1993. That was the last time there were two Suzukis in the first two positions on the grid. Then, it was Kevin Schwantz and Alex Barros who qualified first and second at Jerez. Now, twenty-two years and six weeks later, it is Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales. Then, Suzuki were at the height of their competitiveness, before beginning their slow decline which went on until they withdrew at the end of the 2011 season. Now, Suzuki is back after a three-year absence, with a brand new prototype at the start of its development. Taking pole and second in just their seventh race is quite an achievement for Suzuki, and vindication of their choice to build an inline four, something they know all too well, rather than messing around with a V4, as they had done throughout the MotoGP era.
It is also a vindication for the team of people Suzuki chose to lead their return to MotoGP. Davide Brivio has proven to be a shrewd team manager, to nobody's surprise. Tom O'Kane, Aleix Espargaro's crew chief, has been instrumental in providing direction to the development of the bike. Aleix Espargaro and Maverick Viñales have lived up to their expectations, combining experience, attitude and a hunger for success.
Of course, there are no points for qualifying, and Suzuki's front row positions came at least in part with the artificial performance boost of the soft rear tire available to the Open teams and factories with concessions. But Espargaro and Viñales still had to put in the time, and they had to beat the Ducatis, who have the same concessions as they do. They deserve their position, was the near universal feeling among Suzuki's rivals.
For it is not the soft tire which is making the Suzuki GSX-RR so competitive. On the medium tire, the same tire almost everyone will use for the race – the softer of Honda and Yamaha's options, the harder of the other bikes' options – Aleix Espargaro has a very strong race pace. "They make an incredible lap time with the super soft but the pace with the medium is good,"was Valentino Rossi's verdict. "Especially Aleix is fast. I think they can stay in the first group for the first half of the race. For the second half nobody knows. Also Suzuki don’t know." Whether the Suzukis can stay with the Yamahas and Hondas for a full lap will depend on whether they can stay in their draft, or whether they will lose touch down the front straight. "Also the speed on the straight, it looks like Suzuki has improved. If it is fast they can keep the slipstream and can stay on top."
So why are the Suzukis so fast at Barcelona? The state of the track means that having a lot of power is a disadvantage. Suzuki may have brought a new engine to this race, but the extra power it offers is not simply more revs and therefore more top speed, though there is a little bit of that. "The fact is that the new engine is much better for the riding because in the bottom the power delivery is much easier," Aleix Espargaro told the press conference. The bike has better acceleration, rather than a lot more top speed. Gaining a tenth each time you accelerate out of a corner is a lot more profitable than adding 15 km/h in top speed, gaining you two tenths once each lap, at the end of the front straight.
Suzuki appear to have hit Barcelona's Goldilocks zone with the new engine. They are fast enough to stay with the Yamahas down the front straight (the Hondas and Ducatis are still just too quick), but they also get the maximum grip out of their bike. Where the Hondas and Ducatis especially are struggling with just getting all of the power they have down on the ground, the Suzukis are able to use nearly all of their acceleration. "Everyone has to cut power in the first three gears," Jorge Lorenzo's team boss Wilco Zeelenberg told me, "but where we are cutting it maybe 60%, they are cutting it 50%." That makes the bike more predictable and easier to manage. And that in turn translates into speed.
With the Suzukis being so fast, Jorge Lorenzo knew he had to try to find a way to counter the threat. As the team discussed their plan for FP4, Lorenzo and his crew decided they could try for three runs, instead of just two. In FP4, Lorenzo went out on well-used tires, posting what looked like a disappointing 8th fastest time. Not everyone was fooled, however. "Lorenzo is using the tire he used in the morning," Cal Crutchlow observed. "So he's got 33 laps on it at the end, and he's doing a faster lap than most people were doing anyway. He does a 1'43.0 after 33 laps, people are doing 1'43.0s after ten laps. That's the reality. But this morning, he was doing 1'41s like they were easy." Wilco Zeelenberg denied that Lorenzo had 33 laps on the rear tire. "32 laps," he corrected me. "And his last lap on that tire was a 1'42.7, not a 1'43.0."
Using just one tire for FP3 and FP4 gave Lorenzo an extra medium tire for qualifying. The grip at Barcelona is such that only the first flying lap on a new tire is actually any good. So using the extra tire to make three runs in qualifying proved to be the smart choice. It spaced Lorenzo's laps out in terms of traffic, it covered the risk of having to throw away a lap when you run into traffic, as Dani Pedrosa did on his second run, and it gave him an extra shot at pole. Lorenzo came up just short, but starting from the front row, with the pace he has, should be more than enough.
For make no doubt about it, Lorenzo has the pace to run away at the front once again, for the fourth race in a row. His run of 1'41s in FP3 on Saturday morning was fearsome, leaving everyone shaking their heads. Though nobody has given up on beating Lorenzo, his main rivals – Valentino Rossi, Aleix Espargaro perhaps, maybe the two Repsol Hondas – all know they have work to do. Rossi was pleased with the race pace he had shown, but once again displeased with the position he finds himself on the grid. Starting from the third row was "not fantastic, but not so bad," Rossi told journalists. "Also because the guy with the right pace starts from the third position, fourth and sixth position. I’m seventh and not so far." There was still work to be done in morning warm up, Rossi said. It was clear to Rossi who was the man to beat, however. "I think Jorge has the best pace." But he wasn't ready to give up just yet. "This time I am more close and I think I can be more competitive for the race," Rossi said.
Though tipped by Rossi to be in the mix at the front, the Repsol Honda riders were less optimistic. The Honda RC213V had been improved, especially on corner entry, making it a more competitive package with new tires, Marc Márquez said. But things would be difficult in the race. In the first five laps, Márquez said, he felt he could stay with Jorge Lorenzo. After that, though, the performance of the tire drops too much, and it becomes impossible to stay with him.
Where had the improvement come from? There wasn't a single thing, Márquez said. The combination of electronics, the new exhaust, and some work with set up had solved a lot of the problem in corner entry, which was Márquez' biggest problem at Mugello. The rear was still too aggressive, but the slides it was causing were now controllable. It had taken puzzling lots of pieces together to find a fix, and this had influenced Márquez' choice of special helmet at his home round. The Spaniard had held a competition for fans to design his helmet, gloves and boots, and the winning entry was loosely based on the work of Antoni Gaudí, the brilliant Barcelona Modernist architect who is famous for his mosaics. Those mosaics had reminded him of the challenge facing his team, Márquez joked, putting all of the pieces together to try to solve the puzzle.
They had finally found a solution after FP3, when they put together all of the best solutions found during free practice, then tried that during FP4. That worked well, good enough to post a very strong series of fast laps. Not good enough to stay with Lorenzo for the full race distance, Márquez opined, but sufficient to keep him closer to the front.
Would Márquez take the same kind of risks he had in Mugello, where he had crashed out, or would he play it safe and go for the points? Márquez was emphatic. "No! Tomorrow I will try to be with Yamahas until I see that is not possible. In Mugello it is true that I was there, but then I crashed. But you cannot start a race thinking ‘I cannot push because maybe I will crash’. You must go out and then feel where is the limit and try to be there. I know I’m not in the situation to manage the race, to push a little bit more or less. I need to do my 100% all the race if I want to be there or as close as possible." His intention is to try to stay with the Yamahas for as long as possible. That entails a certain amount of risk of crashing, but it is a risk he has to take. Currently 49 points behind Rossi and 43 points behind Lorenzo, he cannot afford to finish behind either man. If he gives up another 6 points to Rossi, or 12 points to Lorenzo, then the championship is out of his hands, and he needs his rivals to lose points. If there is one thing which both Rossi and Lorenzo have been so far this year, it is consistent. Rossi hasn't been off the podium once this year, and Lorenzo has won the three last races in a row.
Where qualifying for MotoGP was a straightforward affair – with the exception of Dani Pedrosa, who had to come through Q1, which he did with relative ease – it was terrifying in Moto3. In the final ten minutes of qualifying, approximately two thirds of the riders started wandering all over the track looking for a tow. They were riding very slowly on the racing line, and off it, and generally causing a severe danger both to themselves and to the other riders. The reason for these shenanigans is simple: a tow is worth six tenths of a second along the front straight. Six tenths can be ten grid positions or more improvement, and so it is worth the risk.
And the risks are very great, according to Cal Crutchlow. "They should stop being idiots, because one of them is going to get ****ing hurt soon," Crutchlow said. "And when one of them gets hurt, and has got a broken leg and he can't race his motorbike ever again, he'll say, Ah, somebody hit me! But they hit him because he's going 50 km/h too slow!" Riders followed each other in MotoGP, but to a much lesser extent. "They don't do it as much, they have respect for each other as well," Crutchlow said. "They have respect for turning up, working your ass off all weekend and not using someone else to your advantage. But in Moto2, Moto3, they don't care. They're young kids, they take risks like that for no reason. But when one of them gets hurt, it's going to be a disaster, someone's going to have **** to pay. If one of them hurts another one and hurts him in a bad way, he's got to think of that for the rest of his life. "
Race Direction were all too keenly aware of the problem. After practice on Sunday, the called a lot of the teams and riders in to give them a talking to and think about penalties. The discussions centered on how to solve the problem, as half of the grid or more would have been given penalty points. Instead, they decided to have another meeting at Assen, where, the press release said, solutions would be defined to control this problem.
There are no easy answers. The perceived gain from a tow is simply too large not to try it, and so any punishment has to be both immediate and be something the riders fear losing. Putting them to the back of the grid only works when one or two riders are doing it, when there are 15 riders being dangerous, you have the rear half of the grid to sort out, and some of those riders could end up in positions which are better than what they had qualified in. Canceling lap times might help, as might the enforcement of an immediate ride through penalty during qualifying, making them lose a lap in which to look for a tow, but they may then well dawdle through pit lane waiting for a fast rider to enter the main straight, and try and latch onto them there. Splitting qualifying into two groups would not make things much better, as then there would be groups of riders looking for a tow in both sessions, rather than just a single large group in the only qualifying. A much shorter qualifying session may leave the riders with less time to be waiting for a tow, but they may still all end up bunched together.
The BT Sport commentators Julian Ryder and Keith Huewen suggested a "sin bin" a ride through plus compulsory time spent off track. This may be a little better, but there are still opportunities to try to latch a tow when exiting pit lane. There are no easy solutions to the problem.
Ironically, the Moto3 pole at Barcelona was taken by Enea Bastianini, the Italian threading his way through waiting riders under his own steam, with no sign of a tow. Danny Kent was second fastest, also setting his time on his own. Bastianini and Kent were seven tenths and nearly six tenths quicker than the rest, most of who had been lingering waiting for a tow. Even if they had found one, they still wouldn't have matched Bastianini. There is no substitute for outright speed.