The opening day of this weekend's Argentine Grand Prix is done and dusted...and it was definitely dusty here at the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit. The opening practice session was a complete waste of time with riders sweeping the surface and while the Moto3 and Moto2 riders were able to set lap record times the MotoGP class was over a second off the pace.
Bradley Smith attributed this to the different operating of the Dunlop and Bridgestone tyres and it's clear that there will be plenty of pace left in the MotoGP riders when qualifying gets underway tomorrow.
Even taking into account the difficult conditions to see Suzuki at the front of the field was hugely heartening for the Japanese manufacturer. Armed with the softer Open class tyre Aleix Espargaro ended the day comfortable fastest however given that this was the first time that Suzuki topped a practice session since 2011 it's another sign of how competitive the GSXR-R could become.
Espargaro tops the times
While many will discount Espargaro's time as another indication of the advantage offered by the softer tyre available to the Open and Factory Option class teams his pace was just another indication of the potential of the Suzuki.
However if there was going to be a circuit that played to the strengths of the Suzuki this was likely to be it. Without the need for outright top speed the Suzuki's sweet handling chassis can be maximised here and speaking after the session Espargaro admitted that he was always confident of being fast in Argentina.
"I felt very confident yesterday with the team," smiled Espargaro. "I like this track and last year I had a very good pace in the warmup, the best of the year, but the full tank cost me a lot and I crashed. I felt very good today, the track is dirty and needs to be improved but the important thing is that we have good pace."
The rest of the field stressed that with the track conditions it was hard to read anything into today's sessions with Pol Espargaro, who followed Aleix at the end of the session, saying "At the end of the practice I did one lap behind Aleix and he's riding very well. That bike looks very quick but when the track is so dirty and you use the softer tyre it makes a big improvement."
The Suzuki was especially quick in the third sector with Espargaro and Vinales locking out the fastest two times in that section of the track. Finding improvement in the first half of the lap though is the target for the team with Espargaro saying:
"We can improve especially in the first part of the circuit. In the finishing straight in the second sector with the longest straight of the circuit and is where the more we suffer but still lose relatively little in terms of time and the T3 and T4 there is no straight and where are the fastest. The bike is super fun to ride, it's super fast!"
Initial feedback for extra hard tyre
Initial feedback on the Bridgestone Extra Hard tyre was mixed however in the majority riders felt that the new tyre was a solid effort from Bridgestone and one that was needed for the circuit. The track conditions didn't help and no rider was able to conclude a race distance on the rubber but the graining offered on the shoulder is certain to be a concern for Bridgestone. Whether that will remain an issue when the track conditions improves remains to be seen.
Bradley Smith offered the typical assessment of the new extra hard tyre with the Englishman saying "it's not actually that bad." While this is hardly effusive praise of the rubber for a racer to comment like this is actually quite positive. If the tyre is terrible riders don't hang around in telling Bridgestone that it needs to improve and conversely if the tyre is working perfectly riders move on to the next issue that needs improving.
"Lap time wise, it's obviously quite a bit off of the hard," continued Smith as he discussed the challenges of selecting a tyre for the race. "It's certainly better, it doesn't have so much of a drop, so we have to keep an eye on it. Which is a bit of a pain in the backside, because it means we've got two tires that can do the race at the moment. We will just have to keep playing them back and forward against each other, and make sure we don't miss out. I think the weather will be better, grip will be better tomorrow, so I'm not worried."
Jorge Lorenzo also offered a similar assessment with the double champion saying that tomorrow's FP4 session will be used to "prove which tyre we can race."
On the Honda side of the pitlane Marquez felt that the extra hard tyre offered "some potential" but that the hard tyre is still the faster tyre. If you can make it last for a race distance a rider would be very well placed but it won't be until tomorrow that we'll find out if it is possible to string more than a dozen laps on the hard tyre.
Valentino Rossi struggled on the extra hard rubber but he has come to the resolution already that it will be the only tyre available during the race that he can use. The Italian was ninth fastest today but couldn't make the bike handle well with the harder rubber.
"With the hard tire, the bike become very difficult to ride, and the lap time is a lot time is a lot worse. But it looks like that tire is the tire that can provide the race distance. When you put the soft, the bike is a lot better in general, but after some laps, for me it is difficult."
Solid fourth for Crutchlow
Cal Cruthclow was fourth fastest with the LCR Honda rider getting used to riding the circuit having missed last year's Grand Prix through injury. Having had the benefit of a test in 2013 to demonstrate the track the Englishman wasn't completely green to the venue but having to deal with a green track left him unable to read much into his pace.
"Today I was pleased enough," said Crutchlow. "I never raced here last year, so to get familiar with the track was important. The track today was really slippy, as it was last year, and as it was with the test. Then we just got familiar with the track, and we did the best job that we could. I worked with the hard tire a lot during that session, and in the end we put in the soft, same as everybody else. But we need to improve in the third sector. It seems like the Suzuki is incredible in that sector, because Espargaro and Viñales are first and second in that sector. This is where we need to improve with the Honda also."
A lack of grip was the main issue for Crutchlow but given the track conditions he wasn't ready to pin the blame on anything in particular and it's clear that it won't be until tomorrow that he can get a much clearer picture of what to expect from the weekend with today's goal simply to finish inside the top ten to ensure that if it rains tomorrow that he's automatically into the second qualifying session.
"I think that even with the hard tyre we were well inside the top ten so that's good. I got held up on my fast lap in the final sector, which is my strongest sector all day. I was confident we could have had a good last sector and been even quicker than what we are."
With two seventh place finishes to start the season it's imperitive that the 29 year old makes a step forward this weekend and that reality is something that he has done little to run away from. In the pre-even press conference he dismissed his solid start to the season as a poor start and making progress this weekend is key. Fourth today, and his fastest times from Qatar and COTA show that the potential is there for Crutchlow to have a very strong season once he unlocks everything.
"We need to work hard this weekend because last weekend was not what we needed. We had some problems. I was pleased last weekend to get some points and finish seventh, rather than not getting any points at all. But seventh is not where we should have been last week. We know the reason why, and we think this weekend we can be a lot stronger."
Iannone and Crutchlow have some fun...
In practice Andrea Iannone and Cal Crutchlow had a quick skirmish in the afternoon with the pair dicing as they got up to speed in the session. The track conditions were such that any chance to have a quick scrap wasn't to be missed because there was precious little to be gained in terms of track and setup knowledge.
The incident also gave an indication of what we can expect from this weekend with numerous overtaking opportunities on the track and riders taking a variety of lines around the track.
"At the beginning of practice Cal was in front of me. I passed Cal, he passed me. It was really good! But okay it’s not the race, only practice," said Iannone.
Crutchlow also gave his account of things:
"I was messing around with Iannone at the start, which was a bit of fun, because he blasted me on the straight like you would not believe, and I passed him on the braking, then the next lap he passed me back, then the next lap I passed him back, so it was a bit of fun. It's good fun, you know, even in practice, we're not trying to follow each other, we're just having a bit of fun out there. Because the conditions are such that you can't really work so much anyway."
Is this really a Yamaha circuit?
The opening day certainly wouldn't have given any indication that this is a Yamaha circuit. But the bigger question now has to be is there any such thing as a Yamaha, or indeed a Honda, Circuit? In Texas Pol Espargaro spoke to MCN about the differences between the Honda and the Yamaha and the key difference was that the Honda riders could "take more profit from the areas that they are strong on" but that the Yamaha could match their speed.
In Argentina this again seems to be the case and there isn't really a lot to choose between the different bikes. Espargaro's Tech3 teammate, Bradley Smith, offered his thoughts on the issue today:
"I think over one lap, it still seems easier for the Honda to figure it out," said Smith. "They still get an advantage from the extra grip. Especially when there is not as much grip on the race track, they seem to be able to search for it. Certainly with the new allocation from Bridgestone this year, going slightly softer, it helps everybody, especially on the Yamaha bike, because it just helps us improve our level a bit more. I believe still Honda is the stronger of the manufacturers, but Yamaha is definitely catching up."
Jorge Lorenzo said that the only way to decide which manufacturer has the advantage is to check the results sheet at the end of the weekend and it's an opinion that Marc Marquez also agreed with. The reigning world champion saying, "I believe that, OK, the layout looks more Yamaha, but last year Honda was working really good, and I think this year, we can be minimum on the same level."
Top ten for Redding on extra hard tyre
Scott Redding moved on from his Texas crash by setting the eighth fastest time of the day with the Marc VDS rider one of the few riders to set their time using the harder tyre.
Redding made a major setup change at the last race when he decided with his crew chief Chris Pike that going increasingly stiffer with the suspension offered much more positive feedback for Redding. With the Englishman standing over six feet tall it's not rocket science to think that he'd need a very different setup to the Honda's of Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa but such was the degree of change that some with HRC were pessimistic of the potential of the bike with such a stiff setting.
For Redding however the proof of the pudding was in the eating. His assessment of today offered another indication that the chassis direction was working in the right direction.
"I am happy with how today went," said Redding. "We found a good setting with the bike in Texas and I have hardly changed it here because I want to learn the bike more while I have such a good feeling with it. The track wasn’t in great condition this morning and it was tough to make a good lap time, but we made some progress with the rear pumping on the brakes.
"I’m happy to set my best time on the extra hard tyre and right now I think that will be my race choice. I can’t tell much difference in performance with the hard option we can use and the extra hard will certainly have better durability for the race."
Obviously the setup direction will have limitations, all setups do, but for the moment the positive steps being made by Redding certainly outweigh the potential negatives.
No worries for Smith
It's easy to forget the margins of success and failure. Having finished 12th fastest today Bradley Smith offered a reminder that there's so little to choose between the field in MotoGP this year and one tenth of a second would have given him a much more positive looking day on paper. Even without reaching the top ten however Smith was pleased with his day and confident for the weekend.
"I didn't nail the brand new tire, it took me three laps to do the lap time," assessed Smith. "If you look at Jorge, he nailed it on the first lap, and then dropped quite a lot on the next two. I didn't put it all together that well. Having said all of that, it wasn't actually that bad of a day. There is definitely room for improvement, there's a few gearing issues, a few this, a few that.
"But to be honest, it's not as bad as it looks. 0.1 would put me back inside the top ten, so I just need to find some small bits and pieces. I'm not that worried if I'm honest. Even when we're making the tire selections, I'm not that worried, we'll be alright."
Smith suffered some problems with the bike spinning but given the track conditions that was to be expected. His form in the opening two races will give him confidence and because of how little there is to be taken from today there was no sense of drama with the Tech3 garage as Smith debriefed and they're looking forward to another strong weekend.
When Smith was talking about the track conditions and the evolution that took place over the course of the day he compared it to last year when conditions were difficult until the race.
"We expect it to evolve a little bit more because it still feels greasy. I imagine the lap times will be faster this year than they were last year, and maybe one or two sessions earlier, we'll see the lap times. Because we only saw really good performance from the tires in the race last year, whereas I think we will see it in FP4 and qualifying this year."
Traction control holding back Laverty
Eugene Laverty continues to gain experience with every exit in MotoGP but fine tuning the traction control package on the Open Honda was a challenge today. With the track conditions far from perfect Laverty didn't push as hard as usual on his fastest lap and as a result he doesn't feel that he's scratched the surface of what the bike can achieve this weekend.
"The lap time didn’t show how good we were," said the Irishman. "The soft tyre was really only good for one or two laps and the traction control wasn’t quite set for it. It really was holding me back. So it’s nice to have a little bit more in reserve. A 40.8 on day one is not bad, with the potential for a mid-40. It’s a new track and on day one we are already right there. That’s nice, especially when it’s been dirty and we haven’t been able to ride the same. Everybody has had to alter how they ride today with these conditions. "
Laverty was a tenth faster than Jack Miller and a couple of tenths off the pace of Nicky Hayden.