The weather in the tropics is always a gamble. At some places, you can set your clock by the rains during monsoon season. If it's 3:45pm, you're about to get soaked. At others, you only know that at some point during the afternoon, a lot of rain is going to fall. It might rain at 1pm. Or it might rain at 5pm. But of one thing you can be certain: a hard rain is gonna fall, and it will flood the track.
Friday at Sepang the rain came shortly after 2:15pm, less than a quarter of the way through the Moto2 FP2 session. Light at first, then more heavily, then a torrent of water from the heavens, forcing a red flag, and a delay of an hour.
It caught everyone by surprise. The forecast had been for dry weather through the afternoon, and teams had made their plans accordingly. That meant that in FP1, a lot of riders didn't bother putting in a set of soft tires to chase a fast lap, expecting to improve in the afternoon.
That had also been the plan for Suzuki's Alex Rins, but his crew chief, Manuel Cazeaux, had decided to send Rins out to set a quick lap just to see how a qualifying setup would work. "My phone said in the afternoon, we will not have rain," Rins said. "But at least my crew chief wants to try where we are in one lap. So for this reason we used the soft rear."
That decision worked out well. The Suzuki rider ended up second fastest, just behind Brad Binder on the Red Bull KTM. Marc Marquez took third spot, ahead of Enea Bastianini, Joan Mir, and Jorge Martin.
Of the championship rivals, Fabio Quartararo came out on top, ending the day in seventh. Championship leader Pecco Bagnaia came up just short in eleventh, while Aleix Espargaro had a nightmare of a day, finishing 20th overall. None of the three fitted a new soft to chase a quick time, expecting to do that in the afternoon.
It is a truism to say that times on Friday don't mean much, but that was doubly true for the first day at Sepang. There were massive gaps between the riders after the first session, in part due to the low grip on a green track, with Quartararo over a second behind Binder. Binder's lap was four tenths of a second slower than FP1 back in 2019, the last time MotoGP visited. Less than half the top ten used a new soft tire to chase a fast lap.
And yet with unstable weather forecast for the entire weekend, the FP2 session, which started off wet but during which the track dried out just enough to use slicks right at the very end, may well prove to be the most important of the day. Spending time on drying asphalt may well prove to be the experience the riders need to make the difference on Sunday.
Binder was glad he used a new soft rear in FP1, as it turned around what had been a difficult start with the soft front tire. "Today was pretty good. This morning I felt quite okay straight away. I started with the P front tire and the thing was terrible. And yeah, I came into the last run, put in a new tire and it was a different world. So yeah, good decision to put in a tire at the end, clearly, with the massive storm coming this afternoon!"
Getting the front right
Binder was not the only rider who didn't like the soft front, but used it anyway. Fabio Quartararo had started the day on a soft front to save the medium front, which is more likely to be the tire he will race on Sunday. "It's a tire that at the end we use because we have to use it for the quantity of the medium," the Frenchman said of the soft front. "And it was pretty good."
Choosing the right front tire is crucial for Yamaha riders. "We are really sensitive to the front tire," Quartararo explained. But he had been surprised at how much better the soft front had performed. "I mean, it's one of the first times with the soft that I'm braking quite close to the medium." That made it a viable option for a few fast laps, but less so for the race. "At least for the stability and my margin, not on lap time, but on the bike, will be much better. So maybe it's not so much in lap time, but much more in consistency and much more easy for me."
The medium front will be the tire of choice for the Yamahas, but also for the Ducatis, Luca Marini explained. But Aprilia, Honda, and KTM are more likely to race the soft. "I think for other manufacturers, they can try also the hard," the Mooney VR46 rider opined. "For example Aprilia, or Márquez also with the Honda, or KTM. But for us, the medium front is very good, and no problem." The lightweight Enea Bastianini could use the soft front, Marini said. "I heard that Bastianini liked the soft, but for me the medium is better."
Rear tires are more of a mixed bag, Marini said. What everyone was hoping for was dry track time to work out which one worked best. "Everybody wants to make the race with the soft rear, I think. But we don't know if the wear will be OK for the end of the race. If not, everybody will go with the medium, that is a good choice." Michelin had done a good job with the allocation, according to Marini. "They brought us very good tires for this track, and there is not so much to play. It's just, try to make the race with the soft, if not, medium, if not, hard. Just like this, in an escalation."
Complicating tire choice on Friday was the lack of grip in FP1. With no rubber down and a dirty surface – there were a couple of punctures, in both Moto3 and Moto2, a rare occurrence at most circuits – the initial runs for most riders were pretty difficult. The question was whether that was just down to the first tire most riders used being preheated, which seems to reduce the grip, or the surface itself.
"Yeah, I can second that," Jack Miller said of his feeling with his first rear tire. "It didn't feel fantastic, and I can't tell you that my second tire was any good, because I didn't put one in yet. But the grip wasn't amazing this morning, it was strange, Moto3 were really fast, then Moto2 were quite slow and we were quite slow. So it's kind of a strange one."
It made it hard to diagnose where problems lay. Making it even more complicated was the fact that in the afternoon, once the track started to dry out thoroughly, the grip seemed to be much better, especially for the riders on slicks. Possibly this is a result of the softer rubber of the medium wet tires being left on a drying track, and giving a lot more feedback.
The medium wets performed very well on a track that was pretty close to being dry right at the end, matching the times set by the riders who ventured out on slicks. They were not quite strong enough to last the distance, should the weather on Sunday produce a flag-to-flag race, Alex Rins said, but they would take you over the halfway mark. "I think that if the race conditions are like FP2, more or less after 10, 12 laps, everybody is going into the box to change the bike," was the assessment of the Suzuki rider.
If rain in the afternoon caught a lot of riders off guard, that leaves them with a lot of work to do on Saturday morning. Anyone not currently through to Q2 will have to gauge the right time to put in a time attack, to try to avoid the risk of having laps canceled due to yellow flags. Ideally, you would wait until the end of the session, but the longer you wait, the more chance there is that someone will crash and bring out the yellow flags. "You never know nowadays with this yellow flag story, it's always a bit tricky," Brad Binder said. "But I think it's also sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't. It's not something you can really plan for."
In terms of the track, the longer you wait the better, Binder explained. "Unfortunately always the last run is when you go quick. It's got the most rubber down, you've got more experience and you have everything more dialed in. So if you lose your laps at the end, it always hurts, unfortunately."
That is if it stays dry. If it rains, then the order set in FP1 will stand, and the problem shifts to Q1. "If it rains in the night, which it looks like it's going to, it's going to be a hard Q1 again, because it looks like it could rain tomorrow afternoon and that makes it difficult when it's like that," Cal Crutchlow said.
The difficulty, Crutchlow explained, is trying to understand when a lap time will be fast enough to pass through to Q2. What looks like a really fast lap can quickly turn out to be the slowest of the session on a fast-drying track. "When you're qualifying in the rain it's difficult, especially that Q1, because you’re trying to go through, you know? It's not like, ‘OK, I'm in the top 12’. You could be 22nd."
The rain on Friday afternoon had caught Pecco Bagnaia out. He had stuck with a single medium tire throughout FP1 and ended up eleventh. "It was my decision, because I wasn't expecting the rain," the Italian explained. "This is the main thing. But also because it was very important to do laps with the medium, and I wasn't expecting this rain."
Bagnaia was not overly concerned at having potentially missed out on Q2. Understanding how well the medium rear performed was more important, he insisted. "It was very important and useful to understand if the medium can be a good tire. Sincerely, I'm quite happy with what we did with the medium, because on the last lap, I think I was the only one who improved the time on the last exit with used medium."
The medium rear looks like the safe choice at the moment, but looking back to 2019, it was possible to be extremely competitive on the soft. Maverick Viñales may have won the race using the medium, but Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi both finished on the podium with the soft rear. That, and the performance of the riders in FP1, had given Bagnaia pause for thought. "Considering how fast the riders with the soft have gone, I think the potential of the soft is a bit better for the race," the Factory Ducati rider said.
For Fabio Quartararo, rain on Saturday morning might work out very well. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider is provisionally through to Q2, and with Bagnaia and Aleix Espargaro currently headed for Q1, Quartararo is situated better for qualifying.
Quartararo hadn't used a soft rear either, but his plan was to try to go fast right out of the gate. "It was a good feeling, especially because we decided to push quite fast straight away," the Frenchman said. His race pace was strong, despite a lack of grip on the track. "The pace was 2'00.5, but also the conditions this morning were a disaster. The grip was really really low, and I think also compared to the test, when we made two days and the tarmac was much better. But in general I was quite happy about today."
His afternoon had started off badly in the wet, however. The Frenchman had made an agitated impression after his first run on rain tires. "The first run was difficult. I stopped, and it was spinning like hell," he said. That improved on his second exit from the pits. "Then the second run, straight away I was much faster."
He had wanted to pit and swap from rain tires to slicks, but had run out of time, Quartararo explained. With such a long lap, changing bikes is a time-consuming affair. "At the end, I wanted to stop to put the slicks, but there were 6 or 7 minutes remaining, and I didn't want to stop to do only one lap or two laps. So I decided to continue."
He made a virtue of not being able to swap to slicks. Quartararo had been struggling in mixed conditions on the Michelin wets, and so seized the opportunity to get some more experience. "When there are some patches and quite dry, we always struggle with the rain tires, so I wanted to continue, and it was quite OK at the end. First run a disaster, and then much better," was how the Frenchman summed up his day in the wet.
Disaster is an apt description of Aleix Espargaro's first day at Sepang. On his first run out of the pits, he ran into a problem with the clutch, and had to come straight back in. Immediately after he went back out again, he crashed. "Difficult beginning of the most important weekend of the season so far," Espargaro summarized his day painfully. "I had a problem with the clutch, big problem with the clutch, in bike one. I stopped after one lap and then I restarted and I crashed immediately because of this problem."
Aprilia have been working on the clutch throughout this year. Having occasionally caught a glimpse of the clutch when it has been uncovered, it is obvious that Aprilia are working on doing something unusual with it. Though the clutch is only operated very rarely – riding out of the pits, and at the start of the race – it is still an important element of the bike.
The slipper clutch is a key component in the engine braking system, and given the importance of braking for corner entry – especially at the point where the bike is leaned over, and the rear tire is on the track, and is capable of generating deceleration, before the bike hits the edge of the tire and cornering forces dominate – there is much to be gained from optimizing its function.
That was just the start of Espargaro's travails, however. "Then with the second bike I also did just one out lap and then I had an alarm on the dash and I had to stop and I couldn't continue with that bike because of the engine. So I watched the session from my garage!" the Aprilia rider fumed. Espargaro stuck with wets in the afternoon, and was well down the order then as well.
Not there yet
Once again, he felt that Aprilia were coming up short in the title fight, just as he had after Phillip Island. "I was a little bit critical with our performance in general, with the team performance on the last races after the race of Australia. And it looks like for the journalists and for Aprilia I was too critical." Espargaro pointed to the events of FP1 as justification of his criticism. "Today you can analyze my Free Practice 1, it is how it is, the results are there."
Aprilia had let things slip in the second half of the season, Espargaro complained, after an outstanding start to the year. "We are in the second part of the championship. We are not at the level that we've been in the first part and I can’t do anything else," the Spaniard said. But he hadn't given up hope. "I really believe in this team and I really believe that next year we can fight again for the title if we do the same things we did in the first part of the championship, without any doubt."
If Aprilia hadn't let the results slip, Espargaro believed he would be at the top of the points table. "Actually if I did more or less similar to the first part of the championship, I would be leading now," he said. "So hopefully we can learn from this." It was a recurring problem, Espargaro insisted. "It's the third year that we had these problems. Both riders, more or less it’s the third year that we are slower in the second part of the championship, but it's something that we have to discuss internally."
Still, Espargaro insisted, the 2022 season left him optimistic about next year. He was convinced he will be fighting for the title again in 2023. "Without any doubt," the Spaniard said. "Aprilia learned a lot about this year, how to manage the pressure of being in the top of the championship. They brought a super competitive bike. Also, me as a rider, I learned a lot how to ride with pressure, to fight for the podium, for the victories, for pole positions. So I have the feeling that next year will not be the same, but even better. 100% sure."
The problem was one of consistency, Espargaro said. "For me it's important to be more constant. I didn't have the speed on the second part of the championship. We did many mistakes and I don't feel the bike was as competitive as it was in the first part of the championship when a lot of people were saying that the Aprilia was the best bike. And now it's not the worst one, but it's not the same."
Aleix Espargaro wasn't the only rider already looking forward to 2023. Ever since his return to action at Aragon after the fourth surgery on his right arm, Marc Marquez has insisted that he is more interested in improving the Honda RC213V for next season, rather than attempting to rack up results the rest of this year.
That was obvious from his outings in FP1. MotoGP.com pit lane reporter Simon Crafar explained during the FP1 broadcast that he believed Marquez had a new chassis, as well as the aero debuted at Phillip Island and the Kalex aluminum swingarm he has been using since the Misano test. He started off on the aero used in Phillip Island, before switching back to the old aero package on the new chassis.
Marquez played down the differences between bikes. "It’s a more or less similar bike, the only changes are the aerodynamics now and the swingarm," the Repsol Honda rider said. "But the swingarm is not a big difference. For example, in Thailand FP1 I was first and I was with the carbon one. So in the end, we are talking about a small difference."
The point of all this testing was to try to fix the current weakness of the bike, Marquez said. "We need to understand the way because it’s a bike that as soon as we have low grip, that normally is my strong point, you cannot do anything with this bike."
The problem with the 2022 Honda RC213V was that, although it was a better bike than the 2021 machine, it was too inconsistent in its performance. "We need to find a bike, I always say, that in a championship can be constant in all race tracks. Like Ducati did." That was a big step forward, Marquez suggested. "In the past they were very strong in some race tracks and struggling a lot in other ones. But now they’re constant and fast on all race tracks."
By the look of things, Marquez will not be able to continue work on Saturday. There is a very strong chance of rain at Sepang: it may be dry for FP3, but FP4 and qualifying look to be absolutely sodden. And at the moment, rain is also forecast for race time on Sunday as well.
But does that mean it will actually rain on Saturday? Alex Rins had gained a healthy distrust of forecasts from his experience on Friday. Sure, the forecasts all look like rain. "But we are in Malaysia. My phone today, my forecast was saying no rain, and there was massive rain for Moto2," Rins pointed out. The weather in the tropics is reliable in many ways, it is just not particularly punctual.
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