Mugello and Barcelona are widely regarded as very similar circuits. Both have a long, fast straight approached from a fast, sweeping corner. Both have long corners, where the ability to carry corner speed counts. There are differences too: Barcelona does not have as many left-right combination corners, where riders have to choose which corner to take perfectly and which corner to leave themselves open to attack.
But the biggest difference between Mugello and Barcelona is in the asphalt. Mugello is pretty tough on tires, mainly because of the high speeds involved. But Barcelona is a grueling assault on Michelin's race rubber, the circuit featuring the deadly combination of high speeds, long corners, an abrasive surface, and scorching track temperatures.
That makes the race a war of attrition. Do not push too early, or you burn up your tires and will struggle to reach the finish line. But be too gentle, and you risk losing touch with the leaders, and are left to hope they will use up their tires before the end of the race. It is a game of patience.
Hot and cold
"This track is always really difficult," Takaaki Nakagami said on Thursday. "The key point is tire management, because between the qualifying lap and the race lap time is quite a big gap. Especially the difference between the fastest lap of the race and the slowest lap time at this track is massive."
Complicating life even further for riders and engineers is the fact that the track conditions change so much with temperature. In the morning, track temperatures hover below 30°C. In the afternoon, once the blazing Catalan sun has scorched the Montmelo circuit for a few hours, the asphalt can reach 50°C.
That can make the bike feel totally different, Nakagami explained. "The cool conditions is pretty good, but then the hot condition, the bike is feeling totally different. Mainly there is no grip in the rear, definitely like really bad."
That can be difficult for the riders to get their heads around, as the feeling changes completely despite the engineers not touching the bike between the morning and the afternoon. "The gap is massive from the morning session, with exactly the same setup, but then when there is 20 degrees temperature difference, then the bike is hugely different. Less grip. So for riders it was really confusing, because the same bike but different feelings."
In the hands of the rider
How does a team handle the huge drop of the rear tire? Mostly by leaving as much as possible in the hands of the rider, Luca Marini insisted. "There the rider make the most difference," the Mooney VR46 rider told us. "For sure, you have to be precise with the electronic side, so it doesn't stress too much the rear tire, but with the throttle you have to manage a lot, with the way you pick up you have to manage a lot."
The key, Marini explained, was to brake hard and deep into the corner, then on the way out, be as smooth and gentle with the throttle as possible. "When you have problems in the rear you have to just brake like hell and enter the corner fast, and then with the throttle do small movements. On acceleration, very gentle. You have to be gentle and then with your body and the angle of the bike, try to feel how the rear tire is spinning. And then change a little bit the angle."
Johann Zarco was a master of this, Marini explained. "For example, Zarco is one of the best to do this. He can exit from the corners in a very good way, he uses quite a lot the rear tire because he has a lot of acceleration every time. But he can manage with the angle very well, and so we look on the other riders style and we try to take the best and then we have to try to do something like this. So be very smooth with the throttle."
There is an irony to all of this. To the fans who watch the sport, they see riders bullying the bike around, trying to wrestle the bike into submission. Riding a MotoGP looks like it takes a huge amount of physical force to make the bike submit to your will.
The gentlest caress
The reality is very different, however. The real skill is in being as smooth and subtle as possible with the throttle, and finding a way to baby your tires to get the maximum performance out of them over a full race distance.
"It's something that we have inside. From the outside, you cannot see this," Marini explained. He pointed to Jack Miller, and the way the Australian rides. "For example, also Jack, you saw from the outside that he is very aggressive. Looks like that, no? But when you look at the data with the throttle he is one of the best. He can control very well his hand, and this is nice. So you have to look at this and look at the past races in the TV."
Trying to copy that was not as simple as just looking at the data and trying to copy Miller's inputs, however. "You can do it, but the main important thing is the feeling with the bike," Marini explained. "If you have a good feeling with the bike and you can just think on this, then you'll be able to do this. If there are many problems, for example, you don't feel comfortable in entry, you cannot brake hard because the bike is not ready. Then it will be more difficult to do this also. This is just the last part."
Making tires last
What does this mean for the race? We will know a lot more after FP4, when the riders have done long runs on race tires in hot conditions. Ahead of time, we can only guess, look back at past years when Fabio Quartararo was strong, when Johann Zarco was strong.
We can look at riders who are good at managing tires, like Quartararo or Aleix Espargaro – brother Pol pointed out that hot, difficult conditions are when Aleix has shone on the Aprilia, highlighting Argentina, where Aleix won, as an example of similar conditions to Barcelona.
We can look at the bikes: the Yamaha has been traditionally good with tires, as has the Suzuki. As stated previously, Aleix Espargaro won in Argentina on the Aprilia, a sign the bike is good with its tires. And Gigi Dall'Igna has focused a huge amount of energy on tire management in Ducati Corse, knowing this is an area which can make all the difference in the race.
These are conditions where the Hondas are likely to struggle, for more than one reason. With Marc Marquez in the US getting his arm fixed for the fourth and hopefully final time, HRC are having to switch focus. Stefan Bradl is stepping into replace Marquez, but Marquez' bikes, and especially the new frame and swingarm, are not crossing the garage to Pol Espargaro, but are instead heading further down pit lane to end up on Takaaki Nakagami's LCR Idemitsu Honda.
"Now Marc is not here, looks like Honda is trying to support our side more," Nakagami explained. "I think more people will come during the session or during the weekend." The Japanese rider will be getting more electronics engineers, as well as parts.
"Looks like the 2020 style," Nakagami said, referring to what happened when Marquez was out with injury, and more of the development fell on the LCR Honda squad. "I don't know, still I need to talk, but the impression is they want to help in our side. For the development and for the result, so looks positive for us. Of course there are still many things I need to understand for what HRC is thinking but let's see tomorrow or this weekend."
Disgruntled employee #2
This may please Nakagami, but Marquez' Repsol Honda teammate Pol Espargaro was far from delighted. "Well, for sure not having Marc here always is a problem for everyone, for his teammate, and for the factory." Espargaro would not have a role to play in developing the bike, however. His input would be "zero," Espargaro said, "because Marc’s bike is going to go to Taka this weekend."
The new swingarm and frame are something Espargaro would have liked to try, he told us. "Yeah 100%, I like to try new stuff on the bike to improve the situation. There is just one way to improve the situation. It’s trying new stuff and trying to improve the bike, to improve the results. If you do not try anything, you do not improve."
Espargaro had asked for the parts from Marquez' bike, he said, but his request had been rejected. "Sure, sure. I asked for Marc’s bike," he said, before playing down any frustration he may have felt. "This is not my concern. My concern is riding the bike. For sure, I asked for the best things, for the new things and the last evolution of the bike. But I'm not the guy who chooses if I'm going to have it or not. I'm a guy that gets paid to ride the bike and be as fast as possible and is what I'm going to try to do this weekend."
Giving the latest development parts to Takaaki Nakagami instead of Marc Marquez Repsol Honda teammate Pol Espargaro tells you all you need to know about Espargaro's future in Repsol Honda. Or rather, the lack of it. Honda have moved on from Espargaro already, which is why they don't want to tip their hand with the development direction, giving Espargaro information he could take to a rival manufacturer next year.
But this doesn't mean that Nakagami will definitely be with LCR next year. The Japanese rider has requested meetings with HRC bosses, but so far been rebuffed. "These three races [before the summer break], we have a chance to talk with [HRC Director] Kuwata-san for the future," Nakagami said. "And then let's see, because now I couldn't get any appointment or information so I cannot say anything and this is the reality what I have now."
Why is Nakagami being given parts if his future in HRC is uncertain? Because at the moment, Honda are waiting to see whether Ai Ogura or Somkiat Chantra are ready to make the step up to MotoGP. If they don't, then Nakagami will stay for another year, and has proven to be a reliable stalwart and a good source of development data. He will do just fine for another year, if HRC decide to keep him.
Silly Season rumor mill
With the paddock swirling with Silly Season rumors, that rival manufacturer looks like being KTM, though this time, with Tech3 rather than the factory team. The KTM factory seat looks set to go to Jack Miller, with an announcement expected sooner rather than later. The second seat at Tech3 will either go to Miguel Oliveira, if he accepts the demotion, or to Remy Gardner, if Oliveira departs, either for LCR Honda or for Gresini Ducati.
As of this moment, it looks like Raul Fernandez is to get his way, and get out of KTM. He had been reluctant to switch to MotoGP with KTM, and now it seems he could be off elsewhere, with RNF Aprilia the current favorite. The second seat at RNF is likely to go to an experienced rider, with Alex Rins in the hot seat for the ride, though the Suzuki rider tried to deflect by saying his manager was currently speaking to everyone.
All this is mostly speculation, however, based on paddock rumor and insider gossip. There are almost certainly kernels of truth in there, but separating the wheat of fact from the chaff of intentional misdirection, wishful thinking, and blatant guesswork is a difficult business.
What wasn't difficult was the news that Fabio Quartararo has signed on for two more years with the factory Yamaha squad. Speaking to Lin Jarvis at Jerez, he hinted he expected an agreement was close. The clincher, for Quartararo, was the package, having a competitive bike he could win on. "My first goal is to have the best bike and the best project," he told the pre-event press conference.
Yamaha had made the difference there by bringing in engineers from outside. "At the end, Yamaha made a lot of effort, brought a lot of new people and they know where they need to improve," Quartararo explained. "The last two, three years, they worked in some areas, to another and now they know where when they need to improve. And they know clearly it's the power. So I'm super happy because they really understand, they are doing the best to find what we are missing. And I believe in the project. So that's why we took the decision I will not say days, but a few weeks ago, and of course was a good decision."
The engineers were sourced from inside Yamaha, Quartararo said. "They are already in Yamaha, and of course on the engine, because we know that to be fair I feel super good on the bike. I have nothing really to say. Of course every rider wants more, grip, more speed. But if I need to be realistic, the thing that we're missing, compared to the others, is the speed. So that's also what made me take the decision that many people will go in the engine side, engineers, so they will be on that part of the bike."
That had been a decisive factor for him, the Frenchman explained. "What happened about these engineers going into the engine side and myself doing great results and knowing that I could not do more because of engine power. Of course I know that the area they're pushing in is to bring more power and I feel good on the bike. So that's what made me take the decision to continue."
Quartararo was the first major domino to fall, but he won't set off an avalanche of new signings. Though more contracts are likely to be announced in the next few weeks, the withdrawal of Suzuki and the availability of Joan Mir and Alex Rins has given teams and factories new options. This is going to take some time to shake out.
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