It was an almost perfect lap. Pecco Bagnaia had sat at the top of the timesheets for a good chunk of Q2 after beating Maverick Viñales' best time up to that point by three tenths of a second. As the final minutes of qualifying ticked down, his rivals closed in, Viñales snatching back top spot with five minutes left to go.
But Bagnaia wasn't done yet. He had been fastest in FP3, then set a withering pace in FP4, and came into qualifying brimming with confidence. He wasn't alone in believing he could be fast: on his final run, Valentino Rossi and Pramac Ducati teammate Jack Miller slotted in behind him, trying to ride his coattails to a better qualifying position.
On his last attempt, Bagnaia managed something nobody had done before. The Italian lapped the Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli in 1'30.937, becoming the first motorcycle racer to get under the 1'31 barrier. Unfortunately, however, it was only an almost perfect lap. On the exit of the final corner, Bagnaia got "a bit too greedy", as he put it, and stayed out too long on the kerb, running over the green-painted section which marks the outside of the track. Bagnaia had that lap canceled for exceeding track limits.
Guilty as charged
The Pramac Ducati rider acknowledged his transgression when he spoke to us. "For quali I made a very good lap time. In Sector 3 I was very fast," Bagnaia said. "I was too hungry in the last corner. I opened the gas too much. I went wide. In any case the lap time was incredible."
Did it hurt more to have a unique record taken away from him than losing the pole? Bagnaia shrugged the question off. "For sure it’s nice to have a record in a circuit," he said, before pointing out that race pace mattered much more. "In any case we have demonstrated that we are very strong. The pace is more important than the lap time. I’ve demonstrated I can do this lap time, but also demonstrated my pace. For sure it was better to start for the front row. But the pace is so good so I don’t know whether that will be a problem. But I don’t know at the moment."
Bagnaia did give his team something to celebrate, however. The tow he had granted to Valentino Rossi and Jack Miller paid off. Rossi gained the least, ending up in seventh place, and starting from the third row of the grid. But Miller used the Ducati and Yamaha ahead of him to slingshot his way into second spot, and a front-row start.
Saved by his teammate
It was quite the revival for Miller, who had struggled from most of the day on Saturday. He just missed out on going straight to Q2, but his pace in FP4 had been most concerning. Fortunately for the Pramac Ducati rider, it had all come together in Q2. "Going into Q1 was not ideal," Miller told the press conference. "Yesterday we just worked for the pace. I felt I could throw a lap at it this morning. Missed out by one position to go direct through, so that wasn’t ideal. Then when we got tot Q2 I only had one tire. So it was sort of a one-shot wonder. Anyway, we made it. I was lucky to get the tow off of Pecco."
Bagnaia losing his lap meant that pole ended up going to Maverick Viñales. On Friday, Viñales had been despondent, struggling for pace and frustrated with his team for not finding solutions. On Saturday, he was a very different person indeed, Doctor Viñales to yesterday's Mr Maverick. A few changes and the decision to abandon the hard rear tire in favor of the medium made all the difference. Viñales was not just quick in qualifying, he had the pace in FP4 for the podium at least, and perhaps even for the win.
After the race last week, Viñales had defended his choice of the hard rear tire. "I did a 1'32.5 in the first lap on the hard," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider had said a week ago. "And this morning, it was 19 degrees on the track, and I was able to make 1'33.1, with a very used hard tire. I think for me the hard tire was the correct choice, because I had something more than the rest on the practice with that tire, especially in FP4. And also in FP1."
The blame game
It was a very different story on Saturday. "I think the basic explanation of last Sunday was the tire. The tire choice was wrong. So I didn’t have enough grip on the left side so I lose a lot of time in sector two and four, so I was not able to go fast." He would later go on to place the blame on one of the data engineers in his team, a rather remarkable break from the norms of motorcycle racing. The attitude expected is always to win as a team and to lose as a team, and keep disputes behind closed doors.
That is not a norm Viñales was willing to observe on Saturday. "When you work during all weekend and the guy in charge of tires says to you that the hard is your best choice, you put the hard," the Spaniard said. "I don’t think we worked good on that area because other Yamahas were with the medium. They said to me that the hard is the best option for my riding style, but at the end was not true, was not correct."
Viñales made it clear that the fault did not lie with Michelin, but with a Yamaha technician. "We have Pascal [from Michelin] who is always giving us good advice, but we have another person inside our team from Yamaha that is looking all the time at the tires, the data. I don’t think we did a good job last week. So I have to say because for us we make a good weekend and then we make a mistake on the tires. For me it’s wrong. All the job you do during the weekend you waste just because you put the wrong tire. We pay a lot of attention to that."
The wrong tire
Viñales wasn't the only rider to be publicly criticize his team. Takaaki Nakagami crashed twice in the space of an hour, two fast crashes at Turn 15, the first left hander after a long series of rights. The crash in FP4 had been his own lack of experience with the hard front tire, he said. But the crash in qualifying had been down to a mistake by the team.
"The first time I tried the hard front this weekend was in FP4," Nakagami explained. "I had a crash because the left side, the temperature was a bit lower than on the right side. So yeah, a kind of 'Michelin magic'. Fortunately I'm OK. After the crash, I jumped on the second bike, which was not the best setting, but we kept it to prepare for the qualifying."
In Q2, Nakagami went down again at Turn 15. "I had a crash exactly at the same point in exactly the same way, how I crashed." His team had put in a hard front tire where he thought they had agreed to use the medium front. "We were missing some communication inside the team, they put the hard front again and I crashed. The plan was the medium front and soft rear, but inside the team there was some miscommunication. It was a hard front. And I had a crash because the temperature is very low on the left side. Easy. I destroyed two bikes, fortunately I'm OK, so this is really important and now the team have really hard work to prepare the bike for tomorrow."
He thought the team would have understood that the hard front was not an option after he crashed in FP4. "Also this morning, we didn't plan to put the hard front in during the qualifying, because it's only two flying laps and I don't need the hard front. So the plan was a medium front at the beginning, but they made a mistake, and they put in the first outing already a hard front, and I felt that it was something strange. I didn't crash, but the feeling was not really nice."
There was a further mistake when he thought that they had switched the first hard front for a medium, Nakagami explained. "After a few laps I went back to the pits and they said, 'sorry, we had a miscommunication, it was a hard front'. Then I thought they changed to the medium front, but they didn't. I don't know, inside the team something like a big confusion, and miscommunication. So I was going to the second outing and on pit lane I saw the front tire was a hard front, so I said, whoa, it will be tough, and then into Turn 15 I had a crash, and this is game over."
Nakagami had spoken at length with his LCR Honda crew to try to prevent a repeat of this in the future. "I spoke with the team, a big meeting for half an hour, and they said, definitely they have some big confusion inside the team and they apologized, and this is OK. I mean, it's not OK, but we keep trying to understand and make sure it doesn't happen any more," he said. But a mistake like this could have ended much worse. "Fortunately I'm OK, but if I have a big injury, it would be a disaster. So try to improve communication between me and the team."
Nakagami was not the only rider to crash on the left side of the tire. Plenty of others had made the same mistake, including Miguel Oliveira, Pol Espargaro, and Pecco Bagnaia. "It’s difficult," Brad Binder explained. "I had it last week in FP2. I went out of the pits and did not do a good flying lap and then on the second lap I just lost it. It felt like I rode over ice. It’s crazy because you don’t have any feedback. There is no warning and it washes super quickly."
Competition ramped up a notch
There was more to it than just tire temperature, however. "Today we saw a lot of crashes, not because of the conditions," Bagnaia explained. "If you saw last weekend I was third in FP4 with a 1'32.7. Today everybody went faster than last week. We’re closer to the limit and I think it’s for that reason that we see a lot of crashes."
With a week's worth of rubber on the track and a week's worth of data on their laptops and in their heads, everyone is a lot faster. That has closed up the field a great deal, and also poses something of a dilemma for the riders and teams who did well last week. The setup which worked well a week ago will still be good enough for the same lap time this Sunday. But the trouble is, everyone else has made a step forward. The setup that was good enough for the podium last week could now leave you stranded mid-pack on Sunday.
Luca Marini is keenly aware of this danger. "You have to do improvements, because if you stay with the same bike with the same race pace, everybody improves," the Sky VR46 Moto2 rider told the press conference. "I saw in Austria that for Austria two we kept everything the same. I did the same race pace. In the first race I finished second, and the second one seventh. We know that we need to do something."
Fast on Sunday
So who has the upper hand for the MotoGP race on Sunday? Pecco Bagnaia's pace is genuinely fearsome, and he looks to have a tenth on his nearest rivals. Maverick Viñales is almost as quick as Bagnaia, but after the debacle of last week, we have no way of knowing which Viñales will show up. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider had spent more time focusing on the front end and on riding with a full tank of fuel, but he will have to prove he has made a step in the race.
Fabio Quartararo had been in a similar situation last week, and crashed out as a result after a poor start. The Frenchman had worked a lot on his start at the test and during the weekend, and will be looking to repeat his form from Jerez. Quartararo has pace too, as he showed in FP4. Of the KTMs on the second row, Pol Espargaro looks to have the pace to run at the front, while Brad Binder seems to be a few tenths slower, judging by pace in FP4.
Starting from fourth and sixth respectively put them in position to be competitive, however. "All I know is that starting in sixth position is going to be much nicer than last week," Binder said. "Starting in sixteenth was so tough, especially here where on the first lap on these tight little sections it takes just one person to make a bit of a block pass and the whole field gets held up."
The enigma machine
The biggest mystery of Sunday's race is probably Joan Mir. The Suzuki Ecstar rider had the pace to match both Bagnaia and Viñales in FP4, posting a string of low 1'32s on used medium tires. But his problem is that the Suzuki still can't perform in qualifying, and he starts from eleventh.
"The main problem that I have on the qualifying is that the rear is pushing the front a lot and then I'm not able to turn the bike in a good way," Mir said. "Then this makes everything worse, because you are not able to gain time in qualifying on braking and then in the exit of the corners you are never on point to use in a good way the tire."
That problem is exacerbated by the fact that the track is in such excellent condition, with so much rubber laid down. There is now even more grip, and this is making things even more difficult for the Suzuki. "That's a little bit what is happening here, with a lot grip makes this even worse and for sure last weekend was a bit better because the grip was a little bit less," Mir said. "But today's grip was unbelievable. I've never tried any track with that grip. But with used tires we don’t have that problem so it's good."
Suzuki are a victim of their design philosophy. The GSX-RR is fast, it turns well, and it is very gentle on its tires. It allows the riders to get to the end of the race with plenty of tire left to lap quickly and pass other riders at will. The problem is that the bike is already making maximum use of the grip available, and so when there is more grip, it can't really take advantage. Suzuki have built a genuine weapon for the race. But it is something of a damp squib during qualifying.
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