The first Indonesian GP in 25 years has been a complicated affair. A new track, in the middle of a construction site where a new resort is being built. A track which was resurfaced after the test uncovered issues with the asphalt. The blistering tropical heat, capable of raising track temperatures to well over 60°. The swapping out of the rear tire used at the test for an older, safer tire used in Austria and Buriram to prevent the tire from blistering if track temperatures get that high. And the intense rains which leave the track wet for a long time, have eaten into setup time, and keep washing dirt onto the surface.
When working on a problem, such as the correct setup for a MotoGP bike, engineers like to change one variable at a time, to understand how it works. At Mandalika, that just hasn't been possible. The teams already had two new variables – a new track surface and different tires – thrown at them, and the weather is adding a third. It is making it almost impossible to figure out what needs to be changed to make the bikes go faster.
"It's very difficult, because the track condition changes after two minutes and again after five minutes," Enea Bastianini told us on Saturday. "And it's too strange to understand also which tire is better for the race. We will see tomorrow, it depends a lot on the conditions in the morning, because if it's raining for the race, my expectation is less grip."
Unsurprisingly, all this has made for a chaotic weekend so far. And Saturday was much worse than Friday, with bikes sliding, crashing, and even catching fire. Alex Rins' Suzuki GSX-RR blowing oil and then setting itself ablaze turned an already difficult FP4 even more complicated, bringing out the red flags to give the marshals a chance to put concrete dust down to soak up the oil Rins had left on the track, and Johann Zarco had crashed on. That disrupted the test plan, leaving even less time for teams and riders to evaluate tires in the only session of the weekend where the time doesn't matter, only the rhythm does.
Q1 made for even more excitement. There was a long list of big names vying for the two slots to pass through to Q2, and the chance of a decent qualifying position (a necessity at a track with a very narrow racing line). The riders were not holding back, as Marc Marquez demonstrated by crashing not once, but twice in his pursuit of a fast lap, at Turn 13 on his second run, then Turn 12 on his first run.
Marquez was up and running before he had stopped sliding after his first crash, already in a rush to get back to the pits and take a second shot at getting through to Q2. But that only resulted in another crash, as he and the rest of the pack first sat waiting in a group for the first rider to push for a lap, then passing Takaaki Nakagami at Turn 10, and rushing the next section in pursuit of a fast time. That also ended in the gravel.
On the one hand, Marquez' willingness to push was a sign he was back to his old form, unafraid to try unconventional means when chasing glory. But the combination of the track and rear Michelins was just not up to permitting such shenanigans. Marquez tried to save the crash on elbow and knee, but came up short this time.
Up to his old tricks
"I tried when it was not possible!" is how the Repsol Honda rider explained his crashes in Q1. The better the conditions on track, the more difficult things were for the Hondas. "It’s true that all Hondas have unexpected problems since FP1. FP3 was mixed conditions but when the track is completely clean we are struggling a lot to ride in a good way. In QP1 I tried. I did not feel ready but I tried."
Marquez was less worried about the second crash, because it was the logical consequence of the first. "The second crash was something that I could avoid but I was burning too much, I was coming wide and I knew it was my last chance. I tried anyway and I came into a dirty place." The dirty track meant less grip, and down he went.
The first crash, however, was more an issue with the 2022 Honda. "With this new Honda we really improved the rear grip, but the front I was struggling with in the first test and I needed to understand it," Marquez explained. "With the old Honda I struggled with grip, but the front was ready, I knew the limit very well. I was crashing but I knew where I could push more and less. Here, for example, the second crash I understand, the first crash I don’t understand."
The bigger problem is that Marc Marquez will start from 14th, and is the first of the Hondas. No Honda made it through to Q2, all of them struggling with rear grip. That was entirely unexpected, Marquez said. "Here in the test we rode very well: me, Pol, Taka, my brother. Since we arrived here we start to struggle a lot with the rear and we push a lot with the front."
The lack of front feeling which the Honda riders had been patiently working through at Qatar had been made much worse by the lack of rear grip at Mandalika. "I cannot ride with the front and I don’t feel well like in Qatar." Marquez was not keen to point the finger of blame directly at Michelin, however. "The others have the same tire so we cannot point in just one way. We need to understand the situation to take profit of those tires." He had won using this very tire, the Repsol Honda rider pointed out.
Teammate Pol Espargaro was a lot less reticent. After being fastest at the test in February, then starting the season with a podium, the Repsol Honda rider was furious that the hard work of development HRC had done was being upended. "All winter, even last year, Honda were taking a lot of info of the tires," he fumed. "Here we were working a lot to recognize the problems of the bike. They brought a new bike to Jerez, to Malaysia that fits with the current tires."
After the experience at the test, Michelin then switched to his older tire construction, and that had hurt the Hondas, Espargaro said. "Then it was some problem during the test and to improve the problems Michelin brought four-year old tires. What we face is we have a bike ready, the best bike we have to say with the correct tires. but with four-year-old tires this bike isn’t made for it."
Espargaro was not convinced by Michelin's explanation that they needed these tires to be able to last the race. "I’m not a Michelin technician, I’m not a guy that tells them what they need to do. But if they are always trying to be better you cannot bring a four-year-old tire. It’s something that doesn’t match with the current situation. We can all have problems. Honda had problems. We improved the situation by doing a completely new bike, not by using a bike from 4 years ago. The problem needs to be solved in a different way."
What had riled Espargaro is that the tire was punishing the Hondas while benefiting the Ducatis. "We saw Ducati struggling massively at the test here, especially on rhythm," the Repsol Honda rider said. "Now they are flying. We are especially p***ed off with that. We think it’s unfair in some ways. We were working so much during the preseason, making an amazing bike. Honda built an amazing bike and we do not deserve these results."
Are the Ducatis really benefiting so much from the different rear Michelin? The fact that the two Pramac Ducatis are on the front row, two more on the second row, and six on the first four rows – half of the total – suggests that they are at the very least not suffering as a result. But Pecco Bagnaia, who qualified sixth, put it down to other factors.
"For sure it's a different tire, less grip than the one of the test," the Ducati Lenovo rider told us. "But we are going very fast compared to the test." The reason the Ducatis were faster, according to Bagnaia, is that they had stopped testing and had switched focus to figuring out the bike. "From my side I prefer it because in the test I was doing laps with different things on the bike, and I was trying to understand everything, to have things ready for Qatar. So in this time at Mandalika, I am just focusing on doing laps and taking confidence, I feel better with the bike, and in consequence with the tires. But I don't know if they are better for us.
Bagnaia pointed out that the Ducatis were faster with the tires used at the test as well. "For me, with the old one, we were faster than what we did today." But he also pointed out that Pol Espargaro had been fastest on Friday, using these very same tires.
Jorge Martin, qualified in second, felt the same way as Pecco Bagnaia. "In the test, I was feeling much better with the rear tire," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "Also, the soft was more consistent, I think. Now, at the end of the race less tire, less grip. So, always feel a lot of spin from my side. We are working on it and try to manage the best way as possible."
Johann Zarco believed that it wasn't so much that the Ducatis were gaining from the stronger Michelin construction as losing less than the other factories. "We can feel the difference, as they are saying, that it seems there is less performance and less grip. But, when I could compare myself with the others, it seems that I was losing less performance than them compared to the test. So, I tried to keep that feeling and always stay on the front," the Frenchman said.
At the heart of the problem lies temperature management, Pecco Bagnaia explained. The left side of the tire was pretty good, but the right was quick to overheat. "On the left side, it's perfect, but we have fewer corners on the left. The right side, the problem is every time you arrive in a slow corner, you spin a lot before, so the rear on the right side is always so hot and it's more easy to lose it."
That was why we saw so many riders lose the rear in right handers like Turn 11, Bagnaia explained. But it was not the Ducatis who were doing best out of the tires, but Fabio Quartararo, he insisted. "The only one that looks very great at managing the soft tire is Fabio at this moment, because in FP4 he was very, very, very fast and competitive. We are going fast, but not like him in this moment."
The job of the Ducatis was simple: to try to get away quickly, and get ahead of Quartararo and slow him up. "For sure it will be very important to block him a bit at the start," Bagnaia said. "I think it will be a race like Barcelona, that you have to wait a lot and you can't push like you want, because the rear tire drops too much."
Fabio Quartararo confirmed that he, too, liked the tire Michelin had brought to the test better, but he could manage pretty well with this other construction. "For me, I prefer the tire from the test, it has more performance and more consistency," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "This tire for me is a little bit more comfortable riding. You feel a little bit less on the limit, but for me, you feel that the tire has less performance and a little bit more speed. But, it’s a small difference, I feel. But, I have a small preference for the tire of the test."
He may prefer the tire from the test, but it is Quartararo who has both pole position and the best pace. Grand prix guru Neil Morrison looked at the pace of the riders in FP4, and noted that the Frenchman had posted 10 laps in the 1'32s, more than twice as many as anyone else. Behind Quartararo, Johann Zarco, Alex Rins, Miguel Oliveira, and the impressive rookie Marco Bezzecchi were tied for second, with 4 each, while Jorge Martin, Enea Bastianini, Luca Marini, and Aleix Espargaro had 3 laps in the 1'32s.
That is the kind of pace with which Quartararo managed to dominate in race last year, as long as he started at the front and could manage to lead the race early on. The Frenchman acknowledged that nabbing pole had been important, but also managing the first few laps would also be key.
"With our bike we struggle quite a lot to overtake," the Frenchman told the press conference. Finding the right balance of front tire pressure, to avoid overheating issues when riding behind other bikes would also be important. "I think you need to play a little bit with the pressure of course before to start. In this kind of track where it’s really hot, it’s always better to start more in front than on the bike. So, I feel like it’s a great track to start from the front row. Let’s see how my practice start goes, but normally I’m not too bad this year."
If the Ducatis are to get ahead of Quartararo, they will have to get off to a much better start than they did at Qatar. The fact that all of the riders on a GP22 have ditched the front ride-height device is a sign that they see the start as more important. (Having said that, the curved fork covers which hide the device did make a temporary reappearance on Johann Zarco's bike, though he was mainly riding the bike without the device. The upside to being the Pramac squad is access to factory-spec machinery. The downside is being forced to test parts for the factory riders, to allow them to focus on the championship.)
Zarco acknowledged he was still working on the new machine. "We keep working on the '22 bike," he said, before pointing out that the Ducatis' test starts had gone much better at Mandalika. "It’s true that for the start, we were struggling a bit in Qatar. The test I did here was much better, so we will see tomorrow with the opponents and how it's going. I think the third position even for the line, for the track is quite a good position to start and have a chance to do really a very good start."
Starting from third might even be an advantage for Zarco. Despite the starting grid having been cleaned up a bit thanks to the practice starts at the end of FP3, the right side of the grid, where third, sixth, ninth etc start was much cleaner than the middle and the left, where pole position is, as that side is on the racing line.
Franco Morbidelli was given a three-place grid penalty for making a mistake in his practice start (which he acknowledged and said he deserved), much to the chagrin of Marc Marquez. That moved him fifteenth on the grid, and right in the middle of the nicely rubbered-in racing line, to fourteenth, and the dirtier middle section of the track. "Tomorrow will be very difficult because now I'm starting from P14 because of the penalty of Morbidelli," Marquez reflected. "I prefer to start in 15th because it’s a clean place but today was not our day and tomorrow we hope for a different feeling for the race."
If the Hondas were having a bad day with the rear Michelin, things were going even worse for Joan Mir. But Mir wasn't putting his woes down solely to the tires. He was lacking grip in general, and so the rear Michelin wasn't making things that much worse. "During this year I was struggling with rear grip with the other carcass," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "With this one, I’m struggling even more."
The main issue for Mir is corner entry. "For me the biggest problem is going into the corners. I don’t have grip going in fast and the rear wants to come around," he said. All the work they had done during the weekend had not improved anything. "I expected we could find the way but I’m struggling a lot to find the correct setting, to set the electronics, the geometry, everything. I’m not riding comfortable. I’m almost crashing in every corner and am going really on the limit and am not able to be strong."
He was not hopeful about tomorrow's race. "In these conditions, I will be not able to finish the race," Mir said. "I think I will crash, honestly. I’m too on the limit in every corner and like this it’s really easy to make a mistake. It will be really hard if we don’t improve."
What to expect from Sunday? If it stays dry, Fabio Quartararo looks the man to beat, though the Ducatis are looking strong, as are the KTMs of Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira. Pecco Bagnaia is looking and sounding confident, and is glad to be able to focus on riding, rather than testing. The riders on the Ducati GP21 are all looking strong, Enea Bastianini starting from the second row and having shown how good he was at managing tires at the last race in Qatar.
But Fabio Di Giannantonio was the only rookie to make it through to Q2, and Marco Bezzecchi has shown a real turn of pace. Bezzecchi is starting to overshadow the KTM Ajo Moto2 superstars who stepped up to MotoGP, Raul Fernandez and Remy Gardner starting from 21st and 22nd on the grid. There is a lot to be said for starting your MotoGP career on a Ducati now.
Of course, if it rains, all bets are off. Quartararo told the press conference he was not afraid of the rain, having improved his form in the wet in the last year. "I think I’ve made a small step in the wet," the reigning world champion said. "Not really in the wet, but even last year with rain tires and dry track. I was feeling really bad, and we made quite a bit change on the bike and I was feeling much better. At the end, I can’t control the weather so if it’s rain or dry I will give my best. That’s it. If I need to choose, of course will be dry conditions."
Not everyone agrees with that choice, naturally enough. Given the choice, and his difficult position down in fourteenth, Marc Marquez expressed a preference for rain. "I would say wet! Because starting from 14th it’s a gamble but for the show I know dry would be better." Whatever the weather, Marquez would be chasing a good result. "I believe we can do a good race and I always believe in me. I believed in me today but I was not ready. Tomorrow I will keep believing."
Whatever the outcome on Sunday, we will not learn a great deal about how the rest of the season will play out. The first few overseas races of a MotoGP season are always something of an anomaly, with results rarely a good predictor of who will end up as champion. With so many variables and wildcards, that is exponentially so for Mandalika.
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