Qualifying at the Red Bull Ring proved as exhilarating a spectacle as ever, but like Banquo's ghost at Macbeth's banquet, an absent specter took some of the attention away from a celebration of racing. A little over an hour after qualifying finished – delayed because Jaume Masia tore the fairing from his Leopard Honda Moto3 bike after crashing in Q1, then rode back to the pits dumping oil and water all over the track – a press release from the Repsol Honda team reminded us of the absentee champion.
Marc Márquez, the press release announced, would be out for another two to three months, to allow him to recover fully from the broken humerus he suffered at the first round of MotoGP on July 19th. Of course, the problem wasn't that break, but the aftermath: Márquez had an operation to plate the humerus a couple of days later, he was doing press ups the day after that, and tried to ride again on the Saturday after breaking his arm. It went OK for one session of practice, but he felt an unpleasant twinge in his arm, and a lack of strength, and so stopped.
A few days later, while opening a heavy glass door, the plate in his arm broke, requiring a new plate to be fitted, and more surgery. There was talk of a return at the Red Bull Ring, and then at Misano, but in the past couple of days, whispers started circulating that the situation was worse than at first thought. Márquez wouldn't be back at Misano. He might not even be back at Aragon. Any thought of the championship was now finally, definitively gone.
More questions than answers
What do we know of Márquez' injury? Very little, the press release from Honda being kept deliberately vague, and sources surrounding Márquez keeping quiet. Reading between the lines of the press release, and of what Repsol Honda team manager Alberto Puig told the MotoGP.com website, there seems to be some unhappiness with Dr Mir, and the surgeons who performed the operation to plate Márquez' arm.
"After the second surgery, we consulted other doctors and checked other opinions," Puig told MotoGP.com. "We all agreed – the rider and HRC, with the opinions of the other doctors – that it would be better to delay a bit the recovery process to allow the bone to come to a full recovery. We understand that the championship is impossible to win it this time. Marc races to win so we understand that it’s better to bring him back racing when he’s fully fit and he can race the way he knows, which is full attack."
Why would you consult other doctors? If you are no longer 100% certain of the advice the original doctors gave you. Does that mean that Dr Mir made some kind of mistake? We have no way of knowing, but what we do know is that motorcycle racers are an impatient bunch. They want miracle cures, and when miracle cures aren't offered – or the cures provided prove to be rather less than miraculous – then frustration appears.
There is plenty of blame to go around here, not least to Marc Márquez, for trying to come back far too early, and for HRC and the Repsol Honda team for not being able to persuade him to wait for a couple of weeks before trying. There is blame to be given to the medical team, for not sufficiently impressing on Márquez the risks he was taking by trying to ride – though apportioning blame between the doctors and a rider unwilling to listen is a rather more difficult affair.
In the end, where the blame lies is irrelevant. Decisions were made, and now HRC, Marc Márquez, and the people around him have to live with the consequences. Marc Márquez faces a lost season, and a lost championship. HRC face the reality of where the 2020 Honda RC213V stands: sixteenth, seventeenth, and twentieth on the starting grid for Sunday. Small consolation: Takaaki Nakagami sits on the front row on the LCR Honda, though he does so on a 2019 version of the bike.
That in itself opens another can of worms. Is the 2020 bike that bad, or is the combination of an injured Cal Crutchlow, a rookie rider in Alex Márquez, and test rider Stefan Bradl not allowing the bike to show its full potential. On the other hand, if the 2019 Honda RC213V is still capable of getting on the front row of the grid, how small is the improvement which the 2020 bikes have made? This question deserves extra attention, as Nakagami was joined in the front row press conference by Johann Zarco, who had set the third fastest qualifying time on the year-old Avintia Ducati.
Riders will be riders
Did Marc Márquez try to come back too early? No earlier than anyone else would have tried, was the general consensus. "I can understand this feeling he had in Jerez to go on the bike and try," Johann Zarco said. Márquez was always going to push himself to the limit to try to ride, and to convince the doctors to let him try to ride. "I cannot really imagine how pain he got. He did some physical tests, but Marc is a warrior. Even if you hurt his arm, he will do pull-ups, push-ups and try to go."
Aleix Espargaro was of the same mind as Johann Zarco. "Believe me, how the riders are, we always want to try, it doesn't matter if we have an operation or surgery, or some pain, we will try, always." The role of the doctors was to prevent riders from being a danger to others, Espargaro said, but not a danger to themselves. "For me, if the doctor feels that this injury is not safe for other riders, I agree 100% that he has to stop the rider. But if the injury is not a problem, it's just painful or worse for the athlete, the athlete has to decide. The doctors are there to tell them the consequences and to say whether they are safe to ride or not. But if it's safe, but you have pain and you can increase the injury, the athlete has to decide."
Speed will not be an issue for Márquez when he returned, Espargaro believes. "But believe me, during this period of Covid, when we came back to the track, immediately everybody was very fast. I remember on the Wednesday of Jerez, the times were already very very fast." The bigger issue is having confidence in his bike, and the motivation to continue. "For the motivation, for the faith in the bike, it's not going to be easy, but I think that Marc is the rider on the grid who has the most faith in his bike, because he knows the bike perfectly and he knows the limits super super good, so I think this is an advantage for him."
The motivation which Márquez has was one of the things Aleix Espargaro most admired, a quality he also saw in Valentino Rossi, who continues to race long after most other riders would have retired, and still has the motivation to put in the work to end up on the podium. "With big champions like him, like Valentino, it doesn't matter how many consecutive races they won, they want more," Espargaro said. "And then one more, and then one more, and then one more championship."
That ambition would bring Márquez back sooner rather than later, Espargaro said. "The desire that Valentino and Marc has in this case is unbelievable, and believe me that it's not easy to have this ambition inside of you, because for sure when you have won what Marc has won, it's easy to say, fuck, I will go back next year, I won't race this year, it doesn't matter. But I'm sure that he's thinking to risk and try to come back, even if it's just for the last Sunday, he will come. So applause to him, and also Valentino, for example."
But back to qualifying. The fact that Johann Zarco was in the front row press conference confused some people. Zarco has been given a penalty for last Sunday's crash with Franco Morbidelli and must start from pit lane. So why was he in Parc Ferme after qualifying in third? Come to think of it, why was he even riding in Q1 and then Q2? There was nothing at stake for him, so why bother?
The short answer is because he can. The penalty was his starting position, not a loss of track time. Zarco was allowed to ride in Q1, and in Q2 after being the fastest rider in Q1, and made optimal use of his track time. He also had a point to prove, to himself and to those who criticized him. Nothing fires a rider up like being the victim of a perceived injustice, whether that injustice is real or exists solely in the rider's mind.
The man Zarco put out of Q2 had no qualms about accepting his fate. Iker Lecuona, who has been making solid progress in the past couple of races, just missed out on Q2 in FP3, ending the session a tenth off Jack Miller's Q2 qualifying time, and four tenths slower than Joan Mir's fastest overall time.
"For sure I want to go to the Q2, because all the weekend, I am very close to going directly to Q2," Lecuona told us. "Yesterday, this morning also, I missed by less than one tenth, so it's nothing. But everybody sees that the gap is really small in FP3, I am just four tenths slower than the best rider." Lecuona didn't blame Zarco for putting him out of Q2, but rather himself, for not being just a little bit faster. " Zarco went to Q2, he will start the race from pit lane, but finally, if he can try in the Q1 and Q2, finally I need to go faster to go through. So I can't say anything about this."
Tighter than a microbe's membrane
Lecuona was just one example of how insanely tight the field is at the Red Bull Ring. The top 19 riders finished within a second in the combined standings after FP3, and half a second covered everyone back to Valentino Rossi in fifteenth. Rossi himself missed out on Q2 because of two mistakes, in FP3 and Q1, the Italian crashing out on his final flying lap in the first qualifying session.
"Today, unfortunately, I did two mistakes," Rossi explained. "The bigger problem, the worst mistake was this morning. This morning on the last lap I was really fast but I braked too deep in T9 and go wide. If not I have a lap time to go straight to Q2. I paid a lot for that mistake. After in the Q1 everybody is very fast, especially Zarco did a lap time that is good enough to start on the front row in Q2. Unfortunately I touched the white line inside and I crash."
Zarco's penalty moves everyone up a place, benefiting those in fourth, seventh, tenth, etc, most, who all move up a row. Joan Mir gained the most, moving up from fourth onto the front row. "Sorry for Johann, but life is hard sometimes," the Suzuki GSX-RR rider said apologetically. Mir is a rider to be feared in the race, posting formidable pace during FP4.
Starting on the front row, with the Ducatis behind him, was important, Mir reckoned. "Probably our bike is not the fastest one, but the fact that the Ducati start a bit further behind can be an advantage for the riders who have a good pace, like Pol, like me, and a couple more," the Suzuki rider said. "The Ducatis, what they normally do is they put themselves in front, and then they are fast, but not probably the fastest, and then to overtake is quite difficult, really difficult. And in that case, we have to try to avoid this, to do a more calm race for us, to do a race pushing at our own pace, not in the pace of the Ducatis in that case."
Judging by FP4 pace, Mir could be joined by teammate Alex Rins, the Petronas Yamahas of Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli, the KTMs of Pol Espargaro and Miguel Oliveira, the Ducati of Andrea Dovizioso, and the Honda of Taka Nakagami. Jack Miller could have belonged to that group, there are question marks over his participation, as the Pramac Ducati rider fell heavily during FP3 and had to be taken to a local hospital after qualifying to be examined.
Above all, Pol Espargaro's pace is looking good enough for victory. But the factory KTM rider played down his chances of the win on Sunday. "Last weekend I think we had more chance to win the race," Espargaro said. "It was more achievable. We showed a good performance in race one. I think this weekend it’s slightly different. Suzuki have improved their performance during the whole weekend. Both riders are in an amazing shape with a very good rhythm. Also for sure Ducati. Here Nakagami for sure is not going to make my life easy tomorrow. I think the pace is pretty similar all of us. Maybe last weekend I had something else. But it’s going to be tough to win tomorrow."
That matched well with Andrea Dovizioso's assessment. "Unfortunately there are competitors stronger than the first round so it will be harder," the winner of last week's race said. "The start will be important but we work at the maximum for the race. I think two Suzukis, Jack and Pol, I think Oliveira and also Nakagami become consistent. We can be a group for many laps and many things can happen."
Distracted by the race
Dovizioso had concentrated so hard on working on the medium rear tire over race distance that it had cost him in qualifying. "Something strange happened to me, which never happened to me before," said a nonplussed Dovizioso. "I think we worked more this weekend because we had a chance to work for the race, especially with the medium, because we didn’t work that much in the first race with it."
All that focus on race pace meant he lost sight of how to ride with a grippy soft rear in pursuit of a grid position. "We put the maximum distance we were able to put on it, 32 laps. But in the way you have to ride with that consumption. In the way you have to brake is very different to the way you have to attack with a new tire. When I start on the qualifying I didn’t have any more the rhythm. I didn’t have the braking point, and I couldn’t be aggressive and fast."
No doubt Dovizioso will be a factor come Sunday, but the Yamahas are the most intriguing prospect to watch. Maverick Viñales tried a completely new setup, which seemed to solve most of his woes. "This weekend we are using a very different setup," Viñales said. "Trying to understand. For sure it's a gamble for us. But we need to work for the future and it will be important to try it in the race to see if this is the solution or not."
Quartararo, too, found some speed, the Petronas Yamaha rider and championship leader starting from ninth, the first time he has been off the front row of the grid since Silverstone last year. He was disappointed by qualifying, because of the improvements made in the pace. "Qualifying was not so good," he said. "We had no grip from rear and no top speed. But this don’t change a lot. Really happy about FP3 because we make a big step with the pace. That was terrible yesterday. FP4 was good with really old tires. So the only shame is the position we had in the qualifying. Let’s see what we can do tomorrow but really not easy to overtake at this track because there are many really fast bikes."
With Márquez out, an unexpected front row, and some new names capable of running at the front and perhaps even winning the race, the championship, as well as the race, looks wide open. 2020 continues to be a strange but fascinating year.
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