One week later, MotoGP is back at the same race track, with the same riders, and likely racing in pretty much the same conditions. Does this mean we are going to see exactly the same result in the Doha Grand Prix as we did for the Qatar Grand Prix?
That will depend. And it will perhaps depend on how well the MotoGP riders learn the lessons of last week, as well as the lessons of the past. If Maverick Viñales maintains the form he showed last Sunday, he will be very difficult to beat.
Difficult, but not impossible. Sure, Viñales' pace was astounding: he beat Jorge Lorenzo's race lap record from 2016 by three tenths of a second, and the race was the second fastest in history, just two tenths slower than Lorenzo's race win from 2016. And it could have been even faster than the 2016 race if Viñales hadn't backed off during the last three laps, his pace dropping from mid 1'55s to low 1'56s. Viñales' advantage over second-place finisher Johann Zarco dropped from 1.7 seconds on lap 20 to just over 1 second at the end of the race.
The fact that it was Lorenzo's race record which Viñales so nearly beat tells you a lot about the way the Yamaha needs to win a race. Ideally, you escape at the start and use the incomparable corner speed of the M1 to pull a gap too large for your rivals to bridge. In Viñales' case, he didn't manage to pull a gap at the start, but he did manage to stick with the leaders, get past at two thirds distance, then pull away for the win. Once he was past, he was unstoppable. The Ducatis simply didn't have the pace or the tires to match the Yamaha.
Winning as slow as possible
And that, it seems to me, is the key for Ducati to actually beating the Yamahas of Viñales and Quartararo, should he get his setup right this weekend. A Ducati won the previous two editions of the MotoGP race, Andrea Dovizioso defeating Marc Márquez by 0.027 seconds in 2018 and 0.023 seconds in 2019. But Dovizioso's 2018 victory was just under six seconds slower than Viñales' 2021 race time. And his 2019 victory was 8.2 second slower than Viñales' win.
Dovizioso's win has something in common with Valentino Rossi's victory from 2015. Like Dovizioso in 2018 and 2019, Rossi took the win by a very narrow margin, beating Dovizioso by just under two tenths of a second. And his race time was fully 7 seconds slower than Viñales' in 2021.
Bikes and tires have changed in the period between the various races, but that doesn't explain the difference between the race times of the slow winners and the fast winners. It wasn't the bike, it was the strategy. Andrea Dovizioso won in 2018 and 2019 by slowing the race down, holding Marc Márquez up and saving tires and fuel for the final lap. In 2015, Dovizioso tangled with another veteran, Valentino Rossi, this time losing out to the Yamaha on the last lap.
The advantage the Yamaha has is that if they get the setup right, they can make their tires last to the end of the race and maintain a searing pace. If the Ducatis try that, they use their tires faster, and they use more fuel. If a Ducati can force a slow race, they arrive at the final lap with enough tire and fuel left over for one final all-out push in the final sector.
Reducing tire issues
Slowing the race up reduces the rate at which both front and rear tires wear. That can also help avoid other anomalous problems with the tires. Jack Miller, for example, ran into an issue with is tire, though he did his level best on Thursday to avoid blaming Michelin directly for the issue.
"We suffered a strange vibration from the rear, it made me unable to carry corner speed," the Ducati Lenovo rider told us. "In the end I wasn’t able to ride as I would have liked. I was riding that other strategy. Until 11 or 12 laps to go I started pushing. I got 4 laps in and 8 laps from the end and I went off a cliff. My plan and strategy was good. I just need to go back, reset and start again."
Miller was coy about the exact cause of the problems. "Difficult to say exactly what I can say about it," the Australian said. "Tyre related, a one-off thing." But when the problem started, it wrecked the strategy he had in mind. "I really started having issues around the 8 lap mark. I felt like I was in purgatory. I couldn’t go forward. I couldn’t go back. I was just stuck there."
Are the tires truly terrible?
There was an awful lot of talk about tires at the first round in Qatar, and complaints from riders about tire performance dropping off enormously in the second half of the race. There didn't seem to be any consistency in results from rider to rider, from manufacturer to manufacturer.
Is this a problem caused by Michelin? Depending on the data you look at, you can answer that question with either yes or no. On the one hand, the race was almost completed in record time by Maverick Viñales, an achievement which came on top of the first ever 1'52 lap during qualifying, set by Pecco Bagnaia on his way to pole, and an outright top speed record of 362.4 km/h set by Johann Zarco during free practice.
But on the other hand, the fact that the entire field raced with the soft front and soft rear tires suggests that Michelin got the allocation wrong. If you couldn't make the soft tires work, and couldn't make them last, you were stuck.
There are a number of factors at play here. The speed at which Maverick Viñales completed the race shows that the tires will work well around Qatar if you get everything right. But the fact that the other 2021 Yamaha M1s finished fifth and twelfth shows that if you don't get everything right, you are in trouble.
The operating window for the Michelins is already quite narrow. When only one set of tires work, then that means there are no escape options. If you fall outside one tight window, you don't have a second window to fall back on. If the medium tires were usable, then riders would have had a second setup direction to pursue. But they didn't at Qatar last week, and they won't have at Qatar this weekend. At least they have a race weekend of data to fall back on.
Build a better tire?
Why can't Michelin build a tire that works for everyone? The point of motorcycle racing is to push the limit of the equipment, to extract maximum performance from it. It is inevitable that the manufacturers will run into the limits of the tires, just as they run into the limits of every other component of the motorcycle – frames, swingarm materials, brakes, fairings, electronics, fuel allowance.
MotoGP is in a constant circle of development: Michelin improves their tires; factories find a way to use the extra performance of the new tires; the factories and riders reach the limits of the tires, and try to force their way around the limits; Michelin analyzes the data from the tires used at the limit; Michelin improves their tires based on that data; factories find a way to use the extra performance of the new tires; round and round, ad infinitum, or at least, until Michelin decides to pull out of MotoGP and someone else comes in to take their place, and a new cycle starts.
Is there an increased emphasis on tires in recent years? It can certainly feel like it. But that is perhaps because the other differences between the bikes are so small. Aleix Espargaro's seventh place last week was the closest an Aprilia has finished to the winner in the MotoGP era. If the Aprilia really is as competitive as it looks at Qatar, then that would make all six of MotoGP's manufacturers competitive.
The devil is in the detail
With margins between the bikes and riders so small, the importance of focusing on detail is magnified enormously. Tiny details can be the difference between winning and finishing outside the top ten. It is only natural, then, that small differences in setup and tire management get blown out of all proportion. Then again, perhaps it isn't out of proportion if getting it fractionally wrong can cost you 20 or more championship points.
The truth is that tires have always been a significant factor in motorcycle racing. This should not be surprising, given the fact that they are quite literally the only thing connecting the motorcycle to the racetrack. And riders have complained about tires for as long as there has been racing.
The difference is that in previous eras, other factors also had a significant role to play. In the 1960s and 1970s, horsepower was pretty much the only thing that mattered (with a nod to engine reliability once the two strokes took over completely). In the 1980s, chassis and handling began to play a more important role, as engine horsepower differences reduced.
In the 1990s, as all of the factories gained a stronger understand of how frame stiffness and geometry contributed to lap time, the focus switched to power delivery, and turning horsepower into acceleration. In the early noughties, the switch to four stroke engines forced a rethink, while in the late noughties, electronics ruled the roost. With the introduction of spec tires in 2009, then spec electronics in 2015, aerodynamics became ever more important. And with the concession rules allowing manufacturers who were lagging to catch up, there were fewer and fewer obvious areas which offered a clear advantage.
Tires have always been important. It's just that now, there are fewer and fewer other things which can disguise that fact.
Can we expect tires to play just as big a role again this weekend? Almost certainly, and in no small part due to the weird conditions which prevail in Qatar. The Losail International Circuit's insistence that they be the first race of the MotoGP season pins the event right into the narrowest of windows for conditions. Daytime temperatures in late March are too hot to race during the day, while the evenings cool rapidly, moving quickly beyond the zone where the tires work well, especially once the dew sets in.
If the Qatar race were to be held in early February, it could be a day race and have consistent conditions between morning and afternoon. If it were held in June or July, the entire event, both 'morning' and 'afternoon' sessions could be held at night, with consistent nighttime temperatures. But here we are in late March, with perhaps an hour of consistent and usable conditions every day.
What that means in practice is that only FP2 and FP4 are usable for setup, and can tell you anything about tire life in race conditions. But FP2 is also the session in which you have to set a lap time to try to book a place in Q2, and be assured of a relatively good starting position. So teams face the dilemma of choosing between concentrating on race setup in FP2, and sacrificing setup time to push for a quick lap.
That is more important for some than for others. Pol Espargaro, for example, had a very strong race at the first round in Qatar, but had to overcome a poor qualifying position. The Repsol Honda rider viewed this with some concern.
Close on Sunday, far on Saturday
"Yeah, it's the point that worries me most," Espargaro told us. "If we see the lap times, we are very close to Maverick on the race pace. Super close, more than I expect. But then in the fast lap time, phew, we are way, way, way too far. So for me, it feels like the first priority in the moment is one lap on Saturday."
Espargaro had an explanation for his issues with qualifying: a lack of experience with the Honda RC213V. "Actually I can explain more or less why it happened," the Repsol Honda rider told us. "Before the race I had done seven days on the Honda, so seven days of riding, but how many times did I do a time attack? I did a time attack two times a day. So before the Saturday, I did like 12 time attacks. So 12 times, I was just pushing to the limit. This is nothing."
It was something he could work on and improve, he explained. "This is the point that especially at the moment I'm looking for and just analyzing why and how we can make a better job on Saturday, and if we do that, Sunday is going to be much much easier than it was last weekend and we can fight for something much bigger."
A Honda problem
The Honda seems to have an issue with qualifying at Qatar, at least according to Alex Márquez. "Well, I think we are struggling in qualifying, on time attack," the LCR Honda rider said. Their problem was not so much that they were slow, but that the other bikes were so much quicker over a single lap. ""Especially here in Qatar, Ducati are so fast in one lap, but also Yamaha, that we know is always fast in one lap in all the tracks. But especially Ducati, who can use all the power in one lap."
But it wasn't just the straight where the Ducati could manage to exploit their potential at Qatar, Márquez explained. "Especially what was surprising for me is that they are so fast in T2," the LCR Honda rider explained, referring to the second sector of the track which runs from the short straight between Turns 3 and 4 to the tight right hander at Turn 7, just before the track starts to flow. "It's where they made some gap there, especially during the race they were so consistent there. Not just in T4, in T4 we know there is the straight and they have a lot of power. But also T2, so I was also surprised about that."
The difference was especially over a single lap, however, to get through to Q2 and then qualify well. "I think in race pace we are not struggling so much. We have the tools to make it, just we need to be a little bit smart, more smart in FP2 or in Q1 to be in Q2, and to try to be in the first three rows, to try to make a good start and good race," Alex Márquez told us.
A Mir inconvenience?
Reigning champion Joan Mir was the epitome of a rider who struggled in qualifying but came good in the race. The Suzuki Ecstar rider has started from tenth on the grid and come within a corner of finishing second, losing out to the Ducatis when he chose the wide line through the final corner and gave up the drive to the line to Johann Zarco and Pecco Bagnaia.
Mir's pace was only possible thanks to a change his Suzuki team had made on Saturday night, after comparing data from the test with the previous year. Mir was confident that change would help this week during qualifying. "Normally we have the problem in qualifying," Mir said. "Normally when we qualify well then it’s because we have really good pace and then we improve a little bit and we’re into the quali lap no?"
The improvement the team made would not put him on pole, Mir said, but should be good enough to get him closer to the front of the grid for the start. "We saw in the race that I made a step – talking about race pace – I believe that this extra performance I gained in warm-up and the race will be positive for the qualifying, but that doesn’t mean I think we’ll make a 1'52 because we are not able to do. But to fight for the second or third row is our goal," Mir said.
Data to build on
What can we expect? With a race-worth of data, a lot of teams could make a step forward. The Yamahas will continue to be fast, as will the Ducatis, but with a strong headwind expected again on Sunday, they lose some of their advantage in top speed. The Suzukis should make a step, and Joan Mir will certainly be a factor. And the progress of the Aprilia looks real enough after the race.
Aleix Espargaro had been nervous ahead of the race, he confessed. "I was a little bit nervous during the first part of the race because of all the pressure that I have. Which is normal, it's my job," the Gresini Aprilia rider told us. "But after the test everybody was saying it's just a test, let's see during the race, every year it's the same."
The race result, where Espargaro finished in seventh, just 5.9 seconds behind the winner, the closest finish for an Aprilia in the four-stroke era, confirmed that it was not just the test where the Aprilia was quick. "At least I'm happy that we confirmed this is the best Aprilia ever in MotoGP, that we can fight in the leading group." the Aprilia rider said.
He was a great deal faster, he explained. "Actually when I overtook Valentino and Martin with Mir, we were the next ten laps 2 seconds quicker than the race leaders and we arrived. But in the last 6 laps I didn't have enough front tire to fight a better position or for the podium. But the potential and the speed we showed has been good, and sincerely, I feel that I learned a couple of things, especially in the first laps with a full fuel tank, I lost a lot of ground, so we have to change the balance of the bike, which is already planned for tomorrow FP1, FP2."
The results from last Sunday left Aleix Espargaro incredibly optimistic. "I think we can improve a little bit our race pace, so we can maybe fight for top 5. Who knows? Sincerely, I expect that the group on the last Sunday will be a bit bigger and more like a Moto3 race, and it wasn't like this. Just 6, 7 riders. So I'm happy that we've been in the mix and let's see if we can be a little bit closer next one."
Timing your jab
That the field is so close has placed even more emphasis on details. Ahead of the second race at Qatar, the MotoGP paddock is embarking on the second round of Covid-19 vaccinations. Wary of doing anything which could upset the preparation for the weekend, most riders are taking their second vaccines on Monday, after the race has finished. That in itself is exceptional: normally on Sunday night there is a mad rush for the airport in Doha, as the riders scramble to leave as early as possible.
No this weekend, however. They are staying behind another day to get their second vaccination. "I didn’t have the second dose yet," Franco Morbidelli explained. I’ll have it after the race, on Monday." The Petronas Yamaha rider had followed the example of his teammate, Valentino Rossi. "I followed Vale, the wise," Morbidelli said.
It was wise indeed. Enea Bastianini was the only MotoGP rider to get his second vaccination before the race weekend started, and the Italian had a strong enough reaction to decide to skip his media appearances (given the dislike riders have of media duties, it does not take much for them to find an excuse to get out of them, of course). Others reported similar reactions: a sense of fatigue, far more than you would expect in between back-to-back races.
After a strong debut on the Esponsorama Ducati, finishing tenth in his very first MotoGP race, just 9.3 seconds behind the winner, Bastianini will be hoping to at least repeat that performance. The mild symptoms reported by some after their second dose of vaccine should pass by tomorrow morning, putting the Italian back on course for another strong weekend.
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