Grand Prix of Qatar: Thursday roundup – MotoGP, Moto2, Moto3
The weekend started with Xavier Hernandez and Valentino Rossi going head to head in a football match between their respective academies. Former FC Barcelona player’s Doha based Aspire Academy and the Doctor’s VR46 Academy. Download and share the copyright-free video edit of the event by clicking here.
For the rest of the grid the Commercial Bank Grand Prix of Qatar began with the traditional World Championship ‘school photo’, a rite of passage for all the riders. All three classes took their turn in front of the world’s media, photographers eagerly snapping away as they got their first glimpses of the colours and liveries for the 2016 season. With the formalities out of the way it was time to get to the most important part of MotoGP™: the racing.
Due to the Losail International Circuit’s location, the first sessions of the day are frequently hindered by a dirty track as a result of sanding blowing over the circuit. Fortunately for riders in the MotoGP™ World Championship, the Moto2™ and Moto3™ class riders did most of the work to prepare the track during their first sessions. However, the junior classes also have a different tyre supplier, thus leaving a different rubber on the track surface that in the past has changed grip levels.
During the Qatar Test, Jorge Lorenzo (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP) had set a best time of 1’54.810, but riders were aware this would be an ambitious time due to rain between the test and FP1 changing the track significantly. The reigning MotoGP™ World Champion pushed from the start of the session, stringing together fastest lap after fastest lap in the first ten minutes. A best time of 1’55.440 on his 15th lap saw Lorenzo lead the way.
With a total of 17 laps in the first practice session, Valentino Rossi (Movistar Yamaha MotoGP) was able to work his way to second. A lap of 1’55.707 put him 0.267s back on his teammate as the Movistar Yamaha MotoGP team asserted themselves over the rest of the field. Both Rossi and Lorenzo looked comfortable throughout testing and have continued their rapid pace into the race weekend.
Try as he might, Andrea Iannone (Ducati Team) who set a 1’55.736, was unable to get within a quarter of a second of Lorenzo. Iannone’s MotoGP™ podium debut came here in Qatar in 2015, many are expecting the Ducati man to be in contention for victory at the Commercial Bank Grand Prix of Qatar, the long straight playing to the strength of the new Ducati.
Another impressive Ducati was the Avintia Racing Ducati GP14.2 of Hector Barbera, the Spaniard clearly benefitting from the more level field created with the introduction of the spec ECU and unified software. Barbera, known for his ability to produce a single flying lap, ending fourth with a 1’55.810.
The final rider in the 1’55s was Maverick Viñales (Team Suzuki Ecstar), the young Spaniard over a second faster than his teammate Aleix Espargaro who was 16th. While Espargaro has the fully seamless gearbox, Viñales is still undecided over which to use and is hoping to make a decision before the race.
After several difficult tests, Pol Espargaro (Monster Yamaha Tech 3) turned his fortunes around and was able to finish sixth, and ahead of both the factory Honda machines in FP1. The Spaniard set a 1’56.051 while his teammate, Bradley Smith, ended down in 11th. Smith also suffered a crash at Turn 13, the Brit unhurt in the fall but forced to end his session early.
Teams were able to make several adjustments between the Qatar Test and Free Practice 1, the Repsol Honda Team bringing a larger set of winglets for the opening round. Dani Pedrosa led the Repsol Honda Team charge in seventh, no Honda machines inside the top five as they continue to struggle with the RC213V, especially in Qatar. Marc Marquez was 0.160s back on his teammate, ending the session eighth and 0.810s back on Lorenzo’s time.
Scott Redding (Octo Pramac Yakhnich) finished the session in tenth and led a trio of British riders with Smith and Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) just behind.
Unable to emulate the speed of his teammate, Loris Baz (Avintia Ducati) finished the first day of MotoGP™ practice in 13th but only 1.343s off Lorenzo’s time.
Having worked hard to improve his fitness over the off-season, a lighter than ever Jack Miller (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS) was able to improve on his best time from testing almost immediately. The Australian managed a1’54.939 to end the session 14th, a decent result given his still healing leg. Tito Rabat was down in a disappointing 20th and almost a full second slower than his Australian teammate.
Danilo Petrucci (Octo Pramac Yakhnich) was also out on track for the first time since breaking his hand at the Phillip Island Test. He was able to complete 17 laps, but wasn’t as competitive as he had been during the Sepang and Phillip Island Tests as he ended 15th.
Track conditions continued to improve as the Moto2™ World Championship headed out on track for Free Practice 2, their final session of the opening Thursday at the Commercial Bank Grand Prix of Qatar. Tom Luthi (Garage Plus Interwetten) set the bar at a 1’59.731 during Free Practice 1, but his fellow competitors made sure that time was quickly pushed to the limit.
Jonas Folger (Dynavolt Intact GP) was on of the first to improve when he dropped down to s 1’59.566, improving his time from FP1 by over half a second to lead both FP2 and the day overall. The German won the Commercial Bank Grand Prix of Qatar in 2015 and if his early pace is anything to go by, he could very well repeat victory in 2016.
Despite a fall at Turn 7, Sam Lowes (Federal Oil Gresini Moto2) was able to recover and set the second fastest time of the day with a 1’59.657s in the final minutes of practice. Even with his off the Brit managed to complete 18 laps, amongst the most of any rider.
The third and final rider to go under Luthi’s time was Alex Rins (Paginas Amarillas HP 40) thanks to a 1’59.678. Many are expecting the former Moto3™ front-runner to challenge for the Moto2™ title in 2016 after his great debut back in 2015, solid points in the opening round would be ideal.
Luthi was unable to improve on his FP1 time, the only rider inside the top ten failing to do so. Despite this the Swiss rider nestled into fourth, ahead of Johann Zarco (Ajo Motorsport). The French rider continued to progress well throughout both sessions and is looking much stronger than in testing.
The top ten were completed by Franco Morbidelli (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS), Lorenzo Baldassarri (Forward Team), Takaaki Nakagami (Idemitsu Honda Team Asia), Simone Corsi (Speed Up Racing) and Alex Marquez (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS) all within an incredible half a second of each other. All of the top 20 riders were within a second of Folger, Moto2™ looking closer than ever in 2016. There was also a heavy off for Mattia Pasini (Italtrans Racing Team) at Turn 1 but the Italian walked away unhurt.
The Moto3™ World Championship came into FP2 after Livio Loi (RW Racing GP) and Jorge Navarro (Estrella Galicia 0,0) had taken a substantial lead in FP1, the duo over half a second faster than the rest of the field. With conditions improving with each lap, riders were quickly able to close the gap to their initial times.
Navarro was again strong from the start of the session with Niccolo Antonelli (Ongetta-Rivacold) behind him for much of the session, neither rider able to surpass the 2’06.456 benchmark set by Loi in FP1 in the opening stages.
With half of Free Practice 2 complete riders retreated to their pits for adjustments before a late assault. While the riders may change year-to-year, other aspects of the Moto3™ World Championship such as the tactics and close racing remain the same. Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo) was one of the first riders to improve during the second half of the session. This started a flood of personal best laps.
The slipstream proved as critical as ever for riders hunting for a fast time, almost all teammates spending at least a handful of laps together to make the most of the it, worth over half a second a lap.
As the final ten minutes ticked down, times rapidly fell with Livio Loi (RW Racing GP) setting a 2’05.832 and a new circuit record in the process. This saw the Belgian rider lead not only FP2, but also the day overall.
Truly it was the rookies in the class who shone the brightest in FP2, Joan Mir (Leopard Racing) managing to circulate the Losail International Circuit in 2’06.160 to end 0.328s back on Loi. Having only previously ridden at the Qatari track in testing, things are already looking positive for the former Moto3™ Junior World Championship front-runner.
Third fastest in FP2 and for the day was Nicolo Bulega (Sky Racing Team VR46), the rookie setting his fastest lap and the crashing at Turn 16 soon after. Bulega, like Mir, is a product of the FIM CEV Repsol Moto3™ Junior World Championship, which continues to make young talent after young talent.
The Italian was ahead of Sky Racing Team VR46 teammate Romano Fenati who was just 0.011s slower. Francesco Bagnaia (Aspar Mahindra Team Moto3) made it three Italians in the top five as he finished as top Mahindra.
Brad Binder (Red Bull KTM Ajo), Andrea Locatelli (Leopard Racing), Jakub Kornfeil (Drive M7 SIC Racing Team), Niccolo Antonelli (Ongetta-Rivacold) and Bo Bendsneyder (Red Bull KTM Ajo) completed the top ten as Thursday practice ended.