If it has felt like a long wait for the season to get underway again. And Saturday at Qatar showed us just what we have been missing. A surprising FP3, where eight riders managed to improve their lap times, despite the session taking place in the heat of the day, and the wind having picked up and bringing a dusting of sand to the track. Among those who improved were Enea Bastianini, who jumped up to fifth, threatening Pol Espargaro, Pecco Bagnaia, and Fabio Quartararo. Espargaro and Bagnaia bettered their times, Quartararo did not, setting up another thrilling contest to get out of Q1 and into Q2. If you were looking for drama, you got everything you could have hoped for, and more.
You even got the customary yellow flag drama in qualifying, with laps being canceled due to yellow flags having a significant impact on the grid in all three classes. A yellow flag waved at the end of Q1 for a crash by Darryn Binder meant Johann Zarco had his best lap canceled, put in right at the end of the session. Although fans don't like the rule, it was put in place after a couple of horrific incidents, most notably when Tito Rabat had his leg destroyed at Silverstone in 2018 when he was hit by Franco Morbidelli's bike. The aim is to slow riders down when they see a yellow flag, something which the change has been largely successful in doing. But it comes at the price of laps being canceled.
Whenever an important lap gets canceled, there is an outcry to find a better solution. Unfortunately, a better solution is almost impossible to find. All of the alternatives proposed just introduce other problems, as you would expect when the law of unintended consequences kicks in.
It is what it is
The riders themselves are relatively stoic about it. They appreciate the safety benefits more than they are upset at the loss of the occasional lap time, no matter how painful. Tactics have shifted – riders put in fast laps earlier, just in case a later lap is canceled because of a crash, more common at the end of a session when everyone is pushing. But while there is still time on the clock, they are going to chase a lap time, especially if they think they can get some clear track.
That was what Johann Zarco fell victim to. "Clearly I took a big risk to have only one lap, but because I was still not sure about what I can gain with the new soft tire, I didn't want to get disturbed by the others," the Pramac Ducati said afterward. "So that's why I really used this last moment to be sure I will not have anyone waiting, who could just disturb the focus."
But Zarco was far from upset. "It's a positive day, but a pity what's happened, to start from far." He would be using the opportunity to manage his tires, and see how far he could get, an area of his riding he was wanting to concentrate on. "But I think it's anyway a good exercise for tomorrow, to work on what I want to improve."
Zarco's canceled lap gave Fabio Quartararo a reprieve. He made it through to Q2 along with Brad Binder. It did not do him a great deal of good, however, Quartararo eventually qualifying down in eleventh, his Monster Energy Yamaha teammate beside him in twelfth.
Normally, for the Yamaha to be able to compete, they have to start the race from the front two rows. But Franco Morbidelli was not particularly concerned over starting from back on the fourth row. The nature of the circuit, the heavy toll it takes on tires, means that time lost due to a poor qualifying position can be quickly made up in the final laps, when everyone's tires have gone off.
"The starting position is always important, but if you have to choose a weekend to have a bad day in qualifying, it would be weekends like this, weekends where tire degradation is too much of an issue and is too much of a thing to just have people making hot laps the whole race," Morbidelli reflected. "So if I have to choose a weekend to start 12th, it would be this one."
"As always here in Qatar, it's always a particular race, a degradation race, and let's see who will be able to manage the tire better, who will be able to be faster at the end of the race, which is important," the Italian explained. "The difference can be big at the end of the race, the margin can be big between a guy that has a tire drop and a guy that didn't yet. So let's see. It will be an interesting race, for sure."
The drop in lap time is big, much larger than at other circuits. Taking a look at the first race in Qatar last year is instructive. The leaders in the early laps were clocking around 1'55.0, more or less. After lap 7, they were going three or four tenths slower, and by lap 14, they were into the high 1'55s. And in the final five or so laps of the 22 lap race, the were starting to drop into the 1'56s, with some riders barely managing 1'57s or 1'58s. All of a sudden, a seemingly unbridgeable gap gets closed down.
That makes planning the race even harder. You can push from the start, but you need to make sure you still have some tire left at the end. Add to that the fact that the field is incredibly close: there were eighteen riders within a second of each other at the end of FP4, and that includes the 0.3 second gap between fastest rider Johann Zarco and Takaaki Nakagami in second.
"It's going to be a big tough one," Jack Miller said of the race. "The level is ridiculous now. There's that many fast guys so that's the concerning thing, because if you were just feeling a little bit off or one small mistake you can nearly be out of the points. So it's going to be a stressful race, but that's what we live for."
The general feeling among the riders is that there will be a small group of riders who get away after the first few laps, and that qualifying position won't particularly dictate who will be in that group. Even Jorge Martin, who managed a magnificent repeat of his pole position from last year-by-year, thought the front group would not be too large. "I think the pace is similar or maybe faster than last year, but I don't feel like will be a lot of riders," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "I think maybe six riders when we are missing seven laps, but the last seven laps will be super fast." Martin tipped the Suzuki riders as the ones to watch. "I think the best a little bit are Rins and Mir because they are I feel like the strongest ones."
Marc Marquez, starting from third on the grid, saw the strengths along similar lines. "If we check FP2, FP3 I would say both Suzuki riders," the Repsol Honda rider replied when asked who he expected to be at the front. "But in FP4, for example, Ducati riders did a step, especially Zarco. Also Quartararo is starting far, but his pace is good. My teammate Pol has a good pace. Overall all weekend I would say both Suzuki riders."
Joan Mir, one of those tipped by Martin, agreed that there would a small group at the front. "I don’t expect a group of ten," the Suzuki rider told journalists. "First laps yes. But then if you see the times there is more difference compared to riders with good pace and the others. Then the lap time is another thing on a fast lap. I expect maybe five and at the end less, but I hope to be there."
Poring over the timesheets for FP4, the outlines of a fast group emerge. Analyzing the lap times for riders using tires with a lot of laps on, the KTMs of Miguel Oliveira and Brad Binder look very strong. Fabio Quartararo is on similar pace, as is Marc Marquez, and Joan Mir. Takaaki Nakagami was quick too, on a slightly newer tire, putting in a 1'54.7 on a soft rear with 10 laps on, where others were doing 1'54.9s on tires with 13 and 14 laps on. But most impressive of all was Johann Zarco, who managed to punch out a 1'54.9 on a soft tire which had 21 laps, or nearly race distance on it.
Tire choice on Sunday will vary, with some definitely lumping for the soft rear – Marc Marquez, for example, focused all his race runs on used soft tires – others definitely going for the medium, while others were caught in between the two. There were some real extremes, with Aprilia's Aleix Espargaro completely mystified by how anyone could even consider running the soft rear.
"Sincerely, I don’t really understand how they will manage to race the soft rear," the Aprilia rider said. "Last year I was seventh and tenth with the medium tire of this year (the tire which was the soft for 2021), and I reached more than 100 percent, close to 120 percent of the wear. This year the lap times are a little faster. The medium is the same. The soft is softer. So I don’t understand how they’ll manage in the race."
Espargaro ruled it out in his own case. "Maybe I’m wrong and they can manage and the soft can win but it’s not my case." The Aprilia rider had worked to have as much tire left at the end of the race. "I did a good job with the team to set up the bike with the medium rear, and I proved my pace is quite strong. The guarantee to fight with more rubber. It’s clear I have to race the M. Let’s see if someone races with the S. It’s clearly faster. No doubt about it. But I don’t know how they will last until the end."
Though Marc Marquez has spent all his time working on the soft rear, he wasn't sure how the tire would last on the new Honda RC213V. The radically revised bike had more weight on the rear, and that changed the feeling of the whole bike. That made judging tire wear more difficult, and something only experience of racing the bike would provide.
"It’s true that will be the first race with this new bike," Marquez told the press conference. "It’s really different. We need to understand also the tire life, the rear consumption. Sometimes the spinning you don’t even feel. All the things with the previous bike were more under control, or I know more what needs the bike to perform well on Sunday. So, this will be experience, but you need to achieve this experience on a race weekend."
Despite Marquez having strong pace, he wasn't entirely convinced. He wouldn't be able to impose his will on the race. "The thing is that if you are the strongest guy then you can manage that race as you want and you can manage the tires," he said. "But if you suffer then you just go and check in the end how you are."
Fabio Quartararo, on the other hand, feels he has no choice but to push right from the start. "The only strategy I have is to push at 100%," the Frenchman said. "I have no other strategy than that and as the conditions are, it's the only way for me to be at the front. Only one thing is on my mind and that's to push myself to the maximum and we will always learn."
He will have to push, in part because he and Morbidelli have both qualified so far down on the grid. That is because the Yamaha seems to suffer from the same syndrome that dogged the Suzukis in 2020 and 2021, an inability to get the most out of a fresh new tire. "Somehow when we go on new tires, we improve less than everybody else," Morbidelli said. "We go on a new tire, you feel the grip increasing, you feel good, but maybe the other guys feel even better."
That may be because of a lack of rear grip, Fabio Quartararo opined. "My feeling basically, we know that when we don't have the rear grip, we are struggling so much and I think we have no margin to put more power in some accelerations." He was having to push so hard to try to get as much acceleration as possible that the bike was beginning to shake. "This is because I put myself on the limit and when you put yourself on the limit in the end you arrive at a moment where the bike is not really stable anymore."
The Suzuki riders were both widely tipped, with everyone expressing admiration for the additional horsepower the bike seems to have. The GSX-RR was always able to carve its way through the field, so Joan Mir starting in eighth is not a concern. That has caught the attention of their rivals.
"I'm intrigued to see how this new Suzuki performs under race conditions," Jack Miller said. "It seems like they've gained what would be in my opinion around 30 something horsepower. It'd have to be, because I mean last year here Mir got passed by two Ducatis before the finish line. And yesterday watching the sessions back I saw Rins pass Di Giannantonio before the first corner."
Miller was fascinated to see what that additional would do to the Suzuki's ability to conserve tires, and to its fuel consumption. "They have quite a considerable improvement in terms of power. Suzuki is notably always been quite good on the tires. Putting an extra 30 horsepower through the tires will be interesting to see how that goes. Second of all is fuel consumption. You don’t make a bike go faster without putting more fuel in. So it'll be interesting to see how they get on."
Joan Mir let slip that fuel consumption was a factor. "Also the fuel will be important," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "It’s crazy how the bike changes with the race map and the quali map. My bike and everybody’s bike. That’s why the lap times in FP4 you see some riders not really fast and others fast and I think it’s purely for the map or power."
That, then, could also be a key for the race. The race pace of the Yamaha is strong, in part because they are not having to dial back the power as much to save fuel and tires, unlike, say, the Ducatis. Having less power means you don't have to cut quite so much at a fuel-heavy track like Qatar. However, this might also explain why Yamaha are so loath to pursue serious horsepower gains, out of fear of sacrificing fuel consumption.
The Suzukis used to be gentle on tires, but will that still be the case with the revised engine? The Ducatis are clearly working on setting up the new bike – Pecco Bagnaia admitted they have only just started changing the setup of the bike, as they were still working through test parts on the first day of practice at Qatar. That means figuring out how the new bike affects tires, and for the Pramac riders and Luca Marini, with the GP22 engine, just how the fuel will last over race distance.
The wild card here could well be Enea Bastianini. The Gresini rider made a huge step in the second half of his rookie season, and is carrying that into the new year. He still only has a previous model bike, but the jump from a GP19 to a GP21 is fairly enormous. On a known package with a solid base setup, Bastianini is going to be causing everyone headaches. The only question mark at Qatar is how he handles tire wear.
The Aprilia is quicker, but it looks like it is harder on tires. The Honda is quick – at least in the hands of the factory riders – and both Marc Marquez and Pol Espargaro look like having a strong pace. HRC have done a remarkable job getting the bike so close to perfect before the season started despite it being brand new, something which Marquez praised them for yesterday. The bike appears to be in good shape, the only question mark being over how it will respond over race distance.
But the most intriguing prospect are surely the KTMs. Qatar has traditionally been a bogey track for the Austrian manufacturer, and they have struggled there every year since entering the class. But both Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira appear to have excellent pace, and with Binder starting from seventh, he has his best qualifying position in a long time. Binder is notorious for coming through the field, and a third row grid position leaves him far fewer people ahead he will need to pass.
Whatever happens on Sunday, however it plays out, we won't really learn very much. "As always here in Qatar, it's always a particular race, a degradation race, and let's see who will be able to manage the tire better, who will be able to be faster at the end of the race," Franco Morbidelli said. We may not find out who is going to win the title by the end of Qatar. But it promises to be fantastic entertainment watching who can win the first race of 2022.
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