Fast tracks are good for racing. Phillip Island demonstrates this every year, and the Termas de Rio Hondo circuit is confirming it in 2015. The mixture of fast sweepers and tricky braking sections places an emphasis on bike handling and rider ability, over and above sheer engine power. This gives enterprising riders opportunities to excel, and overcome any horsepower disadvantages they may have.
Today was a case in point. The Suzukis had shown yesterday that they were extremely fast around the Argentinian track, and Aleix Espargaro came into qualifying as a favorite to take pole. The medium tire (the softest compound available, which the Hondas and Yamahas do not have in their allocation) gave Espargaro plenty of speed, but would it be enough to stay with Márquez? Perhaps some sleight of hand would be needed. With the hard tire his only race option, Espargaro had some mediums to play with. Taking a leaf out of Marc Márquez' Big Book Of Strategy, he and crew chief Tom O'Kane decided that his best hope of getting pole would be a two-stop strategy: coming in twice to change bikes, using three new tires to chase a top time.
The trouble with stealing from Marc Márquez' Big Book Of Strategy is that you find yourself going up against the man who wrote it. It was at Argentina last year that Márquez and crew chief Santi Hernandez saw that a two-stop strategy might be possible, putting it into practice at the next race at Jerez. "Already last year, when I finished the qualifying practice here, we spoke with the team and saw that it was possible to use three tires, because the good lap was on the first lap," Márquez explained at the front row press conference in Argentina. They had done it at Jerez last year, and went for it in Argentina as well. He was amused that Espargaro had gone for the same trick. "We did it, and Aleix also, I saw that he had the same strategy as me. It was interesting."
Espargaro's hopes were not exactly crushed, but at least a little deflated when he stopped at the end of his second run for his last tire. "I pushed like a beast, I did the maximum I can. With the second tire, the time I did was great, but then I stopped in the box and looked at the TV, I thought it was a mistake. P2, half a second from Marc." He tried one more time, but was pushing so hard he was making too many mistakes. P2 is all Aleix Espargaro would manage.
That, in itself, is an incredible achievement. To be on the front row in just the third race on a new bike, in a new team is truly remarkable. "I said to [Suzuki team boss] David Brivio, if you had told us this at the first test in Valencia, we would not have believed you!" Espargaro told the Spanish media.
Can they follow it up with a podium? That looks beyond the realms of the possible. Espargaro will be aiming to finish in the top six as a more realistic goal. The Suzuki suffers with two disadvantages, one common to all of the bikes which aren't Factory Option Yamahas and Hondas, and one which is unique to the Suzuki. The GSX-RR is an astonishing motorcycle – easily the best-handling bike on the grid, the riders who follow it commenting on how easily it turns – but it still has one or two weaknesses. The lack of horsepower is well-documented, but the bigger problem in Argentina is terrible chatter. The chatter appears in right-handed corners only, causing much scratching of heads in the Suzuki garage. "The chattering is always there, but when the tire is new, the first lap, you have better corner speed and no chattering," Espargaro explained. "But lap two, lap three the chattering starts. Yes, it's a big problem and we are still trying to understand why it's happening, because it's just in the right corners there is a lot of chattering. Maverick had it as well in the last race. So we are trying many things during the weekend, but at the moment we are not improving. The good thing is that on Monday after Jerez we have a test, so we have a couple of ideas to try."
While chatter is holding the Suzukis back, the tire allocation is a disadvantage for the Ducatis. While being allowed a softer tire gives the Ducati riders an advantage during qualifying – as witnessed in Argentina by having three bikes in the top seven – that advantage is short-lived, and of little use in the race. At most race tracks, the Ducatis use the same tire as the Yamahas, and usually the same tire as the Hondas. Ducati's hardest tire is the same spec and compound as the softer of the two tires available to Yamaha and Honda. However, the Termas de Rio Honda circuit is so punishing on tires that Bridgestone have brought a special extra hard compound to deal with the track. That tire is only available to the Yamahas and Hondas, and not to the rest. The concessions granted to Ducati are working against them in Argentina.
For Andrea Iannone, this disadvantage is clear. "I don't have the same potential the Yamaha and Honda have after half race. It is really difficult after this." Andrea Dovizioso said the key was to try to save the tires. "In the race we will see how it will be after the 25 laps. We don't have something special to do but we have to ride smooth," he said. "This is the way to use less the tires."
The Yamaha riders are convinced that the extra hard tire is the only option for the race. Both Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi were quick during FP4 on the extra hard, running comparable pace to Marc Márquez. Rossi was pleased with the work done on Saturday, after struggling on the first day with the extra hard. "Sincerely, we made a huge step from yesterday, more than one second," he said "The track has improved and the temperature helps the extra hard, but also the setting." There were still two or three places where he was struggling, but he only needed a small step to be on the pace with Márquez. In his second run during FP4, Rossi was running consistent laps of 1'39.9s and 1'39.8s, dipping down to a 1'39.6 on a very used tire.
Rossi's problem remains that he cannot find a good strategy during the intense fifteen minutes of qualifying, finding himself stuck in traffic all too often. This happened once again in Argentina, Rossi making the same mistake and finding himself in the middle of other riders. Despite having excellent pace – probably the second best after Márquez, and very close to the Repsol Honda man – he starts from a lowly eighth place on the grid. He has a lot of work to do at the start on Sunday.
Rossi could learn something from his teammate Jorge Lorenzo. Once again, Lorenzo was first out of pit lane and hammering around the track from the start. He had the opportunity to attempt a two-stop strategy, but went in just once, ending up in fifth on the grid. He put being fifth down in part to not having the same tire as the Suzukis and Ducatis, finding himself with Aleix Espargaro and Andrea Iannone between himself and a front row start. But he admitted he had also made mistakes during his second run, unable to improve on his time from the first exit, and stuck in fifth.
Lorenzo's race pace is good, though, matching that of Rossi on the extra hard tire. His race strategy was simple. "Hammer. Hammer in all the laps."
Marc Márquez remains the man to beat, putting in an astonishing fast lap to take pole. More worryingly, he was also exceptionally quick during FP4, where he tried both the hard and the extra hard tire options. Márquez named both Rossi and Lorenzo as his main rivals, much to the consternation of some of the journalists in the front row press conference. "Like we saw in FP4, Jorge and Valentino, and especially Valentino had a really good pace." He said. Andrea Iannone's front row start might be a factor early on, but he did not expect it to last. "Tomorrow, Iannone starts on the front row, I know that he is a tough rider in the beginning, and normally he starts really good," Márquez explained. "It will be a nice first laps, but we will try to stay calm and to understand the situation, because in the end, we know that the most important part is the second part of the race."
Will the extra hard really be the only option for the race, though? It will depend a lot on the temperature, and on how the track continues to develop. Grip improves as the track is cleaner, and as more rubber is laid down by the bikes. With Moto2 preceding MotoGP, that could have a big effect on grip, in which case the hard tire could work just as well as the extra hard tire. "Honestly with both tires, I feel good," Márquez said. "Tomorrow, depending on the temperature, I will choose one or the other. But it will be a difficult choice, but will be the key of the race if you want to improve. But like always it will depend on which strategy you want to use. If you want to push in the beginning, you must use the soft one, if you want to try to keep to the end, you must use the extra hard."
For Cal Crutchlow, the choice was already clear. He will be going with the hard over the extra hard, as he had a much better feeling with the tire. It helped him into fourth place on the grid, ahead of both factory Yamahas, and ahead of his former teammate and intense rival, Andrea Dovizioso. "The Honda doesn't have the grip of the Yamaha," Crutchlow opined. "It's as simple as that. And it doesn't have the grip of the Ducati. So once we lose the grip, it's really difficult to ride for the rest of the race. The [extra hard] tire is dropping after five laps. I know the [hard] is as well, butwhat you gain in those five laps, you may be able to maintain."
Crutchlow was livid that he could not improve his qualifying time and get further up the grid. He had made a mistake himself running off the kerbs along the back straight and having to scrap his fast lap. Then he found Jorge Lorenzo in his way, who had been chasing Andrea Iannone and then let up. He felt that Lorenzo had seen him, and had done nothing to get out of his way. On his next lap, he came across Maverick Viñales cruising on the racing line. Putting his ideal sector times together, his best lap would have got him into the 1'37s, Crutchlow said. But that was only in theory, and not in practice.
So what can we look forward to tomorrow? Marc Márquez is clearly the man to beat in Argentina, but his poor starts mean that he often looks like trying to beat himself. If he gets clean away off the line, then the Movistar Yamaha riders will have their hands full just trying to catch him. If Márquez does not get a particularly strong start, we could have an entertaining race on our hands. The first laps are likely to be close, with both the Suzukis and the Ducatis capable of coming along for the ride.
Half distance will be crucial, and tire choice will be key here. If conditions are right – better grip, good temperatures, but not too warm – then the hard tire becomes an option, and the Ducatis are back in contention, and Valentino Rossi becomes a real threat, as he was much more comfortable on the hard than on the extra hard. If it is hot, and if the surface doesn't get smoother as expected, then the extra hard will be the tire of choice. It then becomes a tactical race, with Márquez facing Lorenzo and Rossi.
Argentina threw up a few surprises further down the grid as well. Firstly, Danilo Petrucci once again put in a very strong performance to end up seventh on the grid. The Pramac Ducati rider has made huge strides forward this season, and with a bit more consistency, could be a more permanent threat. Eugene Laverty was also very impressive, running in fourth spot at one point during FP3, before dropping back to twelfth. He starts from fourteenth on the grid, ahead of Hiroshi Aoyama on the Repsol Honda, and best of the Open class Hondas. In just his third MotoGP race since switching from World Superbikes, he is making very rapid progress indeed.
Disappointing was especially Pol Espargaro. The Tech 3 Yamaha rider was forced into the purgatory of Q1 (a fine phrase coined by Spanish journalist Mela Chercoles), and could not even progress through from there. There seems to be some evidence that he is still struggling with the aftermath of his crash at Austin, where he was taken out by Scott Redding. Spanish journalists report he has some pain in his collarbone from the crash, though it is not broken.
What of Moto2 and Moto3? It looked like Sam Lowes had Moto2 in the bag during free practice, but in qualifying, Johann Zarco came through to take a very strong pole. It looks like a good race could develop, with Zarco, Lowes, Tito Rabat and Alex Rins all showing very good pace. Rabat seems to have found his mojo again, and needs a good result to get his title defense back on track.
In Moto3, after Danny Kent dominated practice, he got caught up in traffic during qualifying. That let Miguel Oliveira take a very important pole position for the Red Bull KTM team. Oliveira needs to convert the pole into serious points, after crashing out of the first two races. But on race pace, Kent is looking exceptionally strong once again, building on the confidence he found at Austin. Whether he can escape is another matter altogether. This is a track that allows a group to form, as we saw last year. We could be in for another battle royal.