2016 Qatar Friday MotoGP Round Up: The Only Thing We Know is Ducatis are Fast

If the second day of practice for the 2016 MotoGP season taught us anything, it taught us that everything is still wide open. Yesterday, the Movistar Yamahas were clearly a cut above the rest during FP1. During the two free practice sessions on Friday, the top of the timesheets looked a little different. In FP2, it was a wild mixture of Ducatis, Hondas and Maverick Viñales on the Suzuki GSX-RR. In FP3, when the stakes were raised with direct entry to Q2 on the table, Jorge Lorenzo put his Yamaha M1 back into contention, but his previous clear superiority from Thursday was gone.

The reason? There isn't a single cause you can put your finger on. In FP2, the Movistar Yamaha riders spent their time working on tire choice, and especially the tricky task of figuring out which front tire to use in the race. That differs depending on which bike you happen to be riding: the Hondas are trying to make the hard front work, with different success, the Yamahas have abandoned the hard for the medium, and may even race with the soft, while the Ducatis are caught in a similar dilemma.

The Hondas – at least, the factory bikes – made a big step forward with electronics, and that made the competitive. Or rather, it was a step backwards, reverting to the settings Marc Márquez had tried in the test. "Yesterday, we changed a small thing that we expected normally would not be a big difference on the bike on riding, but this time was a big difference with these electronics," Marc Márquez explained. Dropping that change made a massive difference, and Márquez was competitive in both sessions on Friday.

The one constant through all three sessions of free practice has been Andrea Iannone: third fastest on Thursday, fastest in both FP2 and FP3 on Friday. "A perfect day," was how he described Friday. He was far from complacent, however. "Just because I am first, it doesn't mean we are completely ready." The biggest issue for Iannone is one he shares with very other rider on the grid: it is almost impossible to push hard on a new set of tires. The improvement is only a couple of tenths – or nothing at all, if like Cal Crutchlow you are struggling badly – instead of half a second or more as it was last year. What's more, tires don't really start to come in until they have three or four laps on them, rather than being fast straight away.

The horns of a dilemma

This is probably attributable to a design decision made by Michelin when planning for their return to MotoGP. They had two priorities: enough performance to match the lap times of the Bridgestones, and plenty of endurance, to ensure the tires were still as fast as possible at the end of the race. The goal is to persuade potential customers that Michelin is capable of producing a high-performance tire which will last. What better way to demonstrate that to sports bike owners weighing up their tire options? (The correct answer to this rhetorical question is, of course, endurance racing. Unfortunately, endurance racing does not command the popularity it deserves, making it less useful as a marketing vehicle.)

It is possible that Michelin is running into a similar problem which dogged Bridgestone in their early days of being official MotoGP tire supplier. In search of durability and performance, the 2009 and 2010 Bridgestones were slow to warm up, causing a number of highsides on a cold rear tire, including Valentino Rossi's crash at Mugello in which he broke his leg. Bridgestone worked hard to fix this in the next couple of years, reversing the situation completely by the time they left at the end of 2015.

Should the MotoGP riders fear similar cold tire highsides? Fortunately, it is not the rear which is causing the problems with the Michelins. It has excellent grip even when cold, making highsides unlikely. The front can be more of a problem, taking a little while to give feedback.

Qualifying shake up?

That will change the face of qualifying on Saturday. The Bridgestones made it possible to go out for short runs, pushing as hard as possible as soon as riders left pit lane, then coming back in to swap tires. That may not work with the Michelins. "You need one lap or half a lap more so you need to start a bit more quiet," said Valentino Rossi. In 2015, riders were leaving the pits and doing two runs at Qatar, with between two and four fast laps during the entire qualifying session. If tires are taking longer to come in, then it makes more sense to either stay out for a longer run of five or six consecutive laps, or come in and switch settings, rather than tires.

What this will mean when we get to shorter tracks will be interesting. At Jerez, it was common to try three runs, leaving the pits as soon as the lights turned green. If that is not possible, then it will no longer be necessary to leave pit lane as quickly as possible. That in turn reduces the possibilities of using a tow. After all, you cannot rely on a fast rider leaving the pits at a set time. Qualifying could see a good deal more malingering than in the past.

Qualifying is likely to see the biggest change in 2016 anyway. No longer is there softer rubber for teams and factories which have not been successful in recent years. No longer do the factory Hondas and Yamahas need to fear the Ducatis and Suzukis qualifying above their race potential on their special tires, only to get in the way during the race. Qualifying really is a much, much more level playing field than it was before.

Just because there are no special tires, that doesn't mean that the Ducatis and Suzukis will not be at the front of the grid. Iannone has been strong throughout all three practices. Maverick Viñales has been in the top five throughout as well. Andrea Dovizioso, Hector Barbera, Scott Redding have inserted themselves in the front echelons as well. Spec electronics and new tires have given the field a genuinely good shake up.

The Bologna Bullet is back

Why are the Ducatis doing so well? In part, because the bike is so incredibly fast. Qatar is always a track where the bikes have been fast. 2015 was a prime example, but hardly the only one. The long front straight, over a kilometer in length, with a reasonably fast corner leading onto it makes for fairly high speeds anyway. This year, though, speeds are higher than ever, and Ducatis are dominating. In the top speed charts for FP3, the top seven fastest bikes were all Ducatis, Loris Baz the odd man out. Bradley Smith was the first non Ducati, the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha 10.8 km/h down on Andrea Iannone's rocketship Desmosedici GP.

Why is the Ducati so much faster than in 2015? Comparisons with FP3 last year make for interesting reading. Andrea Iannone's bike is 5.3 km/h faster than last year, so clearly it is improved. But last year, Iannone was only the second fastest. The highest top speed registered at Qatar in FP3 last year was by Dani Pedrosa and his Repsol Honda. Then, Pedrosa was clocked at 345.4 km/h, to Iannone's 345.0 km/h. This year, Iannone hit 350.3 km/h, while Pedrosa could only manage 339.4 km/h. Bradley Smith, meanwhile, clocked 339.5 km/h yesterday, compared with 339.9 km/h in 2015. It is a fair summary: the Ducatis have gotten faster, the Hondas are slower, while the Yamahas have stayed pretty much where they are.

The speed of the Ducatis left Valentino Rossi rather concerned. "This year, we are very close to Honda, but the difference to Ducati remains big," the Italian said. "I hoped before I came here that with the same number of engines and the same amount of fuel, the difference between us and Ducati would be less than 10 km/h. But no." Teammate Jorge Lorenzo was more sanguine. "For sure this doesn't help, because we are losing quite a lot of meters on the straight," he said. "But I believe it is more important to have a competitive bike on the corners."

Tempting Lorenzo

The speed of the Ducati – not just in a straight line, but also in terms of lap time – may well prove to be decisive this weekend. Not just in terms of the race, though there is every reason to believe that one or more Ducatis could finish on the podium, with the top step not out of the question. But rumors are intensifying that Ducati is set to make a move for Jorge Lorenzo, and that the performance of the Desmosedici is starting to convince the Spaniard. At the moment, both Yamaha and Ducati are denying the possibility. But there are signs of nervousness from Yamaha, and Ducati believe they need a proven winner to make the transition from podium to winner.

Should Jorge Lorenzo sign for Ducati – and it is very far from given that he would do that, as the Yamaha M1 is such a complete package – then that would blow the market wide open. Conventional wisdom has both Movistar Yamaha riders and at the very least Marc Márquez staying at Honda, leaving little room for fresh blood. If Lorenzo left for Ducati, then that would leave an empty seat at Yamaha, arguably the most highly prized seat in MotoGP. Yamaha is known to have its eyes on Alex Rins, and Rins, in turn, is angling for a factory seat. If Lorenzo stays, Rins may be less inclined to sign for Yamaha and be placed with the Tech 3 team.

Then, of course, there is Maverick Viñales, who many believe would be a perfect fit for the Yamaha YZR-M1. If Lorenzo leaves for Ducati, then Viñales would slot in at the Movistar Yamaha squad, and Johann Zarco, already signed for Suzuki, would take the place of Viñales. With Lorenzo gone to Ducati, Honda may be more inclined to gamble, and decide to slot Alex Rins in at the Repsol Honda squad. That would not sit well with Marc Márquez, nor his manager Emilio Alzamora. The atmosphere between Rins and the Márquez clan is thoroughly poisoned from the last year of Rins in Moto3. A seat at Repsol Honda may offer Rins the dual bonus of a factory seat and the chance to seek revenge for his treatment in the Monlau Moto3 team.

Better the devil you know?

Of course, all this speculation presupposes that Jorge Lorenzo would consider leaving Yamaha. Viewed rationally, there is no reason for Lorenzo to leave. He is the reigning world champion, a title won on the Yamaha. He starts the 2016 MotoGP season as the clear favorite to win the title. The YZR-M1 is clearly the best bike on the grid, notwithstanding its speed deficit. The logical decision would be to stay.

On the downside, staying at Yamaha sees him alongside Valentino Rossi, with whom he has a fraught relationship, something which the events of 2015 have not really helped. Leaving for Ducati would clarify his status, making him the obvious number one. But Lorenzo has also seen at first hand how that can work out, Rossi having left for Ducati at the end of 2010, for similarly emotional reasons.

While all the gossip is of Jorge Lorenzo, there was also a vague sense of disappointment at Qatar on Friday. After a brave attempt to ride, Danilo Petrucci has been forced to pull out of the race. Examinations showed one of the broken bones in his right hand had become dislocated, making it unwise for the Italian to keep riding. Ducati test rider and ambassador Casey Stoner is present in Qatar, ready for a private test on Monday. He could step in to take the place of Petrucci at Pramac Ducati. He won't, though, Ducati have decided. That is a real shame, however understandable.

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How is the M1 clearly the best bike on the grid? This is 2016 and they haven't run a single race yet. The Ducatis are flying and Marquez was competitive today. Pedrosa was also quite fast. I'd say we have no idea which bike is clearly the best bike on the grid. We'll only know that once past Qatar, Austin, Argentina, and back on European soil. Much too early for that. New tires, new electronics (or old), more fuel, everyone on the same tires, and number of engines. For all we know right now Gigi and Ducati nailed it like in 2007. Ducati have other riders besides the factory duo doing quite well so far, and the same cannot be said for Yamaha or Honda. We'll see soon enough but not right now.

Michelins losing the front
Count how few riders say the above when we get to Europe. Notice the riders saying
You can just get on the gas right from the apex

WE HAVE 3 COMPOUNDS BEING CONSIDERED FOR RACE DISTANCE AT QATAR. Riders will be talking about their dirt track experience. The 250 style still applies, the edge grip is GREAT. With the new electronics and tires you need sensitive throttle control again. To a forgiving tire that favors the bold. You thought Rossi's gravel trap line was crafty? Wait until you see the lines that pop up at tracks where you hadn't quite noticed so much action.
2015 and 2016 will be seen as a set of unusually interesting seasons 10 years from now. Anything goes friends. This is after all the year of the Fire Monkey.

This is just a general observations not specific to this round but noticed here.

I appreciate that Astro Turf makes the circuit look neat but it is so,so dangerous. Has no one else noticed this (the organisers, teams, Dorna)? I've seen several instances here where it's caused problems, it nearly ended Rossi's carrier a few years ago and was catastrophic in F1. In the dry it's awful in the wet its lethal. Riders should respect track limits but exceeding them will happen from time to time.

Yes and the safety comission have asked for it to be removed at many tracks, a process that started last year. However it can't be removed at Qatar because it is there to help keep the sand off the track.

Rossi just announced that he has renewed his contract! Will this give him that psychological edge that will help him get his 10th title? Will this anger Lorenzo to the point that he'll do anything and more to prove that yamaha offended him by not signing his contract first?

What, if any, are the differences between the Pramac bike(s) and the factory ones? I'm sure David did a rundown on who's riding which version of the bike during the pre-season but I can't seem to find it right now.

I've always liked Andrea Ianone. Maybe it's just me, but he seems to have dealt with adversity very well throughout his career. However, that is my personal opinion and shouldn't influence my opinion of his speed. Fast though he is, I really don't think that he should be considered an alien. And it's not just Ianone, is it? Four Ducatis in the top 10 and 2 Ducatis in the top 4, which leads to the question; Is the Yamaha that much better?
It seems to me that if Ianone can put the Ducati into contention, surely the machine is at least as good as the Yamaha, if not better. It may be much faster down the straights, but it is not only on the straights that the Ducati does well, we've seen from Ducati's past that having a rocketship down the straights does nobody any good if it can't do the twisty bits well. But Ducati certainly seem to have learnt their lesson (are you listening, HRC?) and the engine, although extremely powerful, would appear to have been designed to be as user-friendly as possible, almost as if the electronics are there as an aid, rather than the entire control system for producing power. This would suggest that it should work effectively for all riders, and the better the rider, the better the bike becomes.
I know that this goes against general opinion, but maybe it's not the Yamaha that is the great overall package, maybe it is now the Ducati.
I don't think that Lorenzo is all that concerned about the money other than in a willie waving way. His motivation is to win championships. He'll be paying very special attention to the Ducati's performance/behaviour in the upcoming races. Now that Yamaha have failed to sign him as he wished, they may rue the day. OTOH, I don't think that it's just Lorenzo. The same must go for all the other aliens. If JL doesn't jump ship, I'd be surprised if nobody else does.

Judging by David's twitter account, I think he'll wake up to the news that Rossi has renewed his contract with Yamaha for further 2 years.

The timing of that announcement and the Ducati rumors mentioned in this article has made me very curious to what the situation is. Rossi has been talking to the media for last 3 months that he'll only make a decision after 4-5 races to see if he can still run with the best, surely he cannot be convinced on basis of three practice sessions on Thursday and Friday? Maybe there is more to the truth or maybe it isn't but I'm very intrigued to see Lorenzo's response. To me Yamaha is letting him know by this announcement (particularly the timing of it) that they won't be strong armed ala shades of 2010.

Of course, this could also be completely normal and Yamaha may renew with Lorenzo for further 2 years without any fuss but if he does jump the ship, it would really shake up the grid. Roll on silly season!

Looks like Rossi has signed a 2 year contract with yamaha. I wonder how will that play with Lorenzo's head.

David does the spec ucu still have launch control? saw a few botched practice starts already.. so it should be down to the riders control to to start races and should mix things up.

Just saw the announcement that Rossi is staying at Yamaha till 2018.

I guess that kinda explains why Jorge wanted to have his contract signed by now too.

These guys really can't stand finishing 2nd at anything can they? :)

Why won't he and the team he is working for at the time just give him a fill in race. No one expects him to achieve anything, and if he does then that's a bonus. Just want to see him compete again.
just wishful thinking I suppose.

I can only guess that he isn't racing because he's missed all of practice. We all know Casey can be 'on it' from the first lap, but I understand their reluctance. I'd say if Casey wants to race, and is allowed under the rules to, give him a go...

Honda made the mistake of denying him. Ducati seems to treat their riders with much more respect, so we never know.. that would be a nice treat for us fans

Can't help but agreed with you on this, what better way to test the bike than ride it in a race with the rest of the guys?

Unless they're worried he might take points of Iannone, which in all honesty is a pretty serious concern given his winter testing times.

It's unfortunate, if Casey was in Dovi's shoes this year would have been his for the taking with this new Ducati.

Why is the MotoGP site suddenly displaying nothing for Saturday and Sunday except for the press conferences.

Oh please don't tell me something has been canceled, I've been looking forward to the race for 4 months.

EDIT: Sorry if I scared anyone, it was just a glitch on the site it seems, but it did give me quite a fright.

In MotoGP at least, they're making Bridgestone look even better (than what they were already).