By now, you will have heard the MotoGP mantra a thousand times. "It's only Friday," everyone says after the first day of practice. "It's only Friday, but for sure it's better to first than to be fifteenth," was Jorge Martin's addendum, after ending the first day at the top of the timesheets.
It may only be Friday, but we still learned plenty, though maybe not about who is going to win the race on Sunday. A lot can still happen between then and now. But the riders and teams now have a better idea of what they are facing.
The biggest challenge this weekend is going to be the tires. The asphalt at the Motorland Aragon Circuit is probably the oldest on the calendar, having not been resurfaced since the circuit was built back in 2009. Asphalt changes with age: the bitumen which binds the aggregate together evaporates very slowly, eventually leaving sizable gaps between the stones.
That does a couple of things. Firstly, it makes the asphalt quite abrasive (though this also depends on the type, shape, and size of stones used in the aggregate). Secondly, the gaps fill in with rubber left behind by every vehicle which uses the track. The rubber on the track makes the track slippery, which means that the rear has a tendency to spin up. And a spinning rear tire on an abrasive track is a recipe for tire consumption.
Aragon has an added complication: the bikes spend an awful lot of time on the edge of the tire. That is a recipe for massive tire consumption, and riders having to manage the tires as carefully as possible to ensure they have enough left at the end of the race.
"This grip level reminds me of Brno in the past, it is very low, very low," Aleix Espargaro said. "We are lucky that the weather conditions are good because it is really slippery. You cannot really push and you have to ride really carefully."
The track is unlike Brno in other aspects, however. Brno's biggest problem was the bumps: in addition to the lack of grip, it was also insanely bumpy, making it very difficult to ride. There are no problems with bumps at Aragon, it's just that the grip is very low.
That made it an example for other tracks to follow, Pecco Bagnaia pointed out. "We have to consider that this asphalt have already 13 years and is an example of what to do in the future for other tracks, because in 13 years it is quite good," the Italian said.
The lack of grip is also down to the rubber left by the cars which regularly race here. "The grip level is always a bit low here, but there seems to be an extra amount of car rubber out there. It’s taken a bit to clean it up," Jack Miller explained. "The places where I felt the grip was lowest is where there was a lot of car rubber. Up at turn 5. The corkscrew. Those sort of places are where I felt it slippery."
What complicated matters even further is that the 2022 calendar reversed from its normal order. "For sure the level of grip is determined also by the fact that we were in Misano last week and normally we here then there," Bagnaia reflected. Misano is the track with perhaps the highest levels of grip, compounded by the fact the riders had two days of testing at the track, laying down even more Michelin rubber and increasing grip even further. Coming from there to Aragon is like going from freshly laid asphalt and then riding on ice.
The fact that a high-grip track like Misano meant tire consumption was minimal, while a low-grip track like Aragon eats tires was something which Aleix Espargaro could not wrap his head around. "This is interesting," the Aprilia rider said. "I spoke a lot with Michelin engineers because it is strange that with a lot of grip you would think you destroy the tire more, but in Misano the tire consumption was 55% with a really fast pace and here the pace will be very slow and the consumption at 100%. So it is difficult. It really depends on the asphalt and type of ground. It looks like here it will be about managing the first part of the race."
Who is best at managing tire consumption? "I don’t know, because at this moment so many of the riders are very competitive in the last part of the race," Pecco Bagnaia replied after pondering the question. "You can see clearly in Misano that Enea was so competitive with a used tire and usually is. Marc also. Alex Rins is great because it looks like the Suzuki is great with used tires, but the good thing we have now is that we can do more or less the whole race with the same pace."
It is way too early to be examining pace. Several riders used a hard tire in the morning to ensure they had enough soft and medium tires for the rest of the weekend, and the long lap at Aragon means riders are only doing relatively short runs. And some riders, such as Brad Binder, had laps canceled due to yellow flags being waved, meaning they lost fast laps and are way down the order in terms of best time.
Reading the tealeaves, it looks like Pecco Bagnaia is fast – hardly a surprise, given he won here last year, and is coming off the back of four victories in a row. The two Aprilias are quick too, Aleix Espargaro insisting that he was faster than his teammate Maverick Viñales, despite finishing behind him and out of Q2.
"I'm faster here!" Espargaro insisted. Two crashes on Friday had hampered progress in FP2. "I crashed and couldn’t improve the lap times, but here in Aragon it is not a problem about speed, I am fast enough. I led the first session with a medium tire before the crash. It is not about speed it is about managing where is the limit and this is why we practice."
Rhythm and no blues
Maverick Viñales is equally adamant he is fast. "It is early but I think we will fight for the victory, for sure," the Spaniard said. "If we work well then we will go for the win. I feel I am riding well on the track. It is where I want to push really hard. We can accomplish an amazing result here compared to last year."
Viñales was astounded by the amount of progress he had made since he first visited here last year. "The improvement is huge," he told us. "I have never felt that in my life. It is huge. More than one second per lap in terms of rhythm. It is amazing. Also the feeling I have with the bike, the way I ride on the track, the feeling, the confidence, everything is better. I think with Aprilia we work in a fantastic way and it is just the beginning of our relationship so I feel myself very strong in the future."
Alex Rins and Enea Bastianini were also quick, but it was once again Fabio Quartararo who impressed. But Quartararo was already aware of the challenge he faced. "The balance is we can be fast," the reigning world champion told us. "But the problem isn’t about being fast; it’s being able to be fast in the race, and this means overtaking. And this is the hard part."
It is a familiar refrain, and one which is very difficult to address this year, though the Misano test gave Quartararo reason for hope. For now, though, the Yamaha rider could just hang on and try to limit the damage. "If you check in Austria, our pace was also to fight for the victory, but we stayed behind and we could not overtake. So at the end you can be, I would not say half a second slower, but you can be slower and fight for the victory if you have this speed to overtake more easily. That’s what we’re missing."
Getting stuck behind other riders had been an issue for Quartararo in previous years, but it was something his crew chief, Diego Gubellini, had been working on since the start of the season. "I think it’s already a lot of races that my crew chief is thinking about this race," Quartararo told us. "We are working a lot in this area of having the pressure more or less under control because every year my problem is this one. Hopefully we can do something much better than the last years."
The other rider with surprisingly good pace was Marc Marquez. The Repsol Honda rider ended the day eighth fastest, just over a third of a second off Jorge Martin's best time. But his pace in FP2 was also very respectable, despite limited running.
Though Marquez was able to ride normally, the bone having fused straight and correctly after the fourth surgery on his right humerus, he was still having problems with his muscles. In FP1, he had alternated fast laps and slow laps, in FP2 he had done a few more fast laps in a row.
"I’m really happy actually, especially with the progression," the Repsol Honda rider said. "In the morning I felt really bad and was struggling a lot to get the good position on the bike. I didn’t feel comfortable but then the afternoon I felt better and the pace was faster. My body position was better and this is what I really like from the day."
Marquez is saving himself for the race, adopting a similar strategy to when he first returned to MotoGP, building up strength and saving as much energy as he can for Sunday's race. "I never did a long run and I won’t do one tomorrow," the Spaniard explained. "I hope with the adrenaline of the race and all these things, I know I will suffer but then you drop a little bit the pace and you suffer less; this is easy." With a race of attrition like Sunday's Aragon GP is likely to be, the pace should already be a little closer to manageable for Marquez, leaving him more strength for the end of the race.
"I said already yesterday, Marc will be there to fight for the victory and I think he can fight for the victory," Fabio Quartararo replied when asked about Marquez. Whatever shape Marquez is in, it is foolish to rule him out if he is fit enough to race.
There was also some excitement with new parts at Aragon. In the morning, Marquez went out with the bike he left behind at Mugello, just to get his feeling back, then switched to the aluminum chassis built by Kalex in the afternoon, setting his fastest lap on the new swingarm.
But Marquez danced around questions concerning the new swingarm. "It is true I had the swingarm and it's not clear," the Repsol Honda rider said. "I did my best lap time with it but still we need to understand which is better for the pace, because what I understood last year is that I was flowing more and that is normal. One thing is the speed, the other is the way to ride," he said.
He wasn't the only rider to have new parts to try. Fabio Quartararo spent the day swapping between the new Yamaha chassis he tested at Misano and the standard one. For a change, the two are easily identifiable, as you can see in these photos from MotoMatters.com contributor Niki Kovács.
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