Emilia-Romagna MotoGP Saturday Round Up: First vs Fifteenth, Getting Heat Into Tires, And Yellow Flag Rules

It has been (and probably will be) a very odd weekend. Normally, grand prix weekends have a narrative, a story that builds like a novel, or a compositional structure that grows and swells like a symphony or an opera. Each part leads to the next: test parts and setup in FP1, work on tires in FP2, chase a spot in Q2 in FP3, work on race pace and tire wear in FP4, go for grid positions during qualifying, all building toward the dramatic crescendo of the race. Race weekends tell a story, and like all good stories, they have an internal narrative logic.

Not Misano 2. This feels more like a series of one-act plays, with the same characters but a different storyline every day. Friday was mostly soaking wet, with riders looking at wet tires. Saturday was wet in the morning, and a drying track in the afternoon. Sunday will be dry, probably sunny, but very cold. Each day feels unconnected to the next.

An example. Normally FP4 is the session most relevant for the race on Sunday. Held at the same time of day, more or less, usually offering comparable track conditions allowing teams and riders the best chance to simulate the race. At Misano 2, the track was starting to dry out quickly in FP4, with riders soon swapping to slicks. FP4 turned into practice for qualifying, learning lessons about how the grip was changing, where you could push and where you couldn't. FP4 was relevant to Q1 and Q2, but you learned nothing about conditions for the race.

FP4 was also the moment when Fabio Quartararo realized he was in trouble. Despite pushing as hard as he dared in conditions he hates during FP3, he came up a few tenths short of direct passage to Q2, the first time he has missed out on that all season. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider pushed hard again on slicks in FP4, seeking out the dry lines and taking as much risk as he dared without jeopardizing his grip on the championship. He was fast, too, finishing the session in fourth just behind Jack Miller.

The trouble was that Iker Lecuona had been fastest in FP4, just a fraction quicker than Pecco Bagnaia. Lecuona and Bagnaia were both nearly a second and a half quicker than Quartararo, and looked very comfortable in the conditions. And the Frenchman would have to get past both of them in Q1 if he had any hopes of a decent qualifying position.

"When you are in FP4, and I saw Iker and Bagnaia, and I was third or fourth, and both Iker and Bagnaia were in Q1, I knew it was going to be a tough, tough job," Quartararo reflected on Saturday afternoon. "At the end, I finished third in the Q1." Even worse, that third turned into a fifth, when Quartararo had his best time taken away because it was set under a yellow flag.

A predictable consequence of having to push on a track which was not quite ready: in the final few minutes, riders chased a quick time with the track improving. Pushing harder, taking more risk, traveling faster and faster, but still not 100% certain of conditions. Traveling faster, they crashed harder when things went wrong, and that brought out the yellow flags.

Joan Mir crashed so hard his Suzuki GSX-RR cleared the tire wall and smashed into the fence, hitting a camera operator as a result. The camera operator was uninjured, but the violence with which it happened belied the dangers of conditions like this. "I went into Q1 to get the feeling," the Suzuki rider explained. "I was getting faster, getting feeling and when I started to push I lost the front on the last corner. It looks like I hit a camera guy in the last corner. It looks like he’s fine. I want to apologize because I couldn’t avoid it but I’m happy that he’s fine."

Mir wasn't the only rider to go down. Marc Marquez crashed in FP4 and Q2, as did Iker Lecuona. Jorge Martin managed to crash twice in Q2, ending up in 12th after failing to set a fast time. Enea Bastianini managed to crash three times, twice in FP4 and once in Q1, leaving his crew working late to patch up all the damage he had caused.

Could Quartararo have made it into Q2 if he had pushed harder? Perhaps, but already at the back of his mind, the championship is affecting his assessment of risk. Knowing that he is close means that subconsciously, he is holding a fraction in reserve. "Unconsciously, I have been not risking a lot on the wet patches," the Frenchman told us. "If you look at my Sector 1, I'm the second fastest of Q2, even if I'm not in there. But the conditions were improving, and I'm really fast there. Sector 2, not so much. The only sectors where I lose a lot where the last two, and it was the sectors where the were the wet patches."

Reducing his risk exposure may have been an unconscious reflex, but it was also sensible. He has three races to wrap up the title; there is no point in throwing it away by crashing and injuring himself.

Quartararo has left himself with a lot of work to do on Sunday, but with the weather expected to be dry, he was not overly concerned. "I'm not so worried about tomorrow, of course it's not the best position to start, but P13, I need to make a great start, try to make great overtakes, and we will see what will happen in the race."

Try another day

He did not want to be thinking about the championship, and would not ask his team for updates during the race. "I don't want to know. It's something that will just put more pressure, I think, and it's something that my strategy is to push from the beginning. I need to recover the most points as possible, and then we will see what happens," Quartararo said.

Winning the title was something to worry about at Portimão, not here in Misano, the Frenchman told us. "If I have to be honest, the championship I have not even one thought about it, because [Bagnaia] is P1, and I'm P13 or P15. But he has the pressure, it's not only me. He has the pressure to do well, and maybe he will make a mistake. I don't wish him that, but it's something that we will see. But my feeling is that if everything is normal, we will fight for it in Portimão."

Starting from P1 – and leading the first ever all-Ducati front row, with Ducati Lenovo teammate Jack Miller in second and a surprising and impressive Luca Marini in third – Bagnaia knows what he has to do. His strategy is the same, wherever Quartararo starts from on the grid. "I was needing to push if he was starting P2, and I think I have to push the same now that he is 13, 15," the Italian told the press conference. "The only thing that I can do to keep the championship open is try to win tomorrow. The strategy will be the same as if Fabio was starting more in front."

It is a brave gambler who would bet against Pecco Bagnaia on Sunday. The Italian is on an incredible roll: his fourth pole position in a row, and with a shot at four podiums in a row, the first Ducati rider to so since Andrea Dovizioso in 2018. His pace at Misano is phenomenal, in part thanks to all the training he does at the circuit with the VR46 Riders Academy.

What is more impressive is how he has improved his weaknesses from last year. All winter, he worked on pushing hard when his tires were cold and in low temperatures. That paid off in spades on Saturday, the Italian dominating FP4, Q1, and Q2. It was only with new tires in the wet of FP3 that he struggled, and left him stranded in Q1.

He used that to his advantage. He built his confidence in FP4, and built on it through both qualifying sessions. "Normally I was struggling more in these conditions, but today it was just wet on three or four corners, so it was not a big problem. Also, when I was going over the patches, the grip was not so bad. So, I took confidence in FP4 then in Q1, and for the Q2 I was prepared to push like a normal qualifying."

Jack Miller put his speed in the conditions down to his experience with the Bridgestone tires. Those tires offered phenomenal grip, but only if you were willing to push right from the start. And if you weren't willing to do that, they would bite, spitting you off as the grip disappeared without warning. So in tricky conditions, Miller had learned to thread the needle between pushing hard to get heat into the tires, and taking so much risk you ended up in the gravel.

"It’s like a fine line. You’ve got to walk the tight rope, I guess you can say," Miller told the press conference. "I think the experience from being on the Bridgestones when I came to MotoGP definitely helped that because it was one of those things where you couldn’t go slow on an out lap. You had to push immediately. So, I just sort of adapted that to what the bike is now and the way the bike works now, especially in the wet or when you’re in the wet with slick tires."

Miller explained the secret to riding in those conditions. "You’re trying to generate heat, is what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to compress the tire both on braking and also on acceleration in the points you can, and then just trying to get through the wet points because there’s no really pretty way of doing that, going over the wet parts with a slick tire. There’s nothing you can do. That’s all it is. It’s just trying to generate as much heat as possible. It's something that I’ve been able to learn and do pretty well." It is a high-speed, high wire act on two wheels.

Putting in the heat

The advantage the Michelins have over the Bridgestones is that you can build heat into them more slowly, if you have the patience and the time. This was the approach taking by Johann Zarco, who had been struggling in the mixed conditions. "To get the tire ready, I could take the time," the Pramac Ducati rider explained. "And it seems that on the Ducati, this was working well. For sure if you want to push extra hard on the beginning, you can get surprised. But lap after lap, the tire was getting better overall, and on the left side. That's why it was necessary also to be patient and just feel in the right moment when you can do it. But that's why it's tricky in this condition. And it's a long time since we had cold conditions, because even in Silverstone we got better weather than this, so it was a long time since we had this experience of a cold tire."

It hadn't worked entirely. He had hit a wet patch late in Q2 and crashed at Turn 14. "For the last lap, I was lucky to have Bagnaia in front of me," Zarco explained. "I tried to follow him and I was improving my lap times really well, but I got the mistake at the exit of Turn 13, and maybe touched a bit of water or I touched the kerbs with too much angle, and I crashed."

Behind the three Ducatis on the front row sits the Repsol Honda of Pol Espargaro. The Spaniard has been impressive in the cold, which he is better able to manage. The Hondas all lack rear grip, so slick or cold conditions create a more level playing field, as the other bikes lose grip too.

Leveling down

"It equalizes the situation a bit, especially comparing with the Ducatis," Espargaro said. "Today the grip was low, it was tricky, and it was spinning, you need to keep the line, and this was very difficult. And you see the first three bikes were Ducatis. So it's difficult to manage in these kind of situations, but as we are always managing the rear tire on the entry of the corner, just spinning a little, just sliding, you get used to these kind of situations which are not nice."

The fact that Misano has a bit more grip than other circuits works in Espargaro's favor. "Luckily here it's a little bit less because the grip is nice, so other places, we struggle more and I struggle more, even than the other Hondas. Because my riding style is based on the rear grip, and if I don't have it, I struggle."

This was something he was determined to spend the winter addressing. He was already riding motocross a lot, but he intended to do more supermoto and flat track riding, to get used to that feeling of the rear spinning and not having rear grip. "I'm going to be during all winter on the flat track bike, which I'm not used to doing," Espargaro told us. "I started with flat track when I was a kid, but I think I'm going to take it up properly and I'm going to train a lot. So I'll have a busy schedule for this preseason and next season, I'm not going to get so much rest. But I want to improve the situation I have now, and if we do not improve the grip – which it's not like that, the new bike is better on that, and it's still improving, but just in case – I'm going to come to the preseason ready."

One fast Yamaha

At the other end of the grid is Franco Morbidelli, the only Yamaha rider who has been able to be consistently fast in all conditions. Morbidelli put that down to his riding style. "We are working well to adapt the setting of the bike to my style which is quite smooth," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "Maybe in these conditions my style, my smooth style pays off a bit more. For sure what is certain is the team is doing a wonderful job, setting up the bike, doing the right counter measures in the right time to perform fast and perform well."

What can we expect from the race? It was going to be something of a lottery, Morbidelli acknowledged. "We just had 2 laps in dry conditions all weekend," the Italian told us. "We have basically no info. So it’s really important to do a good warm up to understand what we need for the race. From there on we will think about something for the race, or think about some performance to predict, some performance for the race. But for the moment we can’t tell anything about the race."

Starting from scratch

Tire choice is going to be crucial, but there is little time to make that choice. Fortunately, there is the data from the test after the race a month ago, when conditions were also pretty cold. Even then that will need to be confirmed in warm up, which has been delayed by 20 minutes to give temperatures a chance to rise to the minimum needed for the Michelin tires.

"We will see which tire to use for tomorrow's race, because the soft front and the soft rear, those were two tires that I didn't like, but with these conditions, they were tires that I needed to use," Fabio Quartararo explained. "So tomorrow morning we will start with different tires." There will be a lot of other riders facing a similar dilemma.

Will the championship be decided on Sunday? In reality, it was never going to be settled at Misano 2. Quartararo's lead, comfortable as it is, was not such that he could cruise to the title. His job this weekend is to score as many points as he can and put himself in a position to take the title at Portimão with as few points as possible. If he can climb from 15th to 13th and score 3 points, then a second place would be enough in Portugal. If he can make it to 9th, a third at Portimão would be enough. There is no need to risk anything, and no need to be concerned if Pecco Bagnaia cruises to victory. The next race is where he gets his first real shot at the title, and where the crown will lie most heavily.

Unintended consequences

On the subject of yellow flags, qualifying for the Moto2 class demonstrated that it is impossible to escape the law of unintended consequences. The FIM has gone from punishing riders not slowing down for a yellow flag to automatically canceling the lap time for ever rider who passes through a sector where a yellow flag is being shown.

As journalist Simon Patterson pointed out, that produces a perverse incentive for riders to behave more dangerously. If they slow down through a sector where yellow flags are being waved, they risk letting their tires cool too much, and losing a shot at putting in another fast laps at the end of a session. So knowing that their laps are going to be canceled anyway, they push on and keep riding fast.

We saw how badly wrong that could go at the end of Moto2 Q2. Xavi Vierge crashed at Turn 15, and few seconds later, his teammate Jake Dixon crashed in exactly the same place, his bike narrowly missing a marshal. Dixon didn't really have time to see the yellow flags being waved, and probably didn't have a yellow flag message on his dashboard at that point, so it is hard to blame him for it. (This is one of the areas addressed in the FIM announcement on Friday, about improving communication so that riders get immediate, automatic warning of a bike down ahead of them.) But it points to the weakness of the current system, which has no incentive for riders to slow down.

Dixon will receive a penalty – a long lap during Sunday's Moto2 race – but that was for crashing. But that is de facto already too late. You want riders to be punished for not slowing down for yellow flags so that they do not crash in the first place.

Stout oak

Finally, on the anniversary of the death of Marco Simoncelli, a fitting memorial was raised to the memory of the rider whose name the circuit already bears. An oak tree was planted alongside a plaque commemorating Simoncelli on the inside of Turn 8, Quercia. Fitting, because 'quercia' is the Italian word for oak tree, the corner having been named for the large oak which sat in the middle of the bank on the inside, and why they had to have a corner there in the first place. Trees stand for a long time, and are a good way of ensuring memories live on.


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Source: 
year: 
2021
round_number: 
16

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