Motegi MotoGP Friday Round Up: Just How Much Has MotoGP Moved On In Three Years?

Friday at Motegi was the equivalent of being fourteen and having a distant relative visit for the first time in three years. "Goodness, haven't you grown up!" they say to you, as you roll your eyes and try not to look utterly exasperated and embarrassed.

In this case, it's the MotoGP bikes in the role of the surly teenager and Motegi as the annoying relative. The bikes really have changed a lot over the past three years, as a quick glance at the timesheets will tell you.

In 2019, after two 45-minute sessions of practice on the first day, Fabio Quartararo posted a fastest time of 1'44.764. In 2022, despite only having one 75-minute session of free practice, the first nine riders were all under Quartararo's 2019 time, with Jack Miller nearly a quarter of a second quicker. Maverick Viñales was second fastest in 2019, with a lap of 1'45.085. The first sixteen riders, all the way down to Franco Morbidelli, were faster than that.

It's not just that the bikes were faster. The field was also much closer. In 2019, the top three were separated by over three tenths of a second. In 2022, the gap between first and third was 0.049. In 2019, there were twelve riders within a second, in 2022, there are nineteen.

The closeness of the field can be painful sometimes: Johann Zarco missed out on Q2 by one thousandth of a second, finishing eleventh in a time of 1'44.798. Maverick Viñales squeaked through to Q2 with a 1'44.797, good for tenth place.

But having the times be so tight also highlights just how strong the performance of some of the Motegi newcomers is. Luca Marini ended the day in fifth place, just 0.136 behind Jack Miller's best time. Being fifth at the end of the first day is good, but being just over a tenth shy of Miller was even better. "I'm satisfied about the position, the gap to the first is something that I didn't imagine, sincerely," the Mooney VR46 rider said. "Because we are really close together. Everybody's close. But just a tenth from the first is incredible for me, the first time here."

What has changed in those three years? Obviously the introduction of ride-height devices and the growing importance (and more importantly, greater understanding) of aerodynamics plays a big role. But so does the fact that in terms of performance, the bikes on the grid have never been so equal.

Fastest man of the day Jack Miller reflected on the biggest changes since 2019. "Definitely the ride height devices. The ride height device was invented for places like here. That’s made it a lot better. Acceleration is a lot better," the Ducati rider said.

Ride-height devices make such a big difference at Motegi because of the stop-and-go nature of the track. With so many corners exiting onto short straights, there were plenty of opportunities to deploy the device. Jack Miller listed the places he was using it. "The last corner. Exit of Turn 2, exit of Turn 4, and then before the back straight, that little straight and then the back straight."

That changes the nature of Motegi, Marc Marquez said. "The feeling is the track has become more narrow and shorter. The power we are putting from corner to corner with the holeshot… We activate the holeshot here five times so it’s a lot. We are putting more and more torque and braking later and later. For that reason already from the first run we were already very close to the best lap of the race in 2019."

Along with the new technologies, the bikes have also gotten better through the natural process of development and evolution. That was obvious not just from lap times, but how the Ducati GP22 felt, Jack Miller explained. "The bike’s improved, I mean just initial rollout. That uphill chicane where I think Zarco binned it today, that section before was always a bit of a nightmare to get the timing right on the change of direction, to get the thing to actually react after changing direction rather than pushing wide and then finally coming back around."

The GP22 was a totally different kettle of fish to the GP19 Miller rode last time he was here. "It was really reactive, really receptive through there and the bike was really precise so that alone - you're not having to force the handlebars. And then again, the last corner, that sort of flop over chicane, seems to be a lot easier. Able to hit my mark there pretty much every lap, It makes it a pleasure to ride."

The Ducati may have changed and improved over the last three years, but it was nothing compared to the Aprilia RS-GP. Aleix Espargaro had seen the 2019 bike overlaid on top of the 2022 bike. "It’s like a motocross bike compared to a MotoGP," the Spaniard said. "It was super high, the engine position was super high in 2019. Now it’s another bike, longer, aerodynamics. It’s crazy how the bike’s changed from 2019 – crazy. Especially the Aprilia."

The 2022 RS-GP was a totally different machine to its predecessor, Espargaro said. "It’s another bike. The power delivery is a lot higher. But you’re able to use it. The torque is different, the aerodynamics. This track was the third worst on the calendar where the wheelie was a problem. Now we’re not even half of this. And with more power. It’s crazy. This is the shocking thing."

That radical difference brought with it its own set of problems. "Sincerely we struggled a bit in the first two runs. The bike was super far in terms of electronics, in terms of power delivery. I was quite angry with the engineers but they told me they tried as much as possible to adapt to the 2019 information to 2022," Espargaro explained.

"But it’s unbelievable how much the bike changed. How we raised the power, the wheelie was a big problem in 2019. Now it’s less than half." That meant a huge step forward in performance, Espargaro said. "From FP2 which was dry here in 2019, most of the top guys did high 1'44s, and I did a 1'45 high. And today I did a 1'44.5. Most people dropped half a second but I dropped nearly 1.5s. So it has been difficult to set up the bike but in the last part of the session the bike was quite good."

Adapting to Motegi on a MotoGP bike was more difficult than Brad Binder had expected, the Red Bull KTM rider explained. "I thought I would be a little bit faster straight away, but I wasn't. I started off pretty slow in the beginning, and each time I came in and went out again, I got a little bit better."

Like the Aprilia, KTM had a lot of work to do, with the bike having changed a lot in the past three years. "Our starting point was really far from where we needed to be with the power levels, and also the TC, they were really on the conservative side so the bike just wasn't going forward. Each run we had time to adjust things, and it got better and better each run," Binder said.

Part of the problem was how the track was changing. 75 minutes is a lot of time to be circulating, the riders laying down more rubber on the track as the session went on. That meant constantly recalibrating all your markers, Binder explained. "The big thing is that, like, my braking markers at the beginning were really early and the bike still wasn't stopping. And then as the session went on, the grip got better, so you start to brake later and later and you have to keep adapting, because it was such a green track at the beginning. So it made it difficult for me to find markers."

The good thing was that the asphalt itself does not seem to have deteriorated much since MotoGP was last here. "It's kind of cool when you haven't been to a place for quite some time and the track has stayed in good condition," Jack Miller said. "The asphalt feels like it did in 2019."

The bad news – and the reason why so many riders pushed for a fast lap at the end of the session – is that the weather is not looking promising for Saturday. Heavy rain started at the end of Friday evening, and is set to continue all through the Saturday morning. That could make finding further setup changes difficult, and will certainly complicate tire choice if FP3 (the untimed half hour session, which would normally be FP4 if we hadn't lost a session on Friday morning) is wet, or at least not fully dry.

For the moment, it looks like the choice of rear tire is completely open. The soft works, without a significant drop, and the medium is good for some riders, offering more stability. If Sunday is dry (which it probably will be) and warm (which at Motegi, is never a given) then the hard might work too.

"Also it's interesting with the tires, to understand which can be a good option in the rear," the ever-philosophical Luca Marini reflected. "Because I didn't feel good with the medium, but it looks like the safest option. I felt better with the soft, but I didn't do many laps. So we need to see. Also I would like to try the hard, but if tomorrow it will rain, it will be difficult to work for the race."

There was time for experimentation, however. Suzuki has brought new tail wings to Motegi, in an attempt to improve the GSX-RR for the final few races before they leave. The intention had been to try them on test rider Takuya Tsuda's bike on Friday, before handing them to Alex Rins on Saturday. But once Rins got wind of this, he had other ideas.

"It was very funny because yesterday I knew at the end of the day," Rins said. "They wanted to make Tsuda try it first and I went running to the Japanese guys and I said ‘hey guys, come on, let's give it to me to try, please!’ They didn't want to so I said, ‘OK, let's make a deal, if I'm competitive in the first minutes, let's try it first!’ They say ‘OK, OK’. So was quite funny!"

Rins got his way, and immediately felt an improvement. "I felt like more stability on the rear, on brakes. Looks like, comparing the first to the second run, I was able to brake a little bit harder and go in the corner."

The bike was more stable on corner entry and easier to control, Rins said. "Looks like this. At least less shaking." That is very much in line with Ducati's rear wings, which serve a similar purpose.

Rins was pleased that Suzuki had been able to bring these rear wings so quickly. "I'm quite impressed because especially Suzuki, they don't make this kind of thing so fast," he said. At first glance, it is also quite surprising for Suzuki to be investing at so late a stage, when they are due to pull out of MotoGP at the end of the year.

But the development process in MotoGP is a fairly lengthy one. Engineers do not just pull aerodynamics updates off the shelf: there is modeling to be done, CFD simulations, wind tunnel testing, and testing out on track. So these will have been coming for a while now. And Suzuki's budget would have been set at the end of last year, and once set, budgets have to be spent. It makes sense to try to go out on a high, so any improvement is welcome.

With limited running on Saturday due to rain, Friday may prove to be the best indicator of what is to come in the race on Sunday. Judging by race rhythm in the middle of Friday afternoon, a familiar pattern emerges: Fabio Quartararo's pace is unrelenting, and faster than anyone else. But it probably won't do him any good, because once the Ducatis turn up the power, they can simply outgun him during qualifying. Quartararo will once again need to qualify on the front row if he isn't to get swamped by Ducatis at the start of the race.

"Intense!" is how the Frenchman described his first day at Motegi after three years. "But it was quite good. I think our base looks not too bad. But to see the margin the others have compared to us is amazing because I was on the limit from the first lap and our margin is not so high. So actually it’s quite tough out of the acceleration with the holeshot device and the aerodynamics Ducati have, it was tough, but I feel we did our best today and was quite OK."

The issue for the reigning champion, as for everyone at Motegi, is choosing a race tire with limited dry practice time. "We will need to analyze quite well which tire to use," Quartararo said. "I think the front is quite clear. Rear not, because the soft looks like it has a little bit more performance. We need to see how much it drops. The medium looks good. I think our pace was quite OK, but I'm ready."

The tire situation could prove to be crucial. Even if the teams had two days of dry practice, an absence of three years means that understanding what the new bikes need would be complicated. But having to choose tires based on just a single, 75-minute session plus a 20-minute warm up on Sunday means that a lot of teams and riders will be taking a leap in the dark for the race. It definitely won't be over until the checkered flag drops.

A positive development at Motegi was the fact that there was not one, but two Hondas in the top ten at the end of Friday. Marc Marquez had a solid first day of practice, finishing sixth, while his teammate Pol Espargaro ended the day just a couple of hundredths behind him in seventh.

Finishing sixth was a positive development for Marc Marquez, at a track where he is going to suffer far more than at Aragon. Aragon was a flowing track with mostly left-hand corners. Motegi is stop-and-go, with very hard braking and a lot of right-hand turns.

Marquez had made it even tougher on himself by pushing himself on Friday in the knowledge that Saturday would be wet, so there was no point in waiting for tomorrow. "Today the fact we had only one practice of 1hour 15 minutes, and tomorrow looks like it’s going to rain, I started full attack," the Repsol Honda rider said. "Full attack, not like crazy. I just didn’t think about my physical condition, I gave everything I had."

He paid the consequences for that effort. "I feel it. Because in the last part of the practice I started to feel some pain in specific points," Marquez said. This was not unexpected. "Before coming here, we already imagined it will be a very difficult circuit. Today I understood to do a full attack race distance and be consistent will be very difficult. Maybe for the race distance I need to drop a bit the pace to finish in a good way."

The pain was worse than at Aragon, and unlike at the Misano test and the Aragon race weekend, the bone was hurting too. Motegi is so demanding that it quickly sapped the strength from his recovering muscles and forced him to adopt the wrong position on the bike. "The problem is the muscle is there, and when it loses power, then you start to stress in a strange way, you start to make strange positions in the shoulder, the bone. You are pushing the joints more."

The positive thing from Friday was that he had confirmation that the Kalex swingarm was working well. Though he was a little coy about explaining exactly what the swingarm did better, he did tell journalists that the biggest difference was in the feedback the aluminum swingarm delivered.

"I feel like the information you receive … it’s not like you have more grip or less. It’s like the information, the way we slide or not, it’s in a different way," Marquez said. "For that reason we still need to understand the performance. In terms of performance, it’s very similar. But in terms of information, it’s where I feel the biggest difference."

Perhaps the biggest surprise was to see Pol Espargaro so close behind his teammate, after a miserable weekend at Aragon. Espargaro had scored just a single solitary point at Aragon, yet here he was competitive, something for which he had no explanation.

Marc Marquez believed he knew why Espargaro was fast at Motegi but not at Aragon. "It’s like always. In the practice, in Misano test, in Mandalika, in Sepang, full rubber down on track, good grip, when you can use lean angle, then the lap time is coming," Marquez explained. "Today the practice was 1 hour and 15 minutes, which means half an hour more of rubber on track. In the end the grip was so high. As soon as we have high grip, the lap time is coming."

That means that Pol Espargaro never had to deal with his Achilles heel, Marquez explained. "Especially Pol is struggling a lot with a lack of grip. Like Aragon. When the track is spinning, he is struggling even more."

The fundamental issue was not with Espargaro, Marquez was keen to point out, but rather with the current iteration of the Honda RC213V. "The problem is that with this bike, the lap time depends a lot on the rear grip. You cannot do anything with the front. You don’t have the feedback, the information to push with the front tire. Everything is depending on rear grip. Especially in this track, we don’t use the turning. It’s a stop and go track. You don’t carry the speed in the middle of the corner, and that’s our weak point this year."

Will Espargaro be able to carry that through to Sunday's race? A wet and difficult Saturday is going to make life tricky for everyone, and make practice extremely unpredictable. With qualifying completely open in the wet and then a dry Sunday, on top of limited dry running, it would be foolish indeed to be confidently making predictions. Motegi looks like a very good time to be hedging your bets.


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Source: 
year: 
2022
round_number: 
16

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Comments

This was a great article. One of the best! I like rider feedback and commentary more than anything but this article was particularly good because David set the stage for the rider commentary. Not too technical but not shy of the technical issues they are facing either. Fun read!