There is a surprisingly celebratory atmosphere at Valencia for the final round of the 2021 MotoGP season. In part because it is a celebration of career for the greatest icon of motorcycle racing. But also because, unlike previous years, it really is the end of the season: we are not stuck in Valencia for another three days for test. That test always cast a pall over proceedings, no one daring to look beyond Sunday, for fear of encountering another three days of continuous grind, on top of the entire year which they had just passed.
Instead, on Sunday night, the season finishes. 2022 starts three days later, at a different track, giving us all room to catch our collective breath, relax for a moment, and start the new season with some semblance of renewed energy. That respite, brief as it is, lightens the mood considerably. It feels like a weekend where we can enjoy the racing.
The sunshine helps, as do the aforementioned festivities surrounding the career of the legendary Valentino Rossi. But they all conspire to feel like a genuine celebration, looking back and appreciating the joy Rossi has brought to so many, and what he has contributed to the sport. It is also a celebration of the fact he leaves the sport in rude health, the changes Dorna have made to anticipate his retirement having turned MotoGP into an exciting spectacle where you don't know from one week to another who will win, and where six factories are capable of fighting for podiums.
Back when I first gave up my job to write about MotoGP full time, Rossi's retirement was a specter which hung over the sport. Had he quit in 2010, his final race would have felt like a wake. In 2021, with all the changes which have been made, Valentino Rossi's retirement feels like a graduation: a moment where he passes on to another stage in his life, and the school he graduates from uses the lessons learned from the pupil it taught to improve for the future.
Speaking of tutors and pupils, one of Valentino Rossi's own students gave him a helping hand to put him into his best qualifying position since Silverstone. Pecco Bagnaia gave Rossi a tow in FP3 to help him pass straight through to Q2. Bagnaia then let Rossi follow him again in Q2, the Petronas Yamaha rider ending up tenth on the grid thanks to the Ducati Lenovo rider's assistance.
Bagnaia looked like he was on his way to pole, but the factory Ducati rider found the top spot stolen away by Jorge Martin. Bagnaia laid down a scorching and numerologically pleasing lap of 1'30.000, and tried to push even harder the lap that followed. But that attempt ended at the gravel trap in Turn 2, the Italian sliding out on his final attempt.
That didn't hinder Jorge Martin, though, who blitzed his way to pole, with a lap of 1'29.936, the fastest lap at the circuit since Marc Marquez set the fastest time in qualifying in 2017. Martin was ahead of the yellow flags when they came out, so didn't have his time taken away from him.
Teammate Jack Miller saw the yellow flags as well, but once past the spot where Bagnaia crashed, he determined just to see how far he could go, whether the Stewards took his lap away from him or not. That turned out to be Turn 11, where Miller lost the front, hung on valiantly until he was down.
It had all started to go wrong at Turn 9, Miller acknowledged. "When that big slide happened through nine, it kind of threw me out of a little bit wider than I would have liked to have been going into eleven. But, I was at that point. Last qualifier of the year, last lap. Full time attack of the year. I was 100% committed to it and went down with the sinking ship."
Miller had already booked his spot on the front row, making it a Ducati front row lockout for the second time this year, and indeed, for the second time ever. The Ducati is turning into a formidable qualifying weapon: a Desmosedici has been on pole for 11 of the 18 races this year, and they have occupied 30 of the 54 front row spots. Ducati have wrapped up the constructors' championship, and the Ducati Lenovo team is on course to take the teams' title. It has been an astonishingly successful year for the Borgo Panigale factory. But the riders' championship continues to elude them.
Once upon a time, Valencia was regarded as a bad track for Ducati, but that is no longer true. Indeed, it doesn't really seem as if there are any bad tracks for Ducati any longer, just circuits where they are likely to win, and circuits where they merely stand a chance of winning. Valencia looks to be in the latter camp now.
"I think the layout of this track is not easy for our bike, but maybe for other bikes, " Bagnaia told the press conference. "We can make less difference in the acceleration and braking because the grip is not so high and we struggle a bit. I’ve seen also the other bikes are struggling the same way. Normally when we have grip, we can brake so much harder. In this track it’s very difficult because it’s very easy to have front locking and to lose the rear on the entry."
Reading what Bagnaia said a different way, and it is not so much that the Ducati suffers at Valencia, it is more that they can't use their clear advantage. There is more of a level playing field, but Ducati is still very much in the game.
Bagnaia had studied his teammate's data from 2020, and picked up a few pointers to being quick at Valencia. "I struggled a bit in the past years for that, but this year fortunately I was feeling better. Also, looking at the data of Jack where last year was doing a big difference compared to me. I understand how to ride in this track. You have to be more calm on the gas. It’s a different type of riding style compared to other tracks."
As a rookie, Jorge Martin approaches Valencia free of preconceptions. That gives him an advantage, able to see more clearly where the Ducati has the edge. "Coming to this track I felt already that it was a good one because Jack in the last two, three years was competitive. So, I don't think it was a bad track for us," the Pramac Ducati rider told the press conference. "Also, about the weak points, it's difficult to say. It depends on the track. For the moment, I feel quite okay. Maybe when we release the brake we struggle a bit of turning, from my side. I enter into the corner and struggle a little bit. But I feel a really stable bike and a really good bike in every point, almost."
Brad Binder, grabbing his best qualifying position since Le Mans with a seventh place, had a very clear idea of where the Ducatis were strong. "For us, when we ride behind them, it's quite clear," the Red Bull KTM rider said. "They're able to turn the bike in a shorter amount of time, pick the thing up and use the engine very well. They seem to have really good drive." That was true of all the Desmosedicis, old and new, the South African pointed out. "It's not just the factory Ducatis, it's all of them, even the Avintia bikes you see it with. So they've done a good job and they've got the bike working extremely well, but we've got some work to do."
No doubt some of that advantage is down to the ride-height device pioneered by Ducati. Back at the track for the first time since Qatar 2020, I had an opportunity to go and watch the bikes in the flesh. Stood at Turn 11, I was able to watch the riders deploy the various ride-height devices, and it was plain that Ducati's was the best.
The device on the Honda deployed rather abruptly, the rear of the RC213V dropping suddenly as they exited the corner. The Suzuki, Yamaha, KTM were all quite smooth, but tended to deploy later on exit, the Suzukis and Yamahas especially gliding lower as they picked the bike up onto the fat part of the tire. The Aprilia device was the most unusual, lowering the rear seemingly while the bike was still leaned well over not long after the apex. But the Ducati device deployed almost seamlessly, almost so you didn't notice the rear being lowered, until you realized that the rear wheel was almost touching the tail box carrying the mass damper Ducati use to smooth out vibration from the rear tire.
Despite the freeze on engine development which has applied to all of the factories bar Aprilia for this year, Ducati have made significant steps forward in performance. Once the ban is lifted at the end of the year, Ducati will have two years' worth of ideas to unleash on the Desmosedici engine, and a chance to make the bike even faster.
That was a deeply worrying thought to the newly-crowned 2021 MotoGP champion. Especially as there will be eight Ducatis on the grid, with VR46 and Gresini getting two bikes each, alongside the factory and Pramac bikes.
"More Ducatis, more problems," is how Fabio Quartararo bemoaned his fate. "It’s super tough for us to overtake. Also it looks like they made a massive step on the bike. And not just the engine. How fast they are on one lap, how fast they are in the race. This year was the first time they make 1 2 3 in qualifying. But they made some 1-2s and 1-2-3s. All riders made a massive step. We need to make a massive step because we are way too far."
Downhill since the title
Fabio Quartararo is set for another difficult Sunday. Though is pace was pretty good in FP4, the Frenchman was worried about his race pace. "To be honest, we’re in a bad situation right now. Two years ago we managed to get much better pace, 1'29s. Franco last year made 1'30.0. But we’re both 0.7 slower this weekend. I’m not happy how things went. I’d like to understand why. On braking with the hard front, we are already too soft. It’s tough to understand and I would like to know why we had such a bad feeling today." Starting from eighth, and with a flotilla of Ducatis ahead of him, he was very pessimistic about his chances.
Who has reason for optimism? Pecco Bagnaia is not only quick over a single lap, but he also has excellent pace, both in FP4 and in FP3. Both Suzukis are strong, Alex Rins a fraction faster than Joan Mir, though Mir starts just ahead of his teammate Rins. Takaaki Nakagami looks to have strong pace too, but the LCR Honda rider has to start from the third row.
In FP3, it looked like Pol Espargaro also had very strong pace, right up until he had a horrendous crash at Turn 13. The Repsol Honda rider was on his out lap, and was starting to push already, when the flick from the right of Turn 12 to the long left of Turn 13 unsettled the rear of the Honda and got the bike all out of shape. As Espargaro wrestled the bike through Turn 13, physics eventually overcame both the rear Michelin and the Honda's electronics, and spat the Repsol Honda rider up into the air to smack down on the track. He was lucky he didn't get clipped by the bike as well.
The crash was probably down to tires not quite up to temperature, and by asking too much of them through a tricky section of track. But the rear of the Honda RC213V has a tendency to get unsettled quickly, as the bike is very nose heavy, with not much weight on the rear, the focus of the bike mostly on braking and corner entry. An exceptionally aggressive engine, underdeveloped electronics, and a forward weight bias all conspire to cause the bike's riders serious harm should their concentration laps for a millisecond.
Pol Espargaro's momentary lapse cost him a trip to the hospital to be treated for badly bruised chest and abdomen, causing him pain breathing. Espargaro is intent on seeing if he is up to riding on Sunday, though it makes little sense. Honda's focus should be on 2022, and with a brand new bike coming for next year, Espargaro's time at the Jerez test is infinitely more valuable than a single race on Sunday. And with Marc Marquez absent with vision problems after a training crash, they desperately need more input than just test rider Stefan Bradl.
If Pol Espargaro does miss the Valencia race, then it will mark a moment in history. There has been at least one bike from the HRC factory squad (Repsol Honda and its predecessors) on the grid at every race since Assen 1992. That was the round where Mick Doohan broke his leg in practice and nearly lost the leg after a botched operation to fix it. And Wayne Gardner crashed and hurt himself in practice as well, shortly after recovering from a massive injury suffered at Suzuka that year.
Gardner, incidentally, stands to see his son follow in his footsteps on Sunday, as Remy starts from eighth on the grid, directly behind his title rival Raul Fernandez. Fernandez has to win the race to even have a chance at the title. Remy Gardner merely needs a thirteenth place to be sure of becoming Moto2 champion.
Sunday's MotoGP race looks set to be a matter of tire management. The choice of rear tire, and how to get the most out of it until the end, will be crucial, as the wear rate on the rear tire is very high, thanks to the layout of the circuit. "Unfortunately Valencia is not a nice track to ride, and you have to keep the same angle for most of the time and you use the grip a lot, the tire in that area," Andrea Dovizioso explained. "So you have a problem on entry and exit because you use the same angle, so it's very difficult to manage." Spending so much time on the side of the tire ate through the rear quickly.
The choice the riders face is between the medium and hard rears. The medium warms up quickly but wears a little more rapidly than the hard. The problem is that the hard spins and wears too, and takes at least three laps before it is ready to take full lean angle on the right side and allow the rider to push.
Brad Binder had tried the hard, but didn't believe it would be as competitive as the medium. "I used the hard just to see what it was like and it was really, really on the limit on the right hand side, because you don't get enough temperature because of the lack of right corners. It was really sketchy the first three laps, and then it started to build temperature and it was OK," the Red Bull KTM rider explained.
That was three laps too many, however. "You can't write off the first three laps of the race," Binder said. "So it's not easy. It's going to be a tricky one for sure. But if I had to choose, I'd definitely prefer the feeling with the medium, but at the end of the day, it's not a question of your feeling, it's a question of the durability. I used both tires in FP4, we can sit now and go through it and see what the wear looks like on both, and try to make a decision to be as strong as we can tomorrow."
The biggest thing for Binder was the fact that even the hard rear looked like wearing quite quickly. "The big thing is that even when the hard rear comes in, it's still got no grip, it spins a lot. So as you know, even if it is a harder compound, if it's spinning more, the wear is still really high. So whether the wear is actually better or not, we are going to have to see," the South African said.
Sunday is the last race of 2021, and the last race of Valentino Rossi's immense, historic, epic career. If the race is all about keeping your tires fresh for as long as possible, it is going to be a long day. But it will also offer opportunity for anyone willing to short shift out of corners to save the tire and have that little bit extra in the final stages. On Sunday, we play the waiting game. But the waiting will soon be at an end.
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