The first day of MotoGP's new era did not proceed entirely to plan. There were a lot of reasons for that, some the fault of Dorna, some completely out of their hands. But we will get to that in a minute. First, an institutional failure.
As the MotoGP riders entered the final and hectic 15 minutes of what we must now call P2 – the second timed practice, which in effect determines who will pass directly into Q2, and who will have to hope to defeat 10 other riders in Q1 for one of the two spots which will take you into Q2 – the combination of low grip, falling temperatures, and sheer unbelievable pace the riders were setting came back to bite a couple of the MotoGP riders.
Two men fell within a couple of seconds of each other, in almost the same spot, in almost the same way. Pol Espargaro fell first, his rear letting go over the crest at Turn 10, before spitting him off the bike. Miguel Oliveira fell a few seconds later, a little way ahead of Espargaro, the rear of his Aprilia letting to in a similar way, and catapulting the Portuguese rider high into the air, before he came down hard enough to knock all of the wind out of his sails.
Cause of the crash
So far, so average. The causes for the crashes were reasonably straightforward. "With the conditions of today it was possible because also myself I felt it," Luca Marini explained amid a hectic round of rider debriefs. "If you use too much rear brake on the uphill, you feel the rear slide. Because there is no grip on track."
The grip of the track is much lower because there was a private test of an F1 car directly after the MotoGP test, then the Moto2 and Moto3 test last weekend, and in between the rubber has been cleaned from the track with brushes. MotoGP was on track after Moto2, always an issue for the MotoGP riders.
Then there were the normal miscalculations by both Oliveira and Espargaro. "I had a crash, a heavy crash, when I went on my out lap with the new tires. I crashed because of a rear cold tire," Oliveira explained. The RNF Aprilia rider had seen Espargaro's bright red GasGas slot in behind him out of the pits. "It was our out lap and I think he exited right behind me to maybe get a reference. I pushed but then Viñales I think coming in from his fastest lap time. I didn’t know so I went to the side and didn’t warm-up so well the rear tire and when I went to Turn 11."
Cold tires and pushing for a lap time may explain the high sides, but it doesn't explain why Espargaro made it all the way to the barrier, and how he was lucky not to be hit by his bike following him in. When it happened, there were horrifying echoes of the crash which killed Luis Salom at Barcelona in 2016. Salom was thrown from his Moto2 bike in an unusual place, then slid across a section of hard standing which should have been covered in gravel, before hitting a wall, then having his bike hit him.
Pol Espargaro was much luckier than Salom, though Espargaro would probably not think of himself as lucky in this instance. The fact that he can still think at all must be a positive, however. We feared the worst as the medical staff attended to him for a long time at the side of the track, before he was finally moved to an ambulance, and from their to a hospital in Faro.
The latest on Espargaro's injuries are that he has a fractured jaw, a fractured vertebra, a bad contusion on one lung, and a host of other minor injuries. But he was able to move his hands and legs, and he didn't lose consciousness at any time, Dr Charte, head of MotoGP's medical services told Spanish TV. That is bad, and will put Espargaro out of action for Portimão and Argentina probably, and very likely Austin as well. But as it looks as I write this, he should at least recover.
An accident waiting to happen
Espargaro's injuries left the MotoGP riders furious. Espargaro made it all the way to the barrier because the gravel traps at the Portimão circuit are filled with stones that are too large and too compact. That meant that Espargaro skipped across the top of the gravel, tumbling heavily as he went, instead of sinking into the gravel bed and the movement of the smaller stones sucking the energy out of a crash and slowing them enough to prevent riders from hitting the barriers.
It is a known problem. "It's been four years that we are asking to change the safety of this track," Pecco Bagnaia told us, quietly seething about the injuries Espargaro had sustained. "The first time I arrived here, I did a track walk with my team, and I sent a picture of the gravel which is too big to Franco Uncini. And it was the normal form of the gravel, and the size too."
After Bagnaia crashed during qualifying in 2022, and was taken to hospital for further checks, he took some of the gravel back to his garage, where his crew laughed in disbelief. The riders complained in the Safety Commission, as they had done every year, and nothing happened.
"Nothing changed until the crash of Diggia," Bagnaia said, referring to the big crash by Fabio Di Giannantonio, which saw him ruled out of the second day of the test two weeks ago. Even that was way too late, Bagnaia believed. "I think that was too late, because already with the crash of Martin it was quite easy to understand there was a problem. And also again, you can't just change like this. You have to improve. You had time to change, I think."
Plus ça change...
There was an air of resignation among some riders. "Every year is the same," Luca Marini said. "In this track we need another gravel, but the track doesn't change the gravel so I don't know. Dorna or IRTA need to do something, us, riders, we cannot do nothing."
The track had put some smaller stones in some parts of the track. At the corner where Pol Espargaro crashed, they had replaced the first couple of meters of the gravel trap with smaller, new stones, but once you got past that section, you were back into the older, much bigger stones. And the fact that there are weeds growing in that section of the gravel trap betrays the fact that that particular part of the gravel trap has not been raked and loosened, fluffed up to stop it compacting and become a solid mass.
The gravel looks to be local, composed of cenozoic limestone, which is weak and tends to fracture in large chunks. But it also compacts easily, making for a surface over which you are more likely to skip than sink in.
Belt and braces
While the poorly prepared gravel had caused Espargaro to reach the wall, it was the lack of air fence that had caused his injuries. Espargaro hitting the wall led to a simple conclusion, according to Marc Marquez. "He touched the wall? So they need to put an air fence." Hearing the exact sequence of events steeled Marquez' resolve further. "He was lucky. It’s a point where they need to put the air fence tomorrow, not next year."
All the riders we spoke to at the end of a chaotic day told us that the gravel and the lack of air fence in some places would be one of the main topics in Friday evening's Safety Commission, where the riders get a chance to have their say to Race Direction, Dorna, and the FIM Safety Officers about safety aspects of the track.
But Enea Bastianini pointed how unfortunate the timing of the Safety Commission meeting is. "For me, the Safety Commission has to be on Thursday, not today," the factory Ducati rider told us. "Because it's important if there is something not perfect to talk with Loris and all the guys to try to modify this for the next day." Discussing safety failings after a serious and preventable crash happened was putting the cart before the horse, Bastianini argued. "This happened today, we will speak now, but it's already happened. You can't do nothing."
The least they could do was put air fence in tonight, to make the track safer for qualifying on Saturday morning, and especially for the sprint race on Saturday afternoon. "Probably yes," Bastianini replied when asked. "We want this. I think all the riders want this. Because that point is so critical for the MotoGP because the speed is so high, and also when the tire is a little bit cold, it's dangerous."
Pecco Bagnaia took some of the blame on himself and the other riders, for not asking for more air fence there in the Safety Commission. "It's our mistake too," Bagnaia said. "Because normally on the track walk you have to consider everything. But I was more focused on the gravel."
Here to race
This was a point where 2020 world champion Joan Mir disagreed vehemently. "It is not my job to know the dangerous places on a track," the Repsol Honda rider said. "The guy responsible for this area has to know that there is not enough run off and to put an air fence. It is a dangerous place and we cannot wait until something happens."
Mir was keen to make clear that he believed it was important for riders to have input, but it was wrong for the series to expect analyzing the safety of each circuit to be their main focus at each MotoGP round. "As a rider you think a lot that maybe we could say something about it, but it is also not our job," Mir pointed out. "Our job is to ride a ****ing MotoGP bike at 350 km/h and beat all these b***ards. This is my job. I cannot think about safety also."
It was good for riders to be able to discuss their concerns with the series organizers, Mir added. "In the Safety Commission we make some opinions about what happens on a Friday or in previous years, but we cannot stay focused 100% on that. When I saw Polyccio hit the wall and there was no air fence there I was surprised."
With great power...
So whose responsibility was it to ensure the safety of the circuit? For a start, the circuit itself has to have an awareness of the needs of motorcycle racing, and especially the needs of the fastest and most powerful racing motorcycles on the planet. Secondly, the FIM, through their Safety Officer – now Tomé Alfonso, previously Franco Uncini – who is responsible for ensuring that circuits meet the standards set out by the FIM, and for spotting potential safety hazards.
Third, Race Direction, who all walk the track every Thursday with the explicit purpose of examining the safety and integrity of the track, and ensuring that an event can be run as safely as possible. And fourth, and very much finally, a long way down the list, the teams and riders, who walk the track, and who can spot potential trouble spots.
The issue at Portimão seems to be that advice being passed up the chain is being ignored, for whatever reason. But the ultimate responsibility for track safety lies with the FIM Safety Officer.
Pol Espargaro's crash once again brings to the fore the biggest safety issue at the heart of MotoGP. "Every time our bikes are better, the aerodynamics makes everything easier, so the limit is… you go faster," Luca Marini pointed out. "You start to brake in the same point as Moto2 bikes but arrive 50 kilometers faster. So the runoff areas are not enough."
This has been a problem since I arrived in MotoGP 15 years ago, with figures inside Race Direction privately confessing their concerns about the increasing speeds reached by the MotoGP bikes. As the bikes get faster, they require more work from circuits to make them safer. And the worst thing is, the circuits which are most at risk from faster bikes are the tracks which do the faster bikes justice. Tracks like Mugello, Phillip Island, Assen. Tracks which grand prix motorcycle racing simply cannot afford to lose.
But enough of Pol Espargaro's horrific accident, and the effect it had on discussions about safety. It overshadowed what would otherwise have been a very eventful day. And the eventful nature of the day highlighted some of the weaknesses of the new schedule.
Testing the schedule
Espargaro's crash had brought out the second red flag of the day. Earlier, a power cut had caused the transmission of the TV feed to be interrupted, leaving Race Control – the room where Race Direction gather to oversee the safe running of the event – without power and without any images from around the circuit. Without the ability to see every inch of the track, Race Direction were forced to red flag the afternoon session until the situation could be remedied.
In total, the two red flags cost the MotoGP riders the best part of an hour. The session scheduled to run between 3pm and 4pm saw Jack Miller emerge on top of the timesheets almost an hour after the second practice session had been due to end. That compressed the time for the rider media debriefs and their TV interviews, and led to chaotic scenes elsewhere.
For Joan Mir, the debut of the new schedule had highlighted its many problems. "I said that after the weekend I could judge the new format but what happened today is a good example to understand what can happen," the Repsol Honda rider said. "We had the red flags and we finished at 5 o’clock. Maybe we don’t need a one hour practice. Here in Portimao we are OK but what about in Le Mans?! We have to think about that to try to improve this new format and I’m sure the riders will think the same."
A lap out of nowhere
If the red flags and the disrupted schedule had been an unpleasant surprise, Jack Miller's lap on the KTM made up for almost all of that. The Australian chose his moment just right to slot in behind Enea Bastianini on a hot lap, and use the factory Ducati rider as a reference point. Like a greyhound chasing a hare, Miller found an astonishing burst of speed that saw him smash the existing lap record and improve his time from the test by 1.2 seconds.
"You know, to be honest, I'm as surprised as you guys," Miller said after practice was over. "Especially on the time, not of the improvements, but of the time. I wasn't expecting a 1'37.7 but hey, I'll take it."
Miller praised the work of the engineers, who had improved every area of the RC16. "We've been working extremely hard and when I say we, I mean mainly the engineers. I've done **** all except be in Australia for the last four months," the Australian joked. "They've been listening to everything I've said, my comments and my wishes and my demands."
The new engine introduced at Sepang had been a huge leap forward. "Already with the new engine, we made a big step," Miller explained. "With the new chassis, we made a big step and then also with the change in philosophy in terms of electronics and so on, we've made a massive step. Exit by exit, session by session, I feel like I can make this bike more and more my own. And also start to exploit the strong points of the KTM on entry with front feeling. The bike gives me a great sense of confidence in the front lap by lap, corner by corner, because you get an amazing reading off the tire."
Miller's KTM and Maverick Viñales' Aprilia made it two non-Ducatis at the head of the field, at a track where the Desmosedicis had been expected to dominate. Pecco Bagnaia was only third, while Luca Marini was fourth and Jorge Martin fifth. Fabio Quartararo was the next non-Ducati, the Yamaha rider taking sixth spot.
Concern among the Japanese factories
Despite his fast time, Quartararo was dejected. "Happy but not happy," the Frenchman said. "I give my best, I’m 3 tenths behind. But I’m on the limit. I don’t know where I can improve." Quartararo is pushing for Yamaha to start bringing more regular updates through the season, like Ducati and Aprilia have done in the past. Quartararo can sense that there is potential in the bike, but extracting that potential will take work from Yamaha's engineers.
Marc Marquez was similarly unimpressed with the state of the Honda RC213V. "Basically, it’s the same bike more or less that I tried in Valencia, with just a bit different chassis," the Repsol Honda rider said. "But the character of the bike is exactly the same as last year. For that reason we are losing on the same points."
Whether there was still room for improvement from the Honda was still open for debate, as far as Marquez was concerned. "We’ll see in another track. but Rins and Mir have a completely different riding style but the lap times are the same. We are very close. They are good riders. Rins won the last 2 of 3 last year and Mir is a World Champion. They ride in a different way but the performance is very close. We put the medium rear and we are far from the others. We put the soft rear, and we improve in the same way. Looks like the limit is there. But as I say to you Portimão is special because you arrive on the limit of the bike already on the test. For example when we go to Argentina I think there will be a bit different because there you need to arrive a bit earlier to the limit."
Saturday sees the MotoGP riders taken on the second day of the new schedule, and here too, they have their qualms. Free Practice – the untimed session that does not count toward Q2 selection – is now pretty much useless, starting as it does at 10:10am. The teams can't use the session for assessing tire wear, as the temperatures will be too cold. And the afternoon will be similarly difficult, with the sprint race following on in the afternoon from qualifying in the morning.
The new MotoGP schedule is a journey. And no one has yet decided whether the journey ascends upward into Heaven, or downward to the Pit of Hades.
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Even more guesstimates than anyone had expected. Hoping for the best for Espargaro.
According to this article,…
According to this article, Phillip Island is having some track work done right now. How these changes manifest is yet to be seen.
"...the replacement of earth-fill around from Turns 6 to 11, and a switch from tyre barriers to Armco in several locations.
Works are taking place on the earth-filled tyre embankment between turns 6 and 11 with Armco barriers being installed, approved by FIA and Motorsport Australia,"
Yeah, that was pretty…
Yeah, that was pretty chaotic all up. Stonker of a lap by Miller. Dorna almost need to be careful they don't get what they wished for in hoping for more drama by compressing the sessions together. Man, I really felt for Aleix during that final 13 minutes of the session. No way his head would have been in it.
Also, Holy smoke - how the hell do you drive a F1 car around Portimao?!
In reply to Yeah, that was pretty… by guy smiley
My thoughts exactly. There…
My thoughts exactly. There was a video 'run' between sessions which said 'more speed means more drama means more....' etc. It crossed my mind that they might be asking for 'more blood'. I find myself looking forward to reaching race end Sunday with no more injuries. That will be a good race result.
How did it get this far?
I agree with Mir. The riders should be the last line of defence, not the first, seeing things from a unique 340kph perspective that no-one else can.
This stuff isn't rocket science and much of it can be analysed without even visiting the circuit. We had some major issues at our (small) local track and a report was commissioned, which in the end was pretty simple stuff with data logging commonplace: it's just a case plotting velocity vectors around the track. The coefficients of friction are well known for the various materials adjacent to the track, be they tarmac, grass or gravel traps, wet or dry. So you end up with this sort of track map:
It's pretty obvious where a line meets a barrier there is a potential impact point and you can see why the track was closed to bikes until the issues were resolved. So there is no need to even visit the track, and with the plethora of data available in every single garage this info should well and truly be in hand for the officials.
It blows my mind that we still have folks basically crossing their fingers and hoping for the best.
(FYI, yes it's a pretty boring 2.5km layout but in its defence it is draped over a hill so not quite as bad as it looks!)
In reply to How did it get this far? by Seven4nineR
Nice post. I think also at a…
Nice post. I think also at a track like this aero might blow things open. Crests where previously speed was kept down due to a bike not being good at turning or braking in the air -> now you have bikes with more 'weight' but the same mass. Crest no longer a crest.
In reply to How did it get this far? by Seven4nineR
Not boring at all, I love…
Not boring at all, I love Barbagallo. Proper short course natural terrain road circuit that serves up lots of close competition. I've always likened it to an Aussie version of Lime Rock Park... without a jump of course. ;)