The trouble with racing in MotoGP at the moment is that no matter how spectacular your riding, no matter how phenomenal your achievements, no matter how dominant your performance, you will always, always be upstaged by Marc Márquez. "The worst thing is that we have to deal with the situation of Marc saving [crashes] every week," Cal Crutchlow complained, only half joking. "It makes the rest of us on Honda look like idiots. Imagine how many he has saved this year compared to how many we have we crashed. He saves fifteen a weekend."
Saturday in Barcelona was yet another example, and perhaps Márquez' biggest yet. In the dying seconds of FP4, after passing Xavier Simeon through Turn 12, Márquez entered Turn 14 and the front folded completely on him. Where other riders would simply go down, Márquez was unwilling to surrender without a fight. "It was last corner, last lap and I lose the front," the Repsol Honda rider told the press conference. "I was fighting against everything, against the bike, against my knee pushing a lot. Then it looks like I was able to save it, but the when I go on the dirty part of the track, I again lose the front."
He had not yet had a chance to look at the data, he said. "I already said to [my team] to check, but what I can say is that the steering was full close because I feel, but it was long. It was very long this one. It was maybe the longest one in my career." Long enough to upstage everyone else on Saturday, despite there being many riders deserving of attention.
We've seen plenty of @marcmarquez93 saves over the years, but this one might be the best yet! 😱
— MotoGP™🏁 (@MotoGP) June 16, 2018
Up the garden path
Being able to save such huge front end moments may be good for Márquez, but it is not necessarily good for Honda, or the development of the RC213V. Márquez himself pointed out that the only reason he was making such massive saves is because he was losing the front in the first place. "This means that we are pushing. We are struggling," Márquez said. "Especially we are struggling with the front confidence but we are able to save. Every time the save is better and better, so we will see where we can arrive."
LCR Honda rider Cal Crutchlow commented on the slide with a mixture of admiration and exasperation. "We definitely have some sort of problem because we cannot keep explaining how this is happening. We cannot keep looking like mugs every week with our manufacturer," he said. "But they know and they are full supporting us and are behind us. Honda know the situation, they are not stupid and probably the cleverest people in the paddock."
Crutchlow had crashed himself in both FP3 and Q2. The first crash had been his own fault, falling at Turn 2 on a brand new tire. But the Q2 crash had been a typical case of pushing the bike too far. "We have better speed this year but our main problem is that the bike doesn't turn and we don't have great rear grip. We have a bike that is amazing in braking so we just take advantage of it all the time. And then evidently we crash on the brake and in the middle of the corners because we brake so deep and hard that we have overheated the front tire and it doesn't hold out."
Practice makes perfect
So how does Marc Márquez make these saves. Simple: he practices them. As MotoGP technical guru Neil Spalding pointed out this morning, you could see what Márquez was doing in the big moment he had during FP1. The official MotoGP website posted a clip of that moment on Twitter:
— MotoGP™🏁 (@MotoGP) June 15, 2018
If you look at Márquez' hands in the clip, you can see that he is feeling out the limit of front grip by forcing the front to turn, trying to find where the front end will fold, while at the same time, holding the bike on his knee. As he pushes, the front closes a fraction, then bites and pulls the wheel straight again. It is the sort of drill you might do on a trials bike at very slow speed, or on a dirt bike in a straight line on a sandy surface. Only Marc Márquez is doing it on a 270hp MotoGP bike, at 150km/h, at lean angles of 60° or more.
Márquez explained some of what he was doing in the press conference. He trains and prepares for moments like this as best he can, he said, but in the end, it came down to an accident of genetics, though his brother Alex had not been quite so lucky. "Of course you must be ready. You must train at home. Of course for example today in the save I push a lot. One of the strong things in my body is that I have a lot of flexibility. This is important for when you are crashing, for the save, and when you are on the bike. For example, my brother is doing the same training like me but he doesn’t have the flexibility. It’s something that my mother and my father give to me. I’m really happy for this."
Saving crashes is good for your health
Pushing so hard was dangerous, and by using his elbow and knee, he perhaps risks having his groin or shoulder hyperextend, and tearing a ligament. But on the other hand, the longer he can hold the bike up without crashing, the slower the bike goes. This improves the outcome whatever happens. If he saves the crash, he never hits the gravel and can ride away relatively unhurt. If he can't save the crash, the bike will have scrubbed off a certain amount of speed, reducing the likelihood of injury once he does hit the gravel.
"Of course it’s dangerous, but if I crash, I crash slower," Márquez explained. "If you lose in the first part and you crash, you arrive faster. It’s something that I don’t create. It’s something that if you asked to me why or how, I don’t know. Comes natural. But one of the things is that I’m always riding in the limit. You see in FP1. In the third lap, 39.8, I was already in the limit and always there on the limit and try to feel the limit. This maybe give to you a special feeling."
Márquez' extreme saves may be having an influence on riding style and approach, but they are also having an effect on protective gear. Six years ago, elbow sliders were virtually unheard of, now it's almost impossible to buy a leather suit which does not have them fitted. Alpinestars, Márquez' leathers sponsor, keep having to adapt his suit to cope with each of his saves. They had already added extra protection around the elbow, Márquez said, and now they might need to add some more protection around the knee.
A thousand words and a couple of Twitter videos later, I have illustrated my own point. All that time spent talking about Marc Márquez, yet the Repsol Honda rider was only second on the grid. He finished behind Jorge Lorenzo, who took his first pole position on a Ducati, extending his control of proceedings in Barcelona, and continuing his form from Mugello, where he won the last race.
It was almost a foregone conclusion that Lorenzo would take pole. The Ducati Factory rider had ended the first day as fastest, with a time that would have been good enough for fourth on the grid. So confident was he that his Friday time was good enough to ensure passage directly to Q2 that he didn't even bother chasing a quick time in FP3. He did the entire session on a used set of soft tires, ending with a lap of 1'39.795 on his 23rd lap with those tires, just one shy of race distance. The only rider to go faster on used tires was Andrea Iannone, who was a tenth quicker on tires with 12 laps on them.
In FP4, the final session of free practice, Jorge Lorenzo second, and only because Andrea Iannone put on a fresh set of tires at the end of that session. Five of Lorenzo's ten laps in FP4 were 1'39s, more than double what anyone else was capable of. Lorenzo has the pace, every rider we spoke to warned us. And if he gets his customary start on Sunday, the rest would not see him for dust.
Getting pole was the cherry on the top for Jorge Lorenzo, extending a remarkable run of front row starts. The last time Lorenzo lined up at Barcelona anywhere else than the front row was back in 2003, his second season in 125s. His absence from the grid in 2008 after a horrific crash during practice is the only blemish on this sequence, but for the past fourteen races he has contested at the Circuit de Catalunya, he has started from the front row.
The pole was good, but his race pace was more important, he said. "Obviously, I’m really satisfied and really happy about the pole position, because after a victory this is the most important thing you can get," Lorenzo told the press conference. "But especially I’m happy about the feeling on the bike. In Mugello I felt great, and here in a different track I feel probably even better than in the test one month ago. Always with a good pace and feeling really comfortable with all the tires and everything."
Lorenzo explained once again that the new tank section, a piece of shaped plastic fitted to the rear of the tank, wider than any other Ducati, and with the ridge under the top extending further back, gave him the support he needed in braking which allowed him to be fast for the entire race. " It’s what changed from Le Mans to Mugello," he said. "I think already in Jerez and Le Mans I was competitive. I just needed the real speed, the last piece to give me the necessary energy to keep for longer this speed and this is what happened in Mugello. Even if not everybody believes that," Lorenzo added, taking an oblique shot at Ducati senior management once again.
Lorenzo's teammate sits at the other end of the front row, Andrea Dovizioso trapping Marc Márquez in a Ducati sandwich. The Italian was confident after finding an improvement during the weekend, giving him a better feeling with the bike than he had during the test three weeks ago. "At the test the speed was good but the feeling wasn’t perfect," Dovizioso said. "But it’s OK if this happened at the test. We started immediately with a good speed in the first practice. That is very important to be able to work on the details, especially at this kind of track when you have a new asphalt and the grip is very strange. The slide is difficult to manage, especially on maximum angle, when the tyre drops on entry. Everyone is struggling on that. But at the end we improve a little bit practice by practice and we arrive at free practice 4 with a good pace."
Dovizioso was optimistic of a good result on Sunday. "I think we have a good pace to fight for the podium, or maybe the victory," he said. "But just in the race I will understand if I can have the chance to really fight for the victory. But like last year I expect a strange race – maybe not the same but similar because the consumption of the tyre is quite high. Everyone has to manage all the situation. There were a lot of crashes so everyone will be smooth in the race with the front and the rear. It will be difficult for everybody to manage the situation but we arrive to the race with good confidence."
Bring the heat
Dark horse of the front group is Maverick Viñales, the Movistar Yamaha rider regaining a lot of his confidence after a mediocre race at Mugello. What had pleased the Spaniard was that he had been competitive in the afternoons, when track temperatures were much higher than the morning, and the grip on the track had been less. "Actually in the test there was better grip through all the track and not so hot as it was today," Viñales explained." But anyway I'm happy, because in the test, I didn't do the rhythm that I did in FP4. So I think it was good. I'm quite confident, and let's see. We did a good job this weekend in FP2 and FP4."
Viñales was bullish about Sunday. "Honestly, I expect a good result, because I always worked on the race setup every exit, he said. "So I think we can do well, and rear grip is really good. Actually on the bike we just have to hope to have a good front tire and to push from the beginning." Though he shied away from outright predicting a podium, he did not regard it as impossible. "I don't know. There are many riders who are very strong and for sure fighting there. I'm convinced that we can do it."
What added to Viñales' confidence was the fact that he and his team had been working on fixing the opening laps of the race, the point where he has lost so much time in recent races. Looking at the Movistar Yamaha's lap times during the race, they would follow a familiar pattern. Viñales would lose four, five, six seconds in the first five laps, before getting up to speed and lapping at the same speed as the front runners. But by then, it was too late for him: not fast enough to catch the leaders easily, he also found himself in the middle of a group he had to fight through. He never regained the ground he lost in those early laps.
Now, though, they have a plan, Viñales revealed. "We understand why, and that's important," he said. "So tomorrow for sure I will approach the sighting lap and the warm up lap differently, pushing a little bit more and warming up the tires much more. So I think it was important to know that, and let's see, let's see if with that we can solve the problem of the first laps."
Fast from the start
Michelin boss Piero Taramasso explained how important it is to heat the tires properly during the warm up lap. "If you are more aggressive in the hot lap you reach quicker the highest grip level," he said. This had previously been a problem for Dani Pedrosa. "If you remember last year, Dani was struggling to get the temperature. This is because he was not aggressive. Of course, it’s not easy because you have to push hard as you can, knowing that the tire is still not at the maximum grip. You have to trust. You have to push. I will say 95%, not 100%. You have to push in 95%."
Viñales and his crew were taking this very seriously indeed. At the end of FP2 on Friday, when the riders are given the opportunity to practice a bike swap, the Movistar Yamaha rider came in at the end of the session, jumped onto his second bike, and headed out for a full sighting lap. When he returned, the team left the bike standing outside the garage, but put the tire warmers on along with the wheel covers, connecting them to a generator which both supplies power to the tire warmers and monitors tire temperatures. One member of Viñales' crew stood behind the bike, monitoring the tire temperatures for fifteen minutes.
The basic idea behind this procedure is to replicate the grid procedure. The rider goes out for a single lap, and then sits on the bike with tire warmers on, tire temperatures dropping to match the temperature of the warmers. By simulating this, Viñales' team have a much clearer idea of how the tires will behave, and what Viñales needs to do on his sighting lap, and then his warm up lap.
Track vs Tires
Tires were something of a talking point for all of the riders, though it was hard to separate the tire talk from concerns about the track grip. The new asphalt is dark and the stones used in the aggregate are very small, making for a very tightly packed surface. These two factors mean that the track surface can cause tire temperatures to go up very quickly when it gets hot, robbing the tires of grip. With much hotter temperatures than during the test, some riders were struggling.
Some also felt that the tire allocation brought to the race was wrong. The hard front was already too hard along the center of the tire, Cal Crutchlow felt, as it was causing the front to lock up when braking in a straight line. "The locking we have in a straight?! We are locking at 350kmph on our data and as soon as we touch the brake we are locking the front wheel. It is a scary, scary thing to understand. You just play with the lever all the way to the corner. Hondas have to use this tire because they cannot use the medium. We have to brake deep."
Valentino Rossi was similarly unimpressed with the front tires, though his complaints were rather different. "Tomorrow will be a strange race because we don’t have the right front tire," he said. "The tire allocation from Michelin is difficult, not right. So at the end the soft is too soft, the medium don’t have grip. So will be very difficult and maybe a very strategic race. Depends very much from the choice, but it's not easy."
Rossi was possibly upset because he had been outvoted at the test. Michelin had brought four front tires along to the test three weeks ago, and the riders had voted on which medium front they preferred, the soft and the hard being fixed to be able to cope with the possible range of temperatures. The vote had been decided thirteen to six, Michelin's Piero Taramasso explained, with Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo preferring the rejected medium tire, but Marc Márquez, Cal Crutchlow, Andrea Iannone, Johann Zarco and many others preferring the tire chosen for the race.
With difficult grip conditions, and tires needing careful management, Sunday's race will be a war of attrition. Strategy will be important, making sure that you have tire left for the end of the race. Add in the effect of the rubber from Moto2, and everything becomes unpredictable. After Qualifying, it looks like Jorge Lorenzo has the upper hand, with Marc Márquez, Andrea Dovizioso, and Maverick Viñales not far behind. The battle behind the leaders should be even more fierce, with nothing to choose between Valentino Rossi, Danilo Petrucci, Cal Crutchlow, Tito Rabat, Dani Pedrosa, and Johann Zarco. At the moment, Jorge Lorenzo is the red hot favorite. But being the favorite may not count for anything come Sunday night.
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