It's only Friday, as riders will repeat endlessly to you on, well, on a Friday after the first day of practice. Friday is a day for assessing tires, testing new parts, and at the end of the day, posting a quick lap in an attempt to avoid the limbo of Q1.
That proved not to be easy at Le Mans. A weird combination of circumstances (more of which later) meant that there were five crashes in the last ten minutes of FP2. It was almost impossible to put in a quick lap without it being canceled due to yellow flags in some sector or other. "In the time attack, it was a bit of a disaster on track, I just saw 4 laps of yellow flags," Pecco Bagnaia complained. "And like this it's more difficult, so I didn't have the possibility to do a free lap."
That didn't matter for Bagnaia – he set his fastest time at the end of his first run while working on race pace, and still ended as fifth fastest, a sign of just how quick he is at the moment - but there were others for whom it did not work out quite so well. "It was unfortunate not to be inside the top 10," Jack Miller said after missing out on Q2. "We were trying, but a lot of yellow flags at the end, a lot of guys crashing, so it wasn't easy to make a lap."
Joan Mir had made it through, getting lucky with his timing. "When I put the soft tire, I made the first lap, warming the tire and everything, then the second lap I had a lot of yellow flags, I think a lot of people had this problem today, because I think that I could only make one lap," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. It was something which he would have to take into account during qualifying, Mir added. "For tomorrow, we have to consider this in the qualifying session and in FP3."
This is not a trivial concern. There were 38 crashes on the first day of practice at Le Mans. For comparison, there were 41 crashes on the first day at Portimão. But the first day of the Portuguese GP was a complete washout, with heavy rain on and off all day. It was dry, bright, and sunny all day at Le Mans; not crashing weather, typically.
Most riders were at a loss to explain why they were crashing. Miguel Oliveira was unlucky in his first crash on Friday morning, a suspension linkage breaking and throwing him into the air. The second time he crashed on a hard rear, admitting it was simply a cold tire which had caught him out. But he noted that the grip of the Le Mans circuit had felt strange. "I cannot say for sure, it feels like you have a good grip and good temperature but all of a sudden you either lose the front or lose the rear. The track is a bit sensitive," the Red Bull KTM rider said.
Jack Miller was equally confounded. "No explanation" the Australian replied when he was asked if he had an explanation for the extraordinary number of crashes. "Like I said, the grip feels good until it doesn't. It feels not bad, and then all of a sudden, she's gone. So it's a strange situation. I don't know, because the medium tire felt pretty good, and the rear's lasting well, and the front feels alright on braking, no locking or anything like that. But then you try to force it a little bit more on the edge and it just seems to give out."
Miller had been surprised to crash at Turn 11, the first of the Garages Bleus esses. "Like I said, it felt good, I didn't really have any warning of crashing. Of course I knew I was pushing in there a few times in the lead up to it, but if you're talking about a corner where you should be able to push a bike and have a decent bit of margin, it's there. You've got a bit of banking, you're pretty central on the bike, it should be in all fairness a decent corner to have a good feeling. But like I said, it just let go really really really quickly, and it shocks you a bit."
Joan Mir at least had a working theory for the crashes, so characteristic of Le Mans. "Normally, the crashes, if we don't talk about the slow corners where you can save it where you are slow, but all the rest of the the corners, there is not a lot of warning with the front tire. A lot of crashes and all without warning," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "So it's typical here in Le Mans. Also here we know there's a lot of crashes, even today when the temperature was OK, but the wind was cold. So this is what made a bit of confusion sometimes."
There are some good reasons for the riders to be crashing. First of all, precisely because the weather was good, riders were able to push pretty hard. The good grip gave confidence, and the line between confidence and hubris is surprisingly thin. Riders got sucked in to pushing that little bit harder, and eventually, that little bit became a bit too much.
Secondly, when times are tight, there is more to be gained by pushing harder. A tenth of a second, or even a few hundredths can be the difference between Q1 and Q2. Jack Miller missed out on a provisional spot in Q2 by just two thousandths of a second. Marc Marquez, in 15th, was just a quarter of a second off the time of Jorge Martin in 10th.
(As an aside, Marc Marquez is the one rider whose times on Friday you can safely disregard. The Repsol Honda rider is now working to a completely different schedule because of his shoulder and arm, which are recovering very slowly. "The feeling is like always, for that reason I start calm on Friday. Just try to understand, try to put single laps and looks like it's working," he said. Just as in Jerez, he will start to push in FP4 and qualifying and save as much strength as possible for the race.)
But there is also something peculiar about Le Mans itself. Photographers complain about severe heat haze at a track where the heat is limited, even on a day like today. Heat haze – the shimmering caused by warm air rising from a hot surface – is usually a problem at tracks like Barcelona or Sepang, where the sun beats down on the tarmac. But track temperatures at Le Mans were 32°C, very good, but not particularly exceptional. Yet, photographers were saying, it was impossible to take a normal photo without it being ruined by heat haze. At other tracks with similar temperatures, heat haze is virtually unknown.
Is there a link between the heat haze and the particular conditions that are causing riders to crash without warning? Heat haze is caused by a temperature differential, so moderate track temperatures can still be an issue if the air above the track is relatively cool. If a cold wind is sucking warm air away, that would cause heat haze, but it would also suck the heat out of tires, cooling them just enough to suddenly lose grip without warning.
Le Mans is unique in many ways, and it might be that there is some kind of microclimate going on because of its location, down a hill from the town, near the woods and an airfield, beside an industrial estate on one side and a sports venue on the other. If tire technology is a form of alchemy, the way tires interact with unusual microclimates and track surfaces is veritable black magic.
Part of that equation is, of course, grip. And grip is a function of tire pressure, a corollary of tire temperature. The question of front tire pressures continues to have a hold on the imaginations of all involved in MotoGP, especially after it was revealed that the minimum pressures set out in the rules are being widely disregarded.
How important is front tire temperature and pressure. "Everything. Everything," Aleix Espargaro insisted, pointing to what happened once he had been able to get past Marc Marquez and Jack Miller in the race at Jerez. "The difference is huge. I'm sure that I had the pace to go with Fabio and Pecco at Jerez. I have no doubt about it. I could stay all race in 1'38.0, but the first 20 laps I was in 1'38 high, 1'38.5. I couldn't overtake, the bike was a disaster." Half a second was the difference between riding in clear air and being stuck behind another rider.
As I have written repeatedly, Michelin boss Piero Taramasso has pointed to the radical change in technology over the past couple of years as a key factor in stressing the front tire. The leaps forward in aerodynamics are leaving less and less cool air for following riders to use to cool the front tire.
And the rear ride-height devices are also having a massive effect. Not only, as MotoGP.com commentator Simon Crafar explained during the broadcast today, because it is allowing the bikes to accelerate harder out of corners, and consequently arrive at the end of a straight at much higher speeds. But also because the way the bike pitches under braking allows the bikes to brake much harder. Both factors radically increasing the loads put into front tires, and subsequently increasing temperatures.
This is also having a deleterious effect on the racing. With it being more difficult to follow other riders, that makes passing even more difficult. And with margins getting smaller between riders, inventing ways to get past riders ahead is also getting harder.
On Thursday, Andrea Dovizioso had given a typically insightful exposition of why it is now so hard to overtake in MotoGP. "In my opinion the reason why we don't have a lot of overtaking is the development of the machine, the winglets, the device, the electronics. All these things make it more difficult to overtake. But it's very easy to understand this."
That technology was making the differences between riders smaller. And that, in turn, made it harder to overtake. "When you are braking, everybody is locking the front. Everybody," Dovizioso explained. "More or less everybody locks the front. If you are already on the limit because you are locking the front, this means you are not able to brake even 2 meters later."
Add in aerodynamics and ride-height devices, and passing became downright impossible. "If you have the slipstream on the braking of the downforce of the winglets, it doesn't give you any chance to brake on your limit, you have to brake early because of the slipstream from the other riders. And the winglets are doing the opposite things. The winglets give you downforce. If you have the slipstream, the downforce is the opposite way. So this means you are not able to brake even where you brake alone, you have to brake early. So this means it's more difficult to overtake."
Sitting behind a rider meant losing the aerodynamic downforce from your own wings, and that made it more difficult to manage your own braking. That restricted the options you have for overtaking, Dovizioso argued. "If you are able to exit faster, or you are able to overtake in the middle of the straight, you are already out of the slipstream. In this position, OK, you can play on the braking. But if you are behind, and you have to overtake, with the downforce, it's worse. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's worse. This is the reality."
Being unable to overtake threatened to recreate the kind of processional racing we saw during the 800 era. "That's not nice from a rider's side," Dovizioso argued. But there were major differences between the 800s of the late Oughts, and the 1000cc bikes of the early Twenties, the Italian said. "Now it changed because the tires are more consistent and you can push more during the race, so this means the speed you have at the beginning of the race, you can keep until the end. So this doesn't create a lot of overtaking, because it's more related to the speed you have, and the strategy. So this comes more from the tire, from the new casing."
Electronics and aerodynamics rewarded far more precise riding, and this brought the racing together, but paradoxically, made it harder to overtake. "Second is the electronics improved, the downforce increased, so everything is better for the rider to be precise," Dovizioso explained. "That's why we are so close from the first to the last. Because everybody is faster and it's difficult to make a mistake. So you are tighter."
That closeness was reflected in the race. "In the race it's the same. Similar. Not every race, but this is not so good for overtaking, but it can be normal. The evolution of the technology can be like that. And if you want to change something, you have to change the rules. But this is normal, this is motorsport. It has always been like that."
For Dovizioso, MotoGP faces a choice. "It depends on where the championship wants to go. The rules say you can use this and it's normal to push in this way, because you can be faster, you can be more precise, and it's better to have it. So it's normal to go in that way. But if you want to affect that, you have to change the rules. But this just depends where the championship wants to go."
For the engineers in MotoGP, they will always be looking for a way to go faster, no matter what obstacles you put in the rulebook for them. Just as with spec electronics, it takes the factories a few years to figure out a way to replicate the control they can gain with electronics, but eventually, they end up just as fast as they would have been. This is the point of racing, for engineers to innovate and find new ideas.
But that ends up clashing with the requirements of the series, of the promoter's need to sell the series as an entertainment product to TV companies, and to attract fans to the excitement of racing. When technology starts to interfere in racing, then the series has a problem.
Comparisons with the 800 era are unfair. The racing in MotoGP is much closer than it has ever been, the riders separated by the smallest fractions of a second. The problem MotoGP faces is that although the bikes are closer, they are finding it harder and harder to actually overtake. The racing may still be full of tension, but the release of excitement generated in a pass is becoming increasingly rare. And that has to be a worry.
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