The thing about back-to-back races is that everyone gets faster. Or at least, that's the idea. With an extra weekend of data under their belts, the teams should have a pretty good idea about the ideal setting for the bike at a track, and returning to a circuit where they had raced a week before, the riders should be able to navigate every corner, bump, and braking zone with their eyes closed.
The track should be better too. With a weekend of motorcycle rubber on the track to replace the residue left by cars, there is more grip for the riders to exploit. The stars should all be aligned for everyone to be faster the second time around.
As it turns out, that is only partially true. Johann Zarco raised expectations in FP1, smashing the pole record set by Jorge Martin the previous week by over a tenth of a second. In FP3, both Pecco Bagnaia and Fabio Quartararo dived under Martin's previous record as well, though they were still a ways behind Zarco's time. So in qualifying, surely Zarco's record would fall, and half the grid or more would be into the 1'22s?
That did not transpire. The lap record was smashed alright: Jorge Martin took two tenths off Zarco's record, and over three tenths off his own pole time from last week. Fabio Quartararo posted two laps under Zarco's record, taking second behind Martin. But the rest of the grid was, if not exactly slow, then barely making any progress. Joan Mir, Aleix Espargaro, Jack Miller, Pecco Bagnaia were all within a few hundredths of their qualifying times from last week. And based on position, the entire grid from fifth to twelfth was within a tenth or less of the times for the same position last week.
If anything, that puts the times of Martin and Quartararo in an even more positive light. Jorge Martin improved his qualifying time from last week by over a third of a second. Fabio Quartararo took nearly four tenths off his qualifying time from seven days ago. The gap to Pecco Bagnaia in third was four tenths, an enormous gap in the current MotoGP era. Normally, grids are measured in hundredths, if not thousandths of a second. For Martin and Quartararo to be getting on for half a second faster is genuinely astonishing.
The level of competition is still tough, however. Miguel Oliveira found 0.445 between last week and this week, but could only improve his grid position by one row, from 12th to 9th. Likewise, Marc Marquez found a quarter of a second in the seven days since the last Q2, and he also only moved forward one row, from 8th to 5th.
Jorge Martin's pole position was remarkable on a number of fronts. To snatch pole from Quartararo in the dying seconds of qualifying is impressive enough. To do it when the benchmark set by the Monster Energy Yamaha rider looked so far out of reach of anyone else is even better. Martin had a little help, able to use his Pramac Ducati teammate Johann Zarco as a target as the Frenchman chased his best lap of the session, but he still had to do it on his own.
He also did it after having to come through Q1, becoming only the third rider to do so, joining Marc Marquez and Maverick Viñales, who managed the same feat in 2018. But both Marquez and Viñales were experienced veterans by the time they did so: this is only Jorge Martin's seventh MotoGP qualifying, yet it is his third pole. But he has form when it comes to a single hot lap: he is currently running a little over 22% for career poles from starts. That, as they say, is not too shabby.
Starting from pole had not been on Martin's mind after a rather difficult morning session in FP3. "Today was a really difficult day for me, because as soon as I started the day, I was feeling really bad with the bike, with the same setting as last week," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "I don't know why I couldn’t brake. The bike was shaking. Also in acceleration I felt no grip."
Changes to the front and the rear of the bike in FP4 made a big improvement, and gave him strong pace on used tires. But having missed out on Q2 in FP3 left him with a hill still to climb, Martin admitted. "For qualifying, in the Q1 I was a bit nervous because you always take this risk to not go through Q2," the young Spaniard said, "but I did an amazing job doing 1'23.1 with the hot conditions. The conditions were really different to the morning. I was comfortable."
If his lap in Q1 was good, his lap in Q2 was outstanding. Yet he still felt he had left something out on track. Despite being so much faster than last week, it was still not a perfect lap, Martin told the press conference. "It’s never perfect. You always can improve, for sure. I could improve only maybe a little bit in the last corner because I went a bit wide and I remember about the morning, so then I relaxed a bit and I released the brakes because I didn’t want to crash. But maybe there is half a tenth."
Jorge Martin's lap was good, but looked almost effortless. Fabio Quartararo's fast lap was the epitome of pushing the bike at the limit. The Dorna slowmo of the Frenchman sliding both front and rear wheels through the final corner on his final lap, yet remaining inch perfect and avoiding having his lap canceled, is truly breathtaking.
Quartararo could barely believe just how fast he had been. "It was something great to be under the 1'23 in Q2," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "Actually, it was quite funny because when I did the 1'22.6, I knew that was so fast, but at one stage I said, 'It’s 1'23.6 or 1'22.6?' So it was really a fast lap alone."
Like Martin, Quartararo felt there was still room for improvement. "We are struggling a lot in Sector 1," the Frenchman said. "But Sector 2, Sector 4 I’m feeling really strong with the bike. Of course, the taste of pole position in a track that is tough for us would have been great. Front row is fantastic to start here and more in the second week here in Austria."
Quartararo had very strong pace in FP4, and found an improvement compared to last week, where he had felt a drop in performance as the race went on. "I think in FP4 we showed that our pace was pretty strong with old tires, old rear tires," Quartararo told the press conference. "I felt great. I didn’t feel the drop like last race. In a race, it’s a totally different story, I know. But comparing both FP4, I feel like already with the used tire I was already having good pace. I was constantly in 1'24 low in my first run. I think it’s something great for tomorrow’s race."
Third-place finisher Pecco Bagnaia could not believe the times set by Jorge Martin and Fabio Quartararo. "When I see 1'22.6 I wasn’t believing it, because I was thinking that the conditions were not the same." The Factory Ducati rider was a little disappointed, because his race pace was clearly on a par with the two men who qualified ahead of him. "I was doing great things this morning or yesterday. FP4 too, I had a good feeling with the used tires because in the last lap with 31 laps in the rear I was doing quite a good pace, so I’m happy about that."
Qualifying was a different matter, however. "In qualifying I struggled more," Bagnaia told the press conference. "The rear grip was less than in the morning with both tires, so I struggled a bit. To do 22.6 is something very far from my level at the moment because I think I’m losing too much time in Sector 3."
Bagnaia was particularly impressed with the fact that Jorge Martin was able to keep pace with the Yamahas and Suzukis through the long turns from Turn 5 to Turn 9, not the Ducati's natural hunting ground. "I’m trying to get better there, but Jorge is doing something incredible because he’s faster also compared Yamaha or Suzuki. He’s doing something incredible in Sector 3. I’m trying to study him, but it’s very difficult to do the same there."
Just like last week, the grid is full of Ducatis, with the two Pramac machines and the factory Ducati Lenovo bikes on the two front rows. Fabio Quartararo is once again on the front row, having moved up from third to second in between the two Spielberg Grand Prix. The Suzuki of Joan Mir has been swapped out for the Honda of Marc Marquez, Marquez now fifth, Mir dropping to seventh.
In terms of pace, Quartararo was outstanding on old tires, while Jorge Martin is not far behind, and Pecco Bagnaia posting strong times on very old tires. On new rubber in FP4, Johann Zarco, Aleix Espargaro, and the Suzukis of Joan Mir and Alex Rins were in play.
There was some concern in the Suzuki camp, however. Joan Mir was struggling with braking, he told us. "I struggled a little bit more than I expected because probably the temperature on track doesn't help me today," the reigning champion said. "And I was struggling a little bit more with the grip and everything, to stop the bike especially."
The Suzukis seem not to make the same progress between back-to-back rounds that the other bikes do, both Joan Mir and Alex Rins told us. "In the second weekend it's difficult to improve more on the lap time and the others have more margin than us probably," Joan Mir said. "We need more things to try, we need more things to make the bike a little bit better and to be also more competitive."
Suzuki had made a step with the holeshot device, but that had also come at a cost, Alex Rins said. The Suzuki's had once been famed for its ability to cosset its tires, but that was no longer the case. "This is true sometimes, more in the past than now," Rins told us. "The last part of the race, we were able to recover a lot because we arrived at the end of the race with better grip on the tire."
Previously, the Suzuki GSX-RR had been down on acceleration, something which the rear ride-height device had helped with. But better acceleration puts more load into the tires, and the Suzukis were paying the price for that. "Since the beginning of the year, this is difficult for us, because we are losing a lot on acceleration without the rear device," Alex Rins said. "Now we are losing, but not the same as before. So we are putting more stress in the tires during the race."
For tomorrow's race, the choice of front tire is likely to be key. Michelin's decision to drop the asymmetric hard front tire in favor of a symmetric option was an improvement, but was not without its problems. The left side of the tire barely gets used from Turn 8 through to Turn 5, and so it is easy for it to lose temperature when the riders tip in to the long left of Turn 6.
Hard but sensitive
The assessment of the hard front was almost unanimous around the grid. Even Brad Binder, who needs the support from a harder front most to get the best out of the KTM RC16 was ambivalent, though it was still clearly their race tire. "For me it has given me more support on the front, for sure. It’s made it a bit better for me to stop the bike. Sometimes if the temperature is not perfect on the front then it can be a bit sketchy and miss a bit of grip on the edge but for us this is definitely our race option for tomorrow."
It was likely to be the race tire for Marc Marquez as well, another rider who relies heavily on the brakes. "Basically always when you use the front it’s more stable," the Repsol Honda rider said. "Always the same concept, more stable, more stability on corner entry on brakes. But then in full banking, a little bit less grip. This is the main character of the hard front tire."
For the Yamahas, which rely a little less heavily on the front tire to get the bike stopped, the choice of front tire was much more dependent on the temperature at the start of the race. "I feel good, because it has good support in braking, the tire works well," Valentino Rossi said. "We need hot conditions, because today when we tried the hard, it was full sun and the temperature of the asphalt is quite high. So if tomorrow will be conditions like this we can try to use the hard."
What might complicate that choice is the appearance of clouds in the sky. With the sun out, the temperature is high enough to keep the hard in the ideal operating zone. But if the occasional cloud crosses in front of the sun, it can drop the asphalt temperature just enough to push the hard front just outside of its envelope.
"The problem is always that, where is the cross point between the hard and medium?" Valentino Rossi said. "Last week in the race it was cold, and it was good for the medium, today was hot and was good for the hard. So we need to wait for the conditions, until ten minutes to go, and try to understand if the temperature is enough for the hard to have a bit more potential in braking. And here, like you know, the braking is very important."
Signs of reconciliation
Beyond the race track, Maverick Viñales spoke to the media for the first time. The Spaniard gave a series of interview to selected TV stations, starting with the Italian broadcaster Sky Italia. A notable choice, for a number of reasons, not least because Viñales is expected to announce a deal with Aprilia for 2022. But also, because it is a sign of the troubled relationship he has with the Spanish media, and broadcaster DAZN. In Barcelona, DAZN angered Viñales by taking a quote from an interview out of context and using it to promote the interview. But in the end, Viñales spoke to Sky Italia, DAZN, and the MotoGP.com website.
The interviews were remarkable for the contriteness which Viñales displayed. He owned up to taking his frustration out on the bike. "I have to say, and I want to apologize to Yamaha because at the end, everything was about frustration, also a lot of nerves. I ride the bike on a different way, the last laps, and as I said, I had a big explosion of emotion, frustration," the Spaniard said.
The frustration had been building for a long time, through a series of events, including having his crew chief Esteban Garcia replaced by Silvano Galbusera, and a string of wildly varying results, most notably finishing last at the Sachsenring, then taking pole and second place a week later at Assen.
Things had come to a head after the restarted race at the Red Bull Ring last Sunday. Viñales had gotten off to a very strong start in the first race, but when the race was red flagged because of the crash of Dani Pedrosa and Lorenzo Savadori, Viñales' team had replaced the clutch on his bike, and he felt that the bike did not feel the same as during the first race. He stalled the bike on the grid, then pushed his bike into pit lane to start from pit lane exit, and suffered problems with this dashboard all race. That frustration had led to him taking it out on his Yamaha M1.
A matter of trust
Cal Crutchlow was asked if he felt comfortable sharing a track with a rider who could not control his emotions. The Yamaha test rider gave a long and carefully considered response. "Racing in MotoGP is always a privilege," the Englishman said. Because we are privileged to be here, same as what 90% of the paddock will feel, they are privileged to be in the job they are in. But we all get frustrated."
It was a privilege to race in MotoGP, but not easy, Crutchlow insisted. "This job is the best job in the world, but the hardest job in the world, and a lot of the time, the pressure comes from yourself. But when it starts to come from people around you, then it makes it ten times worse. As a rider, I believe a lot of the time you are your own worst critic. So you have to manage this situation, manage the emotions, and manage the way. But we all lose our heads sometimes, throwing helmets or stuff like that. But not at PEOPLE, at THE SITUATION, that I was not fast enough or whatever."
Crutchlow emphasized the trust riders had to place in one another on track. "Would I feel comfortable? It's a difficult situation because we have so much respect for each other on the track – I know we pass each other close, we knock each other off, they do hard moves, but you have to be comfortable with who you are racing with. And I never looked at the MotoGP grid and thought, I would hate to have this guy behind me, or in front of me, or be battling with him, because we know what we are doing, we trust what we are doing."
Viñales' talent was undeniable, Crutchlow said. "The thing is that I believe that if Maverick jumped on the bike next week, he would be as fast as normal. And that's the reality. So he's not one to suddenly say, OK, I'm going to brake 20 meters later. He's not dangerous, this is sure. He's a good rider, he's a great rider. Probably as I said the other week, talent-wise probably in the top two or thee in the whole championship and has been for many years. So it's not for me to comment on what he needs to do or anything like that. But would I feel comfortable on the track with him again? Yes."
Will Yamaha put him back on the bike for Silverstone and let him ride out the rest of the season? Yamaha management were cautious, team manager Maio Meregalli telling several TV broadcasters that no decision on Viñales' future had been made yet, and that they will continue to study the data and consult with Yamaha Japan before making a decision.
There are arguments to be made on either side. On the one hand, being suspended could be exactly the stimulus Viñales needs to reassess his behavior and get himself under control. The reality of standing at trackside while the rest of the grid got on with doing the job Viñales loves, and has dedicated his life to, really hit home.
It is reminiscent of Jorge Lorenzo's experience after being handed a ban for a collision with Alex De Angelis in the 250cc class at Motegi in 2005. Sitting at home and watching his rivals race had driven home the importance of racing to him, Lorenzo would say much later, and taught him to change his behavior. Viñales' suspension could well have the same effect.
On the other hand, what Viñales did could be construed as an insult to Yamaha and to his team. His crew has spent weeks away from home to support him, working long hours to try to give him the best motorcycle possible. Yamaha's Japanese engineers have been away from home for months, since the first race in Qatar, unable to return to Japan because of Covid-19 travel restrictions. Viñales' abuse of his M1 engine is a slap in the face to them.
A temporary reprieve
There are parallels with Max Biaggi, after he finally found his way into the factory Repsol Honda team. There is an unconfirmed story that Biaggi was once so disgusted with his finishing position in one race that on arriving back into the pits, he rode directly into the garage and jumped off his Honda RC211V before waiting for a mechanic to grab it and hold it, letting it fall on the floor. HRC were so incensed at this treatment of their machine that they vowed he would never ride a Honda again after his contract had ended. And he never did.
In practical terms, the best solution is for Viñales to return to the Monster Energy Yamaha team for the remainder of the season – after signing various addenda to his contract containing penalties for bad behavior. Viñales is fast and capable of scoring points, and can help Yamaha win the team and manufacturer titles and secure the triple crown, if Quartararo wraps up the riders title. He would surely do better than a replacement rider, even one as recently retired as Cal Crutchlow.
But such a deal would only last until the end of the season. After that, the chances of Viñales riding a Yamaha again, other than a hire scooter at some foreign beach resort, will be pretty much zero. The tolerance for bad behavior is directly proportional to the talent involved, and there is no doubting Viñales' talent. But there are limits to everything, and once a Rubicon is crossed, there is no going back. Viñales and Yamaha might patch things up for the sake of 2021, but beyond that, their ways will part for good.
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