Is it going to be Argentina or Austin on Sunday at Silverstone? Two of the bumpiest circuits of the first half of the season had very different outcomes. At the Termas De Rio Hondo circuit, Marc Márquez took off like a scalded cat to try to take the win, and claw back the valuable points from Maverick Viñales he had handed him at Qatar. In undulating Austin, Márquez rode his usual imperious race to take victory, while it was Viñales' turn to make a silly mistake.
The perils of a American bumps were rather bike-specific. It wasn't just Marc Márquez who crashed out of the lead in Argentina, Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa managed the same feat. Cal Crutchlow rode cautiously to finish third, while there were four Yamahas in the top six. At Austin, Márquez won, Pedrosa finished third, Crutchlow fourth. Valentino Rossi's charge came too late, and he finished well behind Márquez. A year earlier, it had been Rossi making a silly mistake in Texas, and slipping off.
So how does Silverstone compare to the two American tracks (North and South)? In Austin, the bumps were on corner exit, Maverick Viñales explained, whereas at Silverstone, the bumps are on corner entry. "So it seems more difficult to ride," the Movistar Yamaha rider said. In Argentina, it wasn't so much bumps as massive undulations which were causing the problems.
Honda danger zone
Is this more dangerous for the Honda or the Yamaha? Anyone watching the slowmo footage of Marc Márquez could be under no illusion that the RC213V was anything but a massive handful over the bumps at Silverstone. During qualifying, Márquez managed a big save, yet barely lost any time. The bikes of Crutchlow and Pedrosa were being equally tossed around over the bumps, yet all three Honda riders stayed on.
It looked much worse than it actually was, the Honda men said afterwards. The timesheets said the same: Márquez and Crutchlow sit on the front row, Márquez having snatched a new lap record and becoming the first man to ever lap the Silverstone circuit in under two minutes. Pedrosa heads up the third row, but after four miserable sessions of free practice, where the Repsol Honda rider struggled massively with the bumps, a switch to softer tires made the bike better over the bumps, and gave Pedrosa more confidence.
Márquez' two crashes on Friday make you suspect that he may be tempted to push over the limit on Sunday in pursuit of the win. That was certainly the form he looked in on Saturday. But we should not be fooled, warned Andrea Dovizioso. "I think that one of the positive things of Marc is this, he's able to play with the limit," the Italian said. "And not a lot of riders are able to do that. So most of the time he's past the limit, he makes a mistake, but he won a lot of titles. So that means he's good to manage this situation."
That can make Márquez his own worst enemy, Dovizioso explained. "For sure, Marc is a rider who it's difficult for him to not play with the limit, it's normal for him, he has to do that every time. But most of the time, it's good, so you never know. But everybody is on the limit in the race, so anything can happen at any time. But when you go into the race, you can't be thinking about that. If it happens, then OK, but it's not in my mind."
Unlocking Marc's secrets
Cal Crutchlow also warned that Márquez' style was deceptive, and he was far more in control than it looked. "I see Marc riding in a certain way," the LCR Honda rider said. "Sure he crashed yesterday but he has a lot more wheels in line than he usually does. He seems to riding the bike in a different way. He seems smoother to me. When he takes a risk he still seems quite wild but over an average lap he seems smoother and that means it’s coming easily."
The change to Márquez' riding style had come as a result of a major setup change from Friday to Saturday. "In my case, the last races, I was able to have a more stable bike, easier to ride and also competitive, even in the Misano test," Márquez explained. "Already yesterday I saw that here was not working well and then we changed completely the setup. This creates that the bike is a little bit more unstable and we are struggling a little bit more. I’m working on my lines. I’m working with the team for try to give the best stability. At the moment in five, six laps, seven, can keep a good rhythm like in FP4. Is shaking, but the lap time is coming. If it’s shaking and the lap time is coming is not a problem. You need to take care in a few points of the track."
Márquez was hoping to manage the race better than he had handled practice. "Of course, I hope to don’t find the limit tomorrow. Today I was feeling better with the bike, so for that reason I was able to take a little bit more risk. Yesterday as soon as I take a risk I crash. Today we improve a little bit that feeling with keeping the same speed that sometimes this is difficult. But tomorrow we will see. It depends on the weather. It depends on the track temperature. I think it will be a long race. 20 laps here is difficult to take a risk because you need to take care about the bumps, about many things, about many conditions, different conditions. If we arrive in the end, I race in Austria and same here. All points are important and if you can get one more point, you need to try."
Nobody doubts Márquez' speed, the only question is whether he will be suckered into pushing too hard and making a mistake. Both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales are fast, and they are confident. "Normally our bike is very stable on the bumps," Viñales said on Saturday, "so we don't concentrate so much on the bumps, because from the beginning, the bike was working really well." both Viñales and Rossi are close to the front, and had very strong pace during qualifying. Viñales was more obviously quick, but dig deep into the times in FP4 and it is Valentino Rossi who looks like the threat, fueled by the adrenaline of race day.
Both Ducatis were quick too, though Andrea Dovizioso was more consistent and more measured than Jorge Lorenzo. The Italian is on a roll over the summer, winning last time out in Austria and regaining second in the championship. Dovizioso, like the rest of the grid, was equivocating over tire choice. All three rear (and all three front) tires are fit to race, with rear tire choice coming down to how you think you can manage the tire for the last third of the race.
That is the big unknown, with nobody having put sufficient laps on any of the rears to make an informed choice. "It's a difficult thing for every rider to choose a tire when you have three choices," Dovizioso said. "We don't have enough time to work on the tire. The practice we have is not enough, especially because in the first three practices, we have to do the lap time. So we have to spend the time with the soft tire to set a good lap time at the end of the practice. That means that the laps you are able to put on each tire is less than half race distance, especially at this track, which is very long. It's almost impossible to make the right choice of tire in these conditions, also because this morning we didn't ride for a full practice."
Holding on to seven seconds
Most riders will go for the hard tire, but a few will gamble on the soft. The added grip from the first five laps or so can allow a rider further down the grid to stay with the front group, and give themselves a fighting chance to take the race down to the wire. Lose touch at the beginning, and before you know it, you are six or seven seconds down, and you can never make up those seven seconds once the race has started.
That will certainly be Johann Zarco's objective. The Frenchman's eighth spot on the grid belies his speed. His race pace is much stronger than his qualifying, though the Tech 3 rider was happy with both. A mistake on his fast lap meant he missed out on the second row, but the aim was to get away early with the leaders, then try to make a move later in the race. Zarco had been working with the hard tire for exactly this reason. His pace in the first laps was good, now he had to ensure he could keep it up in the latter part of the race.
Zarco wasn't the only rider to make a mistake. Valentino Rossi looked like he was on his way to pole position, up by nearly a third of a second through the first three sectors of his fastest lap. But the fourth and final sector is where the Yamahas have been struggling, he explained, and excessive wheelspin robbed him of drive and cost him pole. Rossi was keen to try to downplay his chances, though starting from second on the grid suggests he may not be as slow as he hopes others will think he is. Yesterday, Rossi publicly wrote off his chances of winning a title this year. Today, he said he was only focused on winning races. Win enough races, of course, and the titles come of their own accord...
One surprise a little further down the grid was that Alex Rins beat his Suzuki teammate Andrea Iannone. This is a track where Rins is strong, and the Spaniard followed Marc Márquez for part of FP4. But after a difficult start to the season, this feels like it could be the turning point for the rookie. Rins was happy and comfortable on Saturday afternoon, and promises more to come. He may not be a Marc Márquez, nor perhaps even a Johann Zarco, but Rins' talent is perhaps starting to shine through.
In the Moto2 class, it was Mattia Pasini who ruled the roost. The Italian took his third pole in a row, and the fact that his qualifying kicked off with two identical laps betrays something of his consistency. The two Marc VDS riders join Pasini on the front row, Alex Márquez a fraction quicker than Franco Morbidelli, but the good news for Morbidelli (and Márquez, to a lesser extent) is that Tom Luthi is a long way behind in 9th.
Moto3 may have Romano Fenati on pole – and what a pole it was – but all eyes will be on Joan Mir. The Spaniard was just a little too late to try to best the time of Fenati, but the fact that the championship leader starts from the front row should bear every other Moto3 rider deep concern.
Other than Mir, it is worth noting that John McPhee starts from 4th at his home Grand Prix, Silverstone also kicking off the start of the British Talent Cup series. Bo Bendsneyder, further back in seventh, is another rider to watch. The Dutchman was third here last year, while playing wingman to future champion and teammate Brad Binder. Bendsneyder is quick at Silverstone, and has been on a roll the past couple of weeks. Though Mir is looking invincible at the moment, smashing record after record, Bendsneyder is a dark horse to keep an eye on.
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