Saturday at Buriram gave us a glimpse of the future. If you want to know what the sprint races will look like next year, look no further than the fact that Ducati have secured their sixth front-row lockout of the season, that there were five Ducatis in the first two rows, and that there were two more on the third row. It was the thirteenth time a Ducati qualified on pole this year, in seventeen events.
Only Fabio Quartararo (Indonesia), Aleix Espargaro (Argentina and Barcelona), and Marc Marquez (Motegi) have prevented Ducati from sweeping an entire season's worth of poles. Pecco Bagnaia is just two races away from winning the BMW M award as best qualifier, which features seven Ducati riders in the top nine.
The bike really does play a very large role in that dominance of qualifying. With his breathtaking last lap, breaking Fabio Quartararo's pole record from 2019, Marco Bezzecchi became the seventh Ducati rider to secure pole this year. Only Bezzecchi's Mooney VR46 teammate Luca Marini is letting the side down, though Marini has been close, starting from the front row twice this year.
What does this have to do with sprint races? Next year, when sprint races make their debut, a rider's finishing position is likely to be disproportionately affected by qualifying position. And if Ducatis are dominating qualifying, then they pretty much have the sprint race in the bag.
Why is the Ducati dominating qualifying? The three Ducati riders on the front row didn't have a clear and simple answer. "Difficult to say because I never tried other bikes, so I don't know," rookie Marco Bezzecchi reflected. "Just the bike is competitive also in the pace. Just is a bike that is made to push at the limit always."
Basically, it is easy to understand where the limit is with the Ducati Desmosedici, and easy to take it there. "It’s nice because at least you can stay very focused to always push and try to brake as late as you can and try to do everything perfect," Bezzecchi reflected. "I think the grip of the bike is good, not the best maybe, but in braking it’s very strong. Now in the MotoGP of today, the braking part is very important. So, this is a very good characteristic of the bike."
The importance of braking is something which had helped Jack Miller win in Motegi. The Australian had explained how he had used the long flight from Spain to Japan to study the data from all of the Ducatis, and switch his focus from corner exit to corner entry. "I was also able to make a relative step, to get that feeling on the bike, to allow me to carry more speed into the corner, basically," Miller had told journalists on Friday. "To brake later and maybe focus a little less on the exit, and focus more on hitting my braking markers and getting the thing stopped. And then let that exit sort of come to you."
The riders shouldn't be underestimated as a factor, Jorge Martin pointed out. Ducati had eight very strong riders, something emphasized by the fact that the current generation of bikes are very close in performance. "I think it’s more about the riders, because nowadays all the bikes are quite similar," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "For sure we have good stability in braking, but I think it’s more about fast riders and being able to make one fast lap."
Pecco Bagnaia, the man Ducati have backed to win them a rider's championship, saw the benefit of having so many strong riders on essentially the same bike. "Eight riders pushing each other to improve," was the explanation the factory Ducati rider gave. "We already know that all the other riders with Ducati are really great in time attack already in the past with Moto2 or Moto3. For sure, our bike is helping us to be so competitive, but thanks to all the riders in Ducati, we are elevating the potential of our bike, pushing each other every session."
It is patently clear that Ducati benefits from having so many strong riders on their bike. But there is reason for concern as well. Bagnaia starts from the front row, with main title rival Fabio Quartararo behind him in fourth. But he has Marco Bezzecchi and Jorge Martin beside him, and his more natural allies, teammate Jack Miller and Ducati's Pramac workhorse Johann Zarco behind.
Why does this matter? What Bagnaia really needs is to win the race, and finish with riders between him and Quartararo. If it was Jack Miller beside him, the Australian could be relied on to move aside and let Bagnaia through. (Even though, as Ducati team boss Davide Tardozzi told MotoGP.com, Bagnaia has repeatedly told Ducati that he wants to try to win the title without having to rely on help from Ducati stablemates.)
Instead, he has Jorge Martin, still bitter from being passed over for the second factory Ducati seat in favor of Enea Bastianini. Martin was starting the race with the intention of winning, he told the press conference. "I can take some risks tomorrow. It will be interesting to see the start and the first two laps. I will take my chances. A victory is important for me, so I will give my 100%."
Martin knows that he will face stiff competition, but that won't change his objective, he said. "I will be happy also with a podium because there are a lot of Ducatis competitive, also Fabio, Marc, a lot of other riders are fast, so we will try our best."
In front of Jorge Martin is Marco Bezzecchi, a rider Martin has battled hard with in both Moto3 and Moto2. There is no love lost between the two Ducati riders, which could end up with them losing sight of Ducati's higher goal and concentrating on each other.
Even the normally dependable Johann Zarco could be a problem for Pecco Bagnaia. Zarco is still to win a MotoGP race, despite racking up 15 podiums in his MotoGP career. With four races to go, Zarco is not likely to be inclined to step aside for Bagnaia, should a chance at victory present itself.
Ducati has made a rod for its own back with the Desmosedici. Both the GP21 and the GP22 are clearly the best bikes on the grid. With horsepower to spare on the straights, outstanding braking and entry, good drive grip, and since the aerodynamic upgrades earlier this year, a bike which changes direction pretty well, the Ducati does everything well, makes it easier for the rider.
That should be a good thing, but if the rider is having to make less of a difference, then the riders are always going to end up much closer together. Ducati have tried to spread the risk by having a fantastic bike and a lot of good riders. Now all those riders are in a position to battle one another, instead of riders on other bikes.
The nature of the Buriram track doesn't help in that respect either. Normally, when going through the pace in FP4, it is relatively easy to pick out who is going to be fast on Sunday afternoon. But the nature of the track means that there are lots of ways to go fast there, and that leaves the field very close.
There are probably five riders or six with outstanding pace – Fabio Quartararo, Pecco Bagnaia, Johann Zarco, Marco Bezzecchi, Jack Miller, Brad Binder were all running high 1'30s and low 1'31s on used tires – while behind that, there are another five to ten riders who are capable of running low to mid-1'31s, including Marc Marquez, Enea Bastianini, and Alex Rins. A small tweak on Sunday morning for any of those, and they could be there too.
"As always, I think Fabio will be there, Jorge has been quick all weekend. There is a big group of guys. Marc will be quick," was Jack Miller's assessment. The tropical heat and humidity will play a role. "As I said it is a long physical race and I haven’t seen anybody put a lot of laps together without a slow lap in between or whatever, I’ll tell ya it’s hot out there. For sure it will not only be a test of speed but also of endurance."
Tire management is not really going to be an issue. Both the medium and soft rears were setting fast times even with a lot of laps on them. That was Jack Miller's conclusion at the end of FP4. "I was running eighteen laps consistently and still in the 1'31s at the end and one of the fastest guys on the track. I think I was second and did that on lap nine. I was able to keep that pace to be there or thereabouts," the Australian said.
Being surrounded by Ducatis may be an inconvenience for Pecco Bagnaia, for Fabio Quartararo it is a formidable threat. Despite having outstanding pace in FP4, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider came up just short in qualifying, and will start from fourth. "Today was tough because I feel that we had great potential for the race," Quartararo sighed. "I went out on an old tire and I was feeling quite fast. For the time attack I gave my 100% but, we know, we are reaching the limit in a lot of places and we know how much we lose on the straights."
The problem remains the same as ever: because of the lack of top speed, there is only one place he can overtake. "In the last corner," Quartararo answered without hesitation. "It is the only one I can do, and I feel really good. Especially in Turn 9-10 and 10 I can carry speed and prepare something for the last corner. I think it is the only place where I can pass."
He was hampered, like all of the Yamahas, by a lack of rear grip. "We had a great lap today but the grip I had in 2019 was better. We can clearly see the grip is much lower," Quartararo said.
One minor consolation for Yamaha is that Quartararo is no longer the sole fast Yamaha. Franco Morbidelli is showing signs of real progress, while Cal Crutchlow has lost very little speed since retirement, despite barely having been on a MotoGP machine. Morbidelli was sixth fastest overall in FP4, while Crutchlow was eleventh.
The problem for Morbidelli, however, is that he is still struggling with a single fast lap. That left him qualifying down in fourteenth, just ahead of Crutchlow. The problems had started in FP3, when Morbidelli hadn't been able to improve on his time from Friday. "A tricky day, because we missed Q2 just for a small amount of time, and then we needed to go through Q1, and in the time attack, again I couldn't extract the real potential from the bike," Morbidelli explained.
"That is my problem," Morbidelli admitted. "I cannot extract the full performance from the tires as I would like to. I struggle with the grip in the time attack especially, more than in normal running. In normal running, when I make many laps on the tires, I'm able to finally after many laps take out some performance. But in a time attack, we have just three laps at our disposal, and I just cannot feel the right performance from the tire soon enough."
Aleix Espargaro is in a similar boat, but for different reasons. The Aprilia RS-GP simply cannot get on with the special stiffer Michelin carcass needed in Austria and Buriram, the bike cannot compress the tire enough to create grip and drive.
That is a bitter pill for the Aprilia rider to swallow. "Yesterday in the technical meeting, the guys said to me, it's because the carcass of the tire is different," Espargaro said. "I said to the guys, it's the same as the other riders, don't say this to me please. We know it. It's a different carcass, but the others are fast, so why are we not?"
There are no easy fixes, but Espargaro gave it his absolute best. The Spaniard rode absolutely out of his skin in Q1, but came up a tenth short of Marc Marquez and Miguel Oliveira. "I'm happy that you guys saw that I tried really hard, because I tried really hard this weekend, I'm trying everything I could, but I can't find a way to go faster, sincerely," Espargaro said.
If the race is dry – and it looks like it will be wet, but then again, it has looked like rain all weekend and almost every session has been completely dry – then Espargaro fears he is in trouble. "I think my pace is not a disaster. It's not as fast as the best, but if I'm able to maintain the 1'31 low, I'm not super far. But starting 13th will be difficult," he said.
The lack of rain ended up penalizing Marc Marquez as well. The Repsol Honda rider had been outstanding on Friday, looking very much like his old self. He had hoped for a wet Saturday, in order to recover a little bit.
Unfortunately for him, pretty much the opposite happened: he was nudged out of Q2 by Luca Marini in FP3, the Italian being 0.007 faster than Marquez. Then he had to take two runs to be sure of passing through Q1, leaving him with just a single soft rear tire for Q2. He might have made it onto at least the second row, too, but a small mistake in the final corner saw the rear step out, which cost him a couple of tenths.
His exertions on Friday had already cost him, Marquez explained. "Yesterday I felt better than today and I know that tomorrow I will feel worse than today." After that, though, he had a chance to prepare for the next two flyaways at Phillip Island and Sepang. "But I know next week I will relax and then have another step. So this is the target."
Marquez is still buoyed by the fact that he feels he is starting to ride as he did prior to the big smash which cost him so much in 2020. "Like I said yesterday, now on Fridays I feel that pushing. As you see on TV I start to play with the bike, I start to slide on the left corners, I start to shake on the braking points. It was a long time since I did this. Now step by step I started to get the connection with gas and this I like."
If it does rain on Sunday, then anything could happen. "If it’s wet everything is open," Marquez said. It would open opportunities for Aleix Espargaro as well. "If it rains, or it's flag-to-flag, I will risk more than ever this season. All or nothing. I have to," the Aprilia rider said.
A wet race would throw the front of the race into turmoil as well. With Jack Miller on the second row, and Johann Zarco strong in the wet, their chances would increase further. Brad Binder qualified a lowly twelfth, but a combination of lightning starts and a wet track would put him right back in the running.
Fabio Quartararo has been strong in the wet so far this year, so it should give him the upper hand in the title chase. But Pecco Bagnaia feels that the change Ducati made from Friday to Saturday will help him be competitive in both wet and dry.
It is normally fairly simple to pick a winner in MotoGP, or at least, to pick a podium candidate. This race feels different, though. A combination of ambition, rivalry, and very close performance means the race is wide open. Throw in the possibility of rain, and the whole thing is up for grabs.
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