With barely a moment to catch its collective breath, the MotoGP paddock alights at Buriram, in the east of Thailand. The heavy rain which lashed the paddock in Motegi has followed them across the South China Sea, with heavy rain and flooding in many parts of Thailand. Some who chose to drive rather than fly from Bangkok to Buriram reported flooded roads at several points along the way, and fields around the track are also flooded.
Nor is the rain done with MotoGP just yet. Thursday's media duties took place in heavy rain, marshals and circuit workers doing their best to rid the track of the worst of its surface water. More rain is expected over the weekend, though the forecast is very difficult to read. There could be delays to track action on Friday, if the rain is as heavy as predicted. But there are also likely to be a couple of dry sessions spread over the weekend. Right now, the race looks to be wet. But three days out, that is pretty meaningless.
A wet race would both simplify and complicate matters, depending on your point of view. The track in Buriram is one of only two tracks – the other being the Red Bull Ring in Austria – which requires the use of the special, stiffer casing Michelin uses to resist the extremely high loads and temperatures at the two circuits. That is good for most, but not for Aleix Espargaro, the Aprilia rider not a fan of the special tire Michelin brings to the Red Bull Ring.
On the other hand, if it's wet – or worse, mixed conditions – that is going to favor teams and riders who have their bikes already dialed in. That would hurt Pecco Bagnaia's prospects, however, as the Italian has really struggled in the wet with the Ducati so far this year.
Stop and go
On paper, the track is made for the Ducati. The track starts with a short straight, and a relatively tight right turn. Then a massive long straight with a slight kink, which ends in one of the hardest braking zones on the calendar. Turn 3 is a hairpin, but one of the good kind: wide and sweeping, with a couple of choices of line through it. Then another long straight, followed by a very fast left-hand kink, taken at over 180 km/h.
That corner, Turn 4, needs to be treated with respect. The first left hander after nearly two-thirds of the track on the right side of the tire. At least the tropical temperatures reduce the risk of the left side of the tire cooling off too much.
Turn 4 is the entrance to the circuit interior section, which flows a lot more. Here too, danger lurks, as Marc Marquez very painfully found out in 2019. He suffered a massive highside in FP1, destroying his bike and leaving him badly shaken up. It didn't stop him winning two days later, of course, and clinching the 2019 MotoGP title in the process.
The track flows through the third sector, before the short straight leading into the final corner. Here, there is one more chance to make a desperate dive up the inside before the chase to the line. The risk, of course, is that you run wide on the exit and let the person you just passed get better drive off the exit and pass you back. Given that the entry speed for the corner is high – knocking on for 270 km/h – braking really matters.
Ducati track? Maybe, maybe not
Is it really a Ducati track? "For sure, sector 1 for Ducati is good. We have just one corner and straight, so it’s a good sector," Pecco Bagnaia explained to the press conference. "Sector 3 is our weak point. In 2019 we were losing a lot of time compared to Fabio and Fabio was the only fast one there. The new fairing will help us on that part of the track."
The Yamahas certainly have better form at Buriram. Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi finished third and fourth on MotoGP's first visit to the circuit in 2018, Rossi just 1.4 seconds behind the winner, Marc Marquez. The following year, Fabio Quartararo came within a whisker of beating Marc Marquez, the Repsol Honda rider winning a titanic last-lap battle with the Frenchman to just clinch victory at the line. Maverick Viñales clinched third, 1.4 seconds behind the leader.
Ducatis, meanwhile, were not having it quite as easy. Andrea Dovizioso finished second to Marc Marquez in 2018, and finished fourth in 2019, but over 11 seconds behind the winner. The second Ducati to cross the line in 2019 was Danilo Petrucci – back this year for a guest appearance substituting for the injured Joan Mir – down in ninth, with all four Yamahas ahead of him.
I don't think we're in 2019 any longer
But a lot really has changed since 2019. The Ducati is a much more complete package, and much faster at every kind of track. The Yamaha is a stronger bike than it was in 2019, but severely limited by the power of the bike, making overtaking impossible. Honda has taken a massive step backward, and Marc Marquez has only just returned from the fourth surgery on his right arm, and is fully focused on 2023.
The Suzuki is competitive, but missing something, and the KTM is struggling, though the long straights and hard braking zones may help the Austrian bikes, much as they did at Motegi. Aprilia, on the other hand, has made a massive leap forward since 2019, and is a completely different machine.
That makes it hard for Aleix Espargaro to judge what might be possible in Thailand. "This is a very good question," the Aprilia rider responded when asked if the Aprilia RS-GP would suit the Buriram track. "It’s funny because I cannot answer you about whether or not I like this layout. I don’t really remember 2019, but anyway, in 2019 I didn’t like any track. But this year’s bike is another story."
In the end, though, the weather will play a major role in determining the outcome. Whether the race is wet or not, the teams and riders are almost certain to lose multiple sessions to the weather, either being fully wet or mixed conditions. That will complicate things for those searching for a setup.
Knowing what you have
Here is where Fabio Quartararo can benefit. The Yamaha M1 hasn't benefited from a great deal of development during the season – not the Japanese way, but more of that later – but that has benefits as well as disadvantages. Quartararo's team know his bike inside out, and have a great base to start from. "We have the same bike as the beginning of the year. We managed to get a different chassis lately, but it’s not a massive change, so in the end, we cannot do many things," he told the press conference, before adding that things should be much better next year.
And it is where Pecco Bagnaia suffers. "For sure from my side, I always need more time to be perfect," the Italian said after Motegi. "We didn't come here for three years, so already in FP1 I was struggling a bit with the bike. So we needed time." He faces exactly the same problem at Buriram, returning to a track after a three-year absence on a bike which has changed completely.
The rain will only make things worse. "Compared to last year the only thing I have changed is the balance of our bike, so maybe for that reason I’m struggling more," Bagnaia said. "The difficult thing is that we haven’t had too many wet sessions this year, so I didn’t have the feeling in Japan. I was not feeling the tires and when I’m in this situation, I’m struggling more. I think we have some good ideas to help me feel more, the movement, the transfer of weight so it will be better for sure."
Ducatis in the damp
The problem isn't with the Ducati, however. Bagnaia's performance in the wet stands in stark contrast to his teammate, Jack Miller. Miller was fast on a wet Saturday morning at Motegi, and felt he could have qualified on the front row if he hadn't made a couple of mistakes.
"In the wet, the bike still works good," Miller told the press conference. "Every time we've had wet conditions, I've been able to be there or thereabouts. I was fighting for the victory in Indonesia very early on in the season, lost a little bit of pace towards the end of the race, more to do with our setup more than anything, with the puddles that were on the track. But in Motegi, it was a strange one in the afternoon, but in the morning I was extremely fast on used tires. I'm not really having too many issues in the wet."
Of course, if it's wet, the most dangerous rider on track is likely to be Marc Marquez. The Repsol Honda rider was playing down his chances, telling the press conference, "I’m here to work for Honda, if we have time, we will try a few things, big things, just to understand the concept for next year. It’s not the best way to achieve the best result but I’m here to work for 2023."
That didn't stop his eyes lighting up when he was asked about the possibility of rain. "The forecast looks really unstable, so that means that when there are wet conditions, everything is open," Marquez said. "It's true that it's much less demanding about physical condition, you don't feel the weak points of the bike a lot. But it's related about the feeling. In Motegi I start in FP2 in wet conditions, I went into the box and I said, don't touch anything. The feeling was good. So it's related about the grip of the track, the amount of water sometimes. We will see. We will try to work well but low profile." To which Jack Miller immediately retorted, "You, low profile?"
One of the reasons it is so difficult to find a setup in the wet is because the Michelin rain tires are so unbelievably good. Ask the rookies, who are coming of a rock hard Dunlop that has to work in every possible condition, and they simply rave about the Michelin wets.
"Michelin did an incredible job with the tires. You cannot imagine, it is amazing when you ride," Raul Fernandez said on Thursday. "More or less when you ride in dry conditions your angle is 64-65°, in the wet it is 56-58°; it is not a big difference. If you push then you can ride with the elbow on the ground. This is nice. You can enjoy. If you enjoy then the race is fun. The braking and acceleration is fun."
The experience was totally different in Moto2, Fernandez said. "In the Moto2 category with the Dunlop wet tire it is difficult. When you brake straight then this moment is super-critical, with the Michelin it's super-safe. Super-safe. When you come from Moto2 then this is the moment when you need to change your mentality, because in Moto2 you cannot brake too aggressively, but in MotoGP you can brake where you want."
Japan vs Europe
Back to the difference between Japanese factories and the approach of the European manufacturers. In a remarkably open conversation, Pol Espargaro gave an insight into the difference in approach between the two, having left the factory KTM team to go to Repsol Honda, and now back to KTM to race with Tech3 GasGas.
"I really think it's something cultural from many years," Espargaro said. "Actually, when you are working with other manufacturers, you see that Europeans, they are not as afraid as for example the Japanese to get copied. The Japanese, they hide everything quite a lot, more than the Europeans. Maybe also related because in the past, they were the leaders, and everyone was trying to copy them. Not any more at the moment. Looks like the latest technology in aerodynamics or different setups of the bike is coming from Europe, not any more from Japan."
This matches my own experience of prowling through pit lane during free practice. It is much easier to see what is going on in the Aprilia or KTM boxes then it is at Yamaha, or especially Honda. Ducati are more secretive about their bikes than the other European factories, but even they are no match for HRC.
Copying vs inventing
For Espargaro, the difference was that the European factories were less worried about what others might steal from them and more concerned with what to do next. "My experience is that Europeans are not as obsessed with being copied, that for sure they are obsessed with progression, to be every day a little bit better and trying to think of new things, to try to be more, use more the imagination to develop things, risk a little bit more. And the Japanese work in a different way, which is not good or bad, it's just completely different."
The Japanese manufacturers tended to build a bike, and focus on getting the best out of that during the year, Espargaro explained. The Europeans, on the other hand, were constantly making changes and upgrades, evolving the bike throughout the year. "Honda, it's like they put everything in one basket," the Spaniard said.
"They do a bike and they believe this bike is the bike, is amazing, and from the moment they put the bike on, they don't continue that progression of that bike through the year, as is the main package and to improve the main package. When they put the bike on track, they figure out if it's good or bad, and then they think for the next step, which is the new bike, next year's bike."
European manufacturers took a different approach. "I have the feeling that the Europeans are working in a different way, like they have their package, the new bike, but this is not how the bike is going to end up at the end of the year. The bike at the end of the year is going to be much different. And this bike is going to be next year's bike. So it's two ways of approaching the things."
The different methods could not be transplanted between European and Japanese factories very easily, Espargaro warned. "Also I think that a European manufacturer cannot do as Honda. Honda have the power to produce four different bikes, four different ways. And this I think, like Ducati, KTM, but they don't have the possibility to do that. The muscle is much smaller than them. So it's different ways to approach the year."
The cost of failure is greater for the European factories. "For sure the Europeans, once they know to go slowly developing the bike, because if they do a completely new bike, if it's a failure, they will pay it much more than Honda. For Honda, three to four years of bad results is not a big problem. It's a problem, but they will move on. But you imagine having four years of bad results for KTM? It's a disaster. So I think also they have this mentality."
Despite Pol Espargaro's involuntary departure from Repsol Honda at the end of the season, there were some valuable lessons he would take with him. "They have a lot of good ways to approach problems," the Spaniard said of HRC's philosophy. "For example, the Europeans, as soon as something is not going good, it's full panic, it's needs to be improved right now, and there is no patience and results must be immediate. It's like, it doesn't work and it needs to work tomorrow."
"Sometimes this is good, but normally this is bad, because it's very easy to get in crisis very fast and then it's very difficult to solve the problem, because you make a big problem from a small problem." That was very different for Honda. "They have this kind of patience of analyzing a little bit more deeply, and examine the problems, and then when they bring something, they bring something that is working already. For them, they struggle to bring new stuff. But when the stuff is coming, they know that this stuff is going to work well. And this is something very nice."
Whether both the Japanese and European manufacturers carry on on their separate paths remains to be seen. Factories tend to keep doing what they know best while they are succeeding. It is only at the end of the year that a balance will be drawn up, and conclusions taken from the season. But that is still four races away. First, MotoGP has to get through a wild and wet weekend in Thailand. Above all, it promises to be an unpredictable ride.
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