For a stunning and heartrending reminder of just how difficult and delicate the 2020 MotoGP season is going to be, see Alex Rins' huge crash at Turn 11 during qualifying on Saturday at Jerez. The Suzuki Ecstar rider lost the front at one of the fastest and most treacherous corners of the circuit, and was forced to pick the bike up to try and save it. But as he entered the gravel trap, he realized he was traveling too fast, and decided to drop the bike to avoid hitting the barrier on the outside of the corner.
That is never an easy maneuver at speeds well over 170 km/h, and Rins fell badly in the attempt. After examination in the medical center, he was transported to a local hospital, where an MRI scan revealed that he had dislocated his right shoulder, fracturing the head of the humerus, the bone in the upper arm. He also suffered a tear in one of the muscles of his rotator cuff. Though he has not been officially ruled unfit to race just yet, the chance of him actually lining up on the grid on Sunday is minuscule.
Rins' real worry is the fact that there is another race in 7 days. And then three more races on consecutive weekends, starting three weeks from now. If Rins can race, it will be punishing. If he can't, there is still very little time to recover before the next race, or between the races after that. Thirteen races in eighteen weekends is a tough schedule for the fully fit. For anyone carrying an injury, it is going to be brutal.
The accident highlights just how much of a knife edge of risk vs reward the riders must balance on. With a short season, and one which could be curtailed at any time if there is another outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic (a real possibility: the city of Barcelona is calling for voluntary restraint as cases begin to rise again, with the threat of an enforced lockdown if the disease can't be controlled) it is imperative to both push hard early and score as many points as possible to lead the championship, and to avoid throwing away the championship in the opening rounds, as recovering from mistakes is almost impossible.
Strategy is everything in the 2020 MotoGP season, but the only strategy choices on offer are all bad. There are a million ways to lose this championship, and no obvious way of winning it. Whichever path they choose, MotoGP riders are damned if they do, and damned if they don't.
Rins was fortunate to escape with the injuries he had. It could have been much worse, especially given that he crashed just a few seconds after Jack Miller had crashed his Pramac Ducati in the same place, and was running back to his bike to try to pick it up. Both riders could have been badly hurt if Rins' bike had hit Miller.
Seeking balance and coming up short
Why did Rins crash at that corner? Put simply, the conditions during qualifying. Temperatures soared, robbing the track of grip, and so teams moved a bit more weight to the rear of the bike, in search of grip and acceleration. That means taking weight off the front, and in a couple of corners, that was leading inevitably to riders crashing, especially during qualifying, when everyone was going all out for a lap time.
"For sure we had a lot of crashes during FP4 and the qualifying session, because the track is extremely hot," Danilo Petrucci, who had crashed at Turn 11 during the test on Wednesday, explained. "We measured about 58, 59, 60°C on the track, and it's really really greasy. We especially need a lot of traction, so we go to load the rear, and the front is very, very light. In fact the crashes are all about releasing the brake, both in slow corners like Turn 2, and in Turn 11. I saw also the crash of Miller and Rins, it was in let's say 'my corner', Turn 11. I escaped from bigger injuries, but maybe Alex Rins has had a big one like me, and like me was really hard at the end. The conditions are extreme."
The conditions caused confusion for a lot of people. Fabio Quartararo had been a rocket in FP2, held at the same time of the day, yet was only tenth in FP4. Franco Morbidelli had been sixth in FP4, but ran into problems during qualifying, ending up tenth on the grid. Joan Mir had shown superb pace in FP4, but ran into unexpected issues in qualifying, and was last in Q2.
Mystery of the heat
Nobody really had explanations for their problems in the heat. "It happens to us from time to time that the feeling is good all weekend, but when we put new tires for the time attack, our performance drops and my feeling drops quite a lot. I start to have front chattering problems, and we don't really know where it comes from," Morbidelli told us.
"I’m really disappointed about the qualifying," Suzuki's Joan Mir said. "I felt really good with the bike all weekend in all conditions. Something happened in qualifying… actually I don’t know what, I have to check. But the truth is it’s really strange. I was fighting a lot to make the lap time I could do with the used tire."
This was not related to the problems which Suzuki had suffered all through 2019, where the struggled to post a quick lap, Mir insisted. "No, it’s not the same problem," he said. "This morning I made a time attack to go to the Q2 directly. I was able to make a 1'36, like the first two guys in the qualifying. My feeling is good and I’m able to push and make a good time attack. I thought this problem was solved. But something happened. It’s not normal what happened in the qualifying."
Passing under yellow
Rins' crash highlighted a problem which had raised its head earlier in the day. Yellow flags were just starting to be waved when Jack Miller crashed, probably too late for Alex Rins to see. But Fabio Quartararo passed Turn 11 on what would be his best lap, grabbing pole position and setting a lap record at the same time, while Miller and Rins sat in the gravel, and the marshals were waving yellow flags.
The rules state clearly that when a yellow flag is waved, "the riders must slow down and be prepared to stop", upon penalty of having your lap time canceled. Quartararo claimed that he rolled off a fraction through the section, but it did not cost him much time. "Honestly, it could be a little bit better but by 00 something," the Petronas Yamaha rider told the press conference. "I make a mistake in corner six but then there was a crash in turn eleven. I didn’t really see who was the rider, but when you see a bike, a yellow flag you don’t go as fast as a normal lap. So I slowed down a little bit. That’s what I mean. I was not really at a hundred percent on the limit in this corner but my lap was really good. Was almost perfect lap, but just these two points was a little bit critical."
Is "not really at a hundred percent on the limit" the same as "slowing down and being prepared ot stop"? It is hard to make a case that the two are identical. There is a lot of gray area between going flat out and sitting up and braking hard, ready to stop. The question is, where you – as Race Direction and the FIM Stewards – draw the line. Is it rolling off a fraction and then hammering the throttle when you are past (something which, according to former BSB and MotoGP rider Michael Laverty would have allowed Quartararo to still set a fast time) enough, or does the bike have to slow visibly, the rider showing clear signs of reacting to the yellow flags?
Drawing the line
Where you draw that line will always be a judgment call, though whether Race Direction got that particular call right is open to question. Aprilia's Bradley Smith certainly did not believe that they did. "I do not agree with the fact that there were two or three riders improving their lap time on the last lap, especially with waved yellow flags and two riders down at turn eleven, two bikes inside the gravel and maybe up to five or six marshals there," Smith said. "That’s dangerous! The fact anyone accepts that’s OK is damn right wrong."
Riders should be aware of the yellow flags and react accordingly, no matter the cost to their qualifying, Smith insisted. "That’s something we really need to take into consideration. I don’t care if that ruins Q2. That’s what it comes down to. You have two opportunities in Q2: you have tire one and tire two. So I believe the rule states you must slow down and you must not improve your sector. I have question marks over who actually deserves to be on pole position today."
The incident with Quartararo came on top of a previous clash in FP3. Alex Rins was on a flying lap in the final seconds of the session, and chasing a spot in Q2, when he came upon Marc Márquez, who was riding on the racing line at under full speed. Rins was naturally furious, having been balked by the Repsol Honda rider, yet Márquez was not penalized. Márquez had every right to be riding slowly, having slowed down because of yellow flags after a crash by KTM Tech3 rider Iker Lecuona.
Suspicion fell on Márquez deliberately getting in Rins' way, especially as Rins was a rival for the title. But the Repsol Honda rider explained exactly why he had slowed down. "Obviously I didn’t see him [Rins], but anyway what the camera didn’t show, or maybe later it did, was a double yellow flag on Turn 2, and there were some marshals and some rider in the middle. So I slowed down. When it’s a double yellow flag you must slow down. You cannot be on your fastest lap. For that reason I didn’t look behind, because I didn’t expect that somebody was pushing on that situation."
In normal circumstances, it might have been more difficult to claim he did not know there was someone behind him. In a non-pandemic year, when the grandstands would have been packed with fans, there would have been big screens dotted around the circuit, showing live footage of the session for the benefit of the spectators. But the race is closed to fans, and so there is no need for the jumbotrons. No fans, no big screens, and another little bit less information for the riders to use on track.
Corner speed vs agility
With the heat expected to be as bad on Sunday as it was on Saturday, a long and perhaps confusing race beckons. The front row is an accurate reflection of the field, the three riders with the best race pace on the front of the grid. Whether the order is correct is another thing: Marc Márquez seems to have fractionally better pace, lapping in the very low 1'38s, and being able to dip into the 1'37s at will. Maverick Viñales has almost identical pace to Márquez, though the 1'37s did not come quite so easily. Fabio Quartararo is a little slower still, though his pace on Friday, in FP2, was stronger than in FP4.
The challenge, though, lies with the Yamaha riders. If Viñales or Quartararo can get away at the start, then they are capable of maintaining the kind of rhythm which even Márquez will struggle to match. But if Márquez gets ahead, it will prove very difficult indeed for the Yamahas to pass him, the Honda RC213V better at both attacking and defending positions, and Márquez' pace speaks for itself.
Behind the top three, there is a large group with very similar pace. Alex Rins looked like being able to match the front row trio, but his crash at the end of qualifying will have put paid to that. Andrea Dovizioso doesn't look to be in as bad shape as he does on paper, his pace within striking distance of the leaders. But Dovizioso leads a large group, consisting of himself, Suzuki's Joan Mir, Petronas Yamaha rider Franco Morbidelli, LCR Honda riders Takaaki Nakagami and Cal Crutchlow, KTM man Pol Espargaro, and Pramac Ducati's Jack Miller, who could end up battling it out all race.
Last rider standing
In the end, it is likely to be a war of attrition. Having a good setup where the lap times come easily will be key to surviving the race, Andrea Dovizioso explained. "I think that the heat will be a big problem for everybody, but the way to manage that is related to the speed you have," the factory Ducati rider told us. "It's the same as always, because how you manage to deal with that is related to the speed that you have. It's always the same because if you're in a good place it's [easier] but if you're not fast enough you use more energy and you can't use that level of energy for 45 minutes in a race. It's always related to your speed."
That affected his own prospects, though he remained optimistic. "I'm not happy with my feeling in the front and it will be difficult to manage this, because in practice everyone pushes really hard and most of the riders are very fast, but in the race the pace will be very different," Dovizioso said. "The drop will be different because we don't know how to manage these tires for 25 laps in this temperature. Everything will be new and we'll see but the temperature will affect everyone."
Of concern will be Valentino Rossi, who starts in eleventh, but who has shown no signs of solving the problems he is having with the rear Michelin. The problem is clearly neither the tire, nor the Yamaha, as there are three Yamaha M1s ahead of Rossi, and all three have shown superb race pace. Though Rossi is making steps forward with the Yamaha, there is still a long way for him to go before he is competitive.
It was not for a want of trying. Rossi rejected a suggestion, put forward by Michelin boss Piero Taramasso, that Rossi's problems were because he wasn't hanging off the bike enough. "I don’t agree with Taramasso," he told journalists. "Sincerely, I hear the interview, but if you look at the images I am a lot out of the bike because we work a lot from this point of view, and with the Bridgestone tires we were also more out of the bike than now."
The Michelin tires do not allow the rider to hang off the bike as much as the Bridgestones did, however. "So now with the Michelin you cannot stay too much outside the bike. But if you look at my position… I don’t think it's true. The problem is not that." Rossi pointed to the example of Andrea Dovizioso. "For example, Dovizioso is another rider that his style, he is completely on the bike, but he doesn’t finish the tires. So for me it's not that problem."
The issue might be down to the design philosophy of Michelin, Rossi suggested. "Usually in my career, I always ride and prefer the hard tires at the front and rear. In the past I did the best races in my career with the hard tires. Now the Michelin tires are very soft, very soft casing and very soft rubber, and for me it's not easy. Also because I am more tall, maybe the tallest, for sure more than the average. I'm very slim, but anyway my weight is weight is quite high because of my height. But from the other side I understand Taramasso; it's my problem, not a Michelin problem. Because anyway the other guys are fast. So I agree with him that we need to find a way, but I don’t agree that the problem is I'm not out of the bike."
It is an intractable problem. But one which is down to Rossi and his crew to solve. Having back-to-back races at the same circuit may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Rossi, being able to take a race weekend's worth of data at the same track into a following weekend. But if he can't solve it, you have to wonder just how much longer Rossi will want to continue.
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