We say every Friday of a MotoGP weekend that it's "only Friday". Riders and teams are testing new parts, looking for a base setup, and getting a feel for the track. It being "only Friday" is even more true at Silverstone, as the riders are having to get back up to speed after five weeks off the bike. Muscles only a MotoGP bike tests have weakened a little, and are being pushed to the limit again.
Silverstone is a tricky track to return to racing at, which complicates matters. It's long, fast, flowing, and challenging, and if you miss your braking marker, you lose a lot of time. "It's a very demanding track to be precise," Pol Espargaro explained. "There are many places where the speed is very high, so as soon as you brake a little bit later, which means taking the lever one tenth later, it translates to being very wide in a fast corner and then losing a lot of time."
It being "only Friday" also offered opportunities. Fabio Quartararo has to serve a Long Lap penalty in Sunday's race, and made use of every opportunity to practice running through the Long Lap penalty section at Turn 14, The Loop, in both morning and afternoon practice. "Every time I had a yellow flag and every time I was missing a lap, so I think five or six times today," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said.
With attention to detail an ever more important part of racing, this is smart strategy. Quartararo had sat with his team to talk the whole thing over, especially the procedure to follow once the Long Lap penalty board is shown, he said. "I know as soon as they put the long lap penalty you can cross the finish line maximum two times, but most of all when we are riding here is so difficult to check on the right."
Seeing the board held out by Race Direction was hard because of the layout of the track, Quartararo explained. "Because you are on the corner, you need to check on the right. Of course we will put the message a little bit longer on the dashboard, because I think it happened to Franco in Assen that he didn’t see it. So we will put it longer."
The next decision Quartararo has to make is when to serve the penalty. Race Direction will indicate the point from which he has to take the penalty, usually after the first couple of laps once the field has stretched out enough to make it safe to serve a penalty. But then the question is, do you go in straight away at the first opportunity, or do you wait until the last of the three laps?
"The latest as possible," was Quartararo's choice. But it was not worth risking making a mistake for. "I don't need to get crazy about this. I will make the long lap and one or two laps more will not change." Nor was there any reason to take risks in the Long Lap penalty zone, as it was not worth risking a crash for the sake of an extra tenth of a second.
The fairness doctrine
There was general dissatisfaction about the location of the Long Lap zone, though. There is no hard and fast rule where these zones have to be placed, other than that it has to be possible to serve a Long Lap penalty as safely as possible. (This is one reason why riders are automatically given an extra lap to do a Long Lap if there are yellow flags being shown in the zone where the Long Lap penalty is situated.)
But that leads to some wild variation in the length of time lost serving a Long Lap penalty. At Assen, the Long Lap is on the outside of Ossebroeken, and is long and slow. At the Sachsenring, it's at Turn 1, and is relatively short. Silverstone's Long Lap penalty zone is at Turn 14, a tight, V-shaped left after a short run from Village, Turn 13. It is short, and close to the natural layout of the track. It also enhances the natural shape of the corner, making it much less of a punishment than at other tracks.
Fabio Quartararo insisted that he was losing a lot of time through the Long Lap penalty zone. "We checked, and it’s quite a lot. I will not say the number but we lose quite a lot," he told reporters. However, dig into the numbers, and you can see that what he is actually losing is around 1.5 seconds a lap. On a fast lap, Quartararo was running through sector 3 in around 27.5 seconds. On a slow lap, it was anywhere between 28.9 and 29.5.
Quartararo's rivals were not impressed with his arithmetic. "This long lap penalty, maybe you gain a bit of time rather than lose!" Joan Mir joked. "No, for sure you don't gain time. But it's not 3 seconds, not at all. Maybe just 1 second. It's a really tight corner, and also the line is really close. In a slow corner you always use less time than in a fast corner. I think that this can be improved a little bit more, to have more or less that 3 seconds average."
Pecco Bagnaia pointed to the variation between tracks. "In Assen you lose 4 seconds, here you maybe lose 1. It depends on the circuit because in Sachsenring you don’t lost much time. It depends on the run-off area because some tracks have more, here there is none. It is difficult to say anything about it. Maybe we will speak in the safety commission."
Aleix Espargaro had strong opinions, but was all too aware of the fact that he also had a dog in this particular fight, as the closest rival to Fabio Quartararo. That was only made worse by his naturally tendency to hyperbole, claiming that the Long Lap penalty was only costing 0.8 seconds at Silverstone. He tried to point out that it was about fairness, that a Long Lap penalty served at one track was very different than at others.
It was still a better solution than just adding an arbitrary time penalty, he insisted. "It is good for the show and we have to remember that this is a show and it is nice; the Long Lap penalty. We make a lot of noise about it but in the end it’s nothing. Just a show."
In the past, penalties were disproportionately severe, Espargaro said. "If you did a jump start then you had to do a ride-through and this was a disaster. Now you do a Long Lap penalty and it puts more show."
But the most important thing was the consistency between tracks. The penalty should be roughly 3 seconds everywhere, he insisted, and there were ways to address that. "It is a good invention but now we have to be serious with it. I don’t think it is that difficult. Someone can come with a Superbike and try it, if it’s too fast then you tighten it. You can have half a second up or down but not from 3.1 or 3.2 like it was in Barcelona to 0.8 here. That’s a huge difference."
Fridays are also good days to be testing, and there were more than a few new parts on display. Some garishly blatant, like the Stegasaurus-style plates on the tail of the Ducati, or the long exhaust making a reappearance on the KTMs. Others were far more subtle, like the new frame being used by Takaaki Nakagami in the LCR Honda squad.
That Nakagami is testing a new chassis is interesting in itself. It is a public secret that Nakagami is keeping the Idemitsu-backed seat at LCR open until there is a suitable Japanese or Asian replacement rider, with one of either Somkiat Chantra or Ai Ogura widely expected to take over at some point. But Nakagami has not been given his marching orders just yet.
"During the summer break we had some conversations with HRC and they asked me to test, and I said, definitely yes, more than welcome, so this is already planned," Nakagami said of his workload at Silverstone, which included a new chassis and a development of the new aero package he had tried at the Barcelona test.
But it is also because HRC has little choice. Stefan Bradl is already replacing Marc Marquez, who is recovering from another operation on his arm, and so there is little point in the test rider doing even more testing. Pol Espargaro is off to Tech3 KTM (he wouldn't name names on Thursday, but the fact he said he had a new contract and it would be announced "soon" points to an announcement at the Red Bull Ring in two weeks time), and Alex Marquez is headed to Gresini Ducati.
HRC have decided that departing riders will not get to use development parts, for fear of sharing what they know with their new employers. A cynic might wonder what they have to lose, given the current run of results with Marc Marquez missing. But that has often been the way with Honda and with other Japanese factories.
The contrast with KTM is interesting. Both Brad Binder and the departing Miguel Oliveira were given the new exhaust to try, despite one staying and the other heading off to RNF Aprilia (or so we believe).
Oliveira said he felt he was being treated exactly the same as if he was staying with the team for 2023, rather than leaving. "Yes, exactly. And I'm still riding like I would continue!" the Portuguese rider joked. The issue is the timing of contracts, he felt. "For me, contracts should have been done after November, not in May. But it's the sport, and for sure both sides will give the maximum until Valencia."
Some of the difference may also be explained by the fact that the KTM exhaust is only a minor improvement, based on something both riders had tried earlier, and both Binder and Oliveira liked it. The exhaust gives a slightly better throttle connection, but it also reduced the amount of vibration, making the bike a little easier to ride.
"We tried to gain a little bit more performance with the exhaust, and also to have a better connection just by having not so much vibration. The exhaust is not really giving a lot on speed, on power on back-to-back comparisons. But it gives a good feeling," Oliveira said. "I prefer the new one, because it looks like it feels more smooth. Also the sound is quite different, so maybe it gives us a bit more comfort in this way."
This was a development of the exhaust first tried in Jerez, but that one had been too quiet, and so KTM engineers had altered the sound profile to make it a little easier for the riders to understand what the engine was doing. "For sure the sound at that moment was very low, and I couldn't really hear my own bike, so I was afraid that with the other bikes, not to have an engine feedback sound," Oliveira said of the Jerez exhaust. The Silverstone unit was better. "They worked on that, and it's louder but still keeping the smooth connection to the wheel which we were looking for."
The exhaust note had been an issue for Brad Binder as well. "It’s a bit weird," the South African said. "It’s a bit more delicate. You don’t really have that super-loud…well, it’s not that loud and the tone is so low you feel you might not be in the right gear. You feel like you have done something wrong! It will take a bit of getting used to here."
The exhaust is similar to one trialed by Ducati at various tests at the end of 2021 and early 2022. Jack Miller – soon to leave Ducati for KTM – said Ducati's experimentation had been focused on engine torque. "The longer pipe for us was more of a pick-up kind of feel. It was more to try and get the initial touch of the throttle a lot smoother," the Australian said.
That exhaust had been overtaken by engine development, however. "With development of the engine, we didn't need it anymore. So the way that the engine sort of developed the shorter pipe was better for top end and we weren't missing in smoothness. Last year’s engine with that longer pipe, when we tried it in Misano it was really really good, a massive improvement. But in the way they shaped the torque character in the bike we don't need it really anyway."
Honda's new chassis seems to be a bigger step. It gave a better feeling, Taka Nakagami explained. "Better feeling means creating more grip, rear grip is a bit more positive, which means the bike is a bit more stable. Helps a little bit and it's easier to ride the bike. The edge grip is a little bit better than our standard. So this is important for developing the bike."
It is unusual for a rider to be almost uniformly positive about a change, however. The response they are trained to give to the media is that each change has "some positives and some negatives". But Nakagami only saw positives in the new frame, though it was not a revolutionary upgrade. That didn't translate directly into better lap times, because there was more work to do to sort it out, but it is still a positive sign for the future. The LCR Honda rider was so happy with the update that he will be switching to the new chassis for both his new bikes from Saturday.
Finally, Ducati's aero update. As usual, Ducati Corse have spotted the loophole in the aero regulations and then driven an entire cavalry regiment of coach and horses through it. The tail section of a MotoGP bike is not part of the aero body – the fairing and the front fender – and so the only restrictions are on dimensions – a maximum width of 250mm and a maximum height of 150mm above the plane of the seat.
The four winglet plates appear to be aimed at altering the airflow behind the rider. Whether that reduces drag or further disrupts airflow onto the wings and front tire of any bike foolish enough to try to follow a Ducati is uncertain.
But they also have a positive effect on the behavior of the bike, Enea Bastianini explained after trying them. "The feeling is good for the moment," the Gresini Ducati rider said. "Tomorrow we have to try better, because I had to come back to the normal one. And after we tried again, because it's important to understand if it is better or not. But my first impact was good, especially on the brake. It's more stable. And also for the speed, it's not bad. And I think for tomorrow it's good for the qualifying."
There is something to be said for applying aerodynamics to the tail of a MotoGP bike. Ducati test rider Michele Pirro rolled out a different tail section on the GP22 at Mugello, as did Lorenzo Savadori on the Aprilia RS-GP. KTM has in the past played with a "plate section" tail to create a wing effect.
Aerodynamics is something of a virtuous (or vicious, depending on your perspective) circle. The more factories apply aerodynamics, the more they learn about how they affect vehicles which move with 6 degrees of freedom like a motorcycle. And the more they learn, the better they understand, and the better they understand, the more effectively they can apply aero to MotoGP machinery.
There are many people – fans, media, riders, engineers even - who would love to see aerodynamics disappear from MotoGP. But that particular cat has been let out of the bag, and will not be put back in again. The science of motorcycle aerodynamics has moved on so far that any restrictions will simply be treated as a challenge for engineers to work their way around to achieve the same effect. There is no going back, whether you like it or not.
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