Saturday was a tough day at the office for the Grand Prix paddock. Conditions were treacherous precisely because they were so deceptive. The sun was shining, and if you measured the asphalt temperature in the sun, it looked pretty good. But there was a cold wind blowing across the track which would cool tires and catch you unawares.
Which is precisely what it did, riders crashing in droves in all three classes on Saturday. There were 27 fallers on Saturday, more than any other Saturday at Jerez in the past five years. And with 41 crashes, we have already surpassed the total of 40 over three days at last year's Andalusia round, or Jerez 2, at the circuit. And only one crash behind the grand total at the Spanish round the week before.
Why are so many riders crashing? "It’s true that today the asphalt is quite hot. It’s quite okay, but the wind is quite cool," Joan Mir said on Saturday afternoon. "So probably these are not the best conditions. Normally the cool wind cools the tires a bit, and then the track is not really, really hot. So it means that maybe for the medium tires it’s a bit on the limit."
A lot of riders hit the tarmac. Brad Binder destroyed his Red Bull KTM bike at Turn 5, a fast crash that saw the RC16 tumble and tear itself apart. Aleix Espargaro crashed twice in FP4, brother Pol fell once, as did Alex Rins. Lorenzo Savadori made it a full house for Aprilia, and both Tech3 KTM riders fell as well, Iker Lecuona in FP3, Danilo Petrucci in FP4.
Then there was Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider had a massive crash at Turn 7, sliding off the bike fast while his RC213V tumbled behind him. Making it worse is the fact that the barrier is rather too close for comfort. Márquez slid through the gravel and hit the air fence, and knelt, dazed for a few moments, before very gingerly walking away.
It was his first big crash since the incident last July which nearly ended his career. That was at Turn 4, this was half a lap later, and fortunately, though just as big, nowhere near as damaging. Márquez was taken to the medical center to be examined, and suffered severe bruising around his neck.
First time for everything
Márquez was shaken up after the crash, but philosophical. "We know that sooner or later the first crash of the season will arrive," The Repsol Honda rider said on Saturday evening. It was unfortunate it happened where it did, he added. "Maybe I chose one of the worst points of the circuit. Then I didn’t expect it. But if you push for a lap you don’t think about the risk."
He had started off the Spanish Grand Prix holding a little in reserve, Márquez explained. "Yesterday I was more conservative. Today I attacked. Unfortunately, when I attacked, I crashed. It was a big crash, especially the impact against the air fence, with high speed. But thanks to the air fence I’m here."
The crash had taken its toll, however. Though the medical center staff had given him the OK, when he went back to his motorhome, he started to feel a little woozy. "When I arrived in the truck, and I sat down and I was there for ten minutes, I started to lose a bit the head. I started to not know exactly where I was."
That had worried him, Márquez said. "Immediately I called the doctor and he said to go to the hospital. When I arrived in the hospital I already felt well again. They checked everything and made a CAT scan. When I arrived here in the circuit again they rechecked everything and I was feeling OK." But he was proceeding with extreme caution after the crash. "Immediately when I feel something I call the doctor to be more safe. For that reason I went to the hospital."
The good news is that they had checked his arm, and the humerus he had fractured was just fine. "When I went to the check it was more for the neck, for the consciousness check, the head, the neck and the back. It was more what I suffered on the impact," Márquez explained. An X-ray of the arm showed no damage. He went on to add that he was riding because the medical staff had said the humerus was fine, that he had as much chance of breaking his left arm as his right in a crash. "The arm… I don’t feel anything. I want to clarify I’m here, I’m riding and I’m pushing because what the doctors said to me is because of the impact there was a chance to break either the left or right arm. The bone is completely fixed."
The crash had taken its toll in a different way as well. He was being more conservative again, not taking the kind of risks he might have in the past. "We are using a completely different bike set up to last year," he explained. "The main reason is it needs less physical condition, this bike that I’m riding now. It’s what I need now to finish the race in a good way."
The biggest change was a switch to using the soft front instead the medium he might have preferred otherwise. The medium gave him the support to ride more aggressively, but that support came at the expense of grip, and that was a risk that Márquez was not quite ready to take after his big crash in FP3. "I had a few moments this afternoon but all these moments were when I was using the S front tire. I was not stopping the bike, I was not turning now. If you think now, you ask, why put the S front tire, you are always using the hard. I chose the S front tire because I was thinking about the crash more of this morning more than performance this afternoon."
Too close for comfort
Márquez wasn't the only rider to crash at Turn 7. Teammate Pol Espargaro also hit the tarmac, and then slid and hit the tire wall at the same point. Those incidents raised the issue of safety at the Jerez circuit again. The wall is simply too close, the riders said. "In Turn 7 the layout is not enough," Joan Mir told us, harking back to his own experience in that corner. "I crashed in 2019 in the test and I was under the air fence."
Pol Espargaro's experience was a good deal more recent, but just as negative. "There are two kinds of crashes there, or three," the Repsol Honda rider said. "The highside, mid-corner, but if you crash like Marc and I just before you start to lose speed – which is the kind that most happens in this type of place – then the wall is too close for sure."
Air fences are good, Espargaro admitted, but created a different kind of danger. "OK, we have this air fence technology but we need to think if the bike is coming in the same direction then even if we have the fence the bike is coming also. In the run off area I am going the same speed as the bike. When you hit something and you stop – as Marc did – then the bike can arrive at the same speed as you."
Air fences can absorb the energy of a rider if they hit the wall, and can handle being hit by a bike. But they also produce a speed differential, which creates the possibility of a collision. If the air fence stops the rider, they might find themselves suddenly in the firing line of flying machinery, with the risk of being hit by the bike they were just separated from.
Fixing Turn 7 is not simple. There is some room to move the wall back in the first part of the corner, but the later part backs on to the entry of Turn 13, the final corner. Making space for run off there is difficult.
And it isn't the only part of the track which is problematic. Friday night's Safety Commission had discussed a number of points on the track where crashing could be dangerous, though ironically, Turn 7 wasn't one of the corners mentioned. "I think that first of all, the run off areas are not enough in this track for a MotoGP bike," Joan Mir said. "Not in Turn 7, not in Turn 1, not in Turn 5, not in Turn 8, 9, 10. We are really on the limit in this position. Yesterday in the Safety Commission we spoke about that. I think that they will start to make it better, but for next year I think that they will change maybe one corner or two, then in the next year they will continue changing things."
Franco Morbidelli expanded on this in the press conference, after taking second on the grid. "We discussed this also yesterday in the Safety Commission," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "They’re going to try to increase the runoff areas. There are a couple of corners that firstly are going to be done. Turn seven is not included, but with time I think that this track is going to increase its safety."
Morbidelli loves the Jerez circuit, he said, but even he had had a moment on Saturday. "It’s a great track. It's unbelievable to ride here. It’s a great taste to ride here, but it’s true that the runoff areas are pretty close. This morning I had a moment myself. I got on track and I had no brakes in turn six because they were cold or I had shake, I don't know. But I had no brakes and I can tell you that the wall was coming towards me really fast."
Jack Miller felt that the size of the gravel was at least partly to blame. "For me, the biggest thing that needs to happen here is the size of the gravel. Here it’s kind of like a river rock, quite big pieces of gravel," the factory Ducati rider said. "You will notice that nobody ever really goes into the gravel. We always bounce on top. It’s not really soft like some places like Aragon and places like that where it’s really soft and they can fluff it up and it decelerates you a lot quicker."
The real problem, of course, is simply that speed are getting higher every year. Which, it has to be said, is pretty much the entire point of racing. But higher speeds – in terms of outright top speed, corner speed, and lap time – mean that the racing is outgrowing tracks. "The fact is we are going faster and faster, so the runoff areas are coming smaller and smaller," Morbidelli said.
That was the natural development of racing, Jack Miller agreed. "I think I have to say the same thing. It’s the evolution. We’re getting faster and faster. The bikes are getting faster and faster. Corner speed is now higher than it has ever been. So for sure, the runoff areas area always going to get closer and closer. If you look back at what they were in the past with tires walls and stuff like that to what we have now, it’s fantastic. But there’s this natural progression and I think it's coming."
Alex Rins felt the same way. "It starts to be fast, year by year, but let's say in MotoGP, Moto2, and Moto3. When I was racing in Moto3, we were suffering a lot to make 1'46. Now, Migno makes 1'44.9, it was an impressive lap time."
Speed is an intractable problem in racing. It is the point of racing, of course, but each increase in speed brings new problems. Remy Gardner's Moto2 pole, set on a bike with an engine originally produced for a street bike, is over 2 seconds faster than Valentino Rossi's last pole on a 500cc premier class bike at the circuit back in 2001. Gardner's Moto2 pole is 1.5 seconds faster than the first MotoGP pole, set on a Honda RC211V Honda by Valentino Rossi in 2002.
So the problem isn't only related to horsepower, and can't be controlled simply by imposing engine restrictions. Rossi's 2001 Honda NSR500 made somewhere in the region of 200 hp. The RC211V he rode a year later produced north of 230 hp. The Triumph Moto2 engine produces just under 130 hp. And yet even with a 100 hp less, the Moto2 bike is 1.5 seconds quicker.
The answer, of course, is tires. The reason the bikes are going so fast is because tires have gotten better, which has allowed chassis to get better, and electronics have improved to manage the power, which has allowed the tire manufacturers to improve the rubber. If you want to slow the bikes up, you have to make the tires worse. Short of putting them all on bicycle tires, it's hard to see a way of slowing the riders up.
There was more to the day than crashes, of course. The morning FP3 session turned into even more of a mini qualifying session than normal, with riders going out early to chase a quick lap time out of fear of having their laps canceled by a yellow flag. And then there were track limits to contend with, those being monitored and judged far more strictly this year. And with the top ten in FP3 separated by just 0.203, every inch of track was needed to maximize speed around the Jerez circuit. And sometimes, the search for that extra speed saw riders take just a millimeter too much, and have their laps taken away.
That happened to Franco Morbidelli in FP3, who had his two best laps canceled and was forced to go through Q1. "This morning I got both laps canceled and I was really on the limit to make those lap times, and unfortunately I went just a little bit outside from the track and got my lap canceled and I needed to go through Q1," the Italian told the qualifying press conference.
That was a hard place to end up, Morbidelli explained. "Q1 is a battlefield where you can get trapped. You have to go exactly with the commitment you had if you went to Q2. So you have to go full commitment because you can get trapped in Q1." As MotoGP gets closer, so the pressure increases. "The level in MotoGP is so high, it’s unbelievable and you cannot lose anything. You cannot lose one inch or you cannot lose the focus for one tenth."
Things were no easier once in Q2, the top ten separated by less than four tenths, and three tenths separating Jack Miller in third from Joan Mir in tenth. Miller had gotten more than a little help to make it onto the front row, following his teammate Pecco Bagnaia round on his fastest lap.
Though Bagnaia was clearly unhappy with having his teammate take a front row ahead of him with his help, the Italian remained diplomatic about the affair. "For sure it was better to start in the front row," Bagnaia said. "I pushed alone to make it, and when I finished, I saw that Jack was behind me, and I was sure that with my slipstream he could do a better time. But in any case, starting from P4 is not so bad."
Starting from first is an imperious Fabio Quartararo, taking his second pole position in a row. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider had wanted a little more from his bike after Friday, and found it in time for Saturday. The Frenchman has both excellent single lap speed, as well as superb race pace. "In FP3 we went out with the same tire that I felt that drop and we managed to get a better setting on the bike," he said. "Actually, I made 37.9 with more than 20 laps on the tire. I think it was close to race distance, so super happy about the tire drop."
Quartararo will be the man to beat on Sunday, his race pace superb on medium and hard tires, old and new. Franco Morbidelli looks to have almost as good pace as Quartararo, suggesting it could be another strong race for Yamaha on Sunday. The Ducatis are a fraction slower on race pace, and need to find a way to beat the Yamahas. Fortunately, they can use their speed off the line to try to get in the way of Quartararo and Morbidelli, and force them to use up their tires trying to get past.
"For sure the strategy will be to start better than the Yamaha and try to slow them down at the start, and maybe they will have to use more the rear tire to try to overtake us," Bagnaia explained when asked about it. "But let's wait for tomorrow, it's difficult to predict a strategy at the moment. I will try to start as well as possible and try to put me on front. My pace is not so bad, but they have a bit more traction than us at the moment, and we are working on it, because it's very important to remain more constant and with more grip. They can use more the initial grip of the tires. So it's something that we need to work more tomorrow."
If qualifying is tight, then so is the race pace shown in FP4. But there was much switching between different tires of different ages, and that made judging where riders stood very hard, Bagnaia said. "We saw a lot of riders with new tires in FP4, that is pretty strange because normally a lot of riders use used tires. But like I said, my pace with a used tires of 26 laps was not so bad."
Who could join the Ducati and Yamaha party? Despite the fact that they are down in ninth and tenth, it is dangerous to write off the Suzukis, both Joan Mir and Alex Rins showing good pace. The Hondas aren't a million miles away, with both Marc Márquez and Pol Espargaro doing low 1'38s on very old tires. Their problem, however, is the fact that they start from fourteenth and thirteenth respectively.
That is not the case for Takaaki Nakagami, however. The LCR Honda rider did a 1'37.9 on a tire with 24 laps, or nearly race distance, on it. And he starts the race from the middle of the second row, having qualified in fifth. Jerez has always been one of his strongest tracks, and he is both quicker and happier since switching back to the 2020 RC213V chassis. If you were looking for a dark horse, you could do a lot worse than the Japanese rider on the Idemitsu Honda.
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