Saturday at Jerez was a sign that things are getting back to normal in MotoGP. Though the drive into the track in the morning was still pretty smooth – old paddock hands are still traumatized by memories of coming to the track in the '90s, when a single-lane road led to the circuit and you needed to start out almost as soon as you had finished dinner on Saturday night to make it into the track for warm up on Sunday morning – with minimal traffic on the way to the circuit. But the stadium section got fuller as the day went on, and for the first time in three years, the roar of the crowd drowned out the sound of the 130dB MotoGP bikes going at full pelt.
There was a sense of normality on track as well. A second day of near-normal running (only the occasional damp patch, especially around Turn 8, ruining the fun) meant riders arrived in qualifying well prepared to fight for pole. The names at the front of the grid have a more familiar ring to them. The chaos and unpredictability of the start of the season is beginning to dissipate. It is getting easier to pick potential podium candidates, as the main cast of characters is looking similar to those at Portimão. The season is starting to take shape.
Pecco Bagnaia made the headlines in Portimão, but for the wrong reasons on Saturday, throwing himself at the tarmac on a half-wet, half-dry track in qualifying. Starting from the back of the grid, he managed a very strong race indeed, fighting his way through the pack to finish eighth, despite a severely painful shoulder which limited his range of movement.
Bagnaia should still be suffering at Jerez, a track where there is barely time to catch your breath. The front straight is the only place you can relax for a couple of seconds, and from there the track is relentless. Even the back straight is busy: a fast downhill entry with a short run before braking hard for the slow hairpin at Turn 6. Then work-work-work as corner follows corner all the way to the final hairpin at Turn 13.
But Bagnaia can't be suffering that much. The factory Ducati rider was fastest in FP3, fastest in FP4, and utterly destroyed Maverick Viñales' pole record from 2020 in qualifying. Bagnaia took 0.4 seconds, a massive amount in modern MotoGP. Fabio Quartararo could not get under the old pole record, and took second 0.45 seconds back from the Italian, while Aleix Espargaro was a further 0.3 behind Quartararo.
For reference, in FP3, 0.763 seconds, the gap from Bagnaia in first to Espargaro in third, covered 16 riders. In FP4, it would have covered a marginally more modest 14 seconds. So the laps by both Bagnaia and Quartararo were exceptional. But Bagnaia's lap is genuinely astonishing.
The perfect lap?
The Italian had impressed even himself. "The truth is that I think it’s my best lap time ever because everything was perfect," Bagnaia told the press conference. "I tried to push and I didn’t do any mistakes. Normally when you push like this it’s easy to go a bit wide maybe in a corner, but today everything was perfect."
It was the third sector, from the entry to the hairpin at Turn 6 to the exit of Turn 9, where Bagnaia had made the difference. The Italian was over two tenths of a second faster through that section of the track than Quartararo was. His Ducati Lenovo teammate, Jack Miller, had been trying to close the gap in the first sector, but stood no chance in sector 3. "All day, he’s been faster in sector 1. I was able to close it up a little bit," the Australian told us. "But yeah, he found something incredible in Sector 3, which was my sector all weekend and now he's blowing us all out of the water there."
Bagnaia tried to play down expectations for Sunday. "For sure, Fabio, this track is his track. He’s always so competitive, so strong," the Italian told the press conference. "Compared to yesterday, we adjust the gap compared to him in terms of pace. FP4 was really good for me in terms of speed and consistency. I think we can have a good fight tomorrow, but it’s too soon now to predict. Fabio was very constant and fast for all the weekend."
Sunday will be different
For his part, Quartararo was optimistic, though he warned he wasn't as fast at Jerez as he had been at Portimão. He had a chance to fight for the podium, he said modestly. But he also warned that conditions would be very different. The weather is forecast to be very hot and sunny on Sunday, meaning asphalt temperatures will climb into the high 40s °C, maybe even the low 50s. That means the track will be greasy, and any vestiges of grip will disappear. Add in a Moto2 race before MotoGP, and slippery Dunlop rubber on the track, and you have a potent cocktail of changed conditions.
Looking at the pace in FP4, when everyone works for the race – possible at last, and not disrupted by rain, freight delays, track issues, or other oddities – Bagnaia and Quartararo seem to have the best pace. The race may come down to how quickly Quartararo can dispatch Bagnaia at Turn 13, his favorite place to pass. If the Frenchman can't get past the Italian quickly, and gets stuck behind the factory Ducati for a long time, his front tire will start to heat up, and pressure will start to rise. Avoiding that will be the priority.
The fast kids
Who could match the two leaders? Going by the timesheets, no one. But the battle for third should be interesting. Aleix Espargaro starts from third, his third front-row start of the year. A 50% front-row strike rate is a sign that the Aprilia RS-GP is a serious weapon, especially in the hands of Espargaro. The Spaniard also has race pace, as does his teammate Maverick Viñales, but Viñales continues to struggle to set a single fast lap, and starts too far back to stage an assault on the podium.
There are a gaggle of Ducatis vying for the final step on the podium too. Jack Miller is in good shape, as is Johann Zarco. Enea Bastianini's pace is good, but a botched qualifying and a crash on a wet patch at Turn 8 puts him on the fourth row of the grid.
Joan Mir's pace is solid too, but a mistake and a crash means he starts from ninth on the grid. The Suzuki is strong at races like Jerez, but it is so hard to overtake that getting through the field may prove to be difficult. Things are even harder for teammate Alex Rins, who failed to get out of Q1, and starts from 14th. Jerez is no Portimão, so slicing his way through the field like he did in Portugal seems unlikely.
No saggy bottom
Qualifying proved to be the kryptonite that dented the hopes of the Red Bull Factory KTM team. After a modest Friday, both Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira found a real touch of pace in FP4, Oliveira finishing fifth, Binder seventh. Binder was struggling too much in the final sector to be able to get out of Q1, while Miguel Oliveira was struck down by a failing ride-height device in Q1.
It may not sound much, but that effectively ended any hopes he had of a decent grid position. "In the qualifying, in the first outing, I felt that I had a problem with my ride height device and I came in immediately," Oliveira said. "I could not use the other bikes because it was set up so different."
The timing of the problem was the worst thing about it, the Portuguese rider told us. "I had to do the last run without the ride height device, and as you can imagine all the power maps and stuff is done to have a lot of downforce, and a lot of acceleration. To stop as well, it helps. I had to kinda adjust in two laps but it was, of course, away from our true potential."
Brave new world
The ride-height device drops the rear and changes the way the rear tire is loaded. Having a lower rear also changes the way the bike pitches under braking, the rear popping up earlier. That means that traction control maps are set to work with a bike with more grip, and engine braking maps for a rear wheel that is lifting at a different point in the braking zone. Without it, the bike is set up all wrong.
"It’s an advantage to use it, especially when you have the right setting electronically to set it up nicely in the right place. Then it is something you are used to," Oliveira explained. "You ride and the thing drops when you want every lap and comes up the same way. So you have your reference and your marks and when you don’t have it you have to reset everything. You can be fast without it but when everyone on the grid is using it and you are not then you end up far."
Here, Oliveira reveals a truth about how much MotoGP has changed in the last three years. Though fans may hate them, ride-height devices have fundamentally transformed the premier class. Lowering the bike at the start of the straight produces extra grip, which means you can use more power, which means adjusting the electronics to exploit it. A lower bike at the rear also changes the way the bike handles under braking, providing more forward pitch, allowing the front to be loaded differently and producing more deceleration. Love them or hate ride-height devices, there is no going back. They are here to stay, for the foreseeable future.
The Marque conundrum
By far the most interesting rider on Saturday was Marc Marquez. The Repsol Honda rider secured fifth place on the grid, but harbors no hope of victory, nor even a podium. He latched on to Jack Miller to make it through to Q2. In Q2, he had two spotters posted in pit lane, one on pit wall, and one outside the garage, watching the rest of the garages to see when a likely candidate would appear to latch on to for a tow.
Repsol Honda's good fortune at Jerez was that they had the garages nearest pit lane exit, so they had plenty of warning when riders were about to depart to chase a lap time. Even so, Marquez missed his opportunity on the second run to follow Pecco Bagnaia, which had been what he had done on the first run. Fortunately, he got a second bite of the cherry with Fabio Quartararo, which is how he ended up fifth.
When asked about following Bagnaia and Quartararo in qualifying, Marquez quickly joked "Everybody! Everybody!" indicating he knew what he had been doing. And "everybody" is not even an exaggeration. I went out track side in FP3 to watch the action, and I don't think I saw Marquez make a single lap on his own. He even followed riders in FP4, the only session riders get to prepare for a race, and usually spent riding on their own.
But Marquez knows he stands no chance riding on his own. "I follow them because I know they are another step in front of everybody, not only me," Marquez said of Quartararo and Bagnaia. "Today I try to survive on that mode. I knew that alone I was able to do 1'39.3-4 more or less." That is roughly a second slower than the expected race pace of the leaders.
"But behind somebody I was able to be two tenths faster, because behind somebody some points you lose even on the brakes, but in the fast corners where I’m struggling more with the bike this is where I gain," Marquez explained.
The fact that Marquez spent all day following riders may point to his race strategy. If you know you can't make a fast lap on your own, then it makes sense to focus your race setup on extracting the maximum advantage from following a faster rider. That means understanding how your front tire reacts to spending so much time behind other riders, and how the bike behaves. Starting from fifth gives Marquez a chance to latch on to Aleix Espargaro, Jack Miller, Johann Zarco. That should be good enough for a top five finish.
That is the best he can hope for at the moment, Marquez explained. "We are not ready to fight for the podium," the Repsol Honda rider admitted. "A good result will be to try to be in the top five. But even like this will be very very, very difficult. But from 5-10 is our position at the moment and it’s where we will try to fight."
For a six-time MotoGP champion so accustomed to winning, would that not be galling? "You can get frustrated if the expectation is too high," Marquez admitted. "Then my expectation today was try to be on the third row. And I finished second row, so I'm happy. Yesterday I was 20th and in Portimao I finished 15 second behind the leader, so your target needs to be optimistic always, but in the same time try to achieve or try to achieve what you can. And tomorrow what we can achieve is 5th, 6th 7th place. In a good race. Not in a bad race. So it’s what we will try."
The problem, of course, is the brand new Honda RC213V which is taking time to set up and find the right balance with. The new bike has had its weight balance shifted from the front of the bike more toward the rear, and that is causing no end of problems.
Marquez may be suffering most with the change, but he pointed out that it was a change he himself had pushed for. "I'm not disappointed because it's true that, okay, it was a big change, and I heard some comments that 'oh they didn’t follow the comments of Marc'. I was agreed with that change." the Spaniard asserted.
Marquez can only be patient now. The new bike is a radical revolution, moving the weight from front to the rear, and losing confidence in the front end as a result. But HRC is HRC, and it seems certain that Honda will find the way at some point. It may still take a while, but with a Honda test on Monday after the Jerez race, they are at least have a chance to make some big steps back toward normality.
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