Qualifying in MotoGP is a conundrum. The closeness of the modern premier class means it is easy to find yourself down on the fourth row, or even out of Q2 altogether. Add in innovations such as aerodynamic wings and ride-height devices, which make braking ever more difficult, and the emphasis on qualifying only grows.
One factory has made something of a speciality of qualifying, having had at least one bike on the front row of the grid in every race since the Gran Premio de la Comunitat Valenciana in 2020. That is 23 races in a row. After Saturday in Texas, that streak has been extended to 24 races. And in that period, they have locked out the front row three times.
I am talking, of course, about Ducati. Over a single lap, the Ducati has proven to be almost peerless. In those 24 races, Ducatis have occupied 41 of the 72 available front row places, including 13 pole positions. Yamaha are the closest, though the gap is massive: they have 18 front row spots, and 7 pole positions. Jorge Martin and Pecco Bagnaia have 6 poles a piece for Ducati, Fabio Quartararo the same for Yamaha, with Johann Zarco and Franco Morbidelli taking a single pole each for Ducati and Yamaha respectively.
At the Circuit of The Americas on Friday, Ducati took that one step further. Not only did they lock out the front row, but they will occupy the first five spots on the grid for Sunday's race in Austin. "Pretty good bike," Ducati's Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti joked with a group of journalists as we stood waiting at the back of the garages. Not bad at all.
What makes the Ducati so strong over one lap? Having more horsepower than the rest, and not being limited by fuel when using it makes a big difference. But the bike also is very good at generating grip from a soft tire, especially when pushed. The ride-height device pays dividends in this respect, as does the fact that the bike is carrying the minimum of fuel to complete the few laps needed in qualifying.
It's not just in acceleration, however. "The bike is very light, so in braking it's much easier," Luca Marini said, after qualifying in eleventh, making it six Ducatis in the top eleven. "In my opinion, you make a lot of difference in braking, not in acceleration with more power. And the grip of the tire for just one lap, if you use the tire a lot, it's fantastic."
Jorge Martin, taking his sixth pole in MotoGP, pointed to confidence in braking and turning. "For sure the riders are good. But I think we have a good front end," the Pramac Ducati rider told the press conference. "We have really good confidence and for one lap it’s so important to start the bike well and open the throttle. It’s one of the most important sides to make one fast lap and we have this. We have good acceleration also. I think everything together we can go really fast in time attack."
Jack Miller pointed to the role which the rider plays. "Everyone always talks about Fabio and his ability to get the poles. He’s been pole champion for the last couple years," the factory Ducati said, pointing to Quartararo's strong record. "So, deciding what’s happening over one lap, generally qualifying, I haven’t had a pole in four years. That’s not because I’m not trying, but I think each bike is equal. It’s the guy that’s sitting on it that needs to push for that time attack."
There are some riders who have this ability to extract the most from the bike over a single lap, while others struggle. "Some guys are really, really able to stretch it out, like you see with Fabio, like you see with Jorge," Miller explained. "They’re really able to put themselves out there and get that lap time. Then some of the other guys, for example like Rins or Mir, are maybe not so much able to do it as much. I don't think it’s all down to the bike, at all."
The fact that three riders have 18 of those last 24 pole positions, with Quartararo, Martin, and Bagnaia each having 6 poles, adds a good deal of weight to Miller's argument. But Ducati's overwhelming presence on the front row, 41 from 72 places, also suggests that the bike makes a good deal of difference.
Qualifying is all well and good, but Tissot watches and BMW M coupes – the award for best qualifier at the end of each season – won't buy you MotoGP titles. And there is a difference between being quick over a single lap and being able to sustain pace over 20 laps of the Circuit of The Americas.
Dive into the numbers in FP3 and FP4, as racing engineer Chris Pike did on Twitter, and a different picture emerges. A Ducati still appears to have the best pace, in the hands of Enea Bastianini, something confirmed by the number of riders who named the Gresini rider unprompted. Behind Bastianini, the Aprilias of Alex Espargaro and Maverick Viñales also have strong pace, along with the Honda of Marc Marquez and the Yamaha of Fabio Quartararo. Johann Zarco, Pramac's second rider, also looks to be fast over long runs.
"If you check Bastianini, for me he is the one who has the strongest pace, along with Marc," Fabio Quartararo said. "Then after if you look at Martin, Bagnaia a little bit less than them, they will have a great pace." What will matter is how the performance of the tired drops in the later stages of the race, the Yamaha rider said. "Let’s see how the tire degradation is. We are not so bad. We are not the best but not so bad. Let’s give our best and see what we can do."
That calculation, of tire drop over race distance, was difficult. Compare the pace of the Suzukis of Alex Rins and Joan Mir on tires with 20 laps, and they look much stronger than their rivals. But look at the pace on lap 10, and things are much more equal. Joan Mir felt he could easily handle the Ducatis at the very end of the race, but there was still a question as to when the tires would really start to drop off enough to make a difference. "On very old tires, yes," said Mir. "On used tires with a couple of laps, [the Ducatis] are really fast. If you check it in FP4, it was a bit like this.
Mir had his own list of potential race winners. "I know that Bagnaia is fast, Zarco sometimes is fast so I count with him, the Ducatis are fast, Marc is fast, Fabio also, my teammate, me," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said.
Marc Marquez declined to be pushed into the role of title favorite, however, after having a miserable qualifying session where self doubt had slowed him down. "I didn’t believe in myself in the quali," Marquez told us. "All weekend I worked very well and nice in my rhythm and pace but then in the quali there was some traffic and I didn’t want to push and I didn’t believe."
Being left down on the third row, with five Ducatis ahead, made life difficult for him, the Repsol Honda rider acknowledged. "Starting in 9th I cannot be the favorite. I think Bagnaia, Quartararo and Bastianini; these three have a good pace."
Fortunately for those with an eye on victory on Sunday, the Aprilias had a difficult qualifying. Both Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales got stuck in Q1, and a crash by Espargaro took any chance of him making it through to Q2. That was no bad thing,said Fabio Quartararo. "Luckily the Aprilias stayed in Q1. Because the pace they had was really strong."
Two riders stood out for the Frenchman. "For me the favorites are Marc and Bastianini. They had really strong pace. Just before coming here, we were looking at the sector 3 of Bastianini with old tires. Basically, it was the same as my time attack sector 3." At a track with a long back straight, and where the riders are hitting the best part of 350 km/h, the Yamaha had an obvious disadvantage. "We will struggle a lot on the back straight for sure."
The Aprilia is superb on race pace, but pushing for a single lap is still hard, Aleix Espargaro explained. "When we put the soft rear it pushes the front and we have a lot of chattering," the Spaniard said. "The chattering is crazy. Unfortunately our fast lap with almost 15 laps on the rear tire is almost the same as the new. With a new tire everyone drop a second, we dropped three tenths. This is very good for the race. We did the most difficult thing. We changed the situation in this track from last year. I feel that I have a pace to fight for the podium. But in MotoGP today, having strong pace is as important as starting on the first two rows of the grid. I fail in one of those two things and tomorrow is going to be difficult."
What the race boils down to is who can keep their tires whole for as long as possible. The Suzukis and Yamaha of Fabio Quartararo appears to be perfectly placed in that respect. But the issue is how big the performance drop of the rear tire is toward the end. If it is big, but very late, then the bikes which are gentler on their tires may not have the advantage they had hoped for. That is not a calculation you can make on paper. It will emerge on Sunday, as riders prepare for the Americas GP.
Feeling at home
One word on Cameron Beaubier. The American Racing team is fast around the Austin track, that has been proven both in MotoAmerica and in Moto2. But by grabbing the pole in convincing fashion, he showed he is adaptable, despite all those years on a Superbike.
Beaubier's Moto2 pole unleashes a veritable cascade of stats. The first American to take a pole in Grand Prix racing since Ben Spies at Indianapolis in 2010. The third American pole in Moto2, along with Kenny Noyes and Joe Roberts, and the first on American soil since John Kocinski aboard a 250 at Laguna Seca.
In his second season in Moto2, the talent which allowed Beaubier to rule the roost in the MotoAmerica Superbike championship is coming to the fore. Adapting from different tires, different bikes, and a very different championship takes a while, especially in the cutthroat Moto2 class, where qualifying gaps are small and the mid-pack battle in the early laps makes it impossible to catch the leaders once you get caught up in it. There will be a lot of pressure on Beaubier to convert the pole into a podium, but at 29 years of age, and with five MotoAmerica titles under his belt, that is something he should be used to.
A podium at home, on top of pole position at home, should help raise the profile of the sport in the US, something which remains a key goal for Dorna. The crowds on Saturday were lively, but relatively sparse. A Beaubier win might help add a few fans to the grandstands next year.
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