There appears to be a new rule of thumb for gauging the weather: If there's a motorcycle race on, then chances are it will be raining, at least for some of the time. After a weekend of climate-curtailed practice 7 days ago at Jerez, the weather looks like being a major factor at Estoril as well. Though no rain fell during any of the 9 sessions of practice - two Moto3, two Moto2, two MotoGP and three Red Bull Rookies - took place, the rain was still very much a factor. The day started with a wet Moto3 session, the track taking a long time to dry out after the overnight rain that lashed the circuit. The track started to dry during MotoGP FP1, and by the second half of that session, it was dry enough for everyone to run slicks, albeit the softer compound that Bridgestone has brought.
By Moto2 FP1, the track was nominally dry, but problems with the damp remained. Parts of the track have been resurfaced, in particular, Turn 6 and Turn 13, and though the new surface is pretty good in general, the problem is that the new asphalt is still dark, and it is impossible to see where the damp patches are. At Turn 13, the sweeping Parabolica that leads back onto the front straight, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that water appears to be seeping up through the ground, which is still saturated after weeks of heavy rain.
As a result, though the afternoon sessions all looked to be perfectly dry, in fact there was still a lot of water in the final corner. Worse still, the water was invisible to the naked eye - or at least the naked eye travelling at upwards of 160km/h aboard a racing motorcycle. Consequently, everyone was taking it easy through that final corner, and losing out massively in terms of lap times. Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider Cal Crutchlow estimated that most riders were losing about 1.5 seconds in that part of the track, not just in terms of corner speed, but also due to losing the drive on to the front straight. Top speeds for the 1000cc MotoGP class are only a couple of km/h faster than in 2011, when the bikes were still 800cc, and had 30-40 hp less. At a track with a reasonably fast final corner followed by a kilometer-long straight, the 1000s should be slaughtering the top speeds set by the 800s. The MotoGP bikes are four tenths down in the third sector, and nearly half a second slower in the final sector, including the final turn and run on to the front straight. All that means that lap times are seriously down on where they were last year, in all classes.
Or at least, for everyone except for Scott Redding in Moto2. The Marc VDS Racing rider does not appear to have received the memo which decreed that the track is slower. Redding crushed the race lap record during FP2, getting in under a quarter of a second faster than Andrea Iannone's lap record. Marc Marquez is the only rider to get near the young Briton, also managing to get under the lap record but still two tenths slower than Redding. Two tenths further back, a bunch consisting of Thomas Luthi, Toni Elias (making a welcome return to the front of the Moto2 field) and Pol Espargaro are all close. It is still early days, but Redding has impressed so far at Estoril.
In the MotoGP class, the bikes lined up by factory very much as expected, with a Honda leading a gaggle of Yamahas. The name of the Honda rider is barely a surprise - Casey Stoner is fast any time he gets on a bike, and despite a chest infection and a nasty cough which kept him awake at night, posted the fastest time in the afternoon session - but the two Yamaha names are a little more unexpected. Second fastest in the afternoon was Ben Spies, the Texan finally getting some feeling back into the front end of his M1. After two miserable races - at Qatar due to chatter induced by a cracked subframe, at Jerez caused by a setup that just didn't work - Spies is back and flying, after a major weight distribution change to the bike. Spies' crew chief Tom Houseworth and his team took some weight off the front end of Spies' bike, and paradoxically created much more feeling from the front tire. This was a change that Spies had tried on the 800, but which he had never liked. The different character of the 1000s means that the changed worked out nicely, and Spies was once again feeling confident on the bike, saying the front end now felt "100%" better.
In 3rd is Cal Crutchlow, and perhaps it is no longer fair to say that it is a surprise to see the Englishman so far up front. After two 4th places and a front row start in the first two races of the year, it is clear that this has been breakthrough year for Crutchlow. A lot of factors have helped: the new tires warm up more quickly and are much more responsive, and the bigger engine is much more forgiving than the 800 ever was. But all those appear mainly to have been just kindling, while the arrival of Andrea Dovizioso in the Monster Tech 3 team has truly lit the fire that burns in Crutchlow's belly.
The atmosphere is clearly tense in the team; last week, Dovizioso made comments about Crutchlow saying that the Englishman benefited from having "a superbike style" when riding the 1000s. Crutchlow was livid. "Maybe he needs to change his style to ride like a Yamaha," Crutchlow said of Dovizioso, referring to the problems that the Italian has had in adapting to the Yamaha after spending so long riding the Honda. "He says I have a superbike style, but if you look at the data, I ride now more like Lorenzo than any of the other Yamaha riders. I've spent a year looking at data and learning how to ride. Whether it was Colin's data, or whether it was Ben's data, or Jorge's or whatever, but learning to ride a MotoGP bike is difficult. But I'm more like a GP rider than I ever have been, or else I wouldn't have finished 4th last weekend." The pressure from Dovizioso, and the competition at Yamaha - only Jorge Lorenzo's seat is safe, Spies' place in the factory team is uncertain, and Bradley Smith has a contract with Tech 3 to ride in MotoGP for 2013, leaving Dovizioso and Crutchlow fighting both over a seat at Tech 3, with an eye to promotion in the factory team as well - is driving Crutchlow to excel, and forcing Dovizioso to do the same. And this is a very good thing for MotoGP fans.
The other factory Yamaha rider is a little further down the order, Jorge Lorenzo not happy with the setup of his bike. The rear wheel is "blocking" - by which Lorenzo appears to mean grabbing under braking, and getting the bike sideways - which upsets the Yamaha on corner entry, costing Lorenzo a lot of speed. The Spaniard chose to sit out the morning session because of the conditions, and with hindsight, a quick sortie may have highlighted the problem so that crew chief Ramon Forcada and his team could have spent their lunch hours dreaming up solutions.
As for the Ducatis, the bike has been working reasonably well under the difficult conditions. Now that Valentino Rossi has accepted that he will have to make the "Ducati-style" settings work, he has set about trying to get the best out of them. Corner entry is now much better, Rossi able to brake into the corner as he wishes, but the rear remains a problem. The Ducatis suffered more than most in the patchy, damp final corner, as well as in the second section of the track.
That is down to the one problem which Ducati is yet to fix, and which is not done so easily. The Ducati's power delivery is extremely aggressive, and producing in the region of 280hp makes it difficult to use. Such power cannot be controlled using just electronics, major changes to the engine internals are also needed. Whether such parts will be available for testing on Monday is not yet known, with everyone inside Ducati very cagey about the subject.
Though the figure of 280hp is the speculative figure being bandied about inside the press room, there are hints that the number is not a million miles off being accurate. Today, Casey Stoner let slip a ballpark figure on MotoGP horsepower figures, when talking about the role of electronics. When asked what he thought of the idea of a spec ECU, as used in BSB, Stoner was less dismissive than usual. Stoner pointed out that he did not believe the manufacturers would accept a spec ECU - a point of which Carmelo Ezpeleta is all too aware as he discusses the rules for the future of the series - but he was broadly in favor of limits on electronics. The problem, Stoner pointed out, was that the last time the bikes ran without traction control, they had 185-190 horsepower. "We're getting into the regions of 85 and probably in the not too distant future, close to 100 horsepower more than what the old bikes ran without traction control." Stoner's remarks put the horsepower of the MotoGP bikes at somewhere between 270 and 290 horsepower, so 280 is pretty much bang in the middle of that.
Trying to control that was difficult, Stoner said, and when it goes wrong - Stoner was careful to say when and not if - "It will spit you sky high." Stoner revealed that he had ridden the old 990cc RC211V a couple of times without traction control, and to do so required careful planning and a different approach to managing the engine. At the Sachsenring in 2006, he had been told that his traction control wasn't working so he had to ride his way around the problem. Since then, the bikes have added another 35-40 horsepower, making it even more complicated.
Stoner was very much in favor of some kind of limit to how much traction control the riders can actually use. "Fun-wise, some kind of limit of [traction control] would be great," Stoner said, but there should be a small amount as a safety measure, to catch unsuspecting riders when they hit a wet patch on the track. "A lot of the riders in this paddock criticizing traction control are actually the ones who use it most, so without it, it would be interesting to watch those particular riders as well," Stoner said. He did not specify further just who those riders were, but given the enmity and long history of accusations in the past, it is not hard to guess who he is referring to.
The subject of Stoner's retirement has now passed as a topic of conversation in the paddock, after the Australian denied that that was on his mind. But concerns remain in HRC, as Stoner has simply not made up his mind about next year, or the year after, or any of the years after that. At this moment, he has every intention of racing next year, but until he signs a contract, it is not inconceivable he could change his mind. Highly unlikely, perhaps, but it is not impossible that Stoner could walk away at any time.
Though Stoner's retirement is exceptionally unlikely, the minds of the media - especially the Spanish section - has turned to 2013, and where to put Marc Marquez. The Rookie Rule is being hotly debated, with most of the talk focusing on Honda's stated desire for the rule to be dropped. The independent teams assembled in IRTA are radically opposed to such a change, as they consider the Rookie Rule a success, as it is their best chance of securing the services of a high-profile youngster. Nobody is under any illusion that a rider like Marquez would receive anything other than full factory support, but the independent teams would rather he received such support in one of their teams, much as the late, lamented Marco Simoncelli did at San Carlo Gresini, or Ben Spies did at Monster Tech 3 Yamaha. Cal Crutchlow was quick to see the positive side of it, if solely from a selfish perspective. "At the moment it's a great thing, because it means Marquez can't go straight into a factory team," Crutchlow said, implying that that left one seat open for himself. Valentino Rossi summed up the situation succinctly: "For me, the problem with the rule is that Marquez is Marquez," he said. "Is not a bad rule for the rookies, but maybe Honda has a problem because they want to put Marquez in the factory team, and have a problem with the rule."
The Rookie Rule is just one battle front in the ongoing war between Dorna and the factories. IRTA will be hoping that it is a battle that Dorna wins. Whether Marc Marquez wants Dorna to win is another question.
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