There are two types of tires in MotoGP: wet tires for the rain, and slicks for the dry. The real world is not quite so binary, of course: the weather, and therefore the track, can be bone dry or having standing water on it, and anything in between. Damp patches. A thin sheen of water. A drying racing line. Cold but dry. Soaking, but very warm.
There may only be two types of tires in MotoGP, but that is enough to cover pretty much every kind of condition. Slicks are perfect in the dry and the soft wets are fantastic when there is water on the track, but the medium wets work well on a damp track, a drying track, and even on a track with next to no water on them. (True story: Michelin started off calling them hard wets, but then the teams and the riders were too scared to use them, and never fitted them. Michelin renamed them "medium", and hey presto, the riders were raring to give them a go. So much of motorcycle racing takes place between the ears.)
If the track is warm enough, and enough water dispersed, then slicks, especially the softer compounds, will work pretty well too. If you can get the heat into the tires, and keep them up to temperature, they will work almost as well as on a bone-dry track. But it takes courage and commitment.
Those were just the kind of conditions which faced the MotoGP grid during FP4 and qualifying at Misano on Saturday. The first spots of rain fell at the end of Moto3 qualifying, and it kept spotting throughout FP4, then eased up through MotoGP Q1, before falling more heavily with a few minutes to go. Q2 started with what looked like a wet track, but wasn't really.
Try choosing the right tires for those conditions. In the end, slicks were the right choice, but it took courage and blind confidence that everything was going to be OK to fit them and go for it.
For once, being in Q1 helped. Marco Bezzecchi and Luca Marini had timed their runs in Q1 just right, setting the two fastest times just before the rain got heavier, ensuring passage to Q2. Once in Q2, they had a better idea of the conditions. Whereas Fabio Quartararo, for example, had to go check with Andrea Dovizioso what he thought of the track.
"Today was the only day that I think passing through Q1 was better compared to going directly to Q2," Bezzecchi told reporters. "So a bit of luck for this, because the conditions were a bit strange with the light rain. He was struggling with braking in terms of race pace, so having time on a damp track made the difference. "In qualifying, I just tried to give my all and in these conditions, normally I risk a little bit, but fortunately today paid off, so I'm OK, I'm happy."
The rest were left to guess at conditions. "The pit lane looked completely soaked," Jack Miller, who went on to claim pole, told the press conference. "The majority of us all went out on the wets, just to try and, if it was going to rain more, try and do a lap at least in the drier conditions. Once I rolled out of pit lane, I saw that the black asphalt, the new asphalt of the track was completely bone dry."
Those sort of conditions suit Miller down to the ground. So much so that when Maverick Viñales was asked what he will do if it starts to rain during the race on Sunday, the Aprilia rider answered without hesitation. "I prefer a complete race, either wet or dry. But if it's flag to flag, I will follow Jack. So what Jack does, I will follow, no doubt. Before I followed Márquez, but now I follow Jack. So if he goes in, I go in. Maybe I crash in the first corner... I follow the strategy that Jack has. Because normally, he's quite brave and puts the slick in the correct point."
There were two schools of thought at the start of Q2: those who played it safe and went for wets, and those who gambled on slicks. Within a lap, it was obvious that slicks were the order of the day, and everyone came in to swap.
Slicks on a wet track changes tire strategy as well. Tires take time to get up to temperature, and you can't back off at any point. You have to out and push, and the harder you push, the better the grip and the faster you go.
But those sketchy conditions change qualifying in other, more unexpected ways as well. "In these conditions, where in some corners I couldn't go on the kerb, like Turn 6, so I could not really carry speed like we have to do with the Yamaha," Fabio Quartararo said. "We don't have any acceleration. So basically from Turn 6 to Turn 7 it was not great, in Turn 15 I had to make less corner speed, because we could not really use the kerbs."
For most of the weekend, Quartararo has been very strong indeed, his pace the best of the bunch, with only Maverick Viñales (yes, really) and maybe Enea Bastianini close. When Pecco Bagnaia was handed a three-place grid penalty after slowing up on the racing line at the end of FP1, Quartararo looked set to capitalize on the Italian's mistake, taking the wind out of the sails of the rider who is most likely his main rival.
Conditions in Q2 destroyed any chance of that, however. Quartararo qualified in eighth, on the third row, and felt that was all that was possible while the kerbs were too slick for him to use, and allow him to carry the corner speed which is the root of so much of his incredible lap time. "It was the maximum I could do, but I'm disappointed," the Frenchman said.
"At the end, it's disappointing that we are always fighting with the same guys," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said, referring to the Ducatis. "They are fast, I think their bike is the reference right now. It's tough, because today I gave my 100%, but it's only P8. It's only 0.3, but it's P8 and it's very disappointing. But in normal conditions I know that my pace is good."
What the Yamaha M1 needs is quite simple: more horsepower. "It's super important," Quartararo said. "This year, the most important thing is the qualifying. Because right now I'm already thinking that if we have the pace, then I think we have quite a fast pace where I can overtake, because there is no way I can overtake in Turn 8, Turn 1, maybe Turn 4. That's still a question mark. But of course for one lap you need the grip that Ducati has quite a lot. But they can combine it with the power, so that's something we need to use."
To get a sense of the weakness of the Yamaha, compare with a rider who spent four and a half seasons on the bike, and has now switched to a different machine. Once upon a time, mixed conditions were Maverick Viñales' worst nightmare. Yet on Saturday, he qualified in fourth place, and finished FP4 as second fastest.
The secret, Viñales said, was that the Aprilia RS-GP works in any condition. "I don't know if it gives you more confidence, but the bike responds very well if the bike has no grip, grip, or it changes." That means that the bike feels the same in the cool conditions of FP3, and the warmer conditions of FP4, and that makes it easier to work on setup. "Like from the morning to the afternoon, I can ride similarly. And this is something great, because I can be more precise on the track, I can work during the weekend, and that's fantastic."
What does this mean for the race? First of all, that tire management is not going to be an issue. "I don't think that it is a strategy race. You can go full gas from lap 1 to the end and this is something that didn't happen in a long time," Aleix Espargaro said. Fuel consumption is something of an issue – there are enough hard acceleration zones that power has to be dialed back at some points to make it last the race – but whatever tires the riders choose, they will last from the start to the end.
In case of a completely dry race, Maverick Viñales, Fabio Quartararo, and Enea Bastianini have the best pace. Marco Bezzecchi put the two factory Ducatis in that list. "I think Fabio, Pecco, Miller, Bastianini, but also Viñales is very fast," he said. Poring over the data from FP4, the inclusion of the Lenovo Ducatis does not seem entire justified. But given the slightly sketchy conditions, that may mean they are hard to read.
Quartararo is hampered by the fact he starts from the third row, meaning he will have to get a rocket start and push hard the first lap just to be able to limit the damage. His team will have to calculate very carefully and precisely exactly how much air to put in the front tire to manage the pressure and cross the line above the legal minimum.
Pecco Bagnaia faces a similar task. But at least he salvaged what could have been a disaster by qualifying in second place. "Today my objective was to be in the first three positions for the race of tomorrow because starting already from the third row is starting to become too difficult," the Italian told the qualifying press conference.
But he would not be worrying about what either Fabio Quartararo or Aleix Espargaro are doing. "I don't want to think about this situation. I just would like to think on myself, be focused on myself. The race here is so long, and in two occasions I did mistakes in that last part of the race. I would like just to be smart, to understand the situation."
Maverick Viñales is the dark horse, starting from fourth on the grid. That was an advantage, he insisted, having the run into the first chicane. "I prefer to start in fourth rather than third. I'm in a much better position for the brakes," the Spaniard said.
Viñales is optimistic about Sunday. "I was and I am very pleased about the result, with Aprilia we are working fantastic, and FP3 was good. I pushed the bike and the bike responded, I did 1'31.5, and in the afternoon, we had three or four points where we could make even faster. So I was very pleased. And also I'm very pleased with the result. At the end in difficult conditions where we normally struggle, I feel quite strong, even if I was obliged to use the medium front, because we prefer the hard to stop the bike and to be more precise."
Being pleased with the result in these conditions bodes well for Sunday, especially given the expected conditions. There is the threat of rain overnight, and the current forecast has a few spots of rain starting around 2pm. Not enough to make for a wet race, but enough to lodge fear and doubt firmly into the minds of the riders, and make them worry about conditions.
Of all the riders but one, perhaps I should say. Jack Miller is a past master of mixed conditions, of riding fast when the going is sketchy. As is Brad Binder, though the South African starts from fifteenth. Or Johann Zarco, who will line up in sixth on Sunday. If rain throws a spanner in the works, Miller, Binder, and maybe Zarco could all benefit.
That depends on whether, and just how much it rains, of course. It might rain heavily. It might spit with rain, but never really settle in. It might rain hard, then stop, the track drying out – and the track does dry out quickly since it was resurfaced, and it has excellent grip wet or dry. Or it might not rain at all, gray clouds loitering over the circuit just to remind everyone of the power nature holds over us all. It's all a bit of a lottery.
If the weather is looking changeable, the crowds are looking very fickle indeed. Misano looks like being a repeat of Mugello, with fan numbers well down on previous years. There are a lot of reasons for this, as usual, including high ticket prices and perhaps a lack of promotion. But it is really starting to look like the place where Valentino Rossi's absence is being felt most is in his home country, Italy.
It's not as if the Italian fans have nothing to cheer about. There are two Italians on the front row for tomorrow's race, and the first seven riders are all on Italian motorcycles. There is a very good chance of an Italian winner, and an extremely high probability of the winner riding an Italian motorcycle. And yet outside of the paddock, fans are thin on the ground. It really does look like Italians are fans of Rossi first, and MotoGP only a very distant second.
Return of the Marc
MotoGP's biggest superstar may have gone, but the next best thing made a return at Misano. Marc Marquez is at the Italian circuit ahead of the two-day test on Tuesday and Wednesday, where he is to get his first taste of the 2023 Honda RC213V, and have direct input into the direction of its development.
Marquez was present briefly at the Red Bull Ring as well, but this time it is very different. In Austria, he felt compelled to leave as quickly as possible, so as not to be continually confronted by the fact that he was not able to ride. But since receiving the go ahead from the medical team what operated on his arm and straightened it out again – Marquez revealed that the rotation was 34°, not the 30° he had told us when he left Mugello – he has known that he will be able to make a return to racing. The bone has healed straight, and it is now merely a matter of time.
The success of the operation has affected his life in some surprising ways. "I started to increase quite a lot in the gym, but the muscles need to take the time. And especially more than the muscles, it's also because I was riding and living a year and a half with one arm 34° degrees rotated. And now I need to re-adapt some movements, in normal life, but also in riding I need to re-adapt some movements to try to understand the way to ride in a good way."
Learning to move again
Muscles are stretched and grown in the wrong direction, and now he has to train and use physiotherapy to straighten all that out again. "I also feel some stretch in the muscles where it's not useful, or where it's not good," Marquez said. "Everything is going in a good way but it needs time. The doctor said to me that from now on, maybe in the winter time you will do the last step. But the important thing is that I have an acceptable level to start to ride a bike, but not in a way that I want. Still I have a long way to go."
Part of his rehabilitation is riding the bike, but at least now he feels he can get his body into the shapes required to ride a MotoGP bike properly. That wasn't possible when his arm was still rotated. "It's true that that was the main problem before, with 34° in the humerus." He could now assume the correct positions, but it was still very tiring, Marquez said. "It's true that now I can use those positions, but not for a long time because still the muscles are not working in a good way or are not strong enough."
That is part of the next step of his rehabilitation, and one he had discussed with his medical team, Marquez said. "So for that reason I need time and the way to understand which muscles I need is by riding a bike. So for that reason also when I shared my intentions with the doctors, they completely agreed. But they said to me, it's likely that maybe you start, you need to stop again and start again, because you don't know in a rehabilitation. But it's very important to understand my body, every week."
That's a maybe on racing
Marquez was cautious when it came to talk of him returning to race at Aragon. "When I will return, it's because I want to race all races. I mean, not one race and then stay at home. I mean when I will come back it's because the intention is race all races."
First priority was the test, he said. "It's true that I pushed a lot to be here in this test, or I increased a lot these last two weeks to be in this test because it's important for me and for Honda. More for me than Honda, because it is better to understand, better to try the bike in a test with no pressure than in a race weekend."
After the test, he will make a decision on what is possible. Marquez is used to pushing the limits, but he will try to be as realistic as possible. "After this test I will understand how my level is and how the reaction of my arm is, and I will understand if it's possible to race in Aragon or not. But you know me, if it's possible, I will try. But if it's not possible I will wait. We are in a moment that we need to understand day by day how it is."
It is hard to imagine Marc Marquez not racing if he can. But after four operations and two years of misery, pain, and struggling with an arm that was literally twisted out of shape, Marquez understands that there are limits to what is possible, even for him. He will definitely race before the end of this year. He will almost certainly compete in multiple races. But how many, and from what point, is completely open to question. What we know is it will be sooner rather than later, but perhaps not as soon as he might have wished for.
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