Phillip Island is going to Phillip Island. A truth universally acknowledged, that whatever you thought the weather was going to do at the glorious racetrack overlooking the Bass Strait, the weather systems powered by the mighty Southern Ocean will always have a mind of their own.
So the day started off bright and relatively sunny, confounding forecasts of rain on Friday. "The thing in this country is that is it so difficult to predict the weather," Pecco Bagnaia said. "It was raining a lot yesterday but then it was completely dry during FP2 so it is difficult to know."
The rain from Thursday had left a lot of water around the track, but the strong wind had dried most of the track out, bar a couple of sections where water ran across the surface, including at the last corner and around Siberia. It made FP1 extremely difficult. "Coming back to the Island after three years was quite nice," Alex Rins said. "Sincerely FP1 was so difficult and so dangerous. With two-three wet patches crossing the track and it was on the limit for those conditions and with some kerbs full of water."
Coping with the bluster
By the afternoon, the track was completely dry, and times were dropping by over a second. But conditions were still tricky, the wind having picked up even further, making it hard to handle the bike in some of the faster corners. The most difficult part of the track was in Turn 3, Stoner Corner. That is hardly surprising: one of the fastest and most exciting corners sits right on the edge of the cliffs overlooking Cunningham Bay, where the wind is at its strongest. So riders have to tip into Turn 3 at over 230 km/h, uncertain what the bike is going to do when the wind hits it as you clear the fence on the inside of the corner, and before the fence on the outside.
"You exit from Turn 2, you pick up the bike, you have the wind like this, and the bike wants to go out of the track," Luca Marini said, after the Mooney VR46 rider had struggled with the wind all day. "So you need to fight a lot. And Turn 2, Turn 3 were the worst corners for the wind. But in this track it's always like this, so I didn't expect something special. If we want to speak about safety, yeah, it's on the limit, it's on the limit riding in this situation. "
Marini's teammate Marco Bezzecchi found a solution to the wind by changing his riding style. "In Turn 3 especially, also I felt that it was very very difficult to keep the line. Because the wind was like on our side, so it was always pushing the bike a bit wide," the Italian said. "But for the afternoon, I tried to make a different riding style in that corner, and it worked a little bit better."
Relax, don't do it
That wasn't the only place the wind was a problem, but Bezzecchi dealt with it by trying to be as loose and relaxed as possible on the bike. Or at least, as loose and relaxed as it is possible to be on a 300+ horsepower Ducati Desmosedici GP21. "I struggle still with the wind, also in Turn 6 and 7, and also the last corner of course. But at the end, I just tried to ride not too tense on the bike, because if not, the bike gets even more angry," he explained. "So I tried to stay more relaxed, and try to make the bike move when she wants. It's easy to say, but it's not so easy when I ride, but I try."
Not everyone struggled with the wind. "I have to say – because it is a long time since I rode another bike at this track – that there are not a lot of problems," Maverick Viñales said. "Of course the bike moves but then all bikes move. I see others that are very stable. Ours is working well and I need to change a little bit the lines because I need to attack much more the corners so still I readapt and there I will gain some time."
Attacking the corners is necessary because of the nature of the track at Phillip Island. This is the circuit which asks the least of the brakes. "It's all about rolling through the corner and playing with the throttle," was how Cal Crutchlow described it. There are very few corners where riders are hammering the brakes hard, and that means there are few places where riders are putting any load into the front tire. That, in turn, means that it is hard to get heat into the front tire, and more importantly, to keep it in, especially when it's as windy as it was on Friday.
If you can't load the front tire by braking, you have to find other ways of getting heat and therefore grip into it. Aleix Espargaro explained that Aprilia had been playing with some of their vast range of front brake and wheel covers to try to trap some of the heat there, with limited success. "We have a couple of options to cover the front, more or less. But the problem is that also is not only about the wind but also about the temperatures."
The cold air temperature and harsh cold wind meant the tires were cold, Espargaro explained. "For the front tire, I have an alarm on the dash that normally just arrives if you are very slow and it drops in temperature. It was on all the time. It was very cold today. The wind was very cold, so it's difficult to find a compromise."
Not being able to load the front and get heat into the tire cost Jack Miller a provisional place in Q2. After a solid FP1, the Australian had struggled with front tire temperature through the afternoon session. "I felt good this morning, put the tire in and the bike was working relatively good but the this afternoon I had a little issue with the rear," Miller said.
Without the right balance of front and rear, the front tire wasn't loading properly. "Around here, especially with the wind that was blowing, I could not get the front loaded into the fast corners. I couldn’t really push or put a lap together," Miller explained.
Loading the front
His team had some ideas for how to address the issue on his factory Ducati. But it meant moving away from the base setup which has worked so well for him since Barcelona. "It is just one of these things with PI where you have these moment and you have to almost set the bike up completely different to any other track because there are so many corners where you are entering without loading it with the brakes," Miller explained.
The key, the Australian said, was to alter the geometry of the rear of the bike to put more load on the front, by making the bike, and especially the rear swingarm, a little longer. "We went long, just to try and get the thing more stable, to create more stroke," Miller explained. "The idea was to raise the [swingarm] pivot, get a bit more chain force and generate a bit more load on the front."
Without that setup change, Miller had been trying to load the front using the throttle. "The only way I could do it was to chop the gas on the way to the transfer and then turn the bike with the rear," the factory Ducati rider said. That was what they would try to change for Saturday. "We know what we have to do. Just trying to get that bike to transfer."
Despite the unique nature of the track, the teams are still stuck operating within known parameters, Maverick Viñales explained. There was not enough time to take big risks and explore radical changes. "At the end you cannot make a new setup, and you have to go with what you have for the season," the Aprilia rider explained.
"Now it is just details: a little bit of electronics, a little bit more preload, a little bit less preload and trying to find the correct balance in this track because in this track there is no loading and you need make the balance to have the correct temperature in the tires and also make the bike turn. There are a lot of corners where you don’t use the brakes and you need to transfer well on the tires," Viñales said.
With less load on the front of the bike, and a lot of long and fast corners, the way to get the bike to turn was not with the front, but with the rear. That means getting the balance between traction and spin just right, to be able to spin the rear and get the bike pointing in a different direction.
Spin and steer
That was not always an easy balance to find, as Luca Marini explained, when describing his difficulties at Turn 3, a place where many riders were struggling. "Maybe with the traction we are not in a good way in that corner, because I cannot make the rear slide and make the turn sliding from corner entry," the Italian said. "And then if you cannot make the bike turn with the rear, the rear pushes the front, and with the wind, you also go wide, and you have closing in the front, and the bike doesn't turn."
Turn 3 was where Marini was suffering the most. "In that corner I am losing a lot," he said. "But I tried, and I think that on the electronics side we need to work, especially on that area." The issue was not the Ducati, Marini believed, because Bagnaia was the fastest through Turn 3. "In my opinion, Pecco is the best to make that corner. Maybe because he spoke with Casey. This can help. Because Casey was amazing in that corner. But we can look at the data, so we can understand that tomorrow will be OK."
Marc Marquez has always been strong in Turn 3, because when he first came to MotoGP, he had the luxury of studying the data of Casey Stoner, and figured out how to do what Stoner did. "In that corner when I started MotoGP, I had the data of Casey and I copied his style, and these kind of corners are one of my strong points too," the Repsol Honda rider said.
But Marquez wasn't doing exactly the same as Stoner, in part because the sport had moved on since the Australian retired at the end of 2012. "Now with these bikes you need to ride in a different way, I mean with these aerodynamics, and when I put the tail at the back. It was different. So now the bikes - I was speaking with Casey about this - become different to ride."
Before the rise of aerodynamics, the rider could manage the bike a lot more, the bike was more dependent on rider input, on how you hung of the bike and where you put your weight, Marquez explained. "Before you needed to play more, you needed to play with the body. You needed to play with many things," he said.
With the current generation of aerodynamics, the bikes responded badly if you slid the rear too much. "Now it's just you believe in the electronics a lot, and the aerodynamics also make the bike heavier and then if you slide too much you destroy the aerodynamics, and then it becomes more difficult, especially on the brake point," Marquez said. "So yeah, it's different styles for the bikes, but Casey was super fast in that corner."
Up and over
It wasn't just Turn 3 where the riders were suffering. Lukey Heights, the fast left up and over the crest before diving down the hill was a similar problem. "I think Turn 9 is very difficult," Luca Marini explained. "Strange, maybe also because of the wind, but it was difficult for the line."
The final corner was another place where riders turn the bike with the rear, and where Marini was confident of making progress. "It's similar to Turn 3, that you have to have a lot of throttle, make the bike turn with the rear, and then pick up, and on this area, today I was not comfortable on my bike. For the electronics side I think, especially, we can fix it for tomorrow."
The most radical change we saw on Friday was a new aerodynamics package on Marc Marquez' Honda RC213V. The eye-catching stegosaurus fins so blatantly copied from Ducati ('good artists copy, great artists steal', as the aphorism has it) were what caught everyone's attention, but that also helped distract from the other major changes of the bike.
We have seen the wings before, at the Misano test, where Marquez turned up and rode a MotoGP bike again for the first time. They are much more similar to the ones used on the Aprilia RS-GP, the aerofoils closer together than the standard aero package. There is also a side panel, which would appear to serve a similar function to the lower ducts on the Ducati, forcing air underneath the fairing to create an area of low pressure when cornering, and create downforce.
But look carefully and you can also see the fairing itself has changed. It is slightly slimmer, and the upper section doesn't project as far to the side as it used to. The air intake has changed too, a slightly different shape and with a closed bottom lip, rather than the open lip on the old fairing.
Add the new fairing to the continued use of the Kalex aluminum swingarm, and it should be obvious that HRC is in the middle of test mode, with Marc Marquez preparing the ground for 2023, rather than working on results for Sunday.
"As you see I tried a new fairing," Marquez explained on Friday. "And it's something that we already tried this kind of concept a bit in Misano, and I already feel some positive points. But in that moment we decided not to homologate it, because like this Honda had the chance to keep working and have another evolution. And that's what I received here, this evolution in the front, in the bottom area plus the rear."
Working for the future
Phillip Island wasn't necessarily the best place to test out new aero, Marquez admitted. "It's true that it’s a special circuit to try these things. But one of the problems I have this year is like this heavy feeling in the front, the turning, and we are trying to fix by the chassis, by the aerodynamic, by all the things, but one of the important things are aerodynamics."
He had gone back and forth between the existing and the new aero package, Marquez said. "Today I tried many times the current one, the new one, with the tails, without the tails and then I tried only the front part. So we make a mix because like this they need to understand."
That meant abandoning any attempt at working on setup, Marquez acknowledged. "It's so difficult to do these kind of things in a race weekend because I cannot work in another part of the bike. So I stay with the setup of Thailand and I keep going. But I feel some positive. So this was the most important."
The biggest advantage of the new aerodynamics was that the bike became slightly less physical to turn, Marquez explained. "It’s true that here I think I will keep going with the new ones because I feel like they're less demanding about the physical condition," he said. But the real test would come at the next race at Sepang, a circuit with much more hard braking sections. "The good thing to try will be in Malaysia. Because here you don't have long brake points, everything is flowing, so the crucial test will be Malaysia."
He may not have had time to spend working on setup, but Marquez still ended up sixth fastest at the end of Friday. He wasn't even the fastest Repsol Honda, a delighted Pol Espargaro setting the third fastest time of the day at Phillip Island.
Espargaro had been helped by the wind and the low temperatures, he explained. "I feel good. The bike also feels good here. Our bike is quite agile, so when the wind is blowing our bike reacts quite well. And also when the temperature is low, we suffer a little bit less with the rear grip, especially on the edge," the Repsol Honda rider said.
Johann Zarco topped the timesheets, with Marco Bezzecchi second and Pol Espargaro third. Fabio Quartararo, relatively satisfied, was fourth fastest. "This morning was tricky. I could make quite a good pace for the conditions, this afternoon was better. I made quite a mistake on my first lap, so I'm pretty happy to still be in the top five," the Frenchman said.
Quartararo had struggled less with the wind than other Yamahas, and found a way to ride. But he had also been focusing on getting up to speed and finding a setup which allowed him to be fast. "We have a mentality on the team that the first day we just need to make the speed. Don't think too much about the tires," the reigning champion explained. But tires will be a key factor, he added, pointing out that the rear was dropping significantly after a few laps.
In terms of race pace, in as much as you can say anything about that after a blustery day where water on the track and on the kerbs caused problems for the riders, it is very much looking like the top three in the championship are the riders to keep an eye on. Fabio Quartararo, Pecco Bagnaia, and Aleix Espargaro were all capable of doing mid 1'30s on used tires, as, surprisingly, was Suzuki's Joan Mir.
But with the weather looking much better for Saturday, with the wind replaced by a gentle breeze, things could change quite a lot. The teams should have a decent day to work, with sunshine and a slightly warmer track, given them time to prepare for the race on Sunday. It was only Friday, after all. And Saturday will count more.
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