"I'm so glad to hear that a lot of the riders are confused! Because I am too, I really am." Franco Morbidelli, like just about everyone in the MotoGP paddock in Qatar, has spent so long trying to get his head around the Losail International Circuit and the tricks it can play, with grip, with wind, with track temperatures, and so much more, that he is utterly lost. "I don't know what's going on. Something is going on, and I hope that whatever is going on, it will go away as soon as possible, because it is tricky to work like this."
"Consistency has been difficult this weekend because the track is different every time we exit the pits," Jack Miller agreed. "There's only one more day left here in Qatar and I'll try and make it a good one and get out of here in one piece." After nearly a month in the Gulf state, on and off, and ten days riding around the same track, everyone is very, very over being in Qatar.
First there's the weird schedule, which means the riders hit the track in the late afternoon and finish in the middle of the evening. By the time they are done, it is well past midnight before they can hit the sack. Then there's the track. The grip is too inconsistent, the conditions are too changeable, the window for race conditions is too narrow. If engineering is about changing one variable at a time, Qatar is like twisting every knob at random and hoping for the best. An idle hope in almost every case.
But not always. Sometimes all the dials end up in just the right place and something magic happens. So it was on Saturday night, when Jorge Martin put together as near perfect a lap on a Ducati as you could wish for. The Pramac Ducati rider pushed and hustled his Desmosedici GP21 around the Losail International Circuit with the kind of intensity needed to really make it fly, despite the multifarious appendages aimed precisely at preventing that.
Martin knew just how good a lap it had been, the Spaniard punching the tank and the air as crossed the line. So ecstatic was the Pramac rider that he missed his braking point for the first corner, and had to run though the gravel to get on track. Fortunately, the checkered flag had already fallen, or Race Direction may have wanted a quiet word. Instead, Martin was off to parc ferme and the press conference to celebrate a convincing pole, 0.157 faster than his Pramac teammate Johann Zarco, and 0.161 seconds faster than last week's winner Maverick Viñales.
With this pole, Martin takes his place among illustrious company. He becomes only the third rider to score a pole position in just his second race, as noted by Spanish statistics whiz Nacho González. The other two riders to achieve that feat? Casey Stoner and Marc Márquez. Only one rider has gone one better. In 2008, at this very same circuit, Jorge Lorenzo took pole in his first MotoGP appearance. Stoner's maiden pole was also set at Qatar, so perhaps there is something about the circuit.
One lap is not 22 laps
Does this make Martin the favorite for victory on Sunday? The Spaniard was keen to keep things in perspective. "Today is just Saturday. Tomorrow is the difficult part," the Pramac Ducati rider told the press conference. But there was still a lot to learn. "Last race I learned a lot from all the riders. Try to manage the tires I think is the point where we have to work and be focused on. I think we did a great job. We’re improving in this aspect."
He was putting thoughts of victory to one side for the moment. "For sure, my target is not to win. My target is to try to be focused, try to keep the same pace the whole race, try to not make mistakes. Hopefully in the middle of the race I can have a good tire to battle for a top six. Would be super good."
Martin underlined that this was still his first year in the MotoGP class. "Tomorrow I think it’s time to be a rookie. I’m a rookie," he said. "I don’t have the pressure, not even the potential yet to win because my pace is still… In FP4 for sure we made a step, but still from these guys I’m maybe four tenths. It’s impossible to think for a win. Anything can happen in a race, but I need them to crash or maybe six or seven riders to win. It’s not what I want, for sure. I want to beat them when I’m ready."
The Pramac Ducati rider was keeping his feel firmly on the ground. "Tomorrow is not the moment. Tomorrow is the time to be a rookie, try to make a good start because at the end it’s free time that I’m gaining. Try to manage the tire so at the end of the race I have a good tire. When they pass me, I think for sure they will pass me, I will try to follow them, try to learn. Maybe they make a line I make different and I can improve during the race. For sure I will improve my lines. I think this is the target now and I will try that."
The reigning champion had praise for Jorge Martin, but Joan Mir still managed to sneak a few barbs into his compliments. "Congratulations to him," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "I already knew Jorge was always really fast in pole positions. In Moto3, normally they took the pole and I won the races!" A point which Mir was keen to emphasize "I already knew that he was fast in 1 lap. He’s doing a great job." Mir was also careful to point out that it was the satellite riders who were on the front row, rather than the factory team. "The Ducati riders have to be really angry," Mir said of Martin's pole.
Is Martin's assessment of his own pace accurate? Looking at the pace in FP4 – the only usable data we have, given the horrendous conditions in FP3 and the relative lack of clear race pace times on Friday, a finish in the top six or seven looks eminently possible. There appears to be a group of four riders who are faster than the rest, according to analysis by Honda BSB crew chief Chris Pike and Moto2 commentator Neil Morrison: Fabio Quartararo appears to have a slight edge, just ahead of Maverick Viñales, Johann Zarco and Joan Mir.
Mir's pace is somewhat understated, the Suzuki rider having used a medium rear on his first run in FP4 to allow him to save an extra soft for qualifying and the race. The champion qualified in ninth on Saturday, a position ahead of where he started from last week. And he starts with a better feeling and more confidence. "I feel better with the front," Mir said. "It’s not the problem we are having now. It’s just improve to be strong in the qualifying. We need more, and we have to use the grip in a different way. I feel prepared for the race. I think we will do it great."
Mir's problem is still qualifying, however. And the problem was not just the bike. "I’m a lot more nervous and more stressed on Saturday than on Sunday," the Suzuki rider said. "It’s something that we have to fix. It’s not normal to be really far from our rivals in one lap. In the end if you see the pace, we are always really good and ride in a good way."
The problem is that other riders can make a much bigger step in speed than he could, Mir explained. "What is not normal is our rivals are able to improve 1.5 seconds. In Q2 I was with used tires and I made almost half a second faster. It’s something we have to work on." Qualifying and the Suzuki also need a different style. "Also, the natural style, it’s not helping me, my natural style. I’m normally really aggressive. And to make a lap time you have to be aggressive. At the end you have to be aggressive on the brakes. I have this. But with this bike you have to be really smooth and really relaxed. We have to work on it, yeah."
Maverick Viñales was the rider Mir had an eye on, the Suzuki rider said. Viñales had qualified on the front row, doing exactly what he needed to be competitive. That made him the man to beat, according to Joan Mir. "The reality is Maverick is really strong," the Suzuki rider told us. "But he’s always really strong. It’s important to see if he can manage the race as good as the last one. All the Ducatis, they are really fast and competitive. It’s really difficult to manage a race with them. It’s always not the bike you want to fight here in Qatar. But we will try to make our race, manage the best way with these guys and be close to the front."
Viñales had done well to grab a front row on his second run during Q2. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider's first run had been something of a disaster, managing only a 1'54.566, 1.3 seconds slower than the lap that would bag him third on the grid. He had stayed impressively calm on his return to the pits, showing signs of agitation but maintaining his focus.
That was down to the changes that had been made in his team during the off season, Viñales explained. He felt much more at home, and that made things easy. "I think it’s all about trust and loyalty has changed so much in the team," the Spaniard said. "Overall I know what I’m able to do. I don’t have any stress. I know that we can do great things on the track. So I understood very well that the first time attacks were not good."
Viñales had been able to express his unhappiness with the lap, without losing his focus for the second run. "I just wanted to inform the team about my feelings, about how I felt just in case they wanted to modify something for the second one. I was calm. I understand it very well. After that I just pushed at the maximum. I pushed on the correct way the bike and the lap time was there. It’s one more thing that we did good the second weekend in Qatar. That gave us the calmness if it happens again another time."
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Viñales scoring back to back wins at Qatar (a déjà vu of 2020?) is his teammate, Fabio Quartararo. The Frenchman's pace on used tires in FP4 was phenomenal, and they have improved the electronics a little from last week, in the hope of avoiding the drop in tire performance he suffered last week.
"To be honest, the bike is exactly the same as last week on setting," Quartararo told us. "But we change the little bit the way of pushing in the corners. A little bit in electronics. I felt we make the step but also myself on the bike. The team helped me with the electronics." The changed had allowed him to be incredibly consistent with his pace, he said. "When I saw the lap times today I was really happy. 15 laps in row and lap 1 to 16 there was only one tenth difference on the last lap. I felt the potential was good. I’m quite happy about today. Unfortunately the qualifying was not the best. But I feel we have great potential for tomorrow."
But there is still a huge amount of uncertainty among the riders over how the race will play out. Pace on paper may mean nothing during the race, given how conditions are so apt to change. "Sincerely, it’s very difficult to predict tomorrow's race," Aleix Espargaro said. "The grip is very low. We saw the factory Ducati boys finish low in some sessions, but not fast like last week. But the Pramac are fast. The Suzukis are fast like last week. The track is very different compared to last week. It’s very slippery."
The Aprilia rider had a strong showing last week, and is even more comfortable for the second race at Qatar. "I felt a bit easier with the bike in the wind. I think we are better than last week for the race." The big question mark was the performance of the tires, Espargaro said. "Still I don’t understand. I need to talk with Michelin. We slide a lot more than last week."
The problem was, Espargaro explained, that he and his Aprilia team weren't sure whether he was sliding without damaging the tire. "I don’t understand if I am destroying the tire or if I’m just sliding and not destroying because there isn’t enough grip," the Spaniard said. "If I’m sliding and destroying the tire then we have a big problem because the spin level is a lot higher than last week. But it can mean there is no grip on the ground which means you can spin whatever you want but the consumption is not super high. This is what we need to understand tonight and let’s see with the engineers. But I think just Maverick and Fabio are the strongest but in qualifying we are similar to them. We are in the mix."
Aleix wasn't the only Espargaro brother to be confounded by the conditions, the tires, and the grip. Pol Espargaro was frustrated and befuddled by the fact that while his race pace looked strong, his one-lap pace was nowhere and seemingly impossible to improve. What made it worse was that on his first run, he had felt the tire was way too slow. And with his second rear tire, he felt a second or more faster.
Out of control
"Honestly speaking, it's difficult to say," the Repsol Honda rider said. "It's what makes me more angry, is to not control the situation, and this one, I tell you, I do not control. The first tire I put in qualifying was very bad, I could not make even one lap. I'm sure I couldn't make even a 1'55, or 1'55 middle. But then I stopped and put the second tire and I did a 1'54.4. But again, my reference changed, I went wide in the first corner, I lost two tenths in the first corner."
If he had gotten everything right, he felt he could have gotten through to Q2. "Doing a perfect lap, I think could be in Q2, but the problem was that I was not expecting how the bike was reacting with the second tire," Espargaro said. "What happened? We don't know. We don't know, and especially I don't know and this is super frustrating for me. So I'm sure tomorrow we are going to go for the race, we are going to put the race tire and we are going to be overtaking like last weekend, and we are going to be somewhere."
What Espargaro found most frustrating is why this was happening to the Repsol Hondas, but not to the Ducatis. "Why did this happen to us, and why do Ducatis improve more than 2 seconds in one lap?" He asked. "They did 1'52.7 last weekend, and they did the same rhythm in the race as me. This is what we don't understand, why they are so fast over one lap and we struggle so much."
There was a general sense of confusion about the grip. The Honda riders and the KTM riders couldn't push – in part because they need a harder front tire, the asymmetric medium proving unusable for them. Yet their race pace looks much more solid, so that is a cause for concern.
Miguel Oliveira was the best of the KTMs, but he had no obvious explanation for why he was quicker. "I just went a little bit faster," the factory KTM rider said. "There’s not really any secret. I think the job was quite similar between every rider. We tried to find different solutions in terms of setup and the four of us tried different things just to see if we gained something, especially out of front tire consumption."
After a long time in Qatar, riding around the same track, and having to deal with the difference between preheated and brand new tires, they were starting to lose their way, Oliveira explained. After nine days, we are tired of thinking," the Portuguese rider said. "It’s really frustrating, especially when we get to a weekend where we have such a tire difference between the same compounds. It becomes harder."
All this wasn't helped by the weird time schedule, Oliveira added. "As I’ve been saying before, the format itself of the weekend. We get to the first day, we have an afternoon session which is really hot. Then we have a night session which is a qualifying. So if you look at the team which is struggling a bit more and needs to try things, it’s quite difficult to do it."
Franco Morbidelli echoed that feeling. Despite having strong pace in FP4, he qualified down in tenth, behind the Suzukis. "Really difficult day and weekend so far," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "But I wouldn't say difficult, I would say really hard to understand. The feeling is bad, and it remains averagely bad, no matter what we do. What changes is the speed, and sometimes I feel a bit better, sometimes I feel a bit faster, but this feeling can go away from one run to another. So nothing is certain, and nothing is clear. We don't know what to point, what I know is the feeling on the bike is not good, and it's difficult."
There wasn't a single culprit he could point to on the bike. "I don't know," Morbidelli said in exasperation. "I don't want to dare to point at the tires, I don't want to dare to point at the shock, I don't want to dare to point at the chassis, swingarm, whatever. I don't want to dare to point at anything at the moment. Because I'm not certain about anything at the moment. So it can be any of these things."
The only thing he was certain of was the fact that the rear of the bike didn't feel good. "I'm not having a good feedback from the rear end of the bike. So it might be whatever of these things, it might be tires, it might be swingarm, it might be the shock, it might be something related to the rear end of the bike. We've been going backwards and backwards so we've been changing many things on the bike and we've pretty much gone to the last tiers of items and nothing seems to help. So, difficult situation and difficult to point to what it is."
Which brings us to Valentino Rossi. The Italian veteran qualified in lowly 21st, his worst starting position on the grid at Qatar since he was put to the back of the grid for scrubbing his starting position at the very first race at the Losail International Circuit back in 2004. That was the race where he vowed that Sete Gibernau, who he accused of having informed Race Direction of his misdeeds, would never win a race again. He was right.
At Qatar, it is Rossi who is not looking like a rider with any victories in his future. The Petronas Yamaha rider struggled with grip during practice, and struggled with grip during qualifying. He had no confidence and no solutions. "Very difficult today because I was never strong," Rossi said. "We try to improve the feeling with the bike with the rear but I suffer very much. I have a lack of grip in acceleration."
His race pace was also not good enough, Rossi said. "Also after some laps anyway my pace, I suffer a lot, my pace is not good. Also in the quali with the new tire I never have the feeling to be fast enough." He had been better a week ago, when had been fast enough to get through to Q2, and had exploited a tow from Pecco Bagnaia to start fourth on the grid. "Last week I was good with the new tires but we try for sure to improve the life but unfortunately I was not fast enough. Will be difficult. We have to start behind. We have to understand, try something else and we will see."
Is the end of the Rossi era in sight? Honestly, it's Qatar, so who knows? There is so much about Qatar that confounds any sense of who might be genuinely competitive once MotoGP returns to more normal tracks and more normal conditions. Jerez, Le Mans, Mugello, Barcelona; these are the tracks that will tell Valentino Rossi whether he is still fast enough to compete. And will tell the rest of MotoGP who is genuinely competitive in 2021, and not just a one-off fluke at a fickle and capricious track.
Drawing conclusions from Qatar is a precarious affair. Better wait for Europe before that. Jack Miller is right. Only one more day left in Qatar, so better try to make it a good one and get out in one piece.
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