularly enamored of the Spaniard, though that can hardly be down to a lack of effort on the part of Espargaro, a man for whom 110% is the absolute bare minimum he puts into everything.
Talent vs effort
Then there is the curious case of Raul Fernandez. The Spaniard came into MotoGP very highly rated, KTM having gone out of their way to try to keep him in the Austrian fold, KTM CEO Stefan Pierer making an unusually timed announcement – in the middle of FP4 at the Austrian GP last year – that Fernandez would be moving up to MotoGP with Tech3, preempting an attempt by Yamaha to buy him out of his contract.
But Fernandez is sitting out the Jerez round of MotoGP, with a wrist injury picked up at Portimão. Nothing is broken, but he is unable to do the push ups required to pass the fitness test. If this were an isolated incident, then it might get a pass. But the Spaniard has been very hard to work with and shown little sign of enthusiasm for being in MotoGP with KTM. He has made it clear, implicitly if not explicitly, that if he had the choice, he would go elsewhere.
The trouble for Fernandez is that this behavior is not exactly raising his stock in the MotoGP paddock. His attitude is being taken note of, and he is plummeting down the list of desirable candidates to race in MotoGP. He may find himself out of the Tech3 KTM team by the end of 2022. But he may also find himself without an alternative in MotoGP if he's not careful.
Fernandez' talent is beyond dispute. But talent is only valuable if its owner is willing to do what it takes to deploy such talent, whatever the circumstances. If you have to wait around until everything is just so, then the benefits of talent are limited, and teams may prefer to invest in a lesser talent who is prepared to put in the hard yards whatever the circumstances. There are plenty of other candidates who fulfill that criteria.
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