Instead the Open class rider pulled almost half-a-second clear!
With the soft Open class tyre at his disposal, the Spaniard is now a clear favourite for pole position on Saturday and admitted even he is surprised at the speed of the new Forward Racing Yamaha.
“After the test two weeks ago I thought maybe, if we’re really positive, that we expect this but when I was training in the winter obviously I didn’t think that we finish the first two days almost half a second in front,” said Espargaro.
But Espargaro, whose best MotoGP finish to date is just eighth place, pointed out that his pace on the medium compound tyre – which both the Open and Factory class riders are expected to pick for the race – is also ‘impressive’.
“We know that we have potential with the soft tyre but the most impressive thing is our pace on the hard tyre and the options that we have for the race.”
With Espargaro and the other Open class riders required to use the spec ECU and software, he added that every time he has ridden the bike he has seen improvements, with new software routines and strategies written to incorporate his feedback.
And worryingly for his rivals he feels there is much more to come.
“We are improving with this bike and our electronics crew,” added Espargaro. “We have had three tests so we have a lot of information about what we can improve, for example we are losing a lot of speed on the straights compared to Yamaha, so there’s a lot that we can improve. Every time I go to the track we have a new map that is better so we are working hard on electronics.”
Valentino Rossi has now tipped Espargaro as the race favourite, but the Spaniard, who claimed his only career podium in the Moto2 class in 2011, is taking it one step at a time with qualifying on the front row his goal for tomorrow.
“I don’t want to say I am the favourite because it is not nice. I think we can battle for the pole. It will be a dream and I will be really happy with a pole position but my target is to stay on the podium in the race. For sure it would help a lot to start from the front row. The podium it is our goal. I know it is difficult, but I have a good team and they make a big effort with this bike and we need to believe.”
Espargaro’s only previous grand prix front row starts were in the Moto2 (two) and 250cc (one) classes.
While many have spoken about the Open benefits – such as four litres extra fuel – in Sunday’s race it has been overlooked by many that in the early stages of the race the Open riders will have to start, stop and turn the added mass of the fuel.
Last year Cal Crutchlow struggled to match the speed of Lorenzo, Marquez and Pedrosa in the early stages because his fuel was placed in a different position to his rivals and it therefore shifted the balance and centre of gravity of the bike.
It will be similar for Espargaro on Sunday with the weight transfer much more severe on his bike compared to his rivals.
When asked by Crash.net how he felt this would impact on his early race pace, he admitted that testing the starting weight of fuel had been a problem for him but that he was confident it wouldn’t be a major issue on Sunday.
“In the test we had problems with the full tank so we didn’t try with 24 litres. But we tried with 23 litres and on the first lap I was a bit slower, but from then on it wasn’t a big problem because we still had good grip on the front – with more weight on the front – so it’s not too bad.
“With 23 litres I can race easily but with 24 litres it’s easier for the electronics guys because they don’t have to be really accurate with the set-up and on track I can pick up the bike and have all the power out of corners. If we have to race with less we won’t be slower.”