Normally after the first day of practice for a MotoGP race, everyone says, "it's only Friday, you can't read too much into the times". But not here. At Barcelona, everyone is asking how they can stop the Aprilias. Aleix Espargaro was fastest on a soft tire and in race trim, and Maverick Viñales was quick over a single lap – his weakness so far with Aprilia - and managed a respectable race pace. If one or both qualify well on Saturday, nobody will see which way they went.
The gap over the rest is impressive. Aleix Espargaro was three tenth faster than his Aprilia teammate, while Viñales was two tenths quicker than Enea Bastianini in third. And that was with Viñales feeling he hadn't get everything possible out of the soft tire he put in at the end of FP2. "When I put the soft, the jump was huge so I didn’t take enough profit of the soft. The difference was very big," the Spaniard told us.
Behind the two Aprilias, it is a very different story. There may be half a second between first and third, but the next half a second covers Enea Bastianini all the way down to Luca Marini in fifteenth. There are eighteen riders within a second, Darryn Binder in 20th, a second from Bastianini and 1.469 behind Aleix Espargaro.
Can't make the difference
Why is the field so close? Pol Espargaro had a theory to explain it. "In all the places where the grip is low, hot temperatures, the conditions do not allow to put a tire and smash the lap time. You know, going into the limit of the bike," the Repsol Honda rider said. "Then it makes everything more tight. You cannot use a lot of torque, so you're reducing the torque, you cannot enter into the corners attacking the apex so much because you lose the front."
Without the ability to attack on the brakes, and with the rear eager to spin up if you so much as thought about opening the throttle aggressively, the room to make a difference is smaller, Pol Espargaro argued. "You need to ride very smooth, and when you ride smooth, the difference between the riders, it's very little."
When a track had grip, and when temperatures were low, you could start to push the limits of the bike, the Repsol Honda rider explained. "So when you have good grip and low temperatures is when you see when the bike is good. You can make one time attack with full grip when the bike is really working and you squeeze the chassis, you squeeze the swingarm and then the bike is working, then you see the biggest difference."
There was an upside to being forced to be so gentle, Pecco Bagnaia explained. "It's like I didn't ride today, because I feel like I can start the race right now without pain or anything," the Ducati Lenovo rider told us. "Just because it's impossible to push, you can't push. You have to manage everything: braking, entry, with gas, you can't force the bike into the corner, because the grip is too low." That meant taking a strategic approach to the race. "So for sure the strategy will be very important. You can't push because also the wear of the rear tire drops a lot. So it will be hard, it will be very difficult to make a very fast race."
Anatomy of a corner
There are a lot of ways to go fast on a motorcycle when there is grip. There's top speed, of course, but you usually only use that once a lap. And as Red Bull KTM Tech3 crew chief Paul Trevathan pointed out on a recent Paddock Pass Podcast episode, the teams don't even think in terms of top speed any more, but rather in terms of time taken to get from the beginning to the end of the straight.
Apart from the straight, lap times are made in braking, in corners, and on corner exit. Braking is in two parts: the initial upright braking preparing to turn into the corner, then trail braking as you lean the bike in toward the apex. Of the two parts of braking, the second part, trail braking, is where there is more to gain, as more of the tire is in contact with the asphalt, though you then have to offset that with the fact that sideway forces are coming into play as you start the turn.
Then there's pure corner speed, from the point at which you release the brakes to the point where you start to open the throttle again. The limit here is pure physics, how much grip the tire provides in any given corner.
Finally, there is corner exit. From the first touch of the throttle on the edge of the tire, to full acceleration as you pick up the bike and get it onto the fat part of the tire, and then almost upright as you head down the straight (though riders tend to keep the bike at a slight angle, as that gives you more rubber on the road, and more acceleration).
Of all these parts of a turn, corner entry and mid-corner are entirely dependent upon grip. If the track has no grip, it is almost impossible to create it, and little the rider can do to make a difference. It is, as Pol Espargaro and Pecco Bagnaia pointed out, where you need grip to get to the limit of the bike.
It is only in the second part of corner exit, what the riders refer to as the traction area, where bikes and riders can make a difference when the track has no grip. A bike which has mechanical grip – the ability to make the tire dig into the asphalt, to find the perfect degree of spin to maximize forward drive – gives the rider an advantage. The rider can make a difference by using their weight to find where that point of optimum spin is, and try to affect it by sitting further forward or further back, or by finding the sweet spot on the throttle where acceleration is maximized.
Electronics are of limited use here: cutting power can help the tire hook up, but it also, well, cuts power, automatically restricting the amount of forward drive available.
This is where the Aprilia is so strong, the riders agreed in unison. The Aprilia RS-GP is capable of finding traction on corner exit where others have none, and once they do so, they are gone. If teams are measuring performance in terms of time spent getting from corner to corner, getting drive when you open the throttle is the quickest route to a lower lap time when grip is low.
"The only thing I can see is the grip they have," Andrea Dovizioso told us. "On the rear it’s really good. For sure, it’s mechanical grip. At the level we’re at now with the electronics, the difference is just mechanical."
This was something Dovizioso remembered from his own testing of the bike in September last year. "When I tried the bike, straight away I felt similar to the Ducati, that the grip is very good," the Italian said. "I don’t know what they changed from the bike I tried last year. In Argentina the grip was very low and they were so good. For sure, I’m not the fastest in the middle of the corner but Aleix overtook me around the outside at Turn 3… So I was a bit surprised!"
In low grip conditions, the importance of the rear tire increased while the front decreased. There was less you can achieve with the front, so the rear takes on a bigger role. "When the grip is so low, like in the wet, always the rear tire dominates the front," Andrea Dovizioso explained. "In this conditions it’s always 70% rear and 30% the front. The rear affects the front. Every time you enter into the corner when the rear drops, the rear dominates the front. You have to enter smooth otherwise you lose the rear, before you lose the front. It’s always like that, in the rain, in all conditions. When there is no grip on the rear, you put the front over the limit. It’s not the front that is the problem."
The rear is where the Aprilia was strongest, Pecco Bagnaia said. "They have a really good traction, it's something I have seen all this year, but in this track they can make more difference, because for all the rest, the grip is lower for me."
That weight balance is where the Aprilia is strong, and why they start Saturday, and probably Sunday, as favorite. Aleix Espargaro controlled the race in Argentina, the other track with similarly poor grip, precisely because he could find grip where others couldn't. Maverick Viñales finished seventh, 6 seconds behind his teammate, his best result of the season, both before and since.
The grip at Barcelona was bad, and getting worse, Pecco Bagnaia said. "The grip here is very very low, the lowest ever, the lowest I ever tried with a bike, so it's difficult." The circuit had been resurfaced in 2018, so it was hard to understand why the grip had disappeared so quickly. "There was new asphalt here in 2018," the Italian said. "It was black. Now it's white."
That happens when the bitumen which is used to bind the aggregate (the stones in the asphalt) evaporates, asphalt basically being a mixture of tar and stones. Bitumen is a petroleum product, and the hydrocarbons in it evaporate slowly. The bitumen is black, and as it sublimes from the asphalt, the surface turns paler and paler.
Bagnaia had no clear explanation for why the grip had deteriorated so badly, comparing the track with Misano, which was also recently resurfaced. "If we look at Misano, that was new in 2020, I don't remember, but Misano is already three years old, and it's still the same, black and the grip is incredible. So I don't really know."
It was the speed at which the surface at Barcelona was getting worse which was a worry, and was cause to discuss it in the Safety Commission on Friday. "The problem is that it's becoming not a little worse, a lot worse every year," Bagnaia said. "So it's very difficult to go fast in the corners here, in the braking you feel a lot of front locking here when you are straight, so it can be dangerous if we continue like this. At this moment we are on the limit, but if it will be a lot worse again, it can be a problem."
Ducati Lenovo teammate Jack Miller agreed. "You know, every year we come here and it gets worse and worse. This is the way it is here. The asphalt is not even that old. I think it’s three years old. That’s kind of a shame, but it is what it is."
What Miller found confusing was that on a Ducati Panigale road bike, the grip was fine, but when they arrive on a MotoGP bike, the grip seems to disappear into thin air. "It’s the same like always, I came here on the Panigale not even a month ago, and it's always pretty decent grip on the Panigale," the Australian told us. "You’ve always got a lot of grip around here and I’d go and tell the boys it's going to be mega. I didn't do it this year because I learned from my mistakes but you think it's mega grip and then you come here on this thing and it's a whole different kettle of fish."
Like his teammate, Miller saw that the Aprilias were able to use the conditions better than anyone else. "Always, when there's no grip, that bike seems to work well," the Australian said. "They're able to spin the tire and do what they need without the consumption of the tire. That's what it looks like from the outside."
The protagonists themselves were trying to temper expectations. "It is low grip, very very low," Aleix Espargaro said. "I remember Barcelona was just like Brno, and now we don’t have Brno so it is the lowest grip on the current calendar. You have to adapt to it."
Espargaro played down the advantage in traction which the Aprilia has. "On the rear we are all more or less the same, we have the traction control so you have to work with the electronics but on the front I am also not feeling really good because I cannot abuse the good points of the bike but overall I managed quite good."
The Spaniard deflected compliments aimed at him from the Ducati riders. "It is just Friday, we have to be calm but with the trend of this year and the level of the grid if you don’t start good then it is really difficult," Espargaro said. "It is not like the past where you could change the bike on Saturday and fight for the victory on Sunday, you need to be strong on Friday or it is very difficult."
He was willing to acknowledge that Aprilia had made steps forward, thanks in no small part to their ride-height device. "We improved a lot this year with the traction, the stability, we didn’t have the rear ride device last year," Espargaro said. "We didn’t use it in the first part of the season and now we are using it, and our rivals were using it in the first part of the championship in ’21 so this is one advantage and we get closer to them."
Maverick Viñales, characteristically cheerful, a massive turnaround from his time at Yamaha, was more openly positive about the Aprilia RS-GP. "I have kinda of a feeling like Argentina," he said. "When there is no grip, somehow we can have more traction. This is fantastic. I think it is on gas and in the traction area but it is just Friday and everybody is going to improve and we need to improve too."
Work left to do
It is just Friday, but it is not a normal Friday. There is still plenty of work to do, especially in FP4, to figure out how the tires will react, whether the medium or the hard rear offers the most performance, and whether the hard front offers something in stability which the medium does not have.
And there is qualifying too. A good grid position is crucial, because passing at Barcelona was a good deal harder than it had been in Mugello, Andrea Dovizioso explained. "It's very difficult because every braking zone is straight. When you have straight braking, it’s more difficult to overtake. You have to be here, out of the slipstream, to overtake. You can’t do anything strange with the angle. You can’t play. For sure those things don’t help when you are behind the bike and the tire becomes much worse. I think you will see overtakes when somebody drops, more than real overtaking."
Qualifying is vital, but it doesn't mean it's easy. With track temperatures increasing by over 20°C between the morning and the afternoon, from 30°C in FP1 to 54°C in FP2, grip levels vary wildly. The bikes like the Hondas which handle cooler conditions well can do better in the morning, but suffer when it comes to qualifying. The bikes like the Ducati, which don't benefit so much from the grip in the morning, can still end up setting fast times during qualifying, even if they struggle in the morning.
And then there's championship leader Fabio Quartararo. Low grip is where the Yamaha struggles, the Frenchman making up a lot of his time in braking, especially in the second part of braking with the bike leaned over.
"We know that we struggle without grip," Quartararo said. "We know Aprilia went super fast in Argentina with low grip. But for us, we struggle, even on the race pace I was doing six or seven tenths slower than Aleix, but in this track you feel if you are going slow or not and I feel slow, but I feel I could not go faster. Because basically Turn 3, Turn 4, Turn 9, you open the throttle and then it spins and then you need to control it, because the tire drops. You need to pick up the bike. So my riding was really good but just super slow."
Quartararo has one hope for Saturday, and even more so for Sunday. For bikes to lay down rubber and start to create some grip that way. "If the race is now it would be damage limitation but we know in this track the more rubber you put, the more grip you have. So I hope we can really put a lot of grip during the weekend and we know it's not going to rain." Whether that will be enough will be clear in due course.
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