MotoGP riders have three primary objectives on their todo lists on the Saturday of a Grand Prix weekend. First make sure you end FP3 in the top ten combined times and ensure passage directly to Q2. Secondly, use FP4 to figure out which tires will work best for them in the race, and what to expect in terms of performance at the start, drop in performance after the first five or six laps, and then the second drop in the last third or so of the race. And finally, to find a way to exploit the potential performance of a soft rear tire to secure a spot on the front row of the starting grid. Pole position would be nice, but second or third will do almost as well.
There are plenty of hurdles to cross along the way, not least figuring out how to get the most out of the package they have underneath them. But some of the challenges are outside of their control. Such as the tendency for their fellow racers to crash in the final minutes of a session, bringing out the yellow flags and automatically costing them a chance at setting a fast lap.
When something happens outside their control, they can sometimes find it hard to control their frustration. That was the case with Aleix Espargaro, who lost a chance at improving his lap time in qualifying after Jack Miller crashed at Turn 5 on his final run, bringing out yellow flags and automatically ruling out any chance of the riders behind him improving their time, such as Espargaro.
The Aprilia rider saw Jack Miller slide off a little way ahead of him, and shook his head, waving his fist in frustration. It could have been interpreted as a sign of anger at Miller, but after qualifying, Espargaro made it clear that it was the situation, not the crash that had left him so frustrated.
"I was unlucky," he told us. "Unlucky because, I was talking with Jack later on, because he thought that I was blaming him. I was not blaming him at all, 100%, but he crashed on the big screen. So I watched the big screen. I saw 41 seconds left, so I realized I had no time and it was my second canceled lap for a yellow flag and I realized I had no time to improve my time."
As result of Miller's crash, Espargaro had lost his final shot at improving his time. "I was angry with the situation, but not blaming Jack, poor Jack he crashed, what can you say to him. But I was angry with the situation, because I know how tight is MotoGP and today my potential was higher than fifth place in the qualifying. So I was angry. And that's all."
The right rules
Later, on his Twitter account, Espargaro made it perfectly clear that he fully agreed with the yellow flag rule. The point of the rule is to protect the marshals who are helping a crashed rider. Even if the rider who crashed may bear some of the blame for ending in the gravel, they deserve to be able to retrieve themselves from the gravel safely. That is doubly true for the volunteer marshals who are helping both the rider and the rider's bike up and out of the gravel traps. Yellow flags are a warning to all.
That doesn't lessen the frustration, however. Joan Mir found himself in a similar boat, missing out on passage to Q2 when his final run in FP3 was lost to yellow flags. "Today was a difficult day, because I think we had the potential to go through Q2 directly in FP3, but I went out and I started to see yellow flags and I couldn't complete my lap," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said. "I was improving in sector 1 then I saw sector 2, roll off and then the same in sector 1 the next lap. So this is a bit what the… the important thing of today was this, that we missed Qualifying 2."
The thing is, the yellow flags were there for everybody, and yet in FP3, ten riders made it straight through to Q2, and in Q2, Pecco Bagnaia, Fabio Quartararo, and Jorge Martin ended up on the front row, all three of them smashing the existing pole record, Bagnaia by three tenths of a second. Bagnaia and Quartararo were also fastest in FP4, with clearly the best pace.
Why did Bagnaia and Quartararo make it through to Q2 where Joan Mir failed? Why did Bagnaia and Quartararo end up on the front row while Aleix Espargaro, whose pace in FP4 was almost as fierce as that of the numbers 1 and 2 of the 2021 championship, fall short? The secret is the same as for great comedy: timing. With the yellow flag rules the way they are, you can no longer rely on getting faster and faster as the session goes on. You need to squeeze out as fast a lap as possible earlier in the session, just in case something happens.
And something will happen. In the last minute of FP3 or qualifying, everyone is all out chasing a fast time. That is bound to go wrong for at least one of the riders. And when it does, the yellow flags come out and everyone without a banker lap is lost.
In FP3, Fabio Quartararo put in a time good enough for Q2 on his first run with a soft tire. His second run was faster, but got canceled. Pecco Bagnaia was through to Q2 on his first flying lap of a long run, with plenty of time to spare in FP3. Even Aleix Espargaro set a quick time well before the end of the session.
Same again in qualifying: Pecco Bagnaia set his best lap on his second run, with 4 minutes left in the session. It was such an outstanding lap that he returned to his garage and waited out the final couple of minutes, knowing he had done enough. "It’s the same reason I stopped in the box," he told the press conference. "Because I said more than this is impossible for me. So, if someone will overtake, it’s okay. I’m very happy for this qualifying."
Fabio Quartararo set his best time on his penultimate lap in qualifying. It didn't stop him from trying again on the last lap, but it was pretty clear there was nothing more to be had. The biggest indication of that was the fact that he lost both wheels entering the Strubben hairpin, always a sign that the limit has been reached, and is keen to start biting back.
If you doubt this is deliberate strategy, just look at the statistics. Fabio Quartararo leads the championship comfortably, and Pecco Bagnaia is the rider who has challenged him hardest. (Unfortunately for Bagnaia, he has also made a string of mistakes, crashing out three times of his own accord, and being taken out on a fourth occasion at Barcelona.)
Quartararo has qualified on the front row on five occasions out of eleven this year, one less than Bagnaia. Quartararo has qualified on the front two rows at every race bar the season opener at Qatar. Bagnaia has qualified on the front two rows eight times out of eleven, as has Aleix Espargaro. There is clearly a pattern here.
Will that translate into the race? Judging by the pace set in FP4, it looks to be a direct battle between Fabio Quartararo and Pecco Bagnaia. Both men were doing mid 1'32s on used hard rear tires. Jack Miller and Aleix Espargaro were doing high 1'32s on very used hard soft rears, but Espargaro starts from the second row, and Miller has to serve a Long Lap penalty for riding on the racing line after remounting after his crash.
There is also the first lap to get through. The tight first section is known to be a particular danger on the first lap, the riders staying close through the first right handers before being funneled into the Strubben hairpin. "The first laps here are always a bit of chaos, because the first corners are alright, and then it comes into that little hairpin left where you can literally ride on the inside kerb or you can enter from the side," Brad Binder told us. "So it's always good if you can get through there. But I think by the time we get down that back straight for the first time, things will have already sorted themselves out, and then the racing will start."
It was hard to pick a line, as whatever plan you had, it never survived the first contact with reality. "I think you've just got to kind of go where you can. There's so many people that you can't say I'm going inside or going outside, because if you go inside, someone else comes up your inside. You've always got to adapt," the Red Bull KTM rider told us. "The big thing is I think you can have an idea in your head a hundred times over and do 100 starts a night, but then the next morning it all goes to **** the second you pull off, so I think you've just got to be flexible." As the legendary boxer Mike Tyson likes to say, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.
Beyond the front two rows – Bagnaia and Quartararo, and the Pramac Ducati of Jorge Martin on the first row, the surprising Marco Bezzecchi of the Mooney VR46 Ducati team in fourth, with Aleix Espargaro and Jack Miller beside him – there are a few surprises. Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira finally found some speed in qualifying, passing through Q1 and into Q2. Oliveira starts from eighth, Binder from tenth.
Both Red Bull KTM Factory riders did their best to temper expectations, however. "The reality is we are 0.7 behind pole position, so it's quite a gap, that's what it is," Oliveira told us. "But there are people worse than us." The gaps in qualifying are surprisingly large, Miller already six tenths behind his teammate Bagnaia, despite being on the second row.
If there is a wildcard for Sunday's race it is tires. The loss of Friday to wet conditions means there are still questions remaining. The medium has been discounted, being slower than both the hard and the soft, but the riders only had a chance to evaluate either the hard or the soft properly. Both seem competitive, leading those who spent time with the soft rear in FP4 eyeing the times of those who used the hard and thinking they will need to reevaluate tomorrow morning during warm up, and vice versa.
Aleix Espargaro was one of those who had focused on the soft rear. "My pace in FP4 was surprisingly fast. The tire didn't drop and I managed to do I think 10 laps in ‘32s, which is very very fast sincerely!" the Aprilia rider said. But he had seen what Quartararo and Bagnaia had done on the hard. "It look likes the hard gives you a little bit more stability. I didn't try. I will try in the warm up."
Alex Rins, on the other hand, had used the hard for most of FP4. "We will try the softer compound tomorrow in warm up, because in the first run with the hardest compound I had some problems on the bike. so we swapped the bike and then I was more stable, more fast and the pace was not so bad," the Suzuki rider told us.
"We are, I think not so far away. But Aleix and I think Jack, were with the soft tire," Rins said. "They made a lot of laps and were super constant. So in the end the problem is that if you choose the hardest compound and are suffering in the beginning, the race is over. So I prefer to suffer in the end than in the beginning."
In truth, the margin is relatively small. This is not going to be a race where managing the tires will be a big issue. Assen is not the Sachsenring or Barcelona, there is plenty of grip and tire wear is within manageable limits. "For sure, in the FP4, it was like doing fastest lap every lap," Pecco Bagnaia explained in the press conference.
It wasn't usual to be able to push so hard from start to finish. "You can push just in two or three races you can do like this, like in Misano or Jerez, more or less," the Ducati Lenovo rider told us. "This track I feel that the grip is very high and the consumption is very low, so you can push and let slide the rear tire. The consumption is very low."
The rider is more the limit than the tire. "This type of race is for sure more difficult because you have to don’t relax yourself. It’s a different way of doing a race," Bagnaia said.
"This track is for me one of the most physical of the calendar," Quartararo agreed. "I will push 100% from the first to the last lap. Maybe I will have to recover the all five weeks. We will be all in the same situation tomorrow. I’m feeling good physically. I feel ready."
Bagnaia saw it the same way. "I’m happy that it’s like this because I like to push. I never stop pushing," the Italian said.
Sunday is setting up to be a historic duel between the two riders who went head to head in 2021. Last year, Quartararo clearly had the upper hand, but that is far from certain this year. Bagnaia is in better form now than he was last year, and as he showed in Jerez, is capable of leading from the front and laying down a pace that is hard to follow. But Quartararo has shown himself more than equal to that task, as long as he gets a good start. The first five or six corners will be important, as will be the first couple of laps. If there isn't a breakaway early, it is going to be a long race, the decision finally falling on the last lap. We have seen many an instant classic race at Assen's Circuit van Drenthe. There is every reason to hope we will get a repeat of that on Sunday.
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