If you wondered why BMW does not build and race a MotoGP bike, Saturday at Motegi gave you your answer. With torrential rain forcing a red flag in the Moto2 Q2 session, the cancellation of MotoGP's untimed practice session FP3 (FP4 had already been scrapped due to the shortened schedule), and the delay of MotoGP Q1 and Q2, Loris Capirossi and his crew were sent out multiple times to assess the state of the track in their safety cars.
That meant that the audience were treated to hour upon hour of BMW cars circulating at speed, with close ups of the cars drifting through the water, the BMW branding on display. (Do not ask me what car it is: I have so little interest in cars I don't even own one. The only thing I know is that it is some form of M model, which, I learned from the introduction of the BMW M1000RR superbike, is BMW's sports brand.)
With this, and the BMW M Award for the best qualifying performances of the year, BMW gets a massive amount of exposure through MotoGP, without the risk of failure associated with actually racing in the series. Why would they trade that in to go racing?
The reason for the BMW safety cars circulating was the state of the track. Heavy rain had started overnight, and rain and thunderstorms blew through Motegi just about all day. Riding was possible, but only sporadically. Conditions were constantly changing, as the rain came and went.
Normally, the half-hour session before qualifying would is the most important of the weekend. Teams and riders get to tweak setup and figure out the best tires for the race. So its loss would be a major blow. But with the weather set to be dry on Sunday, circulating in the wet would amounted to little more than burning fuel anyway.
Michelin usually provides journalists with a summary of how their tires have performed at the end of each day, and what they expect for the race. But on Saturday, they had nothing worthwhile to add. "We don’t have anything interesting to share that will be relevant for the dry race conditions forecast for tomorrow," a spokesperson told us. That is how relevant Saturday was to the race.
Of course, Saturday was still important. Qualifying decides the grid, no matter what the weather on either day. And Saturday at Motegi really delivered: if the last few races have been something of a Ducati whitewash (redwash?), conditions threw up a really mixed grid. Sure, there is one Ducati on the front row – Johann Zarco, who benefited from coming through Q2, and understood that time could be gained from using a second soft rear tire – but the grid is a real mixed bag of manufacturers.
The biggest story is surely that Marc Marquez took his first pole position in three years – 1071 days, to be exact – and the first pole for a Honda since Pol Espargaro took pole at Silverstone last year. It ended another streak of shame for HRC, of 21 races without a pole position, the longest run since Honda returned to the premier class since 1982.
On the one hand, it shouldn't be such a big surprise. Marquez is fast in the wet, and better than pretty much everyone else at judging grip when track conditions are unpredictable. It is also less physically demanding riding in the wet than in the dry, an important factor at a track like Motegi, with a lot of hard braking into right-hand corners. The Repsol Honda rider was already fastest in the wet FP2 on Saturday morning.
But this is also a sign of how well Marquez' operation has succeeded. The fourth operation was hard on his body – the surgeons had to cut through his arm muscles in four different places to be able to remove the 34° rotation in his right humerus – but the fact that he can ride again, and fast enough to nab pole at Motegi, has to be a foretaste of what is to come.
Marquez was reticent to draw too many conclusions about his future from just a single pole. "It’s only pole position. It’s in the wet," he told the press conference. "But in the situation we are coming from and the situation we are right now with the team and with Honda, struggling a lot in 2022, it's a really good news for us inside the team. Especially because we need that small achievement, we need the small motivation and this fresh high inside the box is necessary. It was the time to do it."
He was happy that he was riding in a more natural way than before his operation. "Last year in the wet, I was competitive, but I was riding in a strange way and I didn’t feel comfortable on the bike. I didn’t understand how was coming the lap times," Marquez explained. "But today, I confirmed that my arm position was in a perfect way. I was able to brake like I want, go in, pick up the bike. I’m very happy for that."
Whatever happened, he was already looking at the operation as a success, Marquez said. "Already right now, the last surgery for me is a victory. In my normal life, I can have a normal life. I don’t feel pain all the time. For me, the last surgery already was a success. Then now we need to understand if on racing, for my professional life, also is a success."
Does starting from pole mean he is a candidate for the win? Marquez played down any chance of that happening. "Tomorrow we will come back to my natural place right now," the Repsol Honda rider warned. "Of course, I would like to be in the top. Of course, I would like to fight for the podium. Of course, I would like to fight for top five. But it’s not the time. This is what I believe."
It wouldn't stop him from trying, of course. "Always when I will have a small chance, I will try, because I’m like this," Marquez admitted. "My character is the same as when I arrived in MotoGP. But tomorrow will be a very long race. I already felt on Friday that here I will struggle to be consistent and attacking for all laps. But, we will see."
His rivals were not convinced by Marquez' modesty. "I mean of course Marc because he is going well and we all know he can turn it on on the Sunday," Jack Miller replied when asked who he feared in the race. "Whether or not the fitness is there in his shoulder… It’ll be interesting to see what he can do. Of course he says he's not, but you know, he’s said that 1000 times before. He's the boy who cried wolf!"
Aleix Espargaro was unsure of what to expect from Marquez on Sunday, precisely because of the Repsol Honda rider's fitness. "He's fast. He's been fast also in the dry, not just on the wet. And here it's about three things: to manage the rear tire, the speed, and then in his case he has got the number three, which is the physical condition, which the others don't have.But he's very fast in Japan always and it looks like his bike works good here, because also Pol yesterday was fast."
For Fabio Quartararo, it was Marquez' pace on Friday that had him worried. So much that it was making him rethink his own tire choice for Sunday's race. "He's strong, and actually he's the one that makes me doubt to go with the medium rear because he make 1'45.0-1'45.1. For sure it was a kind of time attack, but 1'45.1 with the medium is really fast," Quartararo said. "He has the speed. He has the pace, he's starting from the pole so I think you can put a coin on him for the victory."
The Frenchman is not the only rider confused about tire choice for Sunday. Race day is set to be dry and relatively sunny, but not warm enough to race the hard. With the start at 3pm and sunset at 5:32pm, the temperature is likely to drop during the 42 minutes or so the race will last. The medium should last the distance, and be capable of performing well throughout. It looks like being the safer option. But the soft has more grip from the start, and the drop doesn't seem too big.
The problem is that nobody knows if the soft will last for the 24 laps of the race. Normally, the teams would use FP4 to figure that out. But the schedule meant there was no FP4, and the weather meant that there was no session to take its place. So the soft is going to be something of a leap in the dark.
That is true for the entire race. The wet weather meant the grid is pretty topsy turvy. Take Pecco Bagnaia: the Ducati Lenovo rider qualified in a lowly 12th, and admitted that he was lucky to have gotten through to Q2 on Friday. "The only good thing was I was already in the top ten. With my lap time I think I’d be last today," Bagnaia said. That is not quite true: his time of 1'57.373 would have put him 21st, just behind Remy Gardner. It is the first time he has been off the front two rows since Portimão, where started dead last after a massive crash in Q1.
Bagnaia had no explanation for his miserable form in the wet. "Sincerely, we haven't checked anything so I have to check the data. I think something is not working, sincerely. Last year I was always competitive in wet. This year, not. I’m always struggling. The only time we raced in the wet was in Indonesia and I finished 15th. Then all the practice in wet I was struggling. Maybe in this moment on this bike, I’m not at my best in the wet."
Bagnaia starts a row behind Fabio Quartararo, his main rival for the pole. Quartararo had started qualifying off well, but just didn't get any faster. "I'm not happy because I expected much better," the Frenchman said. "I expected much better because, I still don't understand how it's possible to go into Q2, make 1'56.3 on the first lap, and then all the qualifying the same, no improvement."
Starting down in ninth is a problem for Quartararo, who showed real speed in the dry on Friday. In terms of pace, the Yamaha rider looked like being fastest, but his only real hope was to start from the front. Because being behind other riders exposed the bike's weakness. He may have Pecco Bagnaia behind him and Aleix Espargaro just a single row ahead of him, but he was still at a disadvantage.
"The only problem is, you know, the facilities they have compared to us to overtake," Quartararo said. "This is the problem. So I'm more worried about that, where I can overtake because every braking is after a straight. So this will be my main problem for the race." He only had one real chance, at the entry to the S curves. "At the moment only Turn 7. That is not really a place to overtake, but if I want to overtake is the only place that I can."
Aprilia's Aleix Espargaro is the best placed of the championship contenders, having qualified sixth. He had decent pace in the dry on Friday too, but his biggest problem is that the Aprilia RS-GP has changed so radically since 2019. The bike is so much better, but that also meant that all of the data, right down to gearing, had been rendered meaningless.
"I don't know what to expect sincerely," Espargaro said. "Yesterday the bike was very far from to be competitive. From 2019 to here the Aprilia was another world. I changed gearing in five corners. I did three places in first gear and now I will go insecond. In one place I did second and I will go third. We changed the gearbox close to 20km/h. We changed the balance, the electronics. So even like that on Friday I was very fast. So I think tomorrow can be a good day for us."
With an upside down grid, making predictions is hard. Jack Miller has looked very strong all weekend, but a lack of feedback from the front meant he ended up qualifying in seventh. Maverick Viñales is, as usual, convinced he can win, and starts from fourth, a very promising spot.
Marc Marquez starts from pole, but probably doesn't have the pace for the win, so when he runs out of strength, does he move aside or does he fight hard to keep riders behind him, making it hard for each one to pass? If he holds the field up at the front, that may give riders further back – Fabio Quartararo, Pecco Bagnaia, Enea Bastianini down in 15th – a chance to make passes which otherwise wouldn't be there.
The most intriguing prospect is perhaps Brad Binder. The South African is always outstanding in the wet, and qualifying in the rain allowed him to secure his first ever front row start. He is so used to starting from the fourth row or further back, and at making lightning starts to make up ground, it makes you wonder what he can do from the front row. Perhaps he will shoot into the first corner clear of the rest and disappear off into the distance. Or maybe he is so disoriented by not having riders in front of him that he hesitates and gets swamped by riders coming from behind.
So place your bets. Sunday's race at Motegi looks like being something of a lottery, but in a good way, with nobody knowing where they will end up from where they start on the grid. The pressure is high as the season starts to wind down. Sunday could end up being a very big day for the championship.
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