Saturday at Montmelo made several things crystal clear in MotoGP. We saw one rider emerge as the clear favorite for the win on Sunday. We saw just how critical tire choice and tire management is going to be at Barcelona. And we saw just how much pressure riders are under, whether it be seeking a tow to get through to Q2, celebrating a quick time in FP3 like a victory, or crashing out twice in an attempt to save a seat for next year.
Above all, we saw just how fast Fabio Quartararo is in Barcelona. The fact that the Frenchman was the only rider to get into the 1'39s in FP4 was not that much of a surprise; the Monster Energy Yamaha rider has been quick all weekend after all. What was a little more surprising is that nobody else managed it, Maverick Viñales getting closest, but still over four tenths behind his teammate.
What should be more worrying is the fact the vast majority of Quartararo's laps in FP4 were 1'39s: 8 of his 12 flying laps were 1'39s. His 9th fastest lap was quick enough to have secured fourth place, his 1'40.278 faster than Johann Zarco's best lap of 1'40.286. Quartararo's 10th fastest lap was a 1'40.290, just 0.004 slower than Zarco's best time.
In a different league
On the basis of FP4 – and there is no better basis, it being the only session where the order of the timesheets count for nothing, and riders are working solely on race setup – Fabio Quartararo is in a league of his own. And to add another dimension to this, the Frenchman did these times on the hard rear tire, and on the medium rear tire, with little to distinguish between the two.
Quartararo was merely second fastest in FP3, but even there, the work he was doing was impressive. He started the session on a rear medium tire which had already done 15 laps. On his final flying lap, the 24th on that tire, he did a 1'40.866. Race distance on Sunday is 24 laps, and if he can get anywhere near that kind of time on the final lap on Sunday, he should have a pretty impressive margin over his rivals.
The logical conclusion to draw from Saturday is that whatever the circumstances, Fabio Quartararo is fast. Much, much faster than the rest. His fifth pole position in a row merely backs that up, the first rider to score five poles in a row since Marc Márquez racked up seven in a row from Valencia 2013 to Mugello 2014. His margin for pole is nothing like his margin in FP4 – the Frenchman is just 0.037 faster than Jack Miller, rather than four tenths – but it doesn't matter. If he can hold his own on the long, long run down to Turn 1 – and the addition of a front holeshot device to the Yamaha M1 vastly improves his chances here – then it will be a race for second for everyone else.
Jack Miller had quite a day on his way to second on the grid. First, he had to make his way out of Q1, after coming up short in FP3, knocked out of Q2 by Valentino Rossi in resurgent form. "Starting out in the morning just wasn’t really able to do what I thought I could do when I put the tire on in FP3," the Australian said. "Being 11th and how tight everything was, I was like, Q1, you know what that’s like."
What Q1 is like is everyone waiting for a tow. And right now, "everyone" includes the eight-time world champion Marc Márquez, the Spaniard frank about his inability to do a fast lap on his own. It also included Márquez' Repsol Honda teammate, Pol Espargaro, though Espargaro was a good deal less stoical about the situation as Márquez was.
Espargaro has a point. The sight of two Repsol Hondas, the finest machines the mighty HRC can build, sitting passively in pit lane waiting for a faster rider to come past so they could get a tow was rather dispiriting. But it was also a sign of just where HRC is at the moment. The Honda RC213V is not competitive, and with Marc Márquez still recovering from injury, HRC don't have a rider who can ride around the bike's glaring weaknesses.
Do what you have to
It was not official Honda policy, Espargaro insisted, but just the inevitable result of not being fast enough. "These decisions are the decisions of the rider. Each rider decides what the rider needs or wants," Espargaro said. "It's clear we are not good, we are not fast. It's clear. And when you are not fast, you cannot do everything by yourself, you need a wheel to improve, by not so much."
"We need to be behind someone because we are not fast, because the bike is not ready to make a lap time alone. This is the truth," Espargaro confessed. "So we the riders are trying everything to try to be fast, so it's what we want. But I hate this. I don't like to be following someone. Because when you need these kind of things, you are forced to do always one thing, which is to follow someone. So you cannot be relaxed, you cannot follow your riding style or just improve yourself. You are just following someone doing what the guy in front of you is doing. So there is no improvement on this. There is just a lap time."
Ironically, the wheel Espargaro had chosen was that of his teammate, Marc Márquez. And Márquez in turn was following Jack Miller, having made his intentions plain, even joking about it with the Australian the previous day. "Yesterday we were joking in the Clinica Mobile with Miller, because I mean I was 15th place and he said to me, 'how much will you pay me?' And today was the time!" Márquez said. "In Qualifying 1 all of the riders – me, Pol – we were waiting for somebody and this somebody was the fastest guy that was Miller."
Nice little earner
The joke played out in pit lane, with Jack Miller rubbing his fingers together as Marc Márquez drew alongside him in the universally understood symbol for cash money. But unlike Maverick Viñales at Mugello, Miller didn't let it faze him. The Australian exited pit lane fully aware that he had a train of riders in tow, all looking to leech off his speed to get through to Q2. But he put his head down and rode as fast as he can, too fast for anyone to follow.
"At the end of the day the first tow is free," Miller joked. "It doesn’t disturb me. It’s a mindset. If you go out there thinking only about the guy that’s behind you, you already lost. The most important thing I think in this situation is something I’ve learned over the years, I need to focus on my job, what I’m doing, and that’s it. If there’s another guy behind me, so be it. If there’s another three behind me, so be it. I can’t control this. At the end of the day, it’s a free world and he can follow whoever he wants."
The choices here are fairly simple. You can get upset and distracted and mess up your lap. You can indulge in a game of chicken, go out and do a slow lap in the hope of discouraging or shaking off anyone looking for a tow. But that is never effective, as the rider looking for a tow always has a lot less to lose than the rider they are following. If you know you need a tow to stand a chance of setting a good lap time, then waiting for someone else will always provide a better result than striking out on your own.
If you know you're fast, then the best option is simply to push, and trust in your own ability. The fact that others are trying to follow you already tells you you are fast enough, all you have to do is to put theory into practice. If you're really fast enough, others won't be able to beat your time, even with a tow.
Jack Miller was sympathetic, having been in a similar pickle himself in the past. "We’ve all been in this situation. It’s not easy. I know I have. Fabio maybe not so much. We’ve all been in this situation where you need a little something extra," he said. But having confidence in your own ability was the best choice, Miller believed "I think it’s nice when you see a rider take this approach, I feel anyway from the outside, especially for myself to have this confidence or have this trust in my bike and my ability that I’m able to push out front by myself."
Miller's self-belief was handsomely rewarded, making it through to Q2 and then onto the front row, finishing second behind Fabio Quartararo. And Marc Márquez' temerity was punished, the Repsol Honda rider losing out to his teammate, Pol Espargaro following Márquez as he tailed Miller to take the second spot in Q2.
It didn't improve Espargaro's situation very much, however. The Repsol Honda rider crashed on his first attempt at a fast lap in Q2, and ended the session in last, putting him just one place on the grid ahead of the teammate he had beaten to take the slot in Q2. But the crash had been entirely expected, Espargaro said, a result of having to take too much risk to try to push for a quick lap, something the RC213V simply doesn't want to provide.
Reaching the limit
"We are so on the limit everywhere, so pushing over the limit," Espargaro said. "The problem is when you need to do that once, it's OK. But when you need to do it twice or three times, like I did today, sure, three times doesn't work, it's too much. Everything is too on the limit, this is the resolution."
Speaking to the Spanish media, Espargaro expressed his despair at the situation. Honda would benefit from having concessions like Aprilia, he said, as a lack of testing meant he had barely had time to adapt to the bike, and the bike was simply not competitive. "I would not be ashamed to have concessions and, to be honest, we need them right now, because we don't have test days," he said. "I have only done five days of testing this season, which is nothing, the bike is not at the level that all of us would like and next year we will have the same test days and we will continue to be in the same difficult situation where we are now."
Marc Márquez was less keen on getting concessions, given to manufacturers who are so uncompetitive that they can't score a single podium with any rider throughout an entire season. "I wish that we don’t have the concessions because that means we will have a podium and maybe a victory," Márquez said, though he acknowledged it would also have an upside. "Of course we are in a difficult moment and everything we can have for the future, some advantage, will be nice to us."
Márquez didn't believe Honda would get concessions, however. "I don’t think we will get the concessions, honestly speaking. I believe we will get a podium before we finish the year." With Sachsenring coming up next, a track where Márquez has dominated, taking pole and victory in every edition he has raced in since 2010, in 125s, in Moto2, and MotoGP. It is an anticlockwise circuit, a ribbon of left handers, his strongest suit, and a track that will not tax his recovering right shoulder too heavily. Ten poles and ten victories in ten consecutive editions suggests that Márquez should be in with a shout of a podium in Germany.
Even if he doesn't score a podium at the Sachsenring or at Assen, the season is only halfway done. With a five-week summer break coming up, Márquez will have time for his shoulder to recover further, and to build strength for the second half. A stronger, fitter Marc Márquez surely has a better chance of grabbing at least one podium from the nine or ten races which will follow the summer break.
Márquez' physical problems have exposed the glaring weakness of the Honda. It does one or perhaps two things particularly well, and almost everything else has been sacrificed to this end. The bike stops superbly and can turn in quickly, but it lacks rear grip almost entirely. And that places an even greater reliance on braking, creating a vicious circle for the Honda riders.
All on the front
"As the rear grip is not how we would like it, what you do is enhance the part with which you know that you are fast, which is with the front end," Pol Espargaro told Spanish media. "The more you lose accelerating or turning, the later you brake. So, it is normal that at the point with which you have the most advantage you try to get the time, because in the other way you cannot. So the more critical it becomes."
Honda, like KTM, have found themselves on the wrong side of the balance of the Michelin tires. This year, the rear is improved, giving better grip, while the front is slightly more critical. The pandemic put paid to Michelin's plans to bring a stronger front tire with more support, which would have favored the Hondas and KTMs and balanced out the better rear. With the regular calendar and testing canceled last year, and a limited test calendar for 2021, Michelin have had to push back the introduction of the new front.
KTM have adapted to this by bringing a new chassis which provides more rear grip, and switched to synthetic fuel which gives the KTM better combustion and a couple more ponies. Miguel Oliveira's podium at Mugello was the proof of the success of that strategy. Honda, meanwhile, are stuck with a lack of rear grip. Until they fix that, their season will continue to be long and difficult.
KTM look like playing a role on Sunday. The race will be a war of attrition, riders struggling to manage their tires over a surface which devours rubber like few others. Miguel Oliveira was fast in qualifying, but more importantly, his pace was impressive.
Pecco Bagnaia, struggling a little with grip and tire choice at Barcelona, flagged Oliveira as a rider to watch. "For me, I think that Fabio and Miguel are the two strongest," the factory Ducati rider said. "Miguel has an advantage in terms of grip, because they have a lot of grip like KTM, but the problem for them is the entry. So the battle will be balanced."
It will be a long race, with tire management being key, Bagnaia told us. "I think also, it's difficult to predict which one will be the best, because tomorrow will be very important to manage the tires from the start. You can't push as you want, because the rear tire is very difficult to manage. So for sure Fabio will start very strong and he will like to open a gap from the start, but it will be very important for the second part of the race to be more constant with the tires."
That left a lot of riders room for hope, Bagnaia among them. "I think that we are still there. In that moment, we can close this gap. But we don't have to lose so much time in the start." Tire choice will be key, finding the right balance between the grip of a softer tire which probably won't last, and a harder tire which won't provide the grip. For Bagnaia, he was caught between the medium and the hard on Saturday, but if the temperature drops as expected on Sunday, his issue merely migrates to leave him trapped between the medium and the soft.
Valentino Rossi, a past master of tire management, pointed out that though the second half of the race was important, that didn't mean that grid position and a good start didn't matter. Getting out of the gate well was crucial, even though the last few laps would matter.
"It’s true that the degradation here is a big issue for everybody and it will be very important to understand the right condition and the right choice, especially for the rear tire but also for the front," Rossi said. "But I think that anyway it will be a sprint race from the first lap, the first corner. The first two or three laps you already decide 85% of the MotoGP race. After, start another, longer phase where you have to decide the other 15%. I think that it will be like this also tomorrow. Everybody push a lot from the beginning."
Rossi was quietly upbeat, after a solid performance in FP3 which saw him go straight through to Q2, having found a real improvement. It had helped that he liked Barcelona, but the bike was better now too. "I like the circuit in Barcelona. I ride quite well. But we also improved the setting of the bike. I think that we did the mistake after Friday, we followed a wrong way," he said. That was no different to any other rider, but because of his past and his age, it received extra attention. "These are things that happen all the weekend to more or less all the riders. The problem is when happens to me, it’s 'Rossi’s too old. You have to stop,' after one bad practice. But it’s normal. You work, and we try it the wrong way. But I am very, very happy with the feeling that I have today because I was not so bad on the track and I enjoyed it."
Rossi's optimism is based on more than just hope. Examining the timesheets, the Italian was genuinely quicker, though he is still some way off a podium. His pace on used tires would put him in the battle for sixth or seventh, the group behind the riders battling over second place, while Fabio Quartararo disappears into the distance.
That group chasing second will likely include Miguel Oliveira, Franco Morbidelli, Pecco Jack Miller, Maverick Viñales, Pecco Bagnaia, and Aleix Espargaro. It will likely also include Joan Mir, potentially putting on a repeat of the 2020 race, with the champion using the Suzuki GSX-RR's uncanny ability to cosset its tires to maintain his pace to the end.
"I think we will make a race again from less to more," Joan Mir told us on Saturday. But that was not sufficient for the win, and not the way for the future. "I think we have to continue to improving. This is not the way to win races. Like this I will be able to finish on the podium, if I’m good in the race, if I’m able to manage well and make super good laps like always."
But the other bikes had moved on, and Suzuki had to start catching up, Mir insisted. "The truth is that we have to continue improving and pushing because the competitiveness this year is really high. A lot of manufacturers improved and we didn’t improve," the Suzuki rider said. "Our bike is really good. we have a good base. But I have the same bike as last year. It’s the same one. What means? I’ve been 2 tenths faster than last year in qualifying. I was eighth last year and with 2 tenths faster I’m tenth. So, this means we are not improving. We need always to push a bit more to have more material and test more things to improve."
A good result would go some way to getting Joan Mir's title defense back on track. But he needs more if he is to stop Fabio Quartararo. And stopping Quartararo looks like an impossible task at Barcelona.
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