It was supposed to rain, so of course it didn't, proving that the weather on Italy's Adriatic coast is just as fickle as any other place in the world at the moment. Instead, it was hot and humid, with the threat of rain looming in the distance, providing a brief shower during qualifying for the Moto2 class, but leaving the rest of the sessions untouched.
The recent rains did leave their mark, however. The standing water left by the heavy showers of recent weeks had allowed midges, mosquitoes, and other insect life to breed copiously, and clouds of midges swarmed sections of the track. To the misfortune of Jack Miller, who had to come into the pits after getting one of the little mites in his eye.
"I did end up with one in my eye," he told the press conference after qualifying on the front row of the grid. "It was annoying for a couple of laps. It was strange. There were small tubes of them just randomly in random spots on the track. Even on my best lap in FP3, I had one flying around the inside of the helmet and it didn’t want to go away. I was trying to look past him a little bit."
In the end, it came down to the manual dexterity of Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna, as useful with his hands as with his brain, to remove the mote from Miller's eye. "Lucky Gigi is an engineer. He was there and he got some special tool to get it out of my eye. So, I think we’re lucky we adopted Gigi on board," the Australian joked.
Rain holds off
Flies aside, the MotoGP grid was lucky to get a full day of dry running. It allowed the riders and teams to work on a setup, in case of a dry race on Sunday, of which there is a reasonable chance. And it brought reinforced the fact that the top three in the championship are also the strongest riders.
Fabio Quartararo topped FP4, and had the strongest pace, with Pecco Bagnaia not far behind, and Joan Mir clearly in the running. Alex Rins looks a fraction quicker than his teammate – and starts from a row further forward – and Johann Zarco showed strong pace too, a little quicker than Jack Miller. On dry pace alone, it looks like a straight fight between Quartararo and Bagnaia.
The dry weather gave Quartararo a second chance to get back into the game. If it had rained, qualifying and practice may have worked out a little differently. Though the Monster Energy Yamaha rider gained confidence in his wet setup after studying data on Friday night, he was all too aware that a wet race would be a question of survival, and looking for solutions in a wet morning warm up.
"We have many things to try," Quartararo told the qualifying press conference. But the starting point for approaching a wet race is that a no-score is the most likely outcome. "In any case, if it’s wet I will give my 100%. In the position that we are in the wet, I think that right now we have zero points."
The expectation of zero points in the wet was the result of FP2, the Frenchman explained. "I wanted to say like the position we were on FP2 is 18th, so it’s no points. We need to make a step, so that’s why I said I need to give my 100% and we will see what happens if it rains." The sole advantage of expecting not to score points if it's wet is that he has nothing left to lose, Quartararo pointed out. "I have not to be conservative on the wet."
Quartararo may have been more than a match for Bagnaia in race pace in FP4, but there was no staying with the Ducati Lenovo Team rider during Q2. The Italian shaved a hundredth of a second off the outright lap record set by Maverick Viñales here last year. He was a quarter of a second faster than his teammate Jack Miller in second, putting in a blistering lap to take pole.
Catch me if you can
So fast was Bagnaia that on his first flying lap out of the pits on his second run, Marc Marquez, who had latched onto the Italian in the hope of stealing some speed, washed out the front of his Repsol Honda at Turn 9. Marquez' magic license has been withdrawn for right-hand corners, and he paid the price.
The six-time MotoGP champion made no excuses on Saturday afternoon. "It's true that in qualifying we know we are struggling, and I found the fastest guy on the track," Marquez said. "Pecco was riding incredible, faster than everybody and obviously faster than me. I tried to follow him, but on that brake point I braked too late." On a used medium front, he was simply pushing his luck. "I was riding with a medium tire and normally I go always with a hard, also was the second rear tire, so all the situation was not helping for avoided a crash."
Bagnaia's speed and Quartararo's pace lines up a titanic clash for Sunday afternoon. Even though the factory Ducati rider stands to gain the most if the rain comes, he would rather face on a dry track, he told the press conference. "I prefer dry, for sure. Wet is more critical and is more easy to make mistakes. Also because this track has a not really great level of grip, so it’s better dry. I know that in wet we have more opportunity to close more the gap, but I think that 53 points are still a lot and I have to continue gaining points to Fabio."
The momentum Bagnaia gained from pole and his first win at Aragon helped carry him to pole at Misano, and that strengthened the Ducati rider in his resolve for Saturday. "I’m sure that tomorrow will be a nice battle between me and him, but also the other riders of Ducati. Jack has a great pace. Rins also. So, we have to see. I would like to start like in Aragon to make my pace and see what will happen in the last part of the race."
With teammate Jack Miller alongside him on the grid, Bagnaia has the opportunity to benefit from a little teamwork. On Thursday, Miller had already pledged support for his teammate, should the opportunity arise. Starting from second with Bagnaia on pole looks very much like such an opportunity.
Which prompted the question to Miller whether he would approach Sunday as a "Jack race or a team race". Miller retorted that it would very much depend on how the race plays out.
"It’s always a Jack race in my mind, but we will see how the race unfolds," the Australian told the press conference. "For sure, I think on paper and from history, Pecco is probably the strongest one on the grid, so If he wants to check out I’m quite happy to sit in his wake and play blocker as much as I can. I think talking about that kind of thing now is pointless. We have to wait until the lights go out tomorrow and then once that happens, understand where you are, understand the race, how you’re feeling, how the bike is reacting and then go from there."
Championship leader Fabio Quartararo, on the other hand, was trying not to focus on Bagnaia at all. "It’s not a matter of me and Pecco," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider insisted. "I think it’s a matter of myself to try to do my best, and then we see. It’s not in my head like it’s only Pecco because I’m surrounded by many riders and it will depend on the first laps. Here the race is really long. Let’s see. I think that our pace is quite good with used tires, so I’m confident and I think that we can achieve a great result."
Taking a tumble
There were signs of the pressure on Quartararo at the very end of qualifying. The Frenchman lost the front as he entered Turn 1 at the start of what would have been his final flying lap. "Last lap I try a little bit too much in the first corner. We checked the data and I brake way too late, but this is what I wanted to do. It was great also to feel that limit on the front," he said, trying to put a positive spin on the fall.
The two Suzuki riders could be among those Quartararo has to face in the battle for victory, judging by race pace. But after problems with his front tire on his first run, a mistake by Joan Mir's team had ruined his qualifying. An erroneous dashboard message had prompted him to return to the pits on his second run for no reason, and then his final shot at a lap was ruined when Quartararo fell in front of him.
"In qualifying it was a big shame. Today again we didn’t have the potential to fight for pole position, but the second row was something was capable to do," Mir said. "We had some trouble on the with the front of the bike – I don’t know if it was the pressure, we have to analyze well. When I went out in Q2 there was a ‘Box’ message on the dash, all lap, so I decided to stop and this message was not right. It was just a wrong message and this conditioned all the quali. I’m really disappointed but I know the team will understand what happened."
Mir was at a loss to explain why he had been given the wrong message, telling him to return to the pits. "I think we have to understand well, but it was a message that the team put on the bike, and didn’t realize it was there." The trouble is, that particular message is not one which a rider might safely ignore, Mir pointed out. "It’s not like a rider is following you, when they put ‘Box’ it is because you need to go to the Box! It was a shame but I think also the team is disappointed with the mistake. Obviously it is not my fault but I trust we will have a solution. I sometimes make mistakes and sometimes so can they. We will try to fix it tomorrow because we are not in our realistic position here in Misano."
During FP4, the Suzuki Ecstar rider had had Marc Marquez on his tail for most of the session. Though it had not hindered Joan Mir, he found it curious that Marquez felt he needed to follow another rider. "Marc always needs a wheel to be strong or something. It is difficult to understand how an eight times world champion cannot make his way on his own and always wants a wheel," Mir told us. "It is always a game that Marc likes to play and today was me. I try to make my job and I don’t care if someone is on my back."
It is a sign that Marquez is still not capable of being fast on his own. All weekend, the Repsol Honda rider has been seeking a tow from others, choosing Mir for FP4, then in Q1, using HRC test rider Stefan Bradl to propel him into Q2. The fact that he needs that tow, and he knows that he needs it because he cannot be fast enough on his own, is starting to grate on the champion.
Marquez has been short-tempered pretty much all weekend, perhaps the hangover of being beaten at his home track in Aragon, a left-handed circuit where he fancied his chances of getting a second win, but was foiled by a superlative Pecco Bagnaia. So when he was asked about following other riders in qualifying, he snapped at reporters.
"First of all in the quali I don’t follow Mir, I followed Stefan Bradl," Marquez retorted. "Basically we did a really good job. It was my idea and he accepted. He just pushed in front and I was able to do a good lap time behind Bradl and pass like this to Qualifying 2."
Joan Mir had already warned him to expect questions about being followed, Marquez said. "About Mir, I already spoke with him now on the media and he said to me, 'don’t care what they ask you, because I'm not pushed like they will say'. He said that it's normal that a slower rider try to find a fast rider to follow somebody. So about this it's something that is natural in motorbikes, always if you don’t disturb the other, of course."
Perhaps another reason Marquez is so short-tempered is because he knows this race will not be like Aragon. Misano is a very physically demanding circuit, which puts a huge strain on the right side of the rider's body. And it is a track where it is easy to crash, as a whole spate of riders demonstrated.
Why so many crashes? There were plenty of riders who had their own theories. They boiled down to a few things, however. Firstly, riders using the hard front but not getting it up to temperature before pushing on, or else letting it cool down too much by riding slowly. But there were other theories too: dirt on the track left by the rains, the grip on the track pushing the front, and a lack of track time prompting riders to push too hard before the understood how much grip there actually was.
Maverick Viñales, starting from a highly respectable tenth place thanks to the two-day test he had here after Silverstone, was on team hard front. "The conditions are quite different from yesterday but, the hard front! If you are slow you crash because it is hard," the Aprilia rider told us. "I remember last year I crashed in Turn 6 without doing nothing. So I think, it is a consideration but everyone is on the limit. Everyone is going faster and we are pushing more and more, it’s normal that we crash."
Valentino Rossi attributed his crash in Q1 to the hard front tire. "The problem is the hard front is better on braking but on the left you are very much on the limit, especially Turn 6 and Turn 15 which are corners where you don’t brake," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "It is difficult. On the second lap I made a small mistake in Turn 4 and went wide. I wanted to make another lap before changing the rear tire because I thought I could improve and I had time but sincerely it was like I slowed by 4-5 seconds because of Turn 4 and I did not expect that I would lose the tire because I slowed down for 5 seconds. It was a bit unlucky."
The hard front was a necessity for most riders in this heat, however. The medium front will do the distance, but needs to be nursed under braking to make it home. There is less risk of crashing, as the left side of the tire warms up faster. But if you find yourself in a battle, it was easy to chew up the front in braking.
The hard, on the other hand, worked well, as long as you treated it with respect and warmed it up properly. "It’s actually working really well," Red Bull KTM rider Brad Binder said. "It is always critical to bring it up to temperature on the first two laps on the left hand side because it is quite easy to go out of the pits and crash as you flick over and change direction. It is important to remember before you go and put that big load into the front tire that it’s up to temperature and it’s ready to go."
Pushing the front
The other weakness with the tire is that it was easy to push the front, especially with a new tire when pushing for a fast lap time, Binder explained. "It’s clear that a lot of people are washing the front but that’s just the nature of this track and because there is a lot of grip on the rear and it pushes the front a whole lot more." That was a risk during the race as well. "Tomorrow, as much as I think it will be a strong race it will be important to stay on, it is not so easy to stay-up at the moment it seems."
How do the riders know the front tire is up to temperature? "It’s purely by feel," Binder explained. "You go out of the pits and flick it over and immediately feel it is scrubbing on the tarmac and gripping and grabbing. There is a point where that stops and you feel a connection. Then you know the tire is up." A modern MotoGP bike is covered in sensors, but none are quite as sensitive as the gray matter between a rider's ears.
Jack Miller felt that lost track time was a contributing factor to the crashes. "When we are at a circuit and we’ve had wet conditions and lost a bit of track time, but you still need to push," the factory Ducati rider posited. "So, you’re risking the same as you would on any other qualifying lap or any other pushing lap, but let’s say the setup is not quite yet ready for it. But you know what riders are like, they continue to push anyway."
When the lights go out on Sunday, push is what riders will do. They will have to treat the first few laps with care, if they are to avoid carnage in the early laps. But once we get through the first two or three laps, we should have quite the race to watch.
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