You could tell testing was underway in earnest at Mandalika on Saturday by the fact that for most of the day, Brad Binder's name was stuck at the top of the timesheets. The time Binder set was already well under Pol Espargaro's best time from Friday, hitting a 1'31.814 on his third exit from the pits. But nobody followed suit until the final hour or so of the test, with Luca Marini eventually ending up fastest with a lap of 1'31.289. The teams and riders were too busy with the hard graft of testing, optimizing parts and refining setup, figuring out the best base with which to launch their assault on the 2022 MotoGP championship at Qatar in three weeks' time.
A day of riding had made a huge difference to the track surface, with a clean line with high grip appearing. Off line, the track was still filthy, and quite dangerous – Raul Fernandez took a very big tumble and was wandering round on Saturday afternoon with bruises on his face from the impact, and one of Marc Marquez' practice starts ended in a massive fishtail with a lot of sideways motion and not much forward momentum.
But the track was usable. "You kind of still had to be pretty careful with it all out there. The grip wasn't fantastic, but on line it was alright," was the assessment Jack Miller made. That line, and Marc Marquez' abortive practice start, had riders thinking strategically about qualifying.
"If you want to prepare well your start for the race, you want to qualify in second, fifth, or eighth," Johann Zarco laughed, before continuing more seriously. "You need to use this line. Because we get out of Turn 17, and where we are going on the straight, it's pretty clean to make the start. But it's true that when you try from another position, it's tricky. I hope they will do something, because as I say, if not … First row is good, but perfect place is second."
The dirt on the track had been an issue for the WorldSBK series as well. In the wet, there had been a lot of grip, by in the dry, the dirt turned slick and difficult to manage. At a meeting of the Safety Commission held on Saturday night, the riders hade made clear that the situation needed to be addressed ahead of the race here in March, and Dorna and the FIM had taken note.
"We finished the safety commission and I think the situation will be much better than what we found on the first day," Andrea Dovizioso told us. "I think they will do the right things to prepare the track and it will be much more clean." The issue of the stones on the track, coming loose from the aggregate, was more difficult to solve. "About the stones, I’m not sure. I think they will do everything they can but I don’t know…. If you are riding you constantly break the asphalt. If that happens, they can clean every day, but to follow riders in this moment is painful!"
With a day of meaningful testing under their belt, it became possible to start to assess where the various factories and riders stood. A lot of riders had done longer runs, and put a lot of laps on used tires, getting a sense of who was in good shape for the race. Riders spent time on both the medium and soft rears, but while the soft was very good and remarkably durable, it probably won't be available for the race. There were concerns about overheating one edge of the tire.
The soft rear was fast, though. "This afternoon with more temperature and the soft, we managed to do 30 laps with the soft, and the last lap was two tenths slower than the fastest lap," Pecco Bagnaia told us. "So we were working on being as constant as possible, and we are very competitive."
Other riders had focused more on the medium rear, knowing that the soft might not be an option for the race. "I'm happy with the medium rear tire," Johann Zarco said. "I did a good improvement, and this is quite important because it's not sure that we are going to have the soft one for the race, because it's giving good grip, but maybe it's too on the limit for the hot temperature on the right side, so it was important to improve with the medium rear."
KTM's Miguel Oliveira had followed a similar thought process. "In the afternoon, I focused on the medium rear tire, because we had the information maybe are too soft for here, so probably it will be hard to have this compound for the GP weekend, so at that moment we shifted our focus to using a harder compound."
So who is fast in terms of potential race pace? The best way to find out is to ask riders, who make a point of looking at where they stand compared to the rest. I got very lucky with Alex Rins, who had been studying the analysis handed to him by one his engineers just before his zoom debrief.
"We have one guy in the team who sends us the average, the 15 fastest laps throwing away the fastest one," the Suzuki Ecstar rider explained, before running down the highlights. "So we have Quartararo first with 1'32.3, Espargaro Pol 1'32.4, Márquez 1'32.5, Rins 1'32.6. We are quite good. In terms of pace, we are in a good way, and then we have Viñales, Bastianini, Bagnaia, Oliveira, Nakagami, Mir." Rins was pleased with where he stood. "I'm quite happy. We are working good. Good feelings, so ready to start."
Rins acknowledged that it was still a bit early to be drawing serious conclusions. "It's preseason time," he said. "I mean, we have Bagnaia seventh at 0.5, Mir tenth at 0.5, I'm at 0.3. Everybody's quite close. You never know until you arrive to Qatar." There was one factory which had grabbed his attention, however. "For sure I think the manufacturers that are more ready to race if the race is tomorrow will be Honda. Because Pol Espargaro and Marc Márquez are second and third. Suzuki is in a good way, also Aprilia, they made a good step."
Rins himself was highlighted by Johann Zarco. "I'm pretty impressed by Rins," the Pramac Ducati rider told us. "He's doing a fantastic job since Malaysia. It means fast laps and many laps. You can see that physically he prepared himself well, and the bike is answering well. And we know the Suzuki in the race, when the tire gets used, they are usually stronger. So quite impressed by him."
Zarco was one of many riders who pointed to the Honda as being in very good shape. "With all the new changes on the Honda, difficult to really know the potential, but it's rare from the Japanese guys to try new things, new directions, but if they do it, performing as they are already doing, it means they will be there." As for his own bike, he felt the Ducati was not far off. "The potential of the Ducati for me is pretty high since a few years, last year it was pretty high, and it's still in this direction. Not perfect, very demanding when you need to go fast, but once you understand it, you enjoy a lot."
Pecco Bagnaia was very confident, after a strong day of practice. "I think that today we were one of the strongest with the pace, because we this morning we worked with the medium, and with the medium I was doing 1'32.7, 1'32.8, 1'32.7, like this. And the pace was good." His run on softs in the afternoon had been fast as well, putting well in front. "We were working on being as constant as possible, and we are very competitive. I think the only two riders that did the same work as me was Márquez and Mir today, maybe also Pol Espargaro. We just focused on doing laps with used tires."
While Bagnaia was confident, the other Ducati riders felt they still had some way to go. Jack Miller and Jorge Martin were still looking for a base setup, Miller struggling with a lack of front grip through the fast sections in sector 2. The GP22 has a new engine and aero package, and that is requiring a lot of work to set it up. Bagnaia's side of the garage appear to be further along in that respect, but if Miller and Martin still have a lot of work to do, that suggests the start of the season may not be the whitewash many had feared.
Suzuki and Honda seem to be much further along. The base package is good for both of them, which is quite the achievement for Honda, given how radically different the entire machine is. Pol Espargaro was confident. "Overall I think the day was great," the Repsol Honda rider said. "I think the bike is getting better and better and after today it feels like it's ready for Qatar. This is nice to feel that already before the start of the season, it's the feeling we didn't have last year."
The Honda was strong on race pace, and not that far off over a single lap, as Marc Marquez' second place demonstrated. Espargaro felt he was close too. "In one lap we have some small problems with the front brakes, but even with that if we put the ideal time together then we were second."
While other riders tapped Fabio Quartararo as having the best race pace, the Frenchman was concerned about his single lap pace. With fresh rubber, it was hard to find the extra time. "I don’t feel so great at the moment for qualifying," the reigning champion said. "That's what I'm more worried about because on the pace I'm not worried. I can go super super fast with the used tire and everything, but new tire and one lap I miss some compared to last year. So this is the biggest difference and I feel like to improve that area."
This is Yamaha's conundrum. The bike is incredibly fast over a lap, but Yamaha's design philosophy does not put a premium on horsepower, so the bike tends to be slower. There has been no improvement in that situation since last year, a situation Quartararo had resigned himself to. "It's what we have for the season. I mean maybe we can find something but it's our standard, last year we were at average 9km/h, today we are at 9km/h. So, we didn't make any steps forward."
In terms of pace, Quartararo was confident. "I think we are really strong. At one part of the day we were really slow because we used the soft front in the middle of the day with 55 degrees. But when we put our race tire this afternoon I did a really good pace, 1'32.4 with really used tire and I think tomorrow we will see our real pace because I will make time for a race simulation, a long run let's say."
The Yamaha's lack of horsepower was still something of a frustration for Quartararo, but he wasn't going to let it get to him. "It's something really big that is missing, to be honest!" the Frenchman said. "But then to be honest if I'm focusing too much on that, my mentality will not be the same. I go for the maximum. If the bike is not enough, I'm not an engineer. So at the end all I can do is to push myself to the limit and see what I can do to really fight for a championship and for victories. That for me is the most important thing, to fight for the championship. So to be honest we have not made the steps I expected."
How long Quartararo can push that frustration aside will be a major part of determining his future. The Frenchman and Joan Mir were the two biggest targets for other factories with contracts expiring at the end of the year. Mir is much happier now that the Suzuki appears to be competitive, which leaves only Quartararo straining at the bit.
Whether Quartararo will actually leave will depend on a lot of factors, not least whether other factories feel the need to pursue him to replace their own riders. And it will depend on whether Quartararo believes he would be better off on the bike offered to him. With the gap between the six manufacturers on the grid so small, the benefits of swapping to another factory were much reduced.
This was a point made by Miguel Oliveira. "This championship is about the detail, everything is very tight," the Red Bull KTM Factory rider said. "Every bike is great at this moment on the grid, and it's about finding what works for each rider, every rider adapting to his bike, the work that the team does, goes to the detail. Right now it's hard to say that I go from one bike to another and suddenly my career changes with results. So we need to keep working and we need to find whatever we can find with our bike, and push."
The teams and riders have one more day to push, a day which is likely to kick off with a bang as they chase a fast time in the morning. But with heavy rain forecast for the afternoon, they don't have much time to work on preparing their bikes for the start of the season. Qatar may be three weeks away, but the 2022 preseason ends in just a few hours.
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