Marc Marquez has started where he finsihed in 2014, taking the top spot of the time sheets on the opening night of the new season in Qatar. The double world champion was only 0.076 clear of his teammate Dani Pedrosa, with Aleix Espargaro the surprise performance in third.
The news that Drive M7 had decided to pull out of sponsoring the Aspar MotoGP squad, while supporting the SIC Moto3 team, came as a shock to the paddock. Speaking to the media today Jorge 'Aspar' Martinez outlined how he found out about the Malaysian energy drinks company's decision.
"In February we invited them to make the first payment," said Martinez. "They were delayed until the end of February. Then at the beginning of March they said that they wouldn’t continue. It was really unexpected. There is no reason. They just left. The sponsor has told us to remove the logos."
Finding a new sponsor at such short notice will be exceptionally difficult for Aspar but the team have already been in discussions with previous sponsors and their hope is that for the next Grand Prix in Texas that they will have a new title sponsor.
"Now we are working. Next week I have many meeting with possible sponsors and we hope to have a new sponsor for Austin. It is a very difficult situation. Carmelo has been informed of everything and is helping us."
Martinez also admitted that in September of last year both the team and sponsor had the option to break their three year contract after the first year if either party wasn't happy with the relationship. Having endured a difficult season with the uncompetitive Open Honda Aspar eluded to the fact that he would have understood their decision if made at that juncture:
"The results of last year have not been good but that's not the reason for breaking the contract," said Martinez. "Last year in September the sponsor had the option to break the contract, there was an option for the team or the sponsor to end the contract then. It was a three year contract starting last year and in 2014 everything was fine."
Cal Crutchlow made a solid start to this weekend's Qatar Grand Prix with the LCR Honda rider fifth fastest after the opening night of practice. After the session however Crutchlow was dismissive of the results saying that he "doesn't take too much from it as it is only the first 45 minutes of the season. Even so the performance is sure to have settled nerves within the team after a difficult week that has seen major questions raised about their title sponsor following multiple arrests at their London office.
When asked about finishing the day as the top satellite rider Crutchlow said:
"I don't feel it means anything at the moment[to be top satellite rider]. I don't really take too much from it because it's the first 45 minutes of the year. I could be 15th tomorrow for all I know because the lap time is not that strong. Aleix Espargaro is third. No disrespect to Aleix but do you think he will finish third in the grand prix? It's only the first session. I would prefer to have another session tonight. We need to work hard and try to improve our settings. After four or five laps we have a strange feeling with the bike."
That strange feeling was related to brake problems once again. The issue was first highlighted by Crutchlow at the Sepang tests, when Marc Marquez also had a similar problem. Since then Marquez has been able to solve the problem but for Crutchlow it has remained a consistent issue and it's robbed him of confidence under braking because he is never sure whether or not he'll have braking force:
" It's unacceptable because it's been going on a long time and I've had no problems in the past. The problem is that sometimes there is no brake. We are talking for one tenth of a second, but one tenth of a second means you are going 20 km/h too fast. It feels like there is air in the system - there is not air in the system - but it feels like you have no brake lever. Then you have to release the lever and brake again and it starts to work. But you can't do that every corner and for 22 laps of a grand prix. The brake problem is with both my bikes. We need to figure it out. We're trying everything but nothing is working and we're running out of things."
Apart from the braking problem Crutchlow also had a backmarker problem during the session with Mike di Meglio cruising on the line of the last corner in his attempts to find a tow to set a fast time in the session. The issue was prevalent last year in all three classes but has been made a point of emphasis by race control to eradicate this element of dangerous riding.
"It was one of the main points [in the rider debrief] just one hour ago: 'No waiting in the last corner. If you wait in the last corner, in the braking zone, you will be penalised'. The first rider I see is waiting in the last corner 100km/h too slow. It looks like nothing on TV. It looks like he is far away from me, but when you are doing 100km/h faster it scares you to the point of, 'am I going to hit him or not?' If I make a mistake in braking then we are both in really big trouble.
"There is no reason for it. Sure I was angry at the time. I'm just disappointed that already this is happening. I'm not complaining or being a baby. I want it to be safe for the other riders. In the race I don't care. If you hit me, great. It's good fun. If I hit somebody, it's racing. But doing that in free practice is not acceptable. All the riders agreed one hour ago there was a problem. Dovi, Bradley, Vale… All the riders know that in the last corner we don't do this. But he was looking for a fast lap and it's not the way to race a motorcycle I feel."
Having been outpaced by Dovizioso in last week's test Marquez was much happier with the bike today and commented that the stability in faster corners was much improved.
"In Malaysia and here, we improved the stability in the fast corners," said the champion. "Here Yamaha is still really strong in the fast corners, but we are much closer. But anyway here the problem is that the track changes a lot during the weekend and then everything can change. So we will stay focused and try to keep this level and prepare for the race, which is the most important."
For Marquez' teammate, Dani Pedrosa, there was still room for improvement with rear grip continuing to be an issue for the Spaniard. "We will try to improve the rear grip and the balance of the bike to get a little more rhythm; this will be important and we hope to get going for the next practice."
Cal Crutchlow was fifth fastest and the leading satellite rider however the Englishman struggled with braking issues in the session. He has been plagued by a braking problem throughout testing that is similar to having air in the system.
"The problem is that sometimes there is no brake," said Crutchlow. "We are talking for one tenth of a second, but one tenth of a second means you are going 20 km/h too fast. It feels like there is air in the system - there is not air in the system - but it feels like you have no brake lever. Then you have to release [the lever] and brake again and it starts to work. But you can't do that every corner and for 22 laps of a grand prix."
Having set the pace in testing Dovizioso had to settle for seventh, having been outpaced by a soft tyre shod Danilo Petrucci, but afterwards when speaking with MCN Dovizioso stressed that there was improvements to be made by Ducati but that overall he felt happy with the bike:
"We don't need a big step, it is small things and in the braking we need to be better and I don't think it's enough to stay in front," said the Italian. "Also the rear, everybody is struggling with the grip because of the drop of the rear tyre is high for everybody so if you work in a better way in that side it will make a difference in the race. The spin is easier to make a lap time but not for 22 laps."
Valentino Rossi struggled with rear tyre problems. The Italian wore out his tyre after only a handful of laps at the start of FP1 after making a setup change to find improvements following difficulties in testing.
"Today was difficult," said Rossi. "I wasn’t fast enough and my pace was not strong. We tried to improve the rear because also in the test here we suffered with rear grip, but we damaged very much the tyre from the beginning."