We are just over a quarter of the way into the 2022 MotoGP season. And yet Jerez is the sixth race of the 21 to be held this year. "Only a quarter done?" Joan Mir recoiled in horror when apprised of this fact by On Track Off Road's Adam Wheeler. That sentiment is almost universally shared throughout the paddock, given the expansion of the calendar this year.
It may also explain why rumors were circulating so widely about a supposed cancellation of the Finnish GP at the Kymiring in July. It turned out to be entirely wishful thinking, the race set to go ahead, the organization receiving a cash injection to make the race happen, marshals already being recruited and trained. Nobody can face the prospect of 21 races, and so they are inventing reasons for the calendar to be curtailed.
It is odd for Jerez to be the sixth race on the calendar. For many years, Jerez was the place the grand prix season started. It was only the arrival of Qatar, and the switch from a day race in the summer to a night race in spring that cost Jerez its place as season opener. Once Qatar had a foot in the door, that opened a path for others to be jammed into the start of the year. Austin, Argentina, now Mandalika and Portimão.
It starts here
And yet this truly is the start of the MotoGP season. Jerez is a track where almost everyone has ridden thousands of lap, in the Spanish championship, Red Bull Rookies, 125s or Moto3, Moto2, MotoGP, and above all, testing. The teams, too, spend a lot of time circulating at Jerez. It is commonly used by test teams, and grand prix motorcycling has been coming here since 1987 (though once, in 1988, as the Grand Prix of Portugal).
Jerez is the first of a run of tracks which have been on the calendar for decades, mostly: Jerez, Le Mans, Mugello, Barcelona, Sachsenring, Assen. From this point on, the teams and riders have a much, much better idea of what's going on.
This feels like the start of the season for another reason as well. The weather is set fair for the entire weekend, despite a brief eruption of thunder and lightning just as the press conference started on Thursday. The town of Jerez is buzzing again, with bikes and people everywhere. Will the grandstands be jam-packed again? Hard to say. But for the first time in a couple of years, we are expecting to be stuck in traffic on the way into the track. Not something anyone has a particular desire to do, yet it still feels right.
What is there to say about a track that MotoGP fans know like the back of their hand, as well as the riders and the teams? It is flowing, but quite narrow. It has a couple of glorious sections: out of Turn 4 and through Turn 5 and onto the relatively back straight is fantastic. The stadium section, as well as being one of the most atmospheric parts of any circuit in the world, leads onto the fast rights of Turns 11 and Turns 12, a place where the wind can easily catch you out by getting under the fairing and washing your front wheel away. And Turn 13, the scene of so many epic battles.
Including one between Marc Marquez and Jorge Lorenzo, for whom that final corner at Jerez is now named. On Saturday, Lorenzo is to be inducted as a MotoGP Legend, MotoGP's equivalent to a hall of fame. As the place where he competed in his first grand prix, in 2002 shortly after his 15th birthday, and given his remarkable success at Jerez, it is a fitting location for the ceremony.
Which brings us forward a couple of decades, to Sunday's Spanish GP. Lorenzo's success at Jerez is mirrored by Yamaha. And this weekend, another Yamaha starts as the favorite, and very much the man to beat. Fresh from victory at Portimão, Fabio Quartararo arrives at Jerez with an astonishing record.
The Frenchman has started from pole in every race he has contested in MotoGP. He was forced to retire when his quickshifter broke in his rookie season in 2019, sitting in second and with the pace to match Marc Marquez, if not catch him. In 2020, he won both races. In 2021, he was leading the race when he was struck down by arm pump, battling through the pain to still finish 13th, and salvage 3 points. Yamaha staff will tell you just how impressive that performance was.
I would make a case for Jerez being Quartararo's best race of 2021. He had the race in the bag, and when misfortune struck, he gritted his teeth, found a way to ride around the pain, and still scored points. If Pecco Bagnaia had gotten up to speed any earlier in the championship, those points could have been crucial. And they were bought with tears, sweat, and pain.
With that record, and the win in Portimão, it is Quartararo's race to lose. The flowing track suits the Yamaha, and the way the corners flow – a lot of corners where speed on entry reaps rewards – plays directly to Quartararo's strengths. Where the Frenchman is gaining in comparison to the other Yamaha riders is in braking, and on corner entry, carrying bags of speed into the Turn which he converts to acceleration on exit.
What works well
Turn 5 is an example of how well Jerez suits Quartararo's style. You flick the bike right again after the second left of Turn 4. But you need to carry as much speed as possible, cutting back inside and across the inside kerb at Turn 5. Then downhill onto the back straight, a relatively short affair which tops out between 290-300 km/h. Fast entry, downhill start, low top speed: all these make life easier for Yamaha riders. Carrying corner speed from entry through apex is where Fabio Quartararo is strong.
Is Jerez turning into what the Circuit of The Americas or the Sachsenring is to Marc Marquez? Most riders find that too bold an assertion. "We know this is a track that when the Yamaha is fast, Fabio will be really really fast," Joan Mir said. "But I don't think it's the same thing, Marc won in Sachsenring a lot of times. But you know, Fabio is probably the favorite at the moment."
Breaking the chain
The rider to break Quartararo's winning streak last year was Jack Miller. The Australian won an emotional and hard fought battle in 2021. But the Ducati rider was not expecting an easy repeat of last year. "I think if anything’s shown this year, nothing is predictable in MotoGP," the Ducati Lenovo rider said. "I mean anything can happen so the biggest thing is just be there all weekend and try my best on Sunday and see what happens. You can’t get hung up on things that have happened last year or results of the past. You’ve just got to try and stay with the momentum."
There is reason for the Ducatis to be optimistic, however. The Bologna bikes struggled in the opening races of the season, as they flailed in search of a base setup. The first steps in the right direction were made in Argentina, and then again in Austin. Now, Miller, teammate Pecco Bagnaia, Pramac's Johann Zarco and Jorge Martin, all have a solid foundation to work from on a weekend. And with every session expected to be dry and warm, progress should be forthcoming.
"The feeling that I had not only in Portimao but Austin, we made a big step on the bike in Austin, in terms of base setup," Miller told us on Thursday. "We went back to our standard base setup, let’s say, for Portimao and then gravitated towards the geometry we had in Texas. And coming here, making our spec sheet for the beginning of the weekend, we’ve basically gone for what is now our new base setting. I think having it work at those two tracks proved to me that the base setting is there."
All your base are belong to us
Where had the base setting come from? "Geometry," Miller replied. "Just the wheelbase and that kind of thing in terms of general setup of the bike, because some places you’re chasing stability, some places you’re chasing turning. Here in Jerez it’s always a big compromise between the two. Because you need a bike that will stop into Turn 2 and 6, but also handle well without putting too much load on the front in the third and second-last corners. And also Turn 5. You need a bike that will pivot and turn without basically putting a load. It’s always a compromise here and I feel like with our setting we should be in a good position."
Teammate Pecco Bagnaia is similarly confident. Despite a massive crash on Saturday, and riding with a great deal of pain on Sunday, the Italian said he felt better with his Ducati Desmosedici GP22 in the race at Portimão than he had done all season. "Also looking at the data it was the first time this year I was riding the same – stronger in the braking, faster in the braking. I was entering faster than last year," Bagnaia said. "This new fairing and all the work we have done started to give us confidence, and positive things. It was not easy. We’ve worked a lot but in Portimao we found once again a good thing."
The Suzukis will also be a factor. Alex Rins had an incredible ride in Portimão to finish fourth, starting from the back of the grid. Joan Mir led the early part of the race before Fabio Quartararo got past, then bravely fought off Johann Zarco and Jack Miller, until Miller crashed on entry to Turn 1 and wiped both himself and Mir out.
Riding for redemption
Alex Rins has been on the podium at Jerez, finishing second in 2019. But he has also had a bad run of form at the Spanish circuit, crashing and injuring his shoulder in 2020, then crashing out of 7th in 2021. But 2022 sees a reinvented version of Alex Rins, calmer, more considered, less prone to making mistakes. The layout of Jerez should suit the Suzuki, for much the same reason it suits the Yamaha, and if Rins can get things right, he should be a feature at the front.
For Joan Mir, Jerez represents a good chance to regain some of the momentum lost in the crash at Portimão. "On paper, I think that it's a good opportunity to recover points, to make a great weekend," them man from Mallorca told us. "Last year, we probably missed a bit of acceleration because we were not using the [ride-height] device. This time we have it, so for sure we will get an advantage of it, and let's see where we will be. I have good vibes."
Aprilia could be set to build on the success enjoyed by Aleix Espargaro in recent races. Victory in Argentina and another podium in Portimão is a sign of just how good the RS-GP is right now, and how well Espargaro is riding. Last year, Espargaro finished sixth at Jerez, just over 5 seconds off the winner, Jack Miller.
Progress at last
The Aprilia has come a long way since then, though, and that gives Espargaro room for optimism. "Last season here was very good for us, we were quite close to the podium and the victory, so I hope with this year’s bike, that improves quite a lot, and we can be even more competitive," the Spaniard said.
His teammate Maverick Viñales is caught between optimism and frustration. From practice, it is clear he has made a huge step forward in pace, but he has so far failed to put it all together in qualifying, stuck starting from a long way down the grid. Where riders like Alex Rins, Pecco Bagnaia, and Marc Marquez show a facility in passing and cutting through the field, Viñales spends too long waiting for a clean way past the pack. As a result, he gets stuck.
So Viñales is hoping to solve the conundrum of qualifying at Jerez. His race at Portimão was a mixed bag, he said. "There is for sure positive and negative. Negative is that I am P10 but the positive is that I have the speed to be in the front. We just need to put everything together."
Portimão had not gone to plan. "Honestly, in Portimão I was a bit disappointed because of that, because after Argentina and especially Austin I think was my strongest race with the Aprilia. I really felt like I could be in the front and in Portimão too, but starting on the back is difficult."
The issue faced by Maverick Viñales is not unique to the Aprilia rider. Starting from the first couple of rows was vital, but when the field is so incredibly close, it's easy to lose a lot of places and be nudged out of Q2. Last year, the top ten in FP2 were separated by 0.203 seconds. Hundredths, thousandths of a second made the difference between direct passage to Q2 and having to fight your way through Q1. With the field even tighter this year, that problem gets even more extreme.
That will be a concern to Honda. Where confidence seems to be growing in the other MotoGP manufacturers, HRC are seeing more cause for concern every weekend. The bike that was such a massive step forward in testing is losing some of its shine.
What happened? In part, the grip available in testing – due to masses of rubber on the track and generally cooler temperatures – went away. The Honda riders find themselves confronted by a very different bike, and are having to find a new way around the problems. For Marc Marquez, the problem is the nature of the tighter circuits in Europe. "It’s true that it’s a bike that in big circuits is working really good, like we saw in the preseason, like Malaysia, Qatar," the Repsol Honda rider told the press conference. "But as soon as we arrive in small circuits and you need to turn in a short time that is where we struggle a lot and it’s where we need to understand."
Teammate Pol Espargaro was optimistic on the basis of testing in November. "At the test Taka was flying," the Spaniard said. "I was injured from the Valencia crash and even like that it was not too bad."
It was way too early to be making predictions as to how the new bike would fare on the race weekend. "I’d love to tell you we’re going to be at the top, but it’s difficult just now to say something," Espargaro warned. "That new bike was good in the preseason here. But right now, I have no idea. I need to jump on the track. On paper the bike has to work good and hopefully better than the other ones. Maybe our bike will be good but others will be better," the Spaniard mused. "On paper we should be happy at the end of the weekend."
At least we should have a better idea of what the grid might look like once practice gets underway. Three days of dry practice (and a dry day of testing) away at Jerez. This feels like the place we get back to normal.
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