On Friday, things looked pretty clear. Aleix Espargaro would walk away from his rivals at Barcelona, using the ability of the Aprilia to find grip where there is none – and at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, the grip is absolutely terrible – to cruise to his second victory of the season, and of his MotoGP career.
On Saturday, things had changed. We are still on for a race of attrition, a desperate battle to keep your tires in good shape for as long as possible in the hope of wearing down your rivals. Or rather, convincing your rivals to wear down their tires, by pushing a fraction too hard, cracking the throttle a fraction too aggressively, spinning the rear just a tiny amount more than is absolutely necessary. This track eats tires, so the trick is to get your rivals to feed the circuit first.
That doesn't mean it's going to be a free-for-all. FP4 - always an important session, but never more so than at a track like Barcelona – saw the current MotoGP cream rise to the top once again. Aleix Espargaro put a new medium rear in and did a single run of 18 laps, two thirds of the 24 laps which make race distance, and managed a 1'41.5 on lap 17. On his second run, Fabio Quartararo started with a medium rear with 13 laps on it, and did a 1'40.8 on the tire's 17th lap, and a 1'41.0 on the its 19th lap.
Even more impressive was Pecco Bagnaia. He started the session with a rear with 13 laps on it, did a 1'40.5 on the 19th lap, a 1'40.9 on the 21st lap, then took the same tire for another run. From lap 24 to lap 27 on that medium tire, Bagnaia posted 1'41.2s and 1'41.3s. That is a remarkable pace on a tire which is well over race distance.
"The top three is a kind of the ‘fantastic three’ at the moment," Johann Zarco reflected. But he pointed out that while Aleix Espargaro looked strong, he will not have it his own way. "We see Aleix is pretty strong. Seems the track, almost like Argentina, is good for him with these long corners where you are a long time on the gas. He's quite fast because the sector 2 is maybe the best sector for him. But he has less advantage than in Argentina. So if I say we, the other riders, can stay with him or fight with him, we cannot be sure who can win."
The fact that Zarco's 'Fantastic Three' fill out all three places on the front row rather underlines the Pramac Ducati rider's point. Aleix Espargaro, Pecco Bagnaia, and Fabio Quartararo were fast on race pace, but also fast over a single lap. With overtaking tricky at Barcelona, they start the race with best possible advantage.
Aleix Espargaro cautioned against reading too much into pure speed, however. "Normally, in 90% of the races, the fastest rider wins, but here in Barcelona it’s not that easy," the Aprilia rider warned. "It’s not about going fast. I can go very, very fast, but you also have to manage the rear tire."
It was also a question of patience, being able to use the performance that's available, and not trying to force more out of the tire on any given lap. "It’s a bit frustrating because there is a certain moment where you cannot do anything," Espargaro said. "There is nothing you can do. Just accelerate and wait for the bike to go because the traction control is stopping you a lot."
Pecco Bagnaia seconded that opinion. "I think that the key will be to be smart with the rear tire all the race. It’s true that you can go fast in the first laps, but then you have to be constant in the finish of the race." Try that, and you would pay the price, Bagnaia warned. "If you push at the start, you can’t be constant at the finish of the race. So, it will be a race of survival because you have to be very, very smart on the acceleration."
Fabio Quartararo was optimistic, factoring in the effect of the Moto2 race, which leaves the track notoriously greasy everywhere, but even more so at a scorching hot (track temperatures reached 58°C on Saturday afternoon) Barcelona. "I think we have the potential. We have the speed," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider told us. "We are not the only one to have the speed, but I feel we have the potential. Everybody knows here how critical is the tire consumption, the rear grip. After Moto2 we know that in the past is always less grip, but everybody is ready for it. I think everyone has a clear idea how to manage the rear tire."
Throughout the weekend, his rivals have pointed to Aleix Espargaro's victory in Argentina as an example of what the Aprilia rider can do in low grip conditions. Espargaro again tried to play that down. "For me, it’s different, Argentina," the Spaniard said, before saying he did not believe he had the advantage over his rivals at Barcelona that he did at Termas de Rio Hondo.
"In Argentina, it’s not that it was easy because it’s never easy in MotoGP, but I had some margin with my rivals. I was a little bit faster," he pointed out. "Here I am struggling like them because this track with this lack of grip is very difficult to go fast. As I said before, it’s not just a matter of how fast you go. In FP4 I could go with the medium tire also in 39.5, but then you destroy the tire and you are done for the next laps. So, to understand where is the limit, to understand how is the consumption, all of this is not that easy."
Pramac Ducati's Jorge Martin saw the same thing. ""I don’t see Aleix stronger in race pace," Martin told us. "I see him stronger on one lap. That lap time is incredible. But in race pace everyone is so close." Martin did not believe that Espargaro's race pace in FP4 had been dominant. "In FP4 he started with a new tire. He was strong. sure, but not super super strong."
Andrea Dovizioso, on the other hand, did not believe that victory for his Yamaha stablemate Fabio Quartararo would be simple. "I think it will be very tough for Fabio to win tomorrow," the Italian said. "I think he has some chance, but it will be very tough. The only way to win, I think, will be to start first…. In a different way, I think it would be very tough."
For Dovizioso, it was Espargaro and Bagnaia who were better placed to take the win on Sunday. "I think Pecco and Aleix have a bit more chance. For two reasons: Because their pace is fast, especially in the afternoon when there is the heat. And when there is the heat, I think Fabio is not able to make the same speed in the middle of the corners as in the morning."
Squaring off the corner, braking deep, turning the bike quickly, and picking it up to accelerate, was a better way to handle low grip conditions than the long sweeping lines of the Yamaha, Dovizioso believes. "I think when there is the heat and the grip is lower, to be consistent, going fast, to cut the line - so entry, wait, pick up and go - is better. It’s easier," he said.
More the Ducati and Aprilia way, rather than the Yamaha way. "Ducati and Aprilia, yeah," Dovizioso agreed. "And they have the power to accelerate so I think it will be a bit harder compared to Mugello for Fabio. And the straight here is quite long - on the start, to be first in the first corner, is almost impossible. I think the competitors would have to do some mistake."
Fabio Di Giannantonio, who had an excellent afternoon to qualify fifth, backing up his outstanding pole at Mugello, summed up the key to the race with a quote from an animated movie. "For sure the beginning goal is; slow to go fast," the Gresini Ducati rider said. "It's the only key. Because if you start to push here in these conditions with these tires. You are in done. In the third lap."
The drop in lap time was going to be big, Suzuki's Alex Rins warned. "Especially in this track, we are talking about 0.7 to 1 second," he said. This is a demanding track, where the long fast corners like Turn 3 and Turn 4 would chew threw a rear in short order.
There is another complication to face at Barcelona, and that is the difficulty in passing. The places where you would want to try to attack a rider ahead were more like Le Mans or Jerez than Mugello. The overtaking spots were at the end of long, straight braking zones, places like Turn 1 and Turn 10. At places like that you had to pop out of the slipstream at the last moment, but while you were in the slipstream, your front tire temperature would be going through the roof, and raising the pressure in the front tire. At a track with no grip, rising front tire pressures mean even less grip, and a bigger chance of crashing.
So the best way to try to win the race in Barcelona is very simple. "The best strategy is to be the first rider. Even if you are slow," Jorge Martin said. "Because being behind with the temperature on the tires is really difficult. Even if someone passes you It’s difficult. Important to pass back because the front pressure will become super high. And it’s dangerous," the Pramac rider told us.
For riders behind, that meant taking this into account from the start, as soon as they get caught up in a group. "For sure, if I have someone in front that is going like me, I at least have to try to pass him to reduce a little bit the temperature," Fabio di Giannantonio explained. "And that is one of the key things for tomorrow."
What kind of a race are we likely to see on Sunday? A game of cat and mouse, most likely, with riders pushing hard in the early stages to get to the front, before backing off and biding their time waiting for the end of the race, and for everyone's tires to drop. The rider with the most left over in the last 8 laps will be able to make up a great deal of ground, but they first have to make sure they don't lose that ground in the first place. Sunday will be a waiting game, and the most patient rider will be the one to come out on top.
MotoGP riders are not particularly well known for their patience...
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