A race track is a large place. 4+ kilometers of asphalt, 15 meters wide. A MotoGP bike is a small thing, under 2 meters long from nose to tip, and 60 centimeters wide. The bikes should get lost in the vast expanse of asphalt on track. Yet somehow, these tiny vehicles always seem to run across each other on track.
The riders are to blame, of course. There are advantages to be gained from following other riders around. In Moto3, a slipstream is vital to gaining extra speed. In MotoGP, using a rider ahead as a target allows you to judge your braking points better and gives that extra bit of motivation which is worth a tenth or two. And a tenth or two can mean starting a row ahead of where you would otherwise.
When bikes meet on the track, it always sparks resentment. The rider in front is annoyed at being followed, and will slow down to try to force the other rider in front. The rider behind gets annoyed by the antics of the person they are trying to follow. In the best case, it is all soon forgotten. In the worst case, well, it involves Marc Márquez and Valentino Rossi and a small war breaks out in the Italian and Spanish press, and a much bigger war breaks out among the fans.
That happened in Q2 at Misano. Marc Márquez left the pits on his third run at qualifying, after having pitted early from his second run. He came out of the pits just as Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi rounded the final corner and hit the front straight. As Márquez was still getting up to speed, he moved aside to let Dovizioso and Rossi pass, before tucking in behind them. And that's when the trouble started.
Naturally, Márquez and Dovizioso have different versions of events. And both versions are highly subjective, and reveal more about the rider than what actually happened.
"I went out from the box on my last run and you can check, I was completely alone," Marc Márquez incorrectly insisted. "Then when I arrived at the back straight Valentino was waiting or riding very slow and then I just stopped behind him because of course I was in front of him in the timesheets and my intention was non to push until my last lap."
"We started the last lap, I put some gap between us. Then when we went out from Turn Six he touched the green so his lap was canceled. Then I saw he was riding fast, but not super fast. Then I had the chance to overtake on the back straight," Márquez continued.
"It's true that then in the fast corner I touched the green, but I only saw on the TV after because on the bike I didn't realize," Márquez said. "So I kept pushing, but then we arrived at Turn 14 I just go in and I saw one bike black and yellow arriving very fast inside with a speed that was impossible to turn the corner. Lucky for me I was able to avoid the crash, this was a good reaction, and the second reaction with my hand I want to be clear that it was not to say 'sorry' it was just to say 'what's going on here?' because I didn't understand."
Astute readers will note that Márquez insists that Rossi must have known his lap was canceled because he exceeded track limits, while simultaneously insisting that he had no idea he had exceeded track limits at Turn 11. Rossi was off the kerb and on the green standing at Turn 6, his tires a couple of centimeters at the edge of the kerb. At Turn 11, Márquez was 5cm or more out onto the green.
Márquez later emphasized once again that Rossi had exceeded track limits. He had gesticulated at Rossi because he did not believe this was an innocent action by the Monster Energy Yamaha rider. "It was an aggressive reaction because I didn't expect but anyway I didn’t expect also because his lap was canceled because on the exit of Turn 6 – and this is important – he touched the green."
The other side
Valentino Rossi used the excuse that he and Márquez had been summoned to the FIM Stewards to keep his media debrief short, and avoid getting into too much detail. "About the problem with Márquez, I was on my hot lap," Rossi said. "I was pushing 100% and he overtook me in the fast corner, in Turn 11, and already he made me lose a lot of time, but in overtaking me he went on the green, so I tried to stay more inside and tried to overtake him back in the hairpin, but I arrived wide, so... in the end we lost all the chance to improve the lap time."
Like Márquez, Rossi pleaded innocence of the offense of exceeding track limits. "I exited from Turn 6, we always exit on the wire, and I didn't know if I touched the green, sincerely. I was pushing, and I think that I was not on the green. So I was on my hot lap, because it was my last chance. I saw later on the paper that I touched the green."
The FIM Stewards heard both parties, examined the footage, and decided the incident was not worthy of further investigation or punishment to either or both of the parties involved. I presume that the Stewards gave them both a withering look, told them to grow up, and sent them on their way with a warning not to do it again.
The truth is out there
What really happened? It's clear that Marc Márquez exited the pits on his own, not necessarily looking for a tow. But the footage, and the live tracking screen showing the position of the riders on the track clearly show that Márquez came out in front of Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi. Márquez let Dovizioso and Rossi pass, then latched onto the tail of Rossi. Rossi noticed, and slowed up, not wanting to give Márquez a tow.
Things went downhill from there. Rossi tried to force Márquez to pass, Márquez bided his time hoping to force Rossi into chasing a fast lap, a tactic which has worked previously. But Rossi had already set a lap which had him in fifth at that point, and so Márquez' leverage was less. It all got ill tempered from there, neither rider willing to give an inch.
The real problem is that as large as a race track is, it is not large enough to contain the egos of the rider currently regarded as the greatest of all time, and the rider who is in the process of stealing that title away from him. There is real antipathy between the two over a series of incidents, starting in 2015 in Argentina, and repeated at regular intervals over the years.
Battle of egos
Valentino Rossi would never do anything to help Marc Márquez go faster unless he felt he had absolutely no choice because of his own circumstances. Márquez, in turn, is at the height of his powers, and is regularly using his status to intimidate everyone on track, to show them who is boss in the hope of beating them in their heads before having to beat them with his speed.
Neither rider was willing to give an inch, and both were willing to take absurd risks in order to make a point. The Stewards got the decision right. No punishment is necessary in this instance, as both riders were so busy focusing on each other that they made mistakes on the track which would have seen any fast lap set canceled. It was exactly the sort of childish, puerile spat which you would expect from a clash of egos on this scale. And it will happen again and again until the two are no longer racing together.
The consensus in the press room was that the clash was deeply entertaining, but that it overshadowed the fantastic spectacle ahead of them. Indeed, the clash probably happened precisely because the spectacle was ahead of Márquez, rather than behind him. The Honda, like the Ducati, is struggling at Misano, punished by the lack of grip at the track. So Márquez can't use the strong points of the RC213V – the power of the bike and its ability to accelerate – to dominate as he has done at other tracks. If he wishes to dominate, he has to play his hand in a more calculated way. And that means using riders ahead of him as a target.
Corner speed rules when grip is low
Why are the Hondas and Ducatis struggling? The very low grip of the track, caused by it being microblasted to remove the rubber and open up fractures in the stones in the asphalt to assist drainage, means that bikes which can carry corner speed can go faster around the track. If you are smooth with the throttle and braking, and not create sudden stresses, then you can go faster than if you are aggressive and try to get the power down too quickly, or brake too suddenly.
The Honda is a bike which relies on its acceleration out of turns, and its braking into turns, and while it can also carry corner speed, there is some risk involved in that. The Yamaha has to be ridden very smoothly, and that smoothness rewards its riders with a way to extract the maximum grip for a track which barely has any.
That is why there are two Yamahas on the front row, Maverick Viñales taking pole and Fabio Quartararo ending up third. But the two Yamahas are not just fast over a single lap, their pace is also fearsome. Viñales did a lap of 1'33.367 on a tire with 14 laps, or just over half race distance on it, while did a 1'33.8 on a tire of similar vintage. Marc Márquez showed similar pace, though his fastest times came on a tire with fewer laps on it.
It wasn't just Viñales and Quartararo. Petronas Yamaha rider Franco Morbidelli was fourth fastest, while Valentino Rossi was sixth quickest in FP4, a sign that the Yamaha suits the track. Alex Rins looked very good too, setting the fifth fastest time in the final free practice session. "In FP4 with nine laps in the tires, we did an incredible good pace," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "It's true that the other riders were with new tires, so it's difficult to compare."
Pol pulls it off
The big story, though, was Pol Esparagaro's front row start. The Spaniard pushed his Red Bull KTM RC16 to a blistering lap, that at the time looked like it might be good enough for pole, It was the KTM's best qualifying result and the second time a KTM has been on the front row of the grid, the previous time coming at Brno with Johann Zarco.
Espargaro was rendered almost speechless with emotion after his extraordinary result, like most of his crew. The joy in the KTM garage knew no bounds, reward for the long hours, days, and months of toil finally paying off.
The test here two weeks ago had helped, he explained. "I would say that first of all we are working huge, and sometimes you have your rewards. But especially with being here in the test. Normally when we go to tracks we don't ride them from one year to the other during all the season. It means that we are changing the bike quite often because we keep improving every single race. We don’t know the bike when we go to those places, especially the electronics, because we are improving a lot. We are better on brakes. We are fast on the straight, more corner speed. We need to change it all. We start, we can say from zero."
Dani Pedrosa, Ace Tester
That was different at a track where they have tested recently, Espargaro said. "If we have two days testing, and this year we have Dani Pedrosa that is helping so much us. With those two days testing, we can more or less prepare the weekend and then we have more info. When we have problems we know more or less how to improve them. Already this info that we have, we got through this test helps us a lot. It’s what these big factories feel when they go in a track that we haven't been to for one year."
As a test rider, Pedrosa had helped move the bike in the right direction during the test. "In the test we had a lot of problems with the front wheel," Espargaro explained. "I think most of the guys, even look like Ducati now they are struggling a lot with that part. It’s part of the bike that I always try to take so much carefully because it’s what I use to be fast just on the brake. Where I recover, where I gain time, and in the test I had a lot of problems so we were working a lot with Dani."
Espargaro expanded on what Pedrosa, an experienced veteran, had brought to KTM's development program. He had been surprised at just how much Pedrosa had been able to contribute, Espargaro said. "Dani is taking this situation very seriously, more than I ever expected, honestly," the Spaniard told the press conference. "When he retired from Honda, Dani was quite burned out with this MotoGP world. Then for me it was difficult to trust that he wold give the 100% of his performance with another bike, a little bit worse than the Honda."
Those fears proved to be unfounded. "But he jumped into the bike and you cannot believe how seriously he is taking this project. He went into the factory to put everyone straight. He is doing everything with a lot of effort, but not just that. Dani is a very small rider. The weight is not so big. He needs a lot from the bike. He needs that the bike does a lot of work because he cannot handle with his weight. So he work a lot on the style. He work a lot on the electronics."
In search of perfection
It was in analyzing failure the Pedrosa shines, Espargaro explained. "When something is going wrong, he wants to know why that is going wrong and who makes this stuff may going wrong. So he wants to go very deep. I was talking this morning with Pit Beirer. He’s very sometimes angry guy because he wants everything perfect, and if everything is not perfect... For sure he has a hammer to make his point to the engineers. So when he goes out and someone is not perfect… Honestly he’s very precise and he likes everything well done."
Proof of the KTM's progress is Johann Zarco's qualifying position, the Frenchman setting the eight best time, though he will start in eleventh, after being handed a three-place grid penalty for the crash in which he took out Miguel Oliveira in Silverstone. Zarco has made a big step forward, both in race pace and in a single lap.
Where has the improvement come from? The KTM is a little bit easier to handle, thanks to recent testing work, but a large part must surely also be down to Zarco. With the pressure of worrying about what he will do next year gone, he is much freer in his mind, and that takes the pressure off actually riding. And less pressure means more speed.
Zarco drew a parallel with Miguel Oliveira, the Portuguese rider who has been outstanding in his first year in MotoGP, and who came to MotoGP without any preconceptions. "Miguel has showed that knowing nothing about MotoGP and having a free mind to learn, he could adapt even better than me to the KTM," Zarco said. "He is doing a very good job. I have nothing to lose so I want to enjoy myself and catch what I can from the bike. I still think we will have a limit and that is not my way to ride. I got satisfaction today but it was a good job over one lap and when you want a championship then you need many laps across all the tracks of the world."
Race day surprises?
What can we expect tomorrow? Well first of all the entire pack has to get through the first couple of corners, always a treacherous point at Misano. The tires have quite a large drop in performance, and so tire choice will be key. Both medium and soft rears will work during the race, though the softs will give more grip on the edge, medium more grip from the traction area of the tire. Tire choice will condition what a rider is capable of.
The Yamahas look strong – four in the top six is not to be sneezed at, and Quartararo and Viñales look like a cut above the rest. Andrea Dovizioso's assessment was as follows "I think Maverick, Quartararo, and Marc have something more. But also Morbidelli, Valentino, and Rins are very very close, and we are there with them." There could be a few surprises come race day at Misano.
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