Friday at Misano was fun, if a complete waste of time. Ideal conditions for about 35 minutes of FP1, then the deluge came, flooding the track and putting an end to any idea of improvement. A rainy afternoon – though not quite as rain-sodden as the end of FP1 – meant it was impossible to better the times from this morning.
Which left Maverick Viñales at the top of the timesheets. A remarkable achievement, given this is just his second race on the Aprilia after his dramatic separation from the Yamaha team. Does this mean that Viñales is now the favorite for the win at Misano? Even Maverick Viñales doesn't think so.
"Overall the feeling has been good, but like in Alcañiz, we are not thinking at all about the position and the performance," Viñales said on Friday afternoon. "We know we have to be focused on the feelings, especially on this learning process that we are doing. It's good to be in the front, this is clear, makes you feel much more calm, much more comfortable, because you feel you have the speed. But whatever it takes right now, we need to keep with a lot of calmness, trying to build up a solid step and this is what we are trying to do."
How did Viñales end up on top of the timesheets after the first day in Misano? The two-day test at the track where he got his first taste of the Aprilia RS-GP certainly helped, he admitted. "For me it's the fact that I already know the bike in this track. I know what the bike is going to do, I can anticipate a few moves, I can correct a few things on the track. But I think this is going to happen this year. This is all about feeling, confidence, understanding the bike and the track."
His feelings were very different to his experience at Aragon, Viñales said. "When I was in Alcañiz, the first laps I was feeling like a rookie that never rode a MotoGP bike. Because it's too different, I need to use very different lines. In Misano, it seems that this is much easier, because I do a few laps and I understand how to go with this bike in this track."
Aprilia teammate Aleix Espargaro was not surprised by Viñales' pace, given he had tested at Misano after Silverstone. "About Maverick, I’m not surprised," Espargaro told us. "Obviously it’s spectacular that he finished in P1, it's always good and I’m happy for Aprilia because it’s our home GP. But he tested here two weeks ago so it’s normal."
Something similar had happened to him in 2020, Espargaro recalled. "Actually, last year I think I finished P17 on the grid, but in FP1 because I was testing and nobody was testing before, I finished P3." He also pointed to the pace of Honda test rider Stefan Bradl, who had been on track at Misano with Viñales at the same test. "Normally you start with an advantage when you have tested recently. Also Stefan Bradl finished top ten today, so us other riders need more time to arrive at a certain level."
Room for hope
Viñales' topping FP1 is certainly impressive, even when put into perspective. The Spaniard is quick at Misano, having won here last year. He has the benefit of having ridden here two weeks ago, and so a much better understanding of how to ride the Aprilia RS-GP at Misano. The track has a lot of grip, something Viñales really benefits from. And the rain came before most riders in FP1 could stick a soft tire in and push for a time. Nor could anyone improve their time in the wet.
That doesn't take away from Viñales being fastest. The tentative conclusion seems justified that the Aprilia RS-GP is a pretty good bike, and that Viñales has shown potential to be fast once he has had a lot more time on the bike. Good results could be on the way for Viñales. But the question is how he will deal with bad results once he starts to ride for results.
Viñales wasn't the only rider adapting to new machinery. Franco Morbidelli got his first chance on the 2021 Yamaha M1 now that he has been moved up to the factory Monster Energy Yamaha team. And Andrea Dovizioso took to the track after an absence of ten months, barring a couple of tests for Aprilia.
Morbidelli was not going to be drawn into comparisons between the two bikes, however, saying he has been off the bike for too long to remember what the 2019 M1 felt like. "I would like to say something about the difference between the two bikes, but the truth is I couldn’t feel anything today," the Italian said. "Just jumping on the bike after so much time it basically just feels like a spaceship. So, I cannot give any feedback or anything about the difference between the two bikes because it was so much time between this."
He had spent more time adapting to riding with a still painful knee rather than with a different bike, especially on a dry track. "The knee I struggled more with this morning than this afternoon," Morbidelli said. "For sure, in wet conditions the demands are much less and also I was trying to find a way to put the leg on the foot peg quite easily throughout the day."
Progress had been made with his position on the bike to alleviate the issues with his knee, Morbidelli told us. "The more laps I was doing, the more solutions I was trying and the more solutions I was finding. So I would say the problem was becoming smaller and smaller during the day. Tomorrow I hope that it’s going to be better from that point of view."
Position on the bike was what Andrea Dovizioso was working on as well. It was the first time in nine years that the Italian had ridden a Yamaha again, and much had changed. "Very, very, very strange," Dovizioso said, not normally given to hyperbole. "The bike is very, very, very different. So as I expected, the riding position, it was the point at the beginning. Still I don't feel that comfortable, but the change is huge."
He had been focused much more on trying to figure out his riding position than in trying to set a time, Dovizioso said "It was more about the position and size of the bike than how the bike works. Because the feeling, I wasn't fast this morning, I didn't push, but the feeling was very good in some areas."
The sheer physical size of the bike created complications for Dovizioso. "I think this bike is the biggest and the longest of the championship. The bike is bigger, longer, and if you are small like me, it affects you, because it's difficult to reach the rear brake, the gear lever, to the handlebars," the newly-minted Petronas Yamaha rider told us. "So I'm struggling a bit about that. And I have to ride to adapt because some things I can't change because this is the bike."
Everything changed when you can't adopt your normal riding position on the bike, Dovizioso explained. Your body is in a different position when you brake and accelerate, and you find yourself using different muscles, moving your body differently to try to control the machine. That was something you had to wrap your head around, a mental obstacle as well as a physical one.
"The strange thing was to not feel comfortable about the riding position," Dovizioso told us. "When you enter the corner, normally you have your position - especially because you don't do that during the race weekend – you have your position and you are working on the details, to be fast, consistent, tires, etc. Now I'm working on trying to ride the bike at this moment! So that was strange."
Wet vs dry
The rain revealed the potential for a shake up of the championship. In the dry, the field had been very close – the top eleven riders were within half a second, with championship leader Fabio Quartararo in seventh, a mere two tenths behind his main title rival Pecco Bagnaia, who was third quickest, while defending champion Joan Mir was second.
That all changed in the wet, however: three Ducatis topped the timesheets in the wet, Bagnaia second, with Suzuki's Joan Mir in fourth. Fabio Quartararo, however, was way down in eighteenth, 1.6 seconds slower than his main rivals. That left the championship leader looking frustrated in his media debrief, in part because he believed he had a little more speed than he had showed, thanks to a change to the usual wet setup they had used previously.
"We tried a totally different setting this afternoon. It was a little bit better," Quartararo told us. "It's a shame because I missed my last lap, because I improved my lap time, but I didn't even make one of my fastest sectors. So we have a little bit of margin, and I think that the way we improved a little bit, was better. Was a little bit better."
His team may have found some improvement, but there was still a very long way to go, Quartararo said. "Still I'm not feeling comfortable on the bike. I feel we made a small step in front because my feeling is better, but I have zero feeling on the fast corners. So it's tough. It's tough. Let's see what we can do, but at the moment we are struggling quite a lot."
It wasn't just fast corners, however. Slower corners were also a problem. "Both, but fast corners you feel it much more. That's the main problem, in the wet everything is so sensitive, and in the fast corners, I can tell you, the rear, having no rear stability in fast corners is not so much confidence."
The problem was not tire temperature, at least. "I had that kind of feeling, but looking at the data, the temperature was right. So we need to analyze," Quartararo said. With some improvement, he could be a little closer to the top. "We are still 2 seconds from the top man, but for me, our position is not real now. For me our position right now is in top 12, I would say." That was still worse than it had been in previous years. "In 2019 I made all my practices in the wet in the top 10, and it's something I can't understand why I can't have this feeling back again. And let's see what we can do and we can improve for the next session in the wet."
Perhaps one of the reasons for Fabio Quartararo's concern was the fact that Pecco Bagnaia was picking up where he left of at Aragon, the race he had finally snagged his first MotoGP victory. "I am happy about today. It is always nice when you start the weekend and you feel already great in FP1. Like last week I am happy with FP1."
He had been hoping the rain would hold off a little longer, Bagnaia admitted. "For sure it was better to do more laps in dry to have more confidence. But we have seen in wet we were very competitive and strong. I prefer dry. But in both conditions we are strong."
That was an opportunity to claw back some points from Fabio Quartararo, though Bagnaia was working hard to rein in his optimism. "I’m sure Fabio will be fighting with us on Sunday and tomorrow," the Ducati Lenovo Team rider said. "He’s leading the championship. When the rider leads the championship he’s always ready to be competitive."
The optimism was well founded, Bagnaia believed. "We have a great opportunity because this track is one of my favorites. I know very well everything in this track. So I’m ready in dry and wet. For sure in the wet we have the bigger possibility to close more the gap. But it’s also easier to make a mistake so let’s see."
As of Friday night, the forecast was for more rain on Saturday – especially during qualifying – followed by a dry and sunny Sunday. That would make things complicated for Quartararo, but still leave him with a chance to at least limit the damage done. A wet Saturday is likely to see Quartararo forced to start from way down on the grid. But if Sunday is dry, he has a chance to fight his way through the field and make up ground.
At least it is unlikely to rain during the race, as there were several concerns and complaints about standing water on the track when it was raining hard. The final couple of corners, in particular, had streams of water running across them.
This was something which the riders would raise in the Safety Commission, Alex Rins said. "The track has really good grip, but it will be difficult if in the race it rains a lot," the Suzuki rider told us. "Because especially this tarmac, the water doesn't go away, it stays there, and this is a problem. Because in FP1, in the last minutes that we decided to go out, it was a bit dangerous on track. I was waiting for the red flag, but no red flag came, so I decided to enter 1 lap before the session finished."
Pramac Ducati rookie Jorge Martin concurred. "I think we need to speak a bit in the Safety Commission, because there are some places where it's a bit risky," the Spaniard told us. "I don't know why, but we get a lot of water in some points of the track. I don't know why, but it was like some soap in some places, maybe they cleaned the track, but it was a bit strange. So they need to work a bit for tomorrow or maybe Sunday."
At least the grip was good, even when the track was still very wet, Fabio Quartararo said. "For me the grip was not too bad. But also it was raining all the time, so I think that's why it's not absorbing. But this morning, as soon as it rained and stopped, I felt like the grip was quite good, and I think that it absorbed quite well. When we were riding this afternoon, there was quite a lot of water, especially out of the last corner."
The rain had come as something of a blessing for Marc Marquez. Normally back-to-back races placed an enormous strain on his recovering shoulder, but the lower stresses of riding in the rain allowed him to rest it a little. "Straight away this morning when I started FP1, I said this weekend we need rain conditions to do less laps in the dry," the Repsol Honda rider said. "It’s very demanding, this track. The grip is high and that means you have to ride more aggressive." In the rain, you could afford to dial that back a notch.
The shoulder was disrupting his training plan in between races, Marquez admitted. "At home I’m training my normal way, like with my ’19 season, with the same people, the same training plan. But I can’t follow all the plan because when I come back from a track I need 2 or 3 days to rest on the shoulder. I just go cycling but do no work on the muscles because it’s too painful. If we have races in a row, it’s more difficult to work."
With a three-week break between Austin and the second Misano round, that would give him a chance to focus a little more on rehabilitating his shoulder. "After Austin I will try to work more deeply on my shoulder," Marquez said. He was currently having physiotherapy once a week, though not from Carlos Garcia, his normal physiotherapist.
The physio was helping, but there was still work left to do. "Looks like I feel better but difficult to do that last step, to approach the weekend without thinking about the shoulder. But to approach the last two races without thinking about the shoulder, it will be difficult."
With Marc Marquez no longer able to ride around an unwilling Honda RC213V due to his shoulder, HRC have had to step up their efforts to improve the bike, in search of a more reliable front end and more rear grip. To that end, they have yet another chassis for Marc Marquez, and with test rider Stefan Bradl present, the full array of all the things Honda are trying to make the bike more competitive is on display.
Though Marc Marquez has only grudgingly admitted to using three different chassis in 2021, the real count is probably at least twice that. When asked about them, Honda riders tend to obfuscate, in the hope of confusing their interlocutors. Marquez had two different chassis on his bikes in Misano, a chassis tried in Aragon and another, newer one. But he claimed that they were the same pair used in Aragon. "It was the same plan like Aragon, we were using the same two chassis," Marquez said. "Here it was time to reconfirm. We were unlucky that we couldn’t try well because we only had half a session in the dry. Tomorrow we’ll come back to the chassis in Aragon." with a two-day test coming up at Misano on Tuesday, work would be resumed there.
For an overview of the chassis on display, see the photos on Twitter posted by Hungarian journalist/photographer and MotoMatters.com contributor Niki Kovács. In the photo comparing the two bikes of Marc Marquez with the two bikes of Pol Espargaro, who has two identical machines, it is clear to see that there is much less material in the mid-section of the chassis, past the weld above the swingarm pivot and before the rear cylinder mount in the newer chassis.
The difference is even clearer on the photos comparing Stefan Bradl's HRC-branded Honda RC213V with Alex Marquez' LCR Honda. That section of the frame beam is a good deal slimmer, and retains the extra mount at the rear of the frame upright above the swingarm pivot. The aim must be to change the flex in the frame, either in the hope of generating a little more feeling on the edge of the tire or to create more rear grip.
What is clear is that Honda is doing a lot of work to try to solve their chassis conundrum. But it's equally clear that they still have some way to go.
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