Marc Marquez arrived at Aragon as the clear favorite to win. Based on his record – five wins from seven races, and crashing out of the lead in a sixth – and on the fact that this is a counterclockwise circuit, like the Sachsenring. Before the Sachsenring, Marquez had a seventh, a ninth, and three DNFs, but he went on to win the race in Germany with ease, despite still not being completely fit.
Marquez arrived at Aragon – his third most successful circuit - with a seventh place, an eighth, a fifteenth after a fall, and a first-lap crash with Jorge Martin. If the pattern is to repeat itself, then surely Marquez is on for another win at the Motorland Aragon circuit?
Two crashes on the first two days suggest that may be harder than we all thought. The first crash, on Friday, was a simple mistake of the kind that most riders make – picking the bike up a fraction to avoid running into the rear of his brother Alex' LCR Honda, getting onto the dirty part of the track, and sliding off, furious at his own foolishness.
The second crash, however, demonstrated all too clearly where Marc Marquez' weakness lies after his shoulder surgery and broken humerus, which kept him off the bike for all of 2020. A simple lowside at Turn 14, the right hander at the final chicane before the back straight. The kind of crash he used to save on his knee and elbow. But as the slow-motion footage captured by MotoGP.com showed, he simply lacked the strength in his shoulder to catch those on his elbows any longer.
No more saves
The crash brought his season total to 18, three more than Iker Lecuona, the rider with the second most crashes in 2021. Lecuona has had two more race weekends in which to rack up the crashes, making the contrast with Marc Marquez even more stark. The Repsol Honda rider faces having to try to make the Honda RC213V a more rideable machine, while also having to learn how to ride around his own shortcomings during practice.
Marquez is keenly aware of the problems he faces. "It's true that in these changes, there have been a lot of crashes. And that in 2019, I would have saved half of them," Marquez told Spanish media. "The word 'save' doesn't exist in my dictionary now. Now, when it goes, it goes, I can't save the crash, before I would have saved many of them. The one in FP3, it went away from me a little bit, and before it would have been an easy save, but I can't do that at this moment. I have to ride in a different way."
But crashing more often would not deter him, Marquez insisted. "If I can't take a crash, I would not go on track," the Repsol Honda rider told Catalan media. "In the end, motorbikes have a risk. Of course crashes will come. The crash this morning can always happen: a new tire, you push, you have to qualify, and you need to take risks. Simply, I'm normalizing it. I know that the people think it's important, but at the moment, it's not important."
Can Marquez still win on Sunday? He won the race from fifth on the grid at the Sachsenring; at Aragon, he starts from fourth. On the Saturday ahead of the German Grand Prix, Marquez said he didn't think he could win. "I will say the same, to see if it finishes the same. At the moment, I don't have the level to push all the laps at the maximum, from the first one to the last one. Here I am suffering more than in Germany, because that circuit is very special with almost no changes of direction. I was more comfortable there. But here I have enough level to stay with the front group. The Ducatis are fast, especially Bagnaia, and Quartararo, Mir. A podium would be like a present, but it will be very difficult."
Is Marquez just lowballing his chances, downplaying expectations to deflect the pressure at his home circuit? "Now I am a normal rider," he had said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia. "A normal rider means being just another rider on the grid, and we can see this," Marquez told Catalan media. I'm a rider who can fight for podiums, be among the first group, but at the moment, I can't make the difference, like I used to be able to."
Sandbagging or reality? Marquez finished FP4 at the top of the timesheets, and FP4 is the one real measure of race pace we have on any race weekend. His advantage over the riders behind was limited – just over a tenth ahead of a surprisingly strong Enea Bastianini, the entire field very close, with seventeen riders within one second – but his pace was fearsome. In 10 flying laps, Marquez racked up 8 in the 1'48s, 6 of which were under 1'48.4.
Real race pace
Others did more 1'48s: Pecco Bagnaia, Fabio Quartararo, and Jack Miller each laid down 9 sub-1'49 laps. Bagnaia was most impressive, going out for a single run of 16 laps, including the out lap, and scoring 9 1'48s of which 3 were under 1'48.4. The Ducati Lenovo team rider's final lap was a 1'48.7, on a rear soft tire with 23 laps on it. That is exactly race distance.
Marquez' last lap, using a soft rear tire with 17 laps on it, was a 1'48.1. The Spaniard clearly has the pace, and can clearly manage the tires, but there are still question marks over his fitness. And the competition is much, much stronger at Aragon than it had been at the Sachsenring.
The Aragon Grand Prix has all the makings of a very good race. The fastest riders in FP4 are all on the front row of the grid. Pecco Bagnaia took an astonishing pole, smashing Marc Marquez' lap record which had stood since 2015. Ducati teammate Jack Miller took second, making it the first Ducati one-two on the grid since Jorge Lorenzo and Andrea Dovizioso lined up for the start of the 2018 race at this very same track. Fabio Quartararo starts from third, continuing his streak of front row starts since Portimão.
That is quite the turnaround for the championship leader. Before Aragon, Quartararo called the circuit "one of his worst tracks". Rightly so, given his dismal record last year, with an eighteenth and an eighth place in the two 2020 rounds. Now, the Frenchman looks like he has the pace to fight for the win.
Like Marc Marquez, however, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider is downplaying his own chances. "I don't really have a clear goal for tomorrow," Quartararo told the press conference. "I want to have fun. Of course, it will be great to fight for the podium, but to be honest, I don’t feel I have the pace enough. I will try to manage the best result as possible and I will try to stay with the front guys and fight until the end. Right now, I think that at least we need to make a step in the warmup to be able to fight for the podium tomorrow."
The big improvement has come in part thanks to the temperature. The Aragon circuit is very low grip, but when the temperature is up, it is not especially hard on tires. Last year, Quartararo had struggled with the front tire. This year, with track temperatures some 15°C hotter, he was more concerned about the rear. He had tried the hard in FP4 at first, but quickly abandoned it as bad idea. Reverting to the soft had brought speed and feeling, much better than he had found with the hard rear. "I was quite impressed by the soft rear, because I went out with the hard in FP4 and was quite a disaster," Quartararo told the press conference.
Star of Saturday was Pecco Bagnaia. The Italian looks able to take the fight to Marc Marquez, showing pace in FP4, as well as that astonishing qualifying lap. Like Quartararo, it has been a transformation in fortunes for the Italian. He lost confidence at Aragon in 2020 after a crash, and never found it again. He came to Aragon expecting to struggle, but the opposite has been the case.
"Here I was thinking a lot and I had a lot of questions how to be fast in this track because I struggled a lot all the past years, apart from 2018 when I was fighting for the championship," Bagnaia told the press conference. "When I started FP1, it was already another story. My feeling improved a lot compared to last year. From Silverstone, I didn’t touch anything on the setting, so my bike is the same. From the start, I was feeling great on the bike and I tried just to be more competitive on the riding style."
While a lot of the improvement has come from Bagnaia himself, the fact is that the Ducati is much better around Aragon than it ever has been in the past. " It’s a great day for Ducati, one-two," Bagnaia said. "Then Martin, Zarco, Bastianini. Apart from Luca [Marini], all the Ducati riders are in the top ten. So, it’s a great day for us."
Desmo done right
The bike is definitely better, Jack Miller said. "Definitely just rolling out of the box on Friday morning, I immediately felt like something was up and the bike was fantastic," the Australian told the press conference. "I’ve been on a Ducati a while now and I’ve never had one that turns as good as this one through the last corner. It’s generally corners like that that sort of caught us out in the past, whether it would roll off the edge of the tire or when you start to open you start to lose the line, but this year as we’ve seen, last sector is ours. We’re claiming that one and we’re able to really follow the line through and be calm on the tire and be fast."
What is remarkable here is that the Ducati is so strong through the long, fast corners. In the past, that was where the bike struggled, but the 2021 bike seems to have made a huge step in the right direction. The changes to the chassis made over the winter have helped adapt the GP21 much better to the Michelin rear tire. Where last year the bike was struggling, this year, it's competitive at all sorts of tracks.
That change was helping the Ducati manage the soft tire better as well. The soft rear looks like being the consensus choice on Sunday, the tire offering the best grip with a relatively modest drop in performance as the race goes on. It will be down to the riders to save the tire for as long as possible, while trying to pull a gap in the early laps.
For Jack Miller, that meant taking back more control of the bike from the electronics. "At the beginning of the weekend we had a softer map, let’s say, more control," the Australian told us. "I said to the boys, it just doesn’t feel right. With the grip we have and everything like that, I prefer to have more in my hand."
Ironically, putting the power in the hand of the rider, and reducing the amount the electronics want to interfere with power delivery was helping him to save the rear tire, Miller explained. "Once you’ve got it in your hand, you can sort of play with it and understand where it is. But then also as the tire goes down, we start to reduce a little bit of power." The trick was not to reduce the power too much, though. "For sure, you want to keep it there. You don’t want to have the TC cutting a lot. As we go down with the power, I’m still able to keep the same lap time, which is really impressive with 20 laps on the tire still doing 1'48.5 to high 1'48. I think we’re in a good position."
It was quite a turnaround for Joan Mir as well, though only from yesterday. The Suzuki Ecstar rider had a difficult Friday, but a change in FP3 made a huge difference. "I’m very happy about today. I get back really good feelings I need," the Spaniard told us. "We made a huge step in FP3 from yesterday. I saw the bike was working a lot better and straight away I was able to be fast and in good lap times. I did 1'46.9 in the morning without any problems."
The improvement for Mir had come from the front end, giving him confidence in the front of the Suzuki again. And that was what was need to take on the other title contenders. "Now to be competitive and to fight for victories, the level of the bikes has improved," Mir explained. "You need to risk more, you need to be faster. And to be faster, what I needed was a better feeling with the front."
That front feel was vital for Joan Mir. "I’m really sensitive to all kinds of movement the bike can have, all kinds of locking front can give you. I’m not one of the riders that crashes more. I’m really sensitive. I need a proper feeling to work," the Suzuki rider said. "I need to have a good feeling to have the maximum of the bike. it was not the best one. The best thing of our bike is the entry speed, going into corners with brakes, and if we lose this feeling, or if we don’t improve it, then it will not be the strongest point of the bike."
To that end, they had removed the rear ride-height device, which Suzuki had finally brought at Austria. But Suzuki's device is still in just its first iteration, and so it is relatively crude. That is fine at some circuits, but not at Aragon. "The key of the device is when you use it you don’t have feel that you have it on the bike," Mir explained. "At the moment there is a difference. It’s really difficult to stop the bike with the device on the bike."
As the last factory to bring the rear ride-height device, they are clearly a long way behind. Aprilia, by contrast, are second only to Ducati, the factory who first devised the holeshot device. Aleix Espargaro – also in excellent shape for the race, and starting from the second row – gave an extensive insight into the state of development on Aprilia's rear ride-height device.
Up and down at the back
"Ducati invented this, but Aprilia was quicker than all Japanese manufacturers, also KTM, to develop this," Espargaro told us. "They did a very good job. I had the manual device three or four months ago. I had the - it’s not automatic, but let’s call it automatic device - in Austria." The "automatic" system is allowed, because the rules allow the devices to be operated either manually, or using the weight transfer of the bike to store and release energy.
In addition to swapping the button which operates the device between right and left clipons, Espargaro was also stuck between the automatic and the manual versions of the device. The manual version drops the rear when the rider presses the button, giving them very fine control over where the device operates. The automatic version operates in two stages: the rider presses the button on corner entry to prepare the device for corner exit.
As they brake for the corner, the compression of the front forks charges a gas or hydraulic canister, which primes the rear ride-height device. As the forks extend as the rider winds on the gas again on exit, the charge in the canister drops the rear by modifying the length of the suspension linkage. The secret to all of this is the speed at which the rear is dropped, and the smoothness with which it is released as the rider brakes for the next corner. MotoGP pit lane reporter and ex-racer Simon Crafar gave a very good explanation in his Tech Talk video on Youtube.
For Aleix Espargaro, which system to use – automatic or manual, is a question which needs to be answered separately at each circuit. "It depends on the track," the Aprilia rider said. "I prefer to use it manual. But the good thing is that this thing is working very good on the Aprilia, especially when you activate the system, the bike accelerates a lot more. You have less wheelie."
The hard part for Aprilia had been releasing the system again under braking. "The problem we had at the beginning was that when you brake to remove the system, it was super aggressive and I had some problems on the front. Aprilia did a very good job. Now on the brakes I don’t feel if it’s on or off, which is fantastic," Espargaro said.
He had first used the automatic system in Austria, the Aprilia rider told us, before switching back to the manual system at Silverstone and Aragon. "I used the manual in Silverstone and I used the manual here, because for the rider it’s not easy to use," Espargaro said. "To push and then remove also a button when you are pushing on the track, it’s very difficult. So, for example, before the back straight here there is the chicane, so the automatic device was difficult to operate, so I prefer to use the manual. As soon as I accelerate, I press it and the bike drops and I had less wheelie. So on Friday, I tried both bikes, automatic and manual, and I decided to stay on manual for tomorrow."
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Aragon is the fact that there are many ways to be competitive. The Factory Ducatis are using their automatic system, Aleix Espargaro has switched to manual, and Joan Mir has had the device taken off his Suzuki. All of them are fast, just as Marc Marquez and Fabio Quartararo are. On Sunday, the chances are that everyone will go with the same tire combination, of hard front and soft rear. Yet the race will only be decided in the last few laps, when it becomes clear who has managed their tires best, and who has the most performance left to push for the line. It looks like we may have a proper race on Sunday.
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