2020 keeps throwing up surprises. If having eight different winners on four different manufacturers, including the rookie Brad Binder, wasn't enough, the array of riders qualifying on the front row is remarkable. Twelve different riders have qualified on the front row of the grid, if we include Alex Rins as the twelfth at the Teruel Grand Prix, or Aragon 2. That is over half of the 22-strong grid.
There have been some unexpected names on pole as well. At Brno, it was Johann Zarco, the Frenchman finding a new home on a Ducati after a disastrous half season on the KTM. At the Red Bull Ring for the second race in Austria, it was Pol Espargaro grabbing KTM's first pole position. In Barcelona, Franco Morbidelli grabbed pole position, outshining his Petronas Yamaha teammate and championship leader Fabio Quartararo on a year-old bike.
So Takaaki Nakagami taking pole at Aragon 2 is right in line with the "Expect the Unexpected" theme of 2020, to borrow a line from 1980s cult classic TV show Terrahawks. If you had put a bet on the LCR Honda rider grabbing pole before the start of the season, you would have gotten very good odds. Indeed, the bookmakers were still offering excellent odds on Nakagami to win ahead of this weekend.
No longer under the radar
But anyone still dismissing Nakagami has not been paying attention for the past few rounds. The Japanese rider has been sneaking up on the championship, inching closer to the leaders race by race. Nakagami has finished in the top ten every race so far this season, and would already have been on the podium at the second race in Austria if Maverick Viñales hadn't lost his brakes and parked his Yamaha M1 into the air fence at Turn 1, the incident that also cost Joan Mir his first win.
Nakagami has been proving his mettle again at Aragon. After finishing fifth last week, he returned to the Motorland circuit even stronger this weekend. He has not been outside the top two all weekend, finishing first in FP2 on Friday, and then blasting to a dominant pole in Q2 on Saturday.
He was riding well here last week. This week, he has upped his game and has ascended to another level. He grabbed Q2 by the scruff of the neck early on, grabbing provisional pole on his first run with a time of 1'47.072. Then on his second run, he took two tenths off his best time to finish fastest with a 1'46.882, two tenths slower than the lap record held by Marc Márquez. Only Franco Morbidelli managed to follow the LCR Honda rider into the 1'46s.
It isn't just over a single lap either. All weekend, Nakagami's pace has been blazing. On his second run in FP4, he did a lap of 1'48.085 on a soft rear tire with 17 laps, or over two thirds race distance on it. He was running 1'48.3s and 1'48.4s with apparent ease.
Nakagami was as surprised to be so dominant as everyone else, he told the press conference. He felt good on the bike, and so the speed was coming. "I can say that from FP1, I don’t know why, but the feeling on the bike was really comfortable. The bike was exactly the same as last weekend after the race. The setup, we didn’t change anything," Nakagami said.
"Friday we tried to stay on track and make as many laps as possible and to be consistent, because last weekend on Sunday, especially end of the race with a soft compound, it was really difficult to manage the tires. We couldn’t keep the pace from the beginning," Nakagami explained. "So we work on that area to understand how we can improve."
Saturday was spent tweaking setup for the race. "On Saturday this morning in FP3 we did some modifications on the electronics side, TC control and also torque side. We made some changes and it was working pretty well. More consistent than last weekend. I’m pretty happy. I can say that we are ready to fight for the good result for tomorrow."
Now, Nakagami has to replicate that pace in practice in the race. "I have some strategy, but I don’t want to say that. Try to make a good start. I have my pace and try to be same as free practice. Don’t think about the result to keep my pace, and I believe that the result will come. Don’t think about the pressure."
Nakagami also has the track on his side. Motorland Aragon has been kind to the Hondas, Cal Crutchlow starting from the front row last week and Alex Márquez scoring a spectacular second place in the race. "For me, this track I like a lot," Nakagami said. "Also Honda’s bike is working pretty well, with a long straight and some technical areas. But with our bike, with the back-to-back races we are improving a lot with the feeling of the bike, especially front end. That’s why I’m able to keep much more consistent pace than the last weekend."
Who can match Takaaki Nakagami's pace? Looking at the pace in FP4, championship leader Joan Mir and KTM's Pol Espargaro are in the mid 1'48s, as is Franco Morbidelli. Fortunately for Nakagami, only Morbidelli qualified on the front row. Espargaro lines up ninth, and Joan Mir had a miserable qualifying to end up in twelfth, the last spot on the fourth row.
As you might expect, Mir was not happy. He and his team had been working on a setup for his Suzuki GSX-RR to maximize race pace with the medium front, and when they went back to a soft front for qualifying, Mir never really regained the right feeling. "We worked in FP4 for the medium tire and put the bike in a good way," he explained. "Then in qualifying with the different tire I was not able to be fast."
He also made a mistake with his last tire. "I was improving the lap time," Mir said. "Not doing a super lap. It was not a bad lap. In the last corner, last sector, I saw the yellow flag so I rolled off the throttle. I thought there was one more lap. But then we took the checkered flag. Anyway, I did a 1'47.6. That's not really bad when I rolled off on the last corner."
That yellow flag, for a crash by Johann Zarco, caused a lot of laps to be canceled, and then reinstated. It reignited criticism of the FIM Stewards, under the leadership of Freddie Spencer, especially after Jack Miller's run in with them over the same issue yesterday.
"It just shows the system is flawed," Miller said. "That’s what I said to Race Direction last night. Their system is not working. Plain and simple. It was a stupid rule when invented and I still think that now. At end of day we’re racing motorcycles. It’s a dangerous sport. When you see a yellow flag you button off. But if it’s in a relatively decent spot – for example, in FP3 where you’re not at risk to head towards them, by all means push. If you end up crashing, for sure."
There should be restrictions on that, the Australian emphasized. "There should be a limit. There should be a rule: If you crash at same point where someone crashed, like Marc at Silverstone (2013) then the penalty should be enforced. Obviously you pushed too much. But many of the times and many of the laps, the crash is not really in a dangerous position. Anyway you roll out and not take maximum risk and it’s faster but you get canceled. I think it’s quite stupid. Anyway I don’t make rules, I just have to abide by them."
Cal Crutchlow pointed out the difficult of actually seeing the yellow flags in many places. "We saw a bike crash, we saw no yellow flags," the LCR Honda rider said. "But you are doing 350k an hour there and that's it. I saw no yellow flags. I was at the back of that group, so everybody got docked their lap. But yes we never saw anything. It's too far away also and all we saw was the bike crash and we saw dust about 5 seconds in front of us. By the time you saw it, it was 5 seconds until you saw the crashed bike. I bet it took them more than 5 seconds to put the yellow flag out."
Morbidelli magic redux?
Franco Morbidelli looks like being competitive on Sunday as well. Like Nakagami and Mir, the Petronas Yamaha rider has very solid pace, and a quick lap capable of taking him to second on the grid. He had been happy about his time in qualifying, but less so about his pace in the race, despite what the timesheets said.
"FP4 and all the practices went quite okay," Morbidelli told the press conference. "We don’t look as strong as last weekend, but then last weekend we were strong in practice and then weak in the race. Hopefully this weekend will be the other way around. I don’t know. We work well and we improved the things that we were missing in last weekend’s race. I feel that we improved a little bit the package. I feel a little bit stronger than last weekend. It’s a question mark until you start for the race and you see the real level."
The qualifying grid throws the championship a curve ball. Something which, again, is par for the course for 2020. Maverick Viñales and Fabio Quartararo start from the second row, with Viñales better placed on the outside directly behind Taka Nakagami. Like Joan Mir, both Viñales and Quartararo struggled to make the transition from practice setup to qualifying.
Viñales needs a start
"I thought my qualifying was worse, because I didn't put a good lap, especially because in FP4 we tried a very different bike which gave me a really good feeling for the rhythm," Maverick Viñales said. "Then I tried to make good laps at the end of FP4, and honestly the bike was fantastic. Then when I put a new tire, still we needed to set up a little bit more. I'm not turning like I want, so it was pretty difficult to be fast and to get into the 1'46."
He felt strong in race pace, though, Viñales insisted. "For tomorrow I'm convinced that I can be a great fighter, because I felt quite good on braking, and also the bike traction is quite nice. So I will try to give our maximum, and we will try to be at the top, and we will try to give everything we can, because last race, I was very strong at the end, but I made a few mistakes in the middle of the race that took me to the back. And we're going to try to do the opposite. So we'll see if it works."
Quartararo believes he is lacking some pace to be truly competitive. "Let’s say the pace is not fantastic," the Frenchman said. "Not that we’re totally far. I made 1'48.7s with a tire of 13 laps. We are missing I think two tenths in pace. That is so difficult. Two tenths to be able to fight for top five. That two tenths can be improved because I know where I need to improve. Not clear which tire I’ll be using tomorrow. Looks like the soft is better but less laps. The medium is not so great in the beginning but consistency is a little bit better. We have to be clever to see what we can improve tomorrow morning to see the potential of the bike and the tires."
Fortunately for both Quartararo and Viñales, the main rivals in the championship are further back. Joan Mir starts from twelfth, Andrea Dovizioso from seventeenth. Takaaki Nakagami may be fastest, but for Quartararo, he would be happy to see the Japanese rider win, from the point of view of the championship. "I think for this race I’m happy if Taka wins. Our main contenders are Joan, Maverick and Dovi," the Frenchman said. This race is one where I’ve never found the feeling in two weeks. I need to do my best for this race. We know in Valencia I feel much better."
Maverick Viñales was not even thinking about where Dovizioso and Mir were starting. "My mentality is that I have nothing to lose," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "I will push at my maximum from the first corner, and I will try to give my best result. Sure I don't think about Fabio, and Mir, I'm focusing on myself and trying to improve the weak points we have, and also the strong ones. So I'm just looking at ourselves and trying to be there every race that happens, and being better and better and better. This is the plan we have."
Of course it helped that two of his main rivals were behind, Viñales said. "For sure it's better that they are behind on qualifying, because with the lap time I did, I was not sure that I was in the second row, but finally everybody struggled. But quite happy and for sure optimistic for tomorrow that I can do a good race."
Too early for teamwork
Viñales and Quartararo have two riders ahead of them who could interfere in proceedings on a teammate's behalf. Alex Rins could try to help Joan Mir, and Franco Morbidelli could be enlisted to help out fellow Petronas Yamaha rider Quartararo.
When Morbidelli and Rins were presented with this scenario, they reacted with disdain. Veteran journalist Mat Oxley framed the question as whether they would be willing to help their teammates in light of them both being of the championship – Morbidelli is sixth, 34 points behind championship leader Joan Mir, Rins is seventh, 36 points behind his teammate, with four races to go.
Both men took umbrage at Oxley's question. "Why we are not in the battle for the championship?" Morbidelli bristled. "I ask you. You tell me." The Italian was open to helping his teammate, he said, but only once he had been fully eliminated from the title fight.
"My question is why we are not in the battle for the championship, I didn’t say that we are not going to help," Morbidelli said. "I help if they need a help for the championship and if we are out of the championship battle. But we are not out of the championship battle yet, so what’s the point of helping them?"
Alex Rins backed that up. "I think Franco said it clearly. We still have opportunity to win the championship. I don’t know Franco, but I’m 36 points behind Mir, my teammate, and that’s all." There was one sacrifice Rins was willing to make: he would selflessly try to win the race to take points off Joan Mir's competitors, he said. "For sure, if I need to help Joan I will finish first to take the 25 points. But I think as Franco said, the championship is still open."
If there is one rider who looks like he is out of the championship, despite being only 15 points behind Joan Mir, it is Andrea Dovizioso. The Ducatis continue to fare terribly at the Motorland Aragon circuit, the layout with the long corners playing to their weaknesses.
It was a dejected Andrea Dovizioso who sat at the other end of a Zoom debrief. His mood came through in his answers: curt, with a touch of bitter irony. When asked whereabouts the Ducati was struggling most, he replied: "That is easy to answer. I think it's more difficult to explain where we gain! But this is a track where the turning of the bike is pretty important, and the way you have to ride with this tire, where on the maximum angle you don't have a lot of grip, you have to wait to open on angle, because the characteristic of the new tire become bigger. But the bad thing is that the competitors improve from last week, but not us."
Where did he believe he stood a chance against the other bikes? "Fifth and sixth gear on the back straight," was Dovizioso's sharp reply.
Ironically, Michelin have one of their 2019 construction tires at the Motorland Aragon circuit, the hard rear option. But Dovizioso ruled that using that tire. It might stop and turn better, but it would mean losing all drive and he would end up slower. "No, because you are slower! Overall it's less," the Italian said. "You have to change the way you ride with the new tire but the potential of the new tire is more if you are able to use it in the right way."
The impact the tire had had on the championship was clear to see, as far as Dovizioso was concerned. That was obvious from the fact that Johann Zarco was fifth on the grid on the 2019 Ducati Desmosedici, while the next Ducati was Jack Miller in fourteenth.
"I think it's just about riding style," Dovizioso believes. "If you analyze this season, you can see a lot of up and down, and a lot of riders with really special speed in some moments, but look at the championship, where they are. So at the end, this is just a confirmation that the situation is not under control for us, and it's very difficult to manage and try to use the potential. Because we work a lot on the setup, and we try to adapt, but in the end, as you see, it didn't work. So we are a bit faster at some tracks, but in the end, we were never there. So it's difficult."
Who wins when the lights go out at 1pm tomorrow? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. Judging by the timesheets, Takaaki Nakagami will convert his pole into a win, and become a record-breaking ninth different winner in a season. He would have to fend off Franco Morbidelli and Pol Espargaro, and Joan Mir if the Suzuki rider can make his way forward, with Maverick Viñales also capable of posing a challenge. But this is 2020. The only thing we can be sure of is that it will find a way to surprise us.
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