We like to talk about how the modern era of MotoGP is so diverse. Of how on any given Sunday, you are never quite sure who you are going to see on the podium. Sure, there have been two riders who have stood head and shoulders above the rest in the championship. But races have played out in myriad unexpected ways. A lot of things can happen. And surprisingly often, they do.
Yet Saturdays are surprisingly monotonous, at least in terms of qualifying. So far this year, two riders have taken 11 of the 17 poles handed out so far, with Fabio Quartararo taking 5 and Pecco Bagnaia now on 6. If it isn't one of the two men who fought for the 2021 MotoGP crown, it was either another Ducati, or in one case, another Yamaha. Jorge Martin has amassed 3 poles to his name, while Johann Zarco and Maverick Viñales have one each in 2021, on a Ducati and Yamaha respectively.
(Ironic, that Viñales should take pole on the weekend he informed Yamaha he would be leaving at the end of the year. Even more ironic that Viñales didn't even make it that far, getting himself fired after the first round in Austria.)
Only Pol Espargaro has disrupted the sequence of 9 poles for Ducati and 6 for Yamaha, the Repsol Honda rider putting in an exceptional lap to take pole at Silverstone, just his third in eight years in MotoGP.
Pecco Bagnaia's sixth pole position of 2021, and his fifth in a row, starting at Aragon, point to two things: firstly, that Bagnaia is exceptional over a single lap. And that arguably, the Ducati Desmosedici GP21 is the best bike on the MotoGP grid. Ducati lead the manufacturers' standings, and three different riders have won on the GP21, Bagnaia and teammate Jack Miller sharing two wins a piece, Jorge Martin adding one win to his three poles.
Sure, Yamaha has more wins – 6 to Ducati's 5 – but 5 of those belong to Fabio Quartararo, the rider who has just clinched the 2021 MotoGP crown. But the Ducati is the only bike which is consistently fast in the hands of all its riders, on every track.
It has been some turnaround for Ducati. A long and winding journey from the departure of Casey Stoner, who won races despite, not because of the Desmosedici, through the disaster of the Valentino Rossi years, which were so bad they caused Audi to clear out the top of Ducati Corse and bring in Gigi Dall'Igna by promising him a free hand and a blank check. Years of work led by Michele Pirro as test rider and Andrea Dovizioso in the factory team started paying dividends, as the bike went from making up the numbers to winning races and challenging for championships.
The bike's biggest weakness, built into the DNA of the Desmosedici since the very beginning, is an unwillingness to turn. In the beginning of the project, when there was plenty of horsepower to overcome the rear tire and slide the rear to make the corner, that was not an issue. But after the switch to 800s, it took a special talent to succeed on the bike. Since his arrival at Ducati, Gigi Dall'Igna has faced the challenge of modifying the bike to allow it to turn, while remaining the most powerful bike on the grid.
This year, it looks like Ducati has succeeded in that goal. Ducati may have come up short on a title once again, but the mix of riders who can be fast on the bike underlines its ability. And the fact that there is once again a Ducati on pole, in the hands of Pecco Bagnaia, two Ducatis on the front row, with Ducati Lenovo teammate Jack Miller taking second in qualifying, and the two Pramac bikes on the second row, at a track which on paper rewards a bike which can carry corner speed and is more flowing, suggests that the GP21 does corners in a way that its predecessors struggled to.
"On paper you probably wouldn’t chalk this down as a fantastic Ducati track," Jack Miller said on Saturday. "but that’s talking about the old Ducati, I think more than anything. I feel like especially the GP21 and the GP20 both worked really well here. It’s the evolution of the bike and the way that the bike behaves."
The bike as a whole now worked, pretty much everywhere, Miller said. "I think the package of the bike itself is a great base and we're able to understand and work around it. I feel like we’ve said this a lot throughout this season, but a lot of the older tracks, the older clichés that were with the Ducati, I don't think apply to the modern Ducati, the GP20 and GP21, because the bike is a bike that works pretty much all around."
The number of tracks where the Desmosedici didn't work is small and shrinking, the Australian told the press conference. "There’s still the exception of a couple tracks, but one of us is always able to make it work. So, I think it's the way you adapt and approach the tracks. We’ve shown in on numerous occasions this year. Pretty much in most tracks we’re able to go fast, so I don't think we really have that cliché anymore of the bike not turning or whatever. It does turn quite well now and it’s getting better and better."
The arrival of Pecco Bagnaia in the factory team helped make the difference, along with the work Bagnaia did on himself and his riding over the winter. That has paid off in qualifying, especially in the second half of the season. "It’s from Assen that I’m on the front row now," the Italian said. "In the last five races, I’m always on pole. I think it’s just from the feeling that I have with my bike. In qualifying, it’s more you have to do a crazy lap and you have to feel very great with everything. I have a really great feeling with my front of the bike. This gave to me a lot of confidence on braking. For two laps of time attack can give to you a bit more."
It was an astounding lap by Bagnaia, the Italian taking over a tenth of a second off the lap record set by Fabio Quartararo back in April. And what makes it even more remarkable is that he has managed to repeat this five times in a row now, from Aragon through to Portimão.
Normally such consistency in qualifying would be rewarded with a BMW car, but that prize has gone to Fabio Quartararo for the second time in a row. Bagnaia has been strong in qualifying, but Quartararo has picked up the qualifying crown in the same way he won the title: by being fastest when he could, and being close enough when he couldn't.
Saturday in Portimão was not Quartararo's day, despite seventh on the grid being enough to secure the BMW M Award. It was a frustrated Monster Energy Yamaha rider who spoke to us after qualifying. A setup change that had worked at other circuits had not worked at Portimão, leaving him struggling to get the Yamaha M1 turned. In addition, he hadn't found the grip he expected, and he hadn't been able to put together a single fast lap.
"We made a setup that sometimes is working and was actually not working. I was struggling a lot in our strong point, the last sector, where I couldn't turn," Quartararo told us. "And the grip was not as I expected. Also I couldn't make a clear lap, but I was struggling a lot, one sector was good, another sector was bad, so I was not consistent."
He had also had problems in FP4, where he had decided to test the hard rear for tomorrow's race. That looks like a mistake, he said. "Also in FP4 I was not feeling so great. Looks like the medium is much better, and we are going to give it a try tomorrow morning, because it's a really strange feeling the one I had in qualifying and FP4. So we need to modify something."
The man Quartararo deposed as champion finally got his first front row start in MotoGP. It is remarkable that Joan Mir managed to win the 2020 MotoGP championship, score 12 podiums and a MotoGP win, yet has not started from the front row of the grid in the premier class. Nor indeed in Moto2 in 2018, his single year in the intermediate class. Even in 2017, when he managed to win 10 races in Moto3, he only started from the front row of the grid 8 times.
Apart from being a long-term stumbling block for Joan Mir, qualifying was long the bugbear of the Suzuki GSX-RR. The Misano test, held after Misano 1, had gone a long way to addressing some of those issues, Mir said. "I’m very happy. After the Misano test, we found something on the bike that I think could help us to be a little bit stronger." Bad weather at previous rounds had prevented him from showing his potential, but everything was falling into place at Portimão.
The improvement had come from a revised bike setup, and having the time to actually experiment with it. "In the test, we could try some things that during the season you cannot try, which is the advantage of the test," the Suzuki Ecstar rider told the press conference. "So, we tried a different geometry of the bike with the same base bike that we had. Looks like the bike was a little bit better."
The other big step forward had been an updated and improved version of Suzuki's ride-height device – which you can see Alex Rins operating in this video, posted by MotoGP.com on Twitter, using his left thumb to engage. The new ride-height device was a better compromise than the old one, which meant Suzuki gained more than they lost, Mir explained. "With the second evolution of the ride height device, it was some places that were a lot better than the other ones. The first one we lost the same that we gained in acceleration. We lost in different places. But with this one, it looks like we are able to get a little bit more on what we lose in other places. So, is an improvement."
Mir looked far from delighted after his first ever front row qualifying position, however. He pulled up on his final lap after being passed and balked by Alex Marquez. He remained furious all the way to parc ferme, though by the time he arrived in the press conference, the anger had morphed into frustration at being followed all weekend by the LCR Honda rider.
"Alex was following me until I think FP3 in all the session, FP4, and then also in the first exit in qualifying," Mir told the press conference. "Then in the second run he was waiting again for me. If he doesn’t disturb me, for me it’s not a problem." Mir had done one lap to get heat into the tires before preparing to properly push, and that was when Marquez had overtaken him on the straight and pushed him wide into Turn 1. "I just had one lap left and he decided to overtake me on the braking and then going wide. That’s why I was angry." Mir had lost his second shot at improving his lap time.
Alex Marquez was contrite. "He was really ****ed off, and I understand why," the LCR Honda rider acknowledged. "In my first flying lap of the second run, I was already really fast and I did my fastest lap. I passed the checkered flag really close to him, we have a little bit more power, so we arrived to the first corner really close, and his brake point was a little bit earlier than mine."
That left Marquez on a different trajectory and running wide. "When I started to brake, I said, OK, I either go in or I will touch him from the rear, and that's what happened." Marquez had made a point of going to Mir's garage to apologize. "I understand why he is upset, I already saw him in the boxes, and I said sorry to him because it was my mistake."
Could Joan Mir pull off a victory now that he is starting from the front row? That may be tricky, surrounded by Ducatis as he is. His pace in FP3 looked strong, but he was a fraction off in FP4, as he worked through tires. Mir will have to contend with Pecco Bagnaia, who has looked very strong all weekend, and must start the race as favorite. But you cannot write off Fabio Quartararo coming through the field, nor Johann Zarco or Jack Miller putting up a fight.
Tire choice will be key, and that could be even trickier on Sunday. The wind, which has been sucking the heat out of the tires, is set to weaken and change direction. Instead of facing a very stiff headwind, there will be a more gentle tailwind down the front straight. The choice is going to be between the medium and hard rear, with everyone going for the medium front. Unless, of course, track and air temperatures are a few degrees warmer, and someone decides to gamble.
Even the Hondas were considering the hard rear. Normally, the Honda riders went for the softest option available, in search of the grip the chassis and engine was not providing. But a run in FP4 by Alex Marquez had the Honda riders confused.
"It’s been a bit of a surprise for all of us," Pol Espargaro told us. "We’re struggling with rear grip and the temperature with the medium. Alex tried the hard in FP4 and he was really fast. We weren’t considering that, or even thinking about it. Even our Michelin guy Clement said it was way too hard the rubber."
Marquez' laps had put the cat among the Honda pigeons. "In FP4 Alex tried and performed well," Espargaro explained. "On the second lap Taka was fast straight away. I put it and didn’t feel too bad after the crash." That made things terrifically complicated. "Now it’s a nightmare. We have 3 tires and we don’t know which one to choose. It’s going to be a difficult choice."
Alex Marquez was still cautious, given the lack of time spent on the hard rear. "After FP3, we had some doubts whether to do medium/soft or medium/hard, but at that moment, I saw many people were fast with the hard, so I decided to go the hard," the LCR Honda rider said. "We have just 6 laps of data, that's not a lot. But it's better than nothing." More time would be needed with the hard in morning warm up, the difficulty being that temperatures are so much lower in the morning.
Surprise package of Saturday was Iker Lecuona. The Tech3 KTM rider was comfortably the fastest KTM rider on Saturday morning, then impressively quick in FP4, finishing in fourth, less than two tenths off the pace of Pecco Bagnaia and ahead of Fabio Quartararo. His pace was strong too, and a quick lap took him through from Q1, but left him without any soft tires to use in Q2. Despite that, with a new medium and a used soft rear, he still managed to qualify in tenth, ahead of Alex Rins and Luca Marini.
Danilo Petrucci was not surprised to see his Tech3 KTM teammate doing so well. "For me, in my personal opinion, for sure since let's say August, the second part of the championship since Austria, of the four riders of KTM, Iker is the one who is riding better," the Italian said.
So impressed was Petrucci that when KTM told him that they were likely to drop him for their Moto2 riders, he had argued for them to keep Lecuona. "I told also to the KTM guys in Austria, when they said to us you are not any more in the team [next year], 'if you have to choose, it's better to continue with Iker' because he's very young and for me he's got big potential," Petrucci said. "And today since FP4 he did really a good step."
Lecuona did not deserve to have been pushed out of MotoGP so quickly, Petrucci insisted. "If I had to tell the truth, he didn't deserve to go out of MotoGP because he's the youngest one of all the grid, I think. He got some experience and he was completely new last year." Lecuona would show his ability in WorldSBK, Petrucci told us. "For me he's really a good rider and can fight for the championship in superbikes. I don’t know for sure the level of the Honda and everything, but for sure his level is [good enough] for MotoGP and today he showed his level."
Just ride the thing
Lecuona's speed was even being acknowledged in the factory KTM team. "Looks like Iker’s riding really well. I don’t think there is much else to it. He’s riding extremely well here," Brad Binder said. Meanwhile, perhaps he and the factory team were losing their way trying fix problems rather than just getting on and riding what they have, the South African suggested. "We’re looking to try and solve problems, maybe looking too deep, rather than just getting on with it. It makes life a bit more difficult sometimes when you’re trying to solve these issues."
One issue which is more difficult to solve is the combination of diminishing grip and bumps in the last corner. Despite having been resurfaced two years ago, the grip is not what it should be. "The last corner the asphalt here is quite new," Pol Espargaro said. "The problem isn’t the bumps, it’s the grip level. For sure the bumps getting worse in last corner. There is a lot of activity at this place. Which is nice. But to be a track with two years asphalt it doesn’t feel very good. I mean, the grip level is not so nice and we’re getting bumps."
Espargaro was concerned that if the grip had already dropped so much in two years, how bad would it be in year 6? It shouldn't have decline so much already, according to the Repsol Honda rider. "A pity as I really like this place. It’s getting bad. In the next 2 years we’re going to complain about the rear grip. It should be amazing now, when it’s two years old. I don’t know what will happen in 6 years if we are already missing quite a lot of grip."
Valentino Rossi didn't feel there was that much of a problem. "In a track like this where the change of altitude and up and down is so extreme, it's a bit more easy to have more bumps," the Italian veteran said. "But for me personally speaking the condition of the track is good. So if you compare to Austin for example, here we have a lot less bumps and a lot more grip. For me the track is in a good shape for a MotoGP race. I like also the asphalt. And so it's good."
The Italian veteran embarks on his penultimate MotoGP race on Sunday, doing so from sixteenth. It is a modest place to start from, in what has been a very modest year in terms of results. But even in his final year, a season which has gone so badly for him, he is still finding improvement.
"Today for me is better than yesterday. This Saturday is more positive because already from this morning I was a bit more competitive," Rossi said. "Especially this afternoon we improve the balance of the bike and especially we improve the feeling with the tires. Looks like the tires of today are better and also the condition of the track helps us to have more grip. In FP4 I tried medium and hard. At the end I was able to improve my lap time on the last lap."
Overall, Rossi was relatively happy at the progress he had made compared to previous rounds. "Also in Qualifying 1 I was able to do a decent lap and I will start from sixteenth position, which is better than my position in the last races. Also I was able to ride well."
The problem, Rossi knows all too well, is that the field has moved on, and everything is now so tight that even a small gap leaves you stranded well down the field. "I mean, I am less than 1 second from the pole position," Rossi pointed out. "Nine tenths, and the problem is that you are sixteenth. Also in FP4 my pace was less than 1 second slower than the top guys, but you are seventeenth, eighteenth."
That is the nature of MotoGP in the current era. The room for mistakes gets ever smaller, and the pressure gets ever higher. At some point, it is time to bow out.
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