Conditions at Valencia were near ideal on Friday, promising a stable weekend of practice for the first time in what feels like forever, but is probably only since Aragon. Nobody is concerned about rain, and even the temperatures are not much of an issue. The only thing the riders are worried about is the wind, blowing down the straight and causing issues with the bikes' aero packages.
"We changed the fairing," Luca Marini, fastest man on the first day said. "The smaller fairing with so much wind, the bike is easier to ride but we lose in acceleration, wheelie and top speed. So I hope for less wind to use the standard fairing which is much better for me."
Jack Miller struggled with the wind as well, complicating the process of getting the right setup. "I had to understand first of all where the wind was coming from, what we needed to do to get the bike working better in the wind," the Ducati Lenovo rider said. "A couple of rogue gusts smashed me coming out of the last corner during one of my best laps of the morning. And as the bike started to wheelie, it disappeared from underneath me."
The wind didn't slow the Ducatis down much, however. Jack Miller was six tenths faster than he had been in FP2 last year, but was only third on the first day. Luca Marini, fastest in FP2, was a tenth faster than Miller, while Jorge Martin took second just ahead of Miller.
The first day was like a condensed version of the 2022 MotoGP season as a whole. Fabio Quartararo looked to have the strongest pace, with a few others – Alex Rins, Luca Marini, Marc Marquez, Jorge Martin – pretty close behind. But once the soft tires went in at the end of FP2, with everyone vying for a spot in Q2, the Ducatis dominated again: the three fastest riders were Ducatis, with four of the top six on a Ducati, and five of the top nine.
Why are the Ducatis so fast? After first averring that others, who had ridden rival brands of bike, were better placed to say than him, Luca Marini went on to proffer a fascinating and plausible explanation.
More grip, more speed
It came down to being able to use the additional grip of the front tire, Marini said. "Maybe we need more grip to use our power. In all the exits we’re cutting the power because the level of the grip is good, but the soft is much better. You can use more the power."
But the Ducati could use the extra grip in braking as well as in acceleration. "Also our bike is so strong in braking," the Mooney VR46 rider explained. "With the soft rear you brake very late. When you start to lean, and the rear finds the contact, the soft rear finds the contact better. We have a very good feeling with angle. We make the difference here."
That may prove to be crucial come race day. "The only way to make a good race on Sunday is to try and start the first row," Marini believes. "This track is very unique. If you start in the first three and make a good start it’s much easier the race."
Success was also possible from the second row, but it would need a fantastic start and to be right at the front within the first lap. "Here if you can do a good start the second row is OK," Marini said. "It's important to stay in top four positions at the end of the first lap."
With objectives that clear, it makes the choices facing Fabio Quartararo that much more simple if he is to try to find a way to snatch an improbable victory from Pecco Bagnaia. And that simplicity leaves Quartararo less vulnerable to nerves.
"Why would I be nervous?" Quartararo asked when we talked to him about tension ahead of the race. "I have said to all; my team, my friends that in this race I give ‘all in’. Whatever happens we will party Sunday night. Of course I am not leaving here without trying."
Visibly relaxed, that calmness translated immediately into speed on track. "A good day, especially on the pace that we worked really well," Quartararo said. "This morning and this afternoon the pace was really good. Time attack; we need to know where we lose. We know already or we have an idea of where but we have to improve. I feel pretty good with riding than last year. It was good to have the Hard front and on time attack I don’t know if many people use it. I was one of them and even for the pace it was a big help. A few things we need to improve because even with the wings we have this year we still have some margin in accelerations, so, yeah, I think it was a really good day today."
The Monster Energy Yamaha rider was once again fastest in race pace, but overpowered in a single lap by the Ducatis. "I’m used to it," Quartararo shrugged. "One full year I’m used to this. In one lap – I don’t know – when they put that soft tire for just a few laps they have a grip that we don’t have. Extra power, for sure also."
At the other end of pit lane, the nerves were much more on display. If Fabio Quartararo has nothing to lose, Pecco Bagnaia is aware he has the championship in the bag barring mistakes, but concentrating on mistakes can give rise to nerves. The atmosphere in the Ducati box is tense, though perhaps not as tense as they were at Sepang. A front wheel change took a fraction longer than usual in FP2, as mechanics struggled to fit the wheel into the space between the forks. The team worked methodically but quickly, but you couldn't help notice that a relatively minor setback raised tension even more than normal.
Bagnaia denied that he was nervous, though conceded that things were not going entirely to plan. "Not nervous," the Italian insisted. "But for sure not the easiest one. At the start of this morning in FP1 the bike wasn’t working so well. We were struggling with the wind, in braking and in grip. I was improving my feeling during the session but it wasn’t enough. This afternoon was the same. The start was a bit better than the morning but the feeling wasn’t the best."
The good news is that he was able to find the improvement he was looking for. "With the second exit we did a really great step in front. I was able to have a really similar pace to Fabio and Marc. It was a good run and my feeling improved a lot in the second exit in FP2. My time attack was not so bad but still I miss some feeling because I don’t want to make mistakes like in Sepang."
Bagnaia was focused on getting through practice without making stupid and costly mistakes, and as a result, leaving the door open to a comeback by Quartararo. "Today it was easy to commit mistakes with this wind. I accepted to be a bit slower in some parts of the track because I was struggling to enter faster in to the corners. But apart from that the feeling improved in the session so we can be happy about that."
In terms of novelties in pit lane, the only big change, ahead of the test on Tuesday, was a new frame in KTM, on the bike of Brad Binder. But the South African wasn't entirely convinced. "It had some positive points but also some big negatives as well," Binder said. "I was jumping between the two bikes today so I think we can focus on just one tomorrow and work out how far we can push it. The front end feeling is quite different."
The new frame is not completely new, and featured only a few smaller changes. But like all of motorcycle engineering, it was a balance, and Binder and his team need to work out whether the compromises were worth it. "It worked out quite OK and it seemed to help me in the drive but I lost feeling on the front and I felt more on the limit on the front end, so we need to do some change for tomorrow to try and set it up a bit." The positives? "It hooked up a bit better." It had more grip when he picked up the bike on corner exit.
While there was much to see out on track, the news that made the MotoGP headlines was the replacement for FIM Safety Officer. Normally, such a replacement is of interest solely to the greatest of MotoGP geeks, but the name of the person replacing Franco Uncini raised an awful lot of questions.
The new FIM Safety Officer is not an ex-rider like Uncini, but someone from a different racing background. Tomé Alfonso has experience in running major events, in managing circuits, and even improving the safety at Motorland Aragon, when he was CEO at the track. But nobody was pointing to his experience on Friday, but rather to his full name: Tomé Alfonso Ezpeleta.
Spanish naming conventions are such that children take the surname of both parents, the first being the surname of the father, the second the surname of the mother. And yes, the Ezpeleta in Tomé Alfonso Ezpeleta is THAT Ezpeleta. Tomé Alfonso is a nephew of Dorna CEO Carmelo, cousin of Dorna Chief Sporting Officer Carlos Ezpeleta and head of Dorna's talent promotion Ana Ezpeleta.
How did Tomé Alfonso get the job of FIM Safety Officer? FIM President Jorge Viegas said they had not been able to find anyone better suited to the role. "We gave deep thought, along with Dorna, to find someone who is able to take on this huge responsibility with us." Viegas told a press conference where the appointment was announced. "We gave a lot of thought to who could perform this task as Franco did. Tomé has been working for a long time in designing circuits, looking at the safety of circuits, and he will now be working only for the FIM. He will do his best to make all the circuits as safe as possible."
Franco Uncini was involved in the decision making process, and worked alongside Alfonso for a year before retiring. "I feel Tomé can continue this excellent job, and as the President said, Tomé was also my choice. He's the person I believe can continue this job."
Despite such high praise, it is hard to escape the impression that this appointment is down to nepotism. Indeed, even if Alfonso was demonstrably and indisputably the best person for the job, there would always be a lingering sense that he had earned the job thanks to his family lineage, rather than his personal achievements. The optics, as they say, are terrible.
Making things worse is the fact that the process of appointing an FIM Safety Officer is entirely opaque. No open tenders, nor vacancy and job requirement posted on the the FIM website, for example. This appears to have come about as a result of internal discussions inside Dorna and with the FIM. Choices were made behind closed doors, leaving them open to suspicion. A more open process may have strengthened the case for Alfonso.
What exactly is the role of the FIM Safety Officer? Aleix Espargaro explained. "It's not a stupid question, it's very important. So the first thing is for example, when they put new asphalt or when we decide to do a new chicane, or add some gravel somewhere, he needs to travel before us there, to test, make some videos, and then we see in the next race before we travel, or if there is a new circuit or for example when we have a request for the future, he's the man to go to this track. For example, in Phillip Island, we requested many things, because it's the most dangerous track of the calendar, so for sure they will have to go there to see the new asphalt, to see the run off areas. It's not an easy job. Because when we go in a track one year anything and they didn't modify anything, we blame them. All the riders."
Espargaro was positive about the choice. "I know Tomé, he lives in Andorra and I know him from a long time. He's working in terms of safety and discovering new tracks, so he has some experience in this. And the only thing I can say is we need to wait and give an opportunity to Tomé," the Aprilia rider said.
It was not a role that necessarily needed to be filled by an ex-rider. "Why? But we don't know about the tarmac. I think you have to be a specialist about tarmacs and so on," Maverick Viñales said in reply to this point.
Aprilia teammate Aleix Espargaro agreed. "The only thing I can say is to put a rider there will not always be better. We already have Loris [Capirossi] who is very intelligent, and he has been a rider. But maybe some other people with more experience of safety, that travel more around the world, can give us a different point of view."
All we are saying is give him a chance
Espargaro was aware that the FIM was leaving itself open to charges of nepotism. "I know that for you guys, the surname sounds not professional, but let's give him some time. I know him, I like him, and what he did in his job in the past was not that bad. One of the circuits which changed more in terms of safety was Aragon. If you remember Aragon was full of astroturf everywhere, and Aragon improved quite a lot when he was working there. Next year we are going to go to a circuit which he built, more or less. So he has some experience. Let's give him some time."
It was hard to find a dissenting voice among the riders, most of whom were either positive, or tried to stay out of the argument. "I just ride the bike," Brad Binder said deflecting question before it could be posed. "The way you ask the question implies something!" Miguel Oliveira replied when pushed for a comment. "I cannot say. I trust in the decisions Dorna make."
On the one hand, it is hardly surprising that a relative of the Dorna CEO should end up as FIM Safety Officer. Carmelo Ezpeleta grew up racing cars and bikes, and comes from a racing background. That his entire family would get involved in racing is to be expected. And that they should be hired by Dorna is also not uncommon: when a company is run as a family business, everyone pitches in. And as a result, everyone gains a lot of experience.
So the Ezpeleta clan working for Dorna and the FIM are unquestionably qualified and experienced. But that is not really the question here. They may be experienced and competent, but are they the best people for the job? Or merely competent people drawn from inside the Dorna CEO's circle of trust?
Nepotism, and it's kissing cousin, "jobs for the boys", is hardly a phenomenon unique to Dorna. People often tend to hire people they know, even in job applications which are open and widely published. Wanting to reward and help friends, eliminating questions of compatibility, and encouraging a greater sense of loyalty are all valid reasons for choosing friends and family over outsiders.
But it is also inevitably a self-defeating strategy. Hiring people for their familiarity, rather than their competence, risks doing a less than perfect job. In the long run, seeking out and hiring the best person is a more viable choice, and the best strategy for helping to succeed in the long term. And seeking out the best people means running an open hiring process, rather than what has all the appearance of a stitch up behind closed doors.
Whether Tomé Alfonso Ezpeleta is the best person for the job of FIM Safety Officer, I am not best-placed to say. But the process by which the FIM and Dorna arrived at that choice mean we have no way of knowing whether better candidates exist. Choosing someone related to you may look like a safe choice. But the way this has been arrived at leaves too much room for doubt that this was the best choice. It may not be as bad as it looks. But it still looks bad.
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Almost there ...
... and you can enjoy the break. Thank you David for all your efforts this year - you and the articles you produce are greatly appreciated.
we ask "does it pass the pub test" - meaning what's the outcome of a discussion over a few beers going to be?
David is very well connected and if he's prepared to expand on almost half of a MM article about a sensitive FIM appointment, there's fire behind that smoke.