In the dying minutes of the Q2 session for MotoGP, it looked like we were witnessing a miracle. Jorge Martin flashed through the second sector nearly a second and a half up on the best time at that point. If he kept up that pace, he would be on his way to destroying the Silverstone pole record held by Marc Marquez, set on the newly resurfaced track back in 2019. Martin looked to be on his way to being the first rider to break the 1'58 barrier and lap the track in the 1'57s.
He lost a little ground in the third and fourth sectors, but as he flashed across the line, he left the MotoGP world speechless: a time of 1'58.008, 0.160 faster than Marquez' record from 2019. More impressively, it was nearly nine tenths faster than the 1'58.889 which had put Pol Espargaro on provisional pole, before the Pramac Ducati rider had so thoroughly demolished his time.
Could it be true? We waited for Race Direction to cancel Martin's time, but it stood for a very long time, until well after the checkered flag had been waved. The lap was too fast, but with little time to check, we had to believe that Jorge Martin once again pulled something exceptional out of the bag.
Coming off the back of two races at the Red Bull Ring, where Martin had two poles and a win, it was easy to believe that he might just have found something extra at Silverstone. After all, he had finished third in FP2 and FP3. But to be nine tenths faster than the rest of the field? It looked too good to be true.
The pole that wasn't
But the time still stood. And if Race Direction hadn't taken it down, then surely it was a valid lap? As the riders rounded the track heading in on their cool down laps, Martin showed no signs of celebrating. He was neither elated nor despondent, raising more questions over the validity of the lap. The fact that his team were not celebrating, and had not celebrated as Martin crossed the line to set that lap time, raised yet more suspicions.
Three and half minutes after the checkered flag had dropped, the TV director showed what had happened. Martin had cut across the asphalt short cut on the inside of Vale, lopping a huge amount of time off his lap. Nearly five minutes after the flag fell, the judgment was handed down by the FIM Stewards: Jorge Martin had exceeded track limits at Turn 8, and the lap of 1'58.00 had been canceled. The Pramac Ducati rider dropped from first to forth, handing Pol Espargaro a well-deserved and remarkable pole.
Why did it take so long for Race Direction to make the call? It was the way in which Martin had cut the corner at Vale. There are systems monitoring track limits at various points around the circuit, but they are all focused on the outside of corners, where riders are getting greedy on corner exit and running wide. There is no need to monitor the inside of corners in most cases, because no one is gaining an advantage there, and if they are, it is easily spotted.
The inside of Vale is not a place with a lot of camera coverage, so Martin's infraction was not immediately picked up. And with Martin setting his fastest time with just 23 seconds left in Q2, and the busiest part of the session where almost everyone is still out on a hot lap, all eyes in Race Direction were those final laps. Only once the entire grid was safely across the line at the end of the session did they go back and review the footage they had to confirm that Martin's lap was not valid. Onboard footage, and footage from the CCTV cameras around the circuit soon showed exactly what had happened.
In his media debrief, Jorge Martin explained that he had used the short cut to position himself better to use Marc Marquez as a target to follow for his time attack. "For sure I did it to find a good place," the Pramac Ducati rider told us. "I saw Marquez was in front. I thought it was the perfect place for the last lap."
That was why he hadn't celebrated at the end of the session. "I knew from the beginning it wasn’t pole position," Martin said, though he had benefited from his choice. "Finally I gained two positions, so P4 is good enough. The pace is good and I think we can fight for the podium tomorrow."
The whole situation caused some confusion as he entered the pits. He headed back to the garage, ignoring directions to go to parc fermé. Martin thought he was being sent because they didn't know his pole lap wasn't valid. In reality, he was being sent because his fourth place meant he was the first rider from an independent team in qualifying, and had earned his spot there for a different reason.
"As soon as I arrived I said it’s not pole. You need to review and let me go to my box," the Pramac Ducati rider told us. "Then I had to come again because I’m first independent team." It had led to much hilarity for Pecco Bagnaia and Fabio Quartararo, who found themselves second and third on the grid. "Fabio and Pecco were laughing," Martin smiled.
Martin may not have smashed the pole record, but fourth is an impressive result for a rookie. Especially at Silverstone: Qatar and Austria were two tracks Martin had singled out before the season started. But Martin pointed out that this was just part of the upward trend he was on. "In the Sachsenring I started seventh but I could fight for first row. In Assen I was super fast also but had some issues. Still I came through to Q2. In FP3 I had some issues but also did Q2 directly. I am fast almost everywhere. I am getting used to the bike and feeling quite competitive."
Back to life
Though the drama surrounding Jorge Martin's mysterious lap was fascinating and thrilling, it detracted from Pol Espargaro's remarkable pole. Since joining Repsol Honda, Espargaro has struggled, his media debriefs usually conducted with the Spaniard in either a state of shock or a state of mourning. He came to Repsol Honda with the intention of posing a real challenge to Marc Marquez, convinced that he could boss the fickle Honda RC213V into shape and challenge the superiority of the six-time MotoGP champion.
So far, it hadn't turned out that way. Espargaro had struggled almost everywhere, the bike not doing what he wanted, and the Spaniard feeling that support was going to the other side of the garage, and not to him. "I'm just a Honda employee," he said after Jerez, in frustration at not being able to follow the direction he wanted.
At Silverstone, everything was different. Pol Espargaro was fast in every session, competitive with his teammate, and consistently in the top six. The cooler temperatures generated more grip for the Honda, allowing Espargaro to find the grip and groove he has been missing. During Q2, everything came together perfectly for him, the Repsol Honda rider using Joan Mir as a target to post a remarkable lap, the fastest of the weekend.
Up and down
The contrast was a surprise, even for Espargaro. "It’s a little bit shocking, after how tough it was in the past two weekends for us," the Repsol Honda rider told the press conference. "After Austria, how we were able to come back here, it’s just difficult to believe. There are different ways to take these bad moments, in a sad way or an angry way. We took the second option."
Espargaro had harnessed that anger and focused it into improving. "I try every day to be a little bit better. I’ve been working so much, but unluckily things were not coming. Here everything is coming much easier. Sure, the track, the weather, with this cold, the extra grip we have in this track, everything gave me that feeling that I need to apply my riding style and maybe to forget a little the problems we have on the pit box with the bike. This place has been good to Honda in the past years, too. Let’s enjoy today. Tomorrow is going to be a new day. Today this pole felt like a victory."
He was not worrying about the race on Sunday just yet, Espargaro told the press conference. What mattered was to enjoy Saturday and take inspiration from that. "Honestly speaking, I don't want to think about tomorrow so much," he said. "I’ve been struggling so much this year, suffering so much this year that I want to just live in the present right now. I want just to enjoy the moment and just carpe diem. Tomorrow is going to be a new day. For sure, we are going to put all the effort on tomorrow’s race but it’s time to enjoy. I haven’t been in that situation for a long time and I think we deserve after the hard work."
No back brake
One of the reasons Espargaro had been struggling to adapt to the Honda was that he was having to completely rethink his riding style. Throughout his entire career, he had used the rear brake heavily, but HRC had told him not to do that with the RC213V, because the bike simply didn't work that way.
"I’m facing some crucial problems in my riding style with this bike," Espargaro explained. "Normally I use massively the rear brake in all the bikes I’ve been using, since 125. In Moto2 I was using a different disc than many of my mates because I was burning the discs. In KTM also. I make the Brembo guys work a lot because I was also hammering the rear brake."
He couldn't do that on the RC213V. "Here in Honda, we are having some problems on traction and especially on the entry with the rear. I’m not allowed to use this rear brake anymore. That’s why I crash so much with the front. That’s why I’m struggling so much to stop the bike. I face a situation in the exit of the corner with so much lean angle and spinning a lot. To apply my riding style, I really need the rear brake," Espargaro said.
The nature of the track meant he could ride around that limitation, the Spaniard explained. "Here for sure the situation is different. We face much more grip situation than what we have been in the other places where I heard many Ducati guys or Suzuki or even my brother complaining a little bit about the grip, and for us it’s completely opposite."
That was a sign of problems, Espargaro pointed out. "It shows that we are not in an okay situation. When the others are struggling, we are enjoying. The problem is that normally in most of the races the others are enjoying, so it means that we are struggling." But when the roles were reversed, then he could take advantage of the situation. "Finally when we arrived to here, or for example in Le Mans where we have quite a lot of grip and I can apply my riding style, braking late, using the rear brake, just turning the bike in the middle of the corner, this allows me to play much more with my riding style and this makes me enjoy riding the bike. Then I can be strong and fast."
Automatic ride-height devices
Pol was not the only Espargaro brother to reveal details of his riding. Brother Aleix talked in some depth about the Aprilia RS-GP's ride-height device, and it's operation. "Aprilia did a very good job on the last weeks by developing the automatic rear device, which I used already in Austria," Aleix Espargaro said, explaining the mysterious canisters which had appeared behind the Ohlins forks of the RS-GP at Spielberg.
They were not being used in Silverstone, however. "Here, because of the layout of the track, I was not able to use it," the Aprilia rider said. "So I said to the guys that I want the standard one, the manual, the one that you push in every acceleration. And I used it in the straights and it's quite good. I'm very happy that in terms of the technology, in terms of all the new items, we have many many possibilities that can help me to be competitive."
It had long been suspected that some factories – most notably Ducati – had some form of automatically operated ride-height device. Instead of the rider having to push a lever on the handlebars to drop the rear of the bike on corner exit, the rider would push it on the approach to the corner, and that would charge something like a hydraulic accumulator, which would then discharge as the bike pitched back when the power transferred weight to the rear. The rear of the bike would then lower automatically, and in the right place, as the rider applies the gas. The rider has one less thing to think about on corner entry, the bike doing all the work for them.
That, at any rate, is what appears to happen with the Aprilia, if we are interpreting Aleix Espargaro's words correctly. It is another example of the letter of the rules being observed, while the spirit is violated. The rules clearly state that ride-height devices may only be operated manually, or by the movement of the bike itself. Give an engineer a rule, and they will find a way around it. The main result of the rulebook is to stimulate the creativity of engineers.
(Almost) excess to requirements
The nature of Silverstone – fast and flowing, with a lot of acceleration on the edge of the tire, a lot of braking at an angle, and not much braking or acceleration while the bike is upright – means that most factories have changed the way they use their ride-height devices.
Suzuki have removed them altogether. "Like I said in Austria, the device is only the first evolution and needs work. It needs another step," Joan Mir said. "Here in Silverstone there are not a lot of points to use it. We lose more than we gain."
Fabio Quartararo was in two minds about the Yamaha device, because there was a risk that the first corner would not be enough for the rear to pop back up again under braking, as happened to Jack Miller in 2019. "I’m in the same position as Jack last year," Quartararo said. "So let’s see because it’s making us so much time that I think we need to take the risk to use it. Then many laps this weekend I’ve been trying without the device. Of course, there is a small advantage, but I think in Austria is the track where you can feel much more the advantage of the holeshot device."
Ducati are reaping the rewards of leading the innovation. The first to introduce the device, their system on the Desmosedici GP21 works best, because it has already been through so many iterations, and Ducati have so much data on it. When compared to Suzuki, the difference was stark, Pecco Bagnaia explained.
"I think that Suzuki introduced the holeshot last race, and maybe they have to develop it a lot more," the Italian told the press conference. "If we look at the first race, their bike was going down so fast. In this track can start a lot of movement." That was not the case with the Ducati device, Bagnaia insisted. "I think that our one is the best one. For us it’s no problem to use. Just help us also in braking. For us, it’s not a problem. For the start, maybe can be a problem, but because this track we don’t have a strong brake in the first corner, but for sure all the riders will use it and we have to use, too."
The start could end up being vital to Sunday's race. Based on race pace, it's clear that although Fabio Quartararo holds a clear advantage, much of that is in the first couple of laps. Once the Monster Energy Yamaha rider gets past the third of fourth lap on a fresh set of tires, his advantage over the rest of the field wanes. The problem for his rivals is that the Frenchman's advantage in those early laps is a half a second or more a lap. If Quartararo gets away at the start, he could be unstoppable.
If he doesn't, however, we could well have a race on our hands. Pecco Bagnaia, Marc Marquez, Alex Rins, Aleix Espargaro, Jack Miller could all get in Quartararo's way and give him a race. If they can get in front of Quartararo and slow him down in the early laps, then that opens up the second half of the race to turn into a proper battle.
Jack Miller was confident, though he was also fuming at having had a soft rear tire that hadn't given him any more grip when it was new than when it was used. But the factory Ducati rider did believe he could be fast enough on race tires to take the fight to Quartararo.
Tires to go fast, or tires to last
"On the medium I can go out and bosh a lap time straight away, not an issue," Miller said, who is slated to start from seventh on the grid. "So I feel quite confident. But with these tires sometimes it helps to build up on them steadily. We’ll do an analysis tonight, and understand tomorrow after warm up to see how tires react and what game plan is at the race."
Stopping Quartararo was imperative, Miller insisted. "We need to attack in the beginning. Need to make up some positions. As bad as things are, we’re seventh, third row. Not ideal but I’ve been in worse positions. Everything is possible tomorrow. I feel comfortable, good on track. in Qualifying I was not able to do it. But I’ve felt mega all weekend. For sure, that’s the biggest thing, stopping Fabio in these first 5 or 6 laps, if he’s able to get out and go. I think that’s the main objective."
Tire choice is going to be key on Sunday. And tire choice will be very much dictated by what the temperature does. There are riders, such as Aleix Espargaro, for who the medium front needs a little more temperature. And there are other riders, such as Valentino Rossi and Joan Mir, who would like a bit more temperature to be able to use the hard rear. So tire choice will be made on the grid, and dictated by just how much direct sunshine there is to warm the Northamptonshire asphalt.
That will make for a fascinating race, at least. The tires need to be warmed up to perform, but they also need to be conserved to make the end of the race. That should keep a group together until the end of the race, unless Fabio Quartararo manages to make an early break. Sunday's race is far from a foregone conclusion.
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