Qualifying in MotoGP is always important, but at the Termas de Rio Hondo track in Argentina, it matters just that little bit more. That would seem odd at such a fast and flowing track, but the problem is that the circuit doesn't get used much. That leaves the surface dusty, and without much rubber on the track to provide grip. Over the three days of the Grand Prix weekend, the three classes gradually clean up the track and put down a layer of rubber, adding to the grip.
The trouble is, because it is practice and qualifying, most of that rubber gets laid down on the racing line, as everyone tries to find the quickest line around the circuit. Stray from that line, and you are quickly back in green, dusty tarmac, with nary a hint of rubber on it. The grip is gone. "That's an important thing, because if you go 1 meter wide, you feel the bike like it is floating," is how Danilo Petrucci describes it.
That's why qualifying matters so much. If you start from the first couple of rows, you stand a chance of getting in the leading group, and biding your time until a safe opportunity presents itself. But if you don't qualify up front, or you mess up the start, then you have to take your chances out on the dirty part of the track, and hope your luck holds.
Run wide at your peril
If, like Cal Crutchlow, you didn't feel as confident on your second qualifying run, made a couple of mistakes because of the lack of feel from the rear of the bike, and ended up starting from eighth, you can also hope that the luck of the people in front of you doesn't hold. "With how dirty the track is, being run off line, having to make passes, I just hope that the other guys in front of me don't make the first couple of corners very well, and they also maybe run out onto the dirt," the LCR Honda rider said. "But I need to make sure I stay on line, and stay in a good position."
That lack of feeling at the rear proved costly for Crutchlow, as his pace is otherwise very good. "I think that starting from eighth is a disaster from that point of view, but I have the pace, I have a great pace to be on the podium, for sure, and I had the pace to be able to challenge right at the front of the race."
The LCR Honda rider was the only rider whose pace came anywhere near that of Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider reigned supreme, able to open a gap to the opposition at will. He consistently had at least a couple of tenths on the rest of the field, and took pole with room to spare, despite a couple of hiccups.
Cast off your chain
The first came during FP4, when the chain of his Honda RC213V jumped off the sprocket. A very rare mechanical failure for the factory Honda team, and one which forced him to change his strategy, as it left him with just one bike for qualifying. "In FP4 we had a small issue that all the team reacted really good to, and prepared the bike," Márquez said in the press conference. "It was not maybe the best strategy, because we planned really well for FP4 and qualifying. Then in the quali, I tried to push because I knew that the other riders would be close. Because in one lap I’m struggling a little bit more than the race pace because the setup of the bike is completely different. But happy about the race pace. I feel strong. This is the most important."
Márquez could find himself beset by Ducatis. Jack Miller has been strong all weekend, and if the Pramac Ducati rider hadn't had a moment on his fast lap, he believed he could have put the bike on pole. "I had a big moment in turn 11, nearly highsided on entry," the Australian said. "My ideal time should have put us on pole but anyway it is what is."
He was very happy with his race pace. "I feel good. We've had good pace all weekend and in FP4 I was able to do a long run, 18 laps, on the soft and felt comfortable. The pace was good and I'm happy, we've just got to do some homework tonight because it seems that Marc is the strongest guy out there at the minute in terms of pace so we've got to try and match him or understand what type of race he's going to try and ride tomorrow."
Can Miller give Márquez some trouble in the closing laps? "He's got good pace," Miller mused of Marquez. "I think ours is probably the second-best pace. If you look at the timesheets over the whole weekend we've definitely been consistent, punching out the laps. But between myself, him and Cal – Cal's looking quite strong on pace. His are never really too consistent, but that's Cal. He throws in three laps then one slow one and then another two or three laps. I feel good but I think those two boys are looking really strong. The Hondas looking strong. But like I said you can't count out Dovi, Vale, they are all going to be there in the race. We just have to do our best and also hope for some good weather."
Andrea Dovizioso ended up on the front row of the grid, and at a track where Ducati has struggled, that gave the Italian plenty to be happy about. "I’m really, really happy with what has happened these two days," Dovizioso told the press conference, "because we confirm a really good speed and I didn’t expect. I’m able to be quite fast. Not like Marc, and I think also Cal has a really good pace for the race but we are not too far." His goal, the Ducati rider said, was the podium.
Sizing up the opposition
Sandwiched between Márquez and Dovizioso on the front row is Maverick Viñales. That is something of a surprise, not least for the Monster Energy Yamaha rider himself, as Viñales had a miserable day on Friday. "We had some issues on Friday," Viñales said. "I couldn’t be really strong. I don’t know why. We struggled a lot compared than in Qatar, especially with the rear grip. But we made a good step forward today, especially in FP4 I felt much better."
After the disaster at Qatar, Viñales had said he would spend more time riding with other riders, to see the lines those bikes were taking, and see where a pass would be possible. The hard lesson of Qatar was that theoretical speed did not translate to actual results with others in the way.
Viñales held true to his word in Argentina, following Danilo Petrucci for several laps during practice to understand what his options were. His crew had changed the bike to give him a fighting chance in a battle on track. "I feel much better, much better on hard braking," Viñales said. "We are using a quite different setup. I felt good to overtake. Let’s see tomorrow. For sure I will push. I will be at my maximum the first laps and then we will see what happens. But for sure I will try to be tomorrow there in the front, fighting for the race and let’s see what we can do."
Is Yamaha back?
With Viñales on the front row, and all four M1s in the top seven, things are looking good for Yamaha. That left Valentino Rossi feeling positive. "In this track the M1 is fast, we are all in front," the Italian said. "I have a good feeling with the bike from yesterday and today we are able to improve a bit so also my pace is quite good. It's true that there are another 5-6 riders that have a very good pace so it'll be very important to try to work well tonight and wait to see the conditions tomorrow because can be dry, can be wet."
In the end, it is tire life which will be crucial, as Franco Morbidelli, sat on the other end of the second row of the grid, explained. "Tire life is a big question mark and a never-ending story," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "I don't know. It will be important to make a good choice tomorrow, especially for us, because the rear tire is very important for use Yamaha riders. For everybody, but maybe for us a bit more."
Perhaps the biggest disappointment at Termas de Rio Hondo is Suzuki. Fresh from fighting for the podium at Qatar, Alex Rins finds himself starting from sixteenth, his rookie teammate Joan Mir three places behind him. The problem, it seems, is that the Suzuki isn't as strong over a single lap during qualifying as it is in race pace. "Looks like it," Rins agreed. "Because Mir did almost the same time as me. So we need to improve this thing, because for the starts, it's very difficult to start the race at the back of the grid."
Wet weather changes everything
Of course, all of this could turn out very different if it rains on race day. It had already started to rain on Saturday evening, and the forecast is for more rain through the night, showers in the morning, then light rain from 1pm onward, just in time for the end of the Moto2 race and the start of the MotoGP race.
What happens then? "Is a blank sheet of paper," Valentino Rossi said. "You restart from zero. Nobody knows." Danilo Petrucci agreed. "In case of rain, I think the cards are all mixed up, and you have to be lucky to pick one. I am good with the rain, I'm sure, but if the conditions is starting to dry out, then with the rain tires, the riders who are a bit heavier suffer." Wet tires degrade quickly on a dry line, but they degrade quicker when they have the heat of a larger rider to deal with.
Even if it doesn't rain, that doesn't mean the track will be dry. "It seems that if it rains, then three days later it's still wet here," Crutchlow said. "So if it's going to rain tonight, it's going to be damp, or patches for the race." Even then, the track can still be quick, and that makes it even riskier. "Race laps at the end of the race [in 2018] were 1'40.3, that's the same as what people are doing now," Crutchlow said. "For the podium battle down to seventh, they are doing 1'40.3s. And the track was in better condition this year. So it's going to be a massive risk tomorrow."
In at the deep end
It will be a special challenge for the MotoGP rookies. So far, they have not seen any track time at all in the wet, so Sunday will be the first chance they get to try a MotoGP bike, and the exceptional Michelin rain tires in the wet. "No, never," Miguel Oliveira replied when asked if he had ridden in the wet. "Not even a rain tire in the dry. So if it happens, it will be the first time."
If the warm up is dry, the experience could be quite intimidating, the Tech3 KTM rider said. "In the warm up, it's OK, but if we go straight to the race with mixed conditions, with rain tires, obviously it's the first time for me, so I don't know where the limits are. So it's going to be a completely new discovery. But it's going to be good."
Oliveira has been perhaps the most impressive of the MotoGP rookies so far, despite being so far behind. On a satellite bike, with less support than the factory team, the Portuguese rider has been very close to the factory KTM riders. He finished Q2 just a few hundredths behind Pol Espargaro, and a quarter of a second quicker than Johann Zarco. His rate of adaptation has been truly remarkable.
So it's going to be damp on Sunday, though whether fully wet or with just a few patches here and there, we won't know until 2pm. If there is one thing we know about sketchy conditions, it is that Marc Márquez excels in them, as he demonstrated in 2018, when he was a second a lap quicker than everyone else in treacherous conditions. It didn't do him any good, of course, because he was riding like a maniac after being forced to take a ride through, managing to clip almost everyone he passed on his way through the field. But starting from pole – let us hope we have a regular start, and not a repeat of the bizarre chaos of 2018 – he should have a clear run. If Marc Márquez gets away on a sketchy track, the race will be for second before the first lap is over.
One last note
You may have noticed that I didn't mention aero. The Spoiler War is settled, with Danny Aldridge accepting Honda's explanation that their spoiler is for swing arm bracing, not for aero. But despite getting the spoiler ruled legal, it never made an appearance on any of the RC213Vs on the grid. It was a ruse to demonstrate the absurdity of the current set of rules. It succeeded in its purpose, you might say.
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