To win a motorcycle race, team, rider, and machine need to get as close as possible to extracting 100% of performance from both motorcycle and rider. In the Socratic Ideal of a motorcycle race, as the bike crosses the line, it runs out of fuel, explodes into a thousand pieces, the tires destroy themselves, and the rider drops down dead. That, however, would contravene the engine durability regulations, be extraordinarily expensive, and make winning a championship impossible.
Instead, what the riders and teams try to do is maximize the performance of the bike, and allow the rider to manage performance throughout the race. That means finding the right engine mapping to extract as much power as possible without burning through tires and fuel, and setting up suspension and electronics to keep as much edge grip, corner speed, and braking ability as possible for as long as possible.
In 2017 and 2018, tire consumption was often the limiting factor. Riders knew tire performance would drop significantly at some point, so they had to design their race strategy around that: either push hard from the beginning and manage to the end, or slow up the race and hope to keep as much performance as possible to make a dash for the end. Andrea Dovizioso was a master at this, which allowed him to control the races such that he could win them, or at least keep them close.
In 2018, and especially 2019, the tires have changed. Michelin have found a way to improve tire durability, and retain performance. As a result, this year's tires are both a little softer (though Michelin insist that is not a good way to think of the combination of compound and construction) and have more tire life. They can go faster for longer.
Out of the frying pan, into the fire
The 2019 Michelins may have eliminated one element of strategy from MotoGP, but not all of it. The tires may be much more predictable, but there is still some variation in performance. And better grip for longer also means that the riders have more power available to them for longer, the electronics needing to cut power to preserve tire life less frequently. And at tracks with very high fuel consumption – with long straights from low gear corners, where the throttle is held open a long time – better tires means having to manage fuel much more carefully.
Like with tires, you can manage fuel in different ways. You can go flat out early on, try to pull a gap, and then manage the gap by being smoother and more deliberate (and switching to a more conservative engine map) in the second half of a race. Or you can hang back, sit behind other riders, saving fuel in their slipstream, and wait for the final laps to make a push for the lead.
Those were the strategies with which Marc Márquez headed into the Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi. "Today I was thinking to make the strategy for the race," the Repsol Honda rider said. "Try to follow somebody and attack in the end, or push from the beginning. Then I said, okay, today in the warm up I feel really good. I will push from the beginning."
So it was that Márquez, starting from pole for the first time at Motegi in the MotoGP class, focused all his energy on getting the jump when the lights went out for the start of the race. He entered Turn 1 ahead of Fabio Quartararo, the rider who has become his main rival in recent races, and pushed to try to make a break.
Quartararo, however, was having none of it. The Petronas Yamaha SRT rider latched onto Márquez' tail, knowing that his own best chance of winning was to lead the race. As Quartararo discovered at both Misano and Buriram, the Yamaha M1 is fast when he can pick and choose his own lines, but it is hard to use the corner speed advantage the M1 has when you are following another bike. "With our bike it’s good to make a gap from the first laps," he said after the race.
So Quartararo followed Márquez as closely as possible through the stop-and-go sections of the first few corners, and used the corner speed of the bike through Turn 6 to dive inside of Márquez at Turn 7. Now it was the turn of the Frenchman to try to get away.
Stick with the plan
Márquez could not allow that. So as they headed toward the hairpin at Turn 10, the Repsol Honda rider braked as late as he dared, forcing his Honda RC213V up the inside of Quartararo's Yamaha. Quartararo is a tough rider to pass, his strength lying in getting the Yamaha stopped and entering the turn, and Márquez had to flirt with the limit to brake and then make the corner. He ran a fraction wide as he entered inside Quartararo, forcing the Frenchman to sit up slightly, but he had the lead.
That put Quartararo slightly off line, so he cut back aggressively, in turn leaving the pursuing Jack Miller with a problem. The Pramac Ducati rider nearly clipped the rear of the Petronas Yamaha, and had to sit up on the inside of the corner, destroying his exit. Quartararo's move had saved his corner exit and allowed him to keep some drive onto the long back straight, but Miller's drive was gone, pushing him back into the clutches of Franco Morbidelli on the other Yamaha.
Now clear at the front, all Márquez had to do was execute his plan. The newly reconfirmed World Champion did just that, pushing hard to open a gap over the Frenchman. By the end of Lap 2, he had a gap of over 1.2 seconds. But Quartararo wasn't prepared to let Márquez escape just yet. The Petronas Yamaha rider inched closer to Márquez a tenth at a time, cutting the gap to just under nine tenths at the end of Lap 4.
That was the signal for Márquez to up the pace again, putting nearly half a second on Quartararo on Lap 5 before the Frenchman responded. For the next six laps, the gap yoyoed around the 1.1 seconds mark, Márquez responding every time Quartararo pushed to close it. It was only once they reached the halfway mark that Márquez finally broke the Frenchman. In the space of two laps, the Repsol Honda rider extended his advantage to over 2 seconds. Completing his strategy had just become considerably easier.
Running on empty
Opening that gap had come at a cost, however. The pace had been faster than expected. The analysis by Márquez' team after practice predicted he could keep up a pace of low 1'46s and still have fuel left over. "But the problem was that I was able to ride in 1'45 high in a good way," Márquez explained. "Sometimes this is good news, but this time it was not so good because then with the fuel, we know that was a little bit on the limit. I just tried to control during all the race. I tried to be smooth, tried to be on this 1'46 low. When I took two seconds I said, now I will try to manage the distance. Lucky for me, because when one and a half laps remain, the fuel alarm was on the dashboard. When I have the fuel alarm means that remains three laps of fuel. Then I just try to manage."
"Honestly speaking, I started to play a lot with the switches, because like you see, with the fuel and everything, I was on the limit. It's one of the worst circuits here." Márquez really was on the limit, and he wasn't the only one. The Repsol Honda rider had to be pushed back to parc fermé after the race, having run out of fuel on the cool down lap. Quartararo had tested the limit of Márquez' strategy.
But not exceeded it. Márquez held on to win the race by just over a second, having eased off a fraction in the last couple of laps, crossing the line ahead of Fabio Quartararo. The strategy he had planned with his team had come off.
Two for the price of one
"In my mind, it was like two races," Márquez told the press conference. "There were the first twelve laps, and then the last twelve laps. The first twelve laps I tried to lead, I tried to open a gap. If it was possible, this was the plan, then keep the distance. But if it was not possible, then the plan was just to follow somebody, save fuel because we knew that was on the limit, and attack in the end. But then the option A, the first option, the first plan, worked well. But if not, there was still option B. That we didn’t use, but maybe you never know in the future."
How had Márquez pulled off this strategy? "Marc was super fast today," Quartararo said simply. "I was really on the limit in the first laps to try to follow him, but second place, that tastes really good. I will not say that I made the perfect race, but I think is the best result that we can get because Marc was much faster than us. So, I think it’s not like Thailand that we were fighting until the last corner, fighting for the victory. Now Marc was already two or three seconds away, and the second place was the best that we can get here in Motegi."
Márquez' victory may have been a masterpiece of strategy, but it did not make for a great race. The gaps that opened up turned the race into something of a procession, Márquez leading as Quartararo followed. It was clear that Márquez had this one in the bag, the only question was over his margin of victory.
Choices have consequences
The race livened up toward the end, the logical consequence of Márquez' strategy. As Márquez and Quartararo managed their pace with a view to finishing, Andrea Dovizioso and Maverick Viñales drew closer. In Dovizioso's case, the issue was not so much tire conservation, as not being able to push on new tires. "We struggled the first half part of the race when the grip was good for everybody," the factory Ducati rider said. "I wasn’t fast enough. I was losing too much in the middle of the corners, I couldn’t be faster than Morbidelli."
But as the tires went off, Dovizioso found it easier to maintain the same pace, and even go faster. "Lap by lap the tire dropped, and in that case my bike worked better and better and better," he explained. "I was able to brake better and my lap times improved. So really happy about the last part of the race because my feeling was really good. The lap time was good."
"But we are not fast when the grip is good," Dovizioso continued. "This is something we have to analyze and study because like in the practice we struggle to be on top, like at the beginning of the race."
The Desmosedici's Achilles heel
The statistics back this up. Dovizioso, Danilo Petrucci, and Jack Miller, the three riders on Ducati GP19s, have a grand total of eight front-row starts between them, and not a single pole. By contrast, Yamaha riders have six pole positions and have qualified on the front row 22 times in total (though Maverick Viñales was demoted three places after qualifying in third at Barcelona. Honda have 15 front row starts, though Marc Márquez owns 14 of those, Cal Crutchlow having started from third in Austin.
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