Friday roundup from COTA

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The opening day of practice at the Circuit of the Americas was one that surprisingly gave a lot of talking points for a day that had minimal dry weather running. With a dog on track, the first time using COTA in the wet and plenty of action in all three classes and Casey Stoner still the name on everyone’s lips there was plenty to keep everyone occupied instead of cloud watching.

Rain came early in the morning and left the riders tackling COTA in the wet for the first time. The reaction of the riders varied when asked about track conditions with the majority saying that the track fell somewhere in the middle with good grip in places but Nicky Hayden saying that the paint was slick on the white lines.

“The grip isn’t one of the best tracks in the wet but it’s not so bad. It’s in the middle, not super high but it’s not too bad either. In the dry conditions I really enjoy this track but in the rain I expected less grip but it wasn’t too bad. This was my first time on this bike in the wet and the first impression is quite good but we will need to work to improve the feeling because with the old bike I had a lot of feeling and on this bike I feel slightly different. The 2014 bike gave more information and with this one I don’t have as much information from the front wheel.”

The forecast for the rest of the weekend is similar to yesterday with rain expected to come and go and leave riders nervous about the conditions. Experience of Texan weather would lead most to comment that while there will be rain it will usually come in 20 minute spells and then dry quite quickly. This is what happened yesterday and most of the field were impressed with how quickly a dry line developed on track.

Cal Crutchlow admitted that he struggled in the morning’s wet session, still feeling the effects of memories of his huge crash 12 months ago that left him with a badly injured shoulder, but in the second session he was once again on the pace. The LCR Honda rider ended the day second fastest and three tenths off Marquez after only a handful of dry laps.

“I spent all day being scared through that corner,” admitted Crutchlow. “Last year it was probably the biggest crash of my career. I was way too slow this morning in the rain, and I was second fastest in the dry this afternoon.”

This weekend Crutchlow has a new chassis with a new seat mounting position, one of the bikes rejected by Marquez and Pedrosa in pre-season, but being able to compare and contrast to what Crutchlow had been using is not possible because of HRC’s decision to completely update his side of the LCR garage with two new chassis. With only an eight lap stint in FP2 it also left Cal unable to give any definitive feedback on the upgrades so it will be interesting to see what he has to say about the bike over the course of the weekend.

“I believe sure it’s better, because the factory guys are using it, and I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made, and the speed was not so bad. But I need to understand it more. I need to ride a race distance on it, I need to see. And obviously in the rain this morning, I’d only done six laps in Sepang on the other bike, so I couldn’t really compare. It’s a different track, but yes, my feeling’s not too bad.”

Crutchlow is still looking for a setup to tame the brutality of the Honda but the half and half track conditions of this weekend will make it very difficult for him to be able to directly compare his new bike to his old bike. HRC confirmed today that the plan had always been for Crutchlow to get his updated bike this weekend and that Scott Redding, who was third fastest in the wet morning session, would get his in Jerez.

The reason for the delay is that HRC has to manufacturer different parts for Redding due to his size. His upgrade will be the same as Crutchlow with a new seat unit but being able to mount a seat suitable for the 6’1 Marc VDS rider will take more time.

Andrea Iannone was third fastest in the dry, his teammate Dovizioso was fastest in the morning’s wet session. Iannone had a gearbox sensor problem in the first session that left him shifting gear much slower than normal but once this was cured he was much more comfortable on track and the Ducati is clearly a threat again this weekend with Dovi fifth fastest in the drying session.

Quite where the Yamaha’s are is a different story. Given the conditions and the lack of laps it’s hard to draw conclusions from yesterday’s running but with Rossi sixth fastest and Lorenzo 11th it’s clear that there’s work to be done.

Managing to complete that work maybe a struggle for Lorenzo who is feeling the effects of bronchitis and the changeable conditions, which will see high humidity when the track is drying, will not make this weekend any easier for the Spaniard. Lorenzo also struggled with rear grip in the wet session but being outside the top 10 will mean that he has to perform in FP3 to make sure of automatically getting into Qualifying 2.

Getting into that session saves a rider at least one set of tyres for use in the second session and it will be crucial for Bradley Smith and Scott Redding to also make a step in FP3. Smith is on the bubble in tenth position, less than a tenth faster that Lorenzo, and Redding was 13th fastest but looking more relaxed than in Qatar’s season opener.

The Marc VDS team are trying some new setup options this weekend, stiffer suspension than the rest of the Honda riders to account for Scott’s added weight and he looked more confident on track in both sessions than he did in the desert. Being able to increase this feeling will be key throughout the weekend.

For Smith, who has targeted the top six this weekend, improvements in his feeling in the wet were enough to give him enough to feel confident about despite a crash at the end of the second session.

“In the rain we were quite quick, I was happy with it considering that this time last year, every time I rode in the rain, I wanted to stop and pack up and go home. At least from that point, the new M1 is working better. It worked well in Sepang, and then it worked well here as well, so at least I’m happy about that. From the dry point of view I found straight away a good feeling from the word go.”

When asked about his crash Smith put it down to a setup error:

“Basically, we had one bike that was full dry, and one bike that I was riding that was 50-50, and the plan was for me to go out and have a look, then assess and come in for the dry bike. But in the end I stayed out one lap too long, then I looked up and it’s like seven minutes to go, and I think, well, if I come in and change bikes, I get one lap, so I’ll try and make this work. I was just bottoming out everywhere, and especially up the hill there I bottomed out. And as soon as it had a chance to jump off the ground, it sprung like motocross! I thought I was going to save it, but no, impossible. One of those things.”

On the other side of the Tech3 garage Pol Espargaro was happy to be within less than a tenth of Rossi and to have a good feeling in both conditions. When asked about being so close to the top Yamaha Espargaro joked, “Nearly! Always nearly!”

The improvement that he made in the wet compared to 2014 was similar to Smith and this will clearly give him confidence throughout the weekend:

“It was a good day, in the wet and in the dry. But especially in the wet, and it looks like tomorrow and Sunday will be in wet conditions. So actually I’m happy, because in the wet we are OK, much better than last year, and looks like we are pretty close to the factory rider, Valentino today. Looks like we are close to the limit, so this is good.”

The Open Honda riders were not as satisfied with Jack Miller, Nicky Hayden and Eugene Laverty all left somewhat bemused by their performances. Miller was the fastest of the trio but struggled with rear grip in the afternoon with the rear sliding too much. Also affecting Miller was that yesterday was the first time that he used the 340mm brake discs and he wasn’t able to get a good feeling with them and had to pump the brake to get it too work, “The system needed to be bled,” but overall he was the happiest of the Open Honda riders.

With Stefan Bradl in the top ten and the Open Ducati’s once again competitive the gulf between the Honda and the competition is clear for all to see at the moment and for Laverty, half a tenth slower than Miller, the cause is clear; electronics.

Laverty was keen not to sound like a broken record when complaining about the electronics but the package is clearly not working with the huge increase in horsepower that the Open bike has to deal with because it is now using the 2014 Factory engine.

For Laverty the main issue was that the bike couldn’t tell the difference between a left hand corner and a right handed bend. Having a problem with such a basic element of the software left him unable to ride the bike and having had a major electronics problem in Qatar, when the bike didn’t know where it was on track, it’s clear that his patience is starting to wear thin with the bike.

“It was very strange with the left to right corners,” said Laverty. “We had a bit of an issue in the lefts because we’re not getting any Traction Control to work in them and in the rights we’re getting too much. It’s such a basic thing that we need to improve and at this level the bike should know the difference between a left and a right corner. It didn’t improve from the wet to the dry. In the lefts I’ve got very little TC and in the rights I’ve got a lot of restriction and something holding me back. We can adjust that but the bike itself needs to know where it’s at because otherwise I can’t ride the same for both corners.”

Finding a solution to this problem won’t be easy with HRC unwilling to make a request to Magneti Marelli to update the software. In the Open class any changes to the software will be made available to all bikes in the class and HRC are understandably keen to keep their proprietary Factory software in house for as long as possible. As a result teams will have to spend time trying to maximise the available strategies and improve their feelings with the electronics package.

The usual end of day remap was all that Nicky Hayden was looking for from his electronics with the American happier than the other riders but still struggling in the dry to get the most from the bike.

“In FP2 it was our first dry session and once they remap the track they’ll make improvements but for base setup they were OK,” said Hayden. “I didn’t have any problems and everything was working in the right way but just need some adjustment.”

In the wet Hayden had more and confidence with each exit after making setup changes to load the rear of the bike.

Having waited for Shuhei Nakamoto and Livio Suppo to talk about Casey Stoner’s request to return for his weekend the HRC top brass offered their reasoning for rejecting his offer to replace Dani Pedrosa as the Spaniard recovers from his operation.

“Casey approached Honda,” commented Nakamoto. “Casey wanted to help Dani and the team. To be honest I was a little bit surprised, but I was very happy to get this kind of request from Casey. Then in Japan myself, Kokubu-san [director of technology] and Yokoyama-san [technical director] to discuss about this. For HRC Casey is quite important. He is a VIP. For us, if Casey race again in MotoGP at least he has to fight for a podium. This is our target. For Casey himself I have no doubt he is very, very fast! But for the rest Casey needed a good set-up machine. For this we couldn’t find confidence.”

With Christian Gabarrini now Jack Miller’s crew chief HRC felt that it would have been very difficult to get the bike setup correctly for Stoner at circuits that were new for him and the risk of him struggling in the lower reaches of the top ten instead of fighting for a podium were too great. Nakamoto went on to comment that if he had more time on the bike that Stoner would have been a viable option to replace Pedrosa but that because his Sepang test was to evaluate parts rather than improve his feeling on the bike there was not enough time to get the Australian up to speed quickly.

It’s clear that Stoner is disappointed not to be riding, a cursory look at his timeline on Twitter is enough to confirm this, but it’s clear that some within HRC are disappointed by his reaction to their decision to have him remain on the sidelines. Stoner’s desire to get back on a MotoGP bike has surprised everyone in the paddock but it’s still impossible to see him looking to return to the series full-time however a wild card ride may once again be a possibility for him further down the line.

In Moto2 Sam Lowes was quick in both conditions but left battered and bruised by a monster highside in the afternoon. The Englishman, who crashed out of contention for the win in Qatar, however was pleased with his speed and consistency in both conditions and he looks set to be a real threat once again this weekend.

In Moto3 Danny Kent was on the pace in both sessions, second in the wet and third in the drying session, and the Englishman’s momentum from a Qatar podium is clear for all to see. Kent looks more relaxed than ever on the bike and he is riding with the maturity of a man that knows he has the pace and the team around him to be a contender all season.

Steve English

By Steve English