The key takeaway from the first day that Moto GP bikes were in action in India was the high number of run-offs that took place on the first turn.
Much was made of the riders’ previous apprehensions about the safety of the track – in particular, the proximity of the barriers to the high-speed corners – but once the bikes hit the track for the first time here at the Buddh International Circuit (BIC), it was the technical and physical nature of the circuit that took the riders by surprise.
Primary among those technical difficulties, as a consensus among all the riders, was the very small margin for error on Turn 1, where they struggled for grip and continuously went wide onto the gravel in their search for the perfect braking zone and timing. Missing the racing line even by a fraction, according to the riders, could end the race.
“Some parts of the track are very difficult, like corner one,” reigning champion and series leader Francesco Bagnaia told the media on Friday. “You have just one (racing) line and you can brake only at one point. If you miss the line or the point even by one metre, you are going wide. So it’s quite intense.”
“That (Turn 1) is difficult, so difficult it is hard to explain,” Raul Fernandez said. “You will think that you have the chance to go hard and brake later, and you miss it by a fraction, and you’re wide. Generally, we just have no grip,” he added.
The VR46 Ducati lineup made it a clean sweep at practice, Marco Bezzecchi topped the first, and Luca Marini put in the fastest lap of the second session. Marini was one of the many riders to go wide at Turn 1 early in the second session, while the most serious incident happened in the morning laps, with LCR Honda’s Takaaki Nakagami having a nasty tumble after his bike got dug between the asphalt run-off and gravel also at Turn 1.
The first turn is the one to watch throughout this weekend, as riders will go into it aggressively on two separate starts – in the sprint on Saturday, and full race on Sunday – which may have the potential to cause a few incidents. “We need to ask for very strong penalties,” Aprilia rider Maverick Vinales said. “It’s very easy to make a mistake there at the race start.”
“The first one is a really tight corner, and it is a first-gear corner, so we have to slow down very suddenly and it gets tricky,” Pramac’s Jorge Martin said on Friday.
An intriguing subplot of the series as it comes to India for the first time will be a brewing championship battle between Bagnaia and Martin. Despite this season feeling like a foregone conclusion when, at one point, Bagnaia had a 66-point lead at the top, his horrific crash at the Catalunya Grand Prix earlier this month, with a bike at full race pace actually running over his legs after he lost control and fell onto the track, has turned the tide.
Even though Bagnaia fought off physical issues to race at the previous San Marino Grand Prix, Martin’s perfect 37-point haul during the weekend has reduced the gap to 36 points. Given his form, his pace in practice, and his confidence regarding the tricky first corner, he looks set to bridge the gap even further in India.
“You need a reference point there, to know when and where to brake, which is not easy to find… But I found mine,” Martin said with a smile.
Turn 1 is deemed unanimously tricky, but it is not the only challenging part of this circuit as some riders have pointed to the difficulties at Turn 8, 9, and 12, as well as the very short run-off area at Turn 10, where mistakes at full speed could cause a dangerous collision with the barrier.
Despite these concerns though, ‘fun’, ‘tricky’, ‘interesting’, and ‘exciting’ were all words used by the riders to describe the track – where the second sector alone has two chicanes and a parabola – following two 70-minute-long practice sessions on Friday. The collective opinion, at least on Day 1, seems that the upgrade works on the track meant for Formula One racing have been better received than was earlier expected.
Beyond the newness of the track and the challenging corners, the intense heat made the long sessions a physical challenge, with riders indicating that bikes heating up as they sweat it out on track, and the tyre temperatures, could reduce pace and increase mistakes towards the end of the race.
“The front tyre temperature, the temperature of the engine, the temperature of the brakes, all of it will make it tough,” Marini said after his practice-topping session. “Especially in areas where hard braking is involved, like the kind you have to do at Turn 1. That’s why I think if you get stuck behind a bike, overtaking opportunities will be less, and your race might be finished.”