All is fair in love, war, and motorcycle racing. When the racing is close, and the rivals are strong, then riders, teams, and even manufacturers will go to extraordinary lengths to try to win. There have already been veiled accusations of cheating at Mugello – Aleix Espargaro wondering aloud how the bikes from some factories seem to be able to do things which should not be possible with the spec electronics – though things are rarely quite that blatant. But mind games, intimidation, getting in people's way, putting them off their stride, trying to instill doubt in their minds, all these things are common.
Sometimes, those tactics can backfire. In Q1, for example, Valentino Rossi and Alex Rins found themselves caught in a classic case of Prisoner's Dilemma. In the dying minutes of Q1, while Andrea Dovizioso was chasing a quick lap to put him through to Q2, Alex Rins found Valentino Rossi behind him. At that point, Rins was clinging onto second place, behind Michele Pirro, but he knew that Dovizioso was on a charge. If Dovizioso went faster than he did, he would be out of Q2.
Stark choices lay ahead. Push for a lap and risk giving Rossi a tow, and having Rossi beat him to Q2. Try to force Rossi to pass him, then hope that Rossi would push for a lap, and use the speed of the Yamaha to gain a few extra km/h along the front straight, and bag a spot in Q2.
Caught in a trap
"The qualifying was a little bit strange," Rins said after qualifying. "For sure we improved 0.6 compared to FP4, which was a good lap time. But not enough, because we knew we had to go one step more, even though we were in second position. Because if not, Dovizioso would go in front of us. But sincerely, it's difficult when you are alone on this track, and especially with our bike where we lose a little bit on the straight. But anyway, I tried to go with Valentino, and for sure I didn't want to give Valentino my slipstream, because if I did, he would be able to put me out of Q2. Basically, in the end, he was closing the gas a lot, waiting like me, and we were out of Q2."
The problem was that Rossi was doing the same thing. "In Q1 I waited for Rins, but Rins didn’t want to make the lap, I didn’t want to make the lap," the factory Yamaha rider explained. By the time he gave in and pushed for a lap, it was just too late. "In the end I passed the flag one second late." The checkered flag had been waved, the session was over, and neither Rins nor Rossi could improve.
Instead, the two Ducatis of Michele Pirro and Andrea Dovizioso would pass to Q2. Rins was left in thirteenth, Rossi down in eighteenth, his worst qualifying in the dry since Aragon last year. The reason Rossi felt he needed a tow to improve? "Sincerely the problem was not the flag," Rossi said. "I didn’t have the potential to improve. It’s like this."
Making life difficult for themselves
Of course, neither Rossi nor Rins would have had this problem if they had gone straight through to Q2 in the first place, but both struggled in FP3, for different reasons. Rossi was on a fast lap at the end of the session, but ran off at the final corner when he was on course to cruise through to Q2.
"Two laps from the end I was on a very good lap and it was enough to stay in the top six and go to Q2," Rossi explained. "It was also scary, because on the exit from Biondetti I had a big shake in fourth gear, and when I arrived at the last corner I braked but the brake came back to the handlebar. I tried to stay on track, but in the end I went wide. In the end it’s a mistake. That mistake destroyed the day because Q1 was very difficult."
The headshake had caused the brake discs to vibrate, and pushed the brake pads back into the calipers. That left Rossi with no brakes going into Bucine, and he ran wide and into the gravel. Ironically, there was no need for Rossi to lose the brakes after a headshake. Brembo have a different set of calipers which force the pads back into position if they are pushed back too far.
But the system creates a slightly different feel at the lever, and so at first, there was some resistance to it. Brembo's updated version improved that feeling enormously, enough to convince Jack Miller, one of the last holdouts, to start to use the system. Valentino Rossi is now pretty much the only rider not using the new system. That decision cost him the passage to Q2 at Mugello.
Alex Rins had a slightly different problem. The Suzuki rider had a big crash on his out lap in FP3, and that severely dented his confidence. "The problem I had in FP3 was this crash on my first out lap. This took away all my confidence, and recovering this is difficult," Rins said. It took him until FP4 to find his feet again, but by then, he was already stuck in Q1.
The Ducatis of Andrea Dovizioso and Michele Pirro getting out of Q1 would have further consequences in Q2. Michele Pirro would try to make a fast lap by sitting on Márquez' tail on his first run, but Márquez soon put a stop to that. He then ran into a slower Andrea Dovizioso, out on a medium rear, as he did not have enough soft rear tires for two runs. Márquez muscled his way past Dovizioso rather forcefully, though still only just on this side of the rules. He then pitted to consider his strategy.
The Repsol Honda rider suspected a conspiracy – rightly or wrongly – and decided to turn the tables on the Ducatis. He sat on his bike after his first run, waiting for the others to exit, only leaving the pits when he was sure he was free of Ducati test rider Pirro.
Instead, Márquez went looking for a tow. He eventually found Dovizioso just far enough ahead of him to serve as a target. Chasing the Ducati round the track gave him just the speed boost he needed, especially in the final run towards the finish line. As Márquez flashed under the checkered flag, he had pole, half a second faster than the lap record set in the morning, and two tenths faster than Fabio Quartararo, who had set the time on his own, and looked to be on his way to a second pole in his first six races in MotoGP.
Out to get him
In the press conference, Márquez explained his suspicions, and justified his approach based on that. "In qualifying practice I had the speed, but I immediately see that Pirro was following me all the time," the Repsol Honda rider said. "It looks like Ducati told Pirro, and so I said, okay, the second tire will be different. I will follow them. So I did this kind of a strategy, and it worked in a good way."
His first run had been behind the Ducatis, but once Petrucci and Dovizioso slowed down ahead of him, he had been forced to regroup, Márquez explained. "In the first lap I was pushing. I was pretty alone, but then Petrucci slowed down. Then Dovi slowed down. I overtook them. Even like this the lap was good. Then with the second tire I said, okay, now time to change the strategy because Pirro was waiting for me. This created the situation that Dovi was there also. Then the lap time was perfect. I calculate in a good way the distance. I did a very good lap time, but in the end the most important is tomorrow, the race."
Were the Ducatis really trying to hold up Marc Márquez, ensure he had a poor qualifying session? All is fair in love, war, and motorcycle racing, but it is hard to definitively say one way or the other. What is clear is that Márquez was looking for a tow. That, at least, is what Fabio Quartararo believed, the Frenchman told the French press. That was the reason for his angry reaction at the beginning of his second run. Quartararo was heading out to chase a lap time on his own, while Márquez was looking to get behind him and use his speed.
New old rivalry ignited
Though Márquez has been in MotoGP longer than Quartararo has been in Grand Prix, there is a hidden history and a hidden rivalry between the two. There is a complex series of events which saw Quartararo pitted all too often against the Márquez family, the Frenchman finding that Marc's younger brother Alex had taken a ride which he felt he deserved, and later, Quartararo taking the Petronas Yamaha seat, which Marc would have liked to see Alex take.
And now, Quartararo has come into MotoGP, and taken Márquez' record as the youngest pole sitter away from him at Jerez. And if Quartararo were to win either at Mugello or in Barcelona, he would take Márquez' record as the youngest ever race winner away as well.
Could that happen? Quartararo has really strong race pace, running low 1'47s at will on a medium tire in FP4. Marc Márquez will have to choose the hard rear, but he too was pretty much in the same range. Of the rest, only Maverick Viñales appears to be on the same pace as Quartararo and Márquez, the rest mostly a tenth or two slower. What's more, riders like Alex Rins and Andrea Dovizioso start from further back than they need to be to be competitive. Dovizioso is still not entirely happy, but he had made an improvement in FP4, as had Marc Márquez.
But Sunday's race will not be about outright pace, but will also require an intelligent approach. That, Petronas Yamaha SRT rider coach Torleif Hartelman assures me, Quartararo has in spades. He also has the emotional intelligence not get carried away by events, and just focus on the best way to deal with a particular situation.
Pressure is for other people
What's more, Quartararo rides completely free from pressure, secure in the knowledge that he has already done enough to put his second year with the team beyond any doubt, and with no expectation of a result. If he wins, the team will be ecstatic, of course. But if he fades away and finishes sixth, or eight, the team will still be happy, as he will already have proven his potential.
This might just give Quartararo an edge. Marc Márquez has to beat the Ducatis on Sunday to put a sizable gap between himself and Andrea Dovizioso at a track where Dovizioso should be stronger. Andrea Dovizioso has to finish ahead of Márquez, and preferably win the race, to claw back points from the Repsol Honda rider at a track where they theoretically should have an advantage.
Danilo Petrucci, starting from the front row for the second race in a row, knows that the results of Mugello and Barcelona will help determine whether he gets the second factory Ducati seat for next year. Jack Miller, starting from fifth, is in exactly the same boat. Petronas Yamaha rider Franco Morbidelli starts from fourth on the grid, and has had to watch his rookie teammate on a lower spec bike qualify ahead of him, and needs a strong result to put the spotlight back on him.
Two factors will come into play when the lights go out on Sunday. The first factor will be visible within seconds of the start, Mugello being the perfect place for riders to gain from Ducati's holeshot device. The start is important at Mugello, the run to the corner long enough, and the braking for the first corner hard enough to ensure the holeshot device operates as intended, giving the Ducatis an advantage off the line.
The second will only begin to tell as the laps start to count down. "The Mugello track is very difficult for the physical side," Andrea Dovizioso said. "Everybody will push, but I don't think at 100%." Temperatures have been increasing through the weekend, with Sunday expected to be the hottest day, making the race even tougher physically, and complicating tire choice. Marc Márquez started the weekend sick, and though he is recovering very quickly, he may well start to suffer in the later stages of the race. Petrucci is also ill, and currently much worse than Márquez is, and so even though he starts from the front row, maintaining pace throughout the race could be difficult.
Five races in, and we have seen a clear pattern of how Marc Márquez goes about winning a race. So we can expect to see Márquez try to make a break early, then manage the race once he is comfortable with the gap behind him. The Ducati's best chance of foiling Márquez is to get in front of the Spaniard, try to keep him behind them, and cause his front tire to overheat as the slipstream of others deprives him of cool air on the tire. And Quartararo need only sit pretty behind either the Ducatis or Márquez, and then use the Yamaha's superior ability to hold corner speed and change direction through the first third of the track to hope he can create enough of a gap to keep them all behind him along the main straight.
From the timesheets, from talking to the riders and those involved, you get a sense there is something in the air. Speeds are up, the field is a little shook up, and the weather, illness, and a couple of new names at the front might just liven the proceedings on Sunday. It feels like anything could happen on Sunday.
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