After the first MotoGP race of 2022, the Qatar Grand Prix was over, an observant Twitter follower asked me why the symbol used for Marc Marquez' front tire choice was different to everyone else. Watching the replay and then consulting the analysis PDFs on MotoGP's new results section made clear what Marquez had done. He and his team and chosen to fit a soft front tire which had been scrubbed in, and consequently, had been used for 1 lap already.
Running through the data in the various sessions confirms this. During the heat of FP1, Marquez used a medium and a hard front, before using two soft fronts during FP2. He used a third soft front in FP3, before switching to a hard front. He did a single, slow lap on the soft front at the start of the session, then came in to switch front tires.
This third soft front tire, used in FP3, was a hint of what Marquez had decided to do. The Repsol Honda rider fitted the same soft front, with a single lap on it, at the start of FP4, and then did a seven-lap run with the soft front, before switching to the medium front. FP4 is typically the session where riders work on race setup and strategy, and this appears to have been what Marquez and his team had decided to pursue.
They repeated the strategy in the warmup on Sunday. A single, slow lap in the heat of the afternoon, to prepare a new soft front tire to be used in the race. Then a longer run on a medium front, during which Marquez crashed. That crash was what finally decided Marquez' front tire choice. "This morning I had a small crash, then this, I had doubts," the Repsol Honda rider said. He chose the soft front tire with a single lap on it.
Old better than new?
Why would you start the race using a tire which is not brand new? Without knowing the exact details of how Marquez' team handled the tire, we can take an educated guess. Putting a slow heat cycle into the tire will change the rubber slightly, and affect the way it reacts. The Hondas had really wanted to use the medium front tire, but the bizarre schedule of Qatar meant they didn't have enough track time in race conditions to test it properly. So the safe option was to race the soft front, and risk it being too soft.
That is what they might have been trying to address with the extra lap. By conditioning the tire, it may have made it react a little more like a medium, either providing a little more support, or a little more durability.
That seems counterintuitive. Normally, if you put a lap on a tire, it degrades. Especially a soft tire. But the laps Marquez rode on the tire point to it being a very deliberate action: in FP3, Marquez did a lap of 2'10. In the warm up, he did a 2'18, 2 or 3 seconds a lap slower than his other laps in the first three sectors.
Did it work? That is hard to assess without knowing exactly what Marquez and his crew were trying to achieve. The Spaniard ran wide at Turn 1 on the first three laps, not quite getting corner entry right. But Marquez has been struggling with the front end of the new Honda RC213V since it arrived. The new bike is clearly a massive step forward – third and fifth in its first race is evidence of that – but it requires a complete change of approach.
"The confidence with the front was not the highest at the moment," Marquez said after the race. "And there I'm struggling a bit more to understand. Especially in the practice, you believe [in the front], because you know that if you crash, it's OK. But in the race, when you don't have confidence, you cannot believe in it like you want." Crashing in practice is an acceptable risk, but the danger of ending with zero points from a crash in the race was not worth it.
Improving confidence is something Marquez and his team are working on, however. "We are discovering different things with this new bike, and it's true that since I started at the first test, we improved, especially at Mandalika," the Repsol Honda rider said. "Here we don't touch a lot, because it was the first race, and I don't want to lose the way, and we were just concentrated on the racing line and tires."
Maybe, part of concentrating on the tires was choosing to use a conditioned front tire. Whether Marquez and his team will attempt a repeat of this strategy remains to be seen. But we can be sure that his rivals will be carefully poring over the lap charts to see if Marquez is up to something at future races.
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