The key to success in MotoGP is adapting to the tools you have been given. That means understanding what the bike will and won't do, and how to get the most out of it. It means understanding how to make a tire last, where to use the available grip, and how to save wear as much as possible. It means knowing what your crew chief needs to know to give you the bike you need. And it means understanding where a track will give you an advantage, and where to minimize your losses.
The 2019 MotoGP field is an object lesson in just how difficult this can be. Johann Zarco went from chasing podiums on the Tech3 Yamaha to competing for points on the factory Red Bull KTM. Jorge Lorenzo went from being a red hot favorite on the Yamaha to struggling on the Ducati to winning on the Ducati to struggling on the Repsol Honda.
Their prospects of success on these bikes are down to their approach. Lorenzo learned on the Ducati that he had to change his riding style, and if he did, Ducati could tweak the bike to bring it closer to something he could use, and eventually a bike he was capable of winning on. He is now going through that process again on the Honda. Zarco has tried and failed to get his head around the fact that the KTM will not ever be a Yamaha, and he cannot try to ride it like one. He persists in trying to be smooth, while Pol Espargaro wrestles the RC16 ever further forward.
Change is the only constant
Even riders who have stayed on the same bike are forced to adapt. Every year, the engineers find ways to improve their MotoGP machines, fixing inherent weaknesses and making the bike's strengths even better. But those changes also have a knock-on effect, requiring riders to adapt to the new way of riding, no longer relying on the singular strength of the bike, but finding ways to use the new found performance. And, of course, covering up the new weaknesses the changes have exposed, or in some cases, created.
The 2019 Honda RC213V is a prime example of this. HRC engineers acknowledged that the Honda had a top speed deficit compared to the Ducatis, which left its riders relying on the bike's insane ability to brake late and turn in. So they went chasing horsepower, radically increasing the efficiency of the inlet track to force more air (and with it, fuel) into the engine. To do that, they had to use up more of the space beneath the dummy fuel tank, to make room for a much bigger airbox and more voluminous air intake. That meant relocating a whole bunch of components around the bike, especially to the nose section below the screen.
That, in turn, has changed the balance of the bike, taking away its surefooted feel on corner entry. What's more, the more powerful engine is a little less predictable in engine braking, sometimes pushing the front as riders brake into the corner. Trying to use the same riding style which worked so well in 2018 is a recipe for failure on the 2019 RC213V. Riders are having to adapt. Some with more success with others.
Necessity is the mother of invention
Who has adapted best to the 2019 bike? Unsurprisingly, it is the reigning world champion and current championship leader, Marc Márquez. Márquez has found a way to confound his rivals and use the strengths of this year's machine where others have struggled. He has changed his focus from sticking with the front group and then pouncing in the latter stages of the race to getting out front early and trying to escape. Last year, after the Jerez round, Márquez had led for 44 laps. This year after the Spanish Grand Prix, he had led for 59 laps.
"It’s true that since Argentina I led many laps," Márquez explained on Friday. "I was not used to race like this but sometimes you need to find different strategies for the opponents. If not, everybody expects the same. When I have the bike and the feeling, and when I feel strong enough then why not? That means if I have the feeling, why not try to do it again here?" He would only know after warm up whether he would truly be able to get away the front, he said.
Changing his race strategy helped to keep his rivals on their toes, he said. "It’s positive because then your opponents will not know what you will do. You can understand the kind of strategy of Maverick, of Dovi, of Rossi. But when somebody is doing something new and in some races starts pushing from the beginning, then in another race starts saving the tire, you don’t know if he’s straining or pushing. But of course in every race it will not be possible to do this strategy."
Climbing the pole
Would he be able to use this strategy at Le Mans? First he would need to secure pole. On a treacherous track where the rain had just started to fall again, Márquez risked it all in his first two laps. His first lap was good enough for the fastest time, but as he pushed to improve his qualifying time, he went down at La Chapelle, the bike getting squirrelly as exited the chicane. The bike was relatively undamaged, and he could continue, but he would not improve his time.
That didn't matter, as conditions got progressively worse as the rain became heavier. Márquez' first mission had been accomplished: he would start from pole position.
The next challenge he faced was the fact that he had two Ducati Desmosedici GP19s on the grid next to him, in the form of Danilo Petrucci and Jack Miller, while a third – Andrea Dovizioso – started from directly behind him. Getting into the chicane first would make a huge difference, the left-right combination a tight squeeze where it is easy to get caught in traffic and end up losing a lot of places. But beating Ducatis to the first corner (well, the first real corner, rather than the fast right kink ahead of the chicane) would not be easy. The Desmosedici has historically had better drive off the line, stronger acceleration, and now they had the added benefit of the holeshot device.
In a harbinger of things to come, Márquez got off the line quickly, and led into the first corner. But he soon found himself the filling in a Ducati sandwich, as Danilo Petrucci fired up the inside of the corner, while Andrea Dovizioso powered round the outside to draw level with him. But Dovizioso was a little too far out wide, and cut back behind Márquez, while the Repsol Honda rider held the stronger line into the chicane, Petrucci forced outside.
The melee through the chicane saw places shuffled behind Márquez, but it was the Spaniard who led coming out of Turn 4. Behind him, Petrucci gave chase, Jack Miller having picked his way forward once again. Franco Morbidelli slotted into fifth on the Petronas Yamaha, just ahead of Valentino Rossi, while Dovizioso's decision to cut back right ended up costing him places, dropping him back into the clutches of Pol Espargaro on the KTM.
Making a break
Márquez tried to make a break from the start, but it was still too early. Petrucci chased the Repsol Honda, harried all the while by Jack Miller, Valentino Rossi closing on the Pramac Ducati having gotten past the Petronas bike of Morbidelli. As they swept through the Dunlop Curve to start the second lap, Petrucci saw his chance. He stayed left, braked late, and held the inside line on the way into the chicane.
Márquez responded immediately, violently throwing his bike hard left and then hard right, going round the outside of Petrucci on the way into Turn 4, and back into the lead. He held the line, and resisted Petrucci's advances through Turn 5 and into La Chapelle.
Petrucci's attempt on Márquez had failed, and with the Repsol Honda out ahead, the factory Ducati rider fell back into the clutches of Jack Miller. Márquez was opening the slimmest of gaps, while Petrucci was unable to follow.
Go early and go hard
This meant it was the turn of Miller to give chase. First he had to make his way past Danilo Petrucci, diving inside the factory Ducati rider as they braked for Musée. That put him slightly off line for the exit of the corner, leaving him fractionally wide going into Garage Vert. Petrucci, still following Miller, found himself a fraction wider than expected, and ran off to the outside. Miller was now firmly in second, while Petrucci had been shuffled back to fifth behind his teammate.
Miller hunted Márquez down, pushing hard to make up the small gap which the Repsol Honda rider had opened. He took three tenths out of Márquez in a single lap, and then was past the next, outbraking the Spaniard into the chicane, and holding onto the lead despite Márquez' best efforts to get back past again.
It was the Repsol Honda rider's turn to push to get the lead back. Márquez closed on Miller's tail for the length of the lap, looking for drive out of the final corner to try to pass the Pramac Ducati on the way into the chicane. But it was Miller who braked later, Márquez losing ground as they turned in for the hard left-right flick of Turns 3 and 4. A sign perhaps that the Honda was no longer utterly superior on the brakes.
Márquez got closer still on the next lap, and this time was close enough to dive up the inside of Turn 3 on the entrance to the chicane. Miller was having none of this, holding a tighter line through Turn 4 to force Márquez out wide, and grab the apex through Turn 5 and into La Chapelle. But his move had asked a little too much of the front tire, and he ran a meter or so wide, just enough to open a gap for Márquez to dive back under.
Free at last
The back and forth between Márquez and Miller had slowed the pace up just enough for Andrea Dovizioso and Valentino Rossi to join the group. So now, not only did Miller have a rampant Márquez trying to get away at the front, he also had his fellow Ducati rider Dovizioso all over his tail.
Miller put his head down and gave chase, but Márquez would not be denied. He held the Pramac Ducati rider at bay around the back part of the course, lining the final double right at Raccordement up to carry the drive onto the front straight. Lap by lap, out of that corner, Márquez eked a tenth or two, until he was finally free.
After the race, Miller blamed himself for getting too enthusiastic in the opening laps. "I enjoyed it quite a bit," the Australian said. "The bike was working pretty well. Maybe got a little carried away at the start, used a little bit too much of the edge of my tire. I tried to get in front of Marc because I felt I had the speed, but I didn't know if I was going to be able to keep the speed for the whole race. So I tried to get in front of Marc and slow the pace down a little bit, but he was able to get back past in about two laps, and once he got back past, he was just able to chip away, like a tenth a lap, bang – bang – bang – bang until it got to about a second. His speed was pretty strong."
Where was Márquez getting that speed from? He was just running the bike through the corners without having to use the brakes, carrying as much speed through the turns as he possibly dared. "In T4 is where I felt stronger because there were no brake points," Márquez said after the race. "I just took the risk in the corners, not in the brake point, because that is where it's more dangerous."
Miller echoed some of this when he was asked after the race what had most impressed him when he had been following Márquez. "Nothing really overly impressed me in braking," the Australian said "I felt I could catch him in most of my braking zones. The Honda seemed really good out of the last corner, it seemed to really acceleration and drive out of there really well. But Marc's riding style, he doesn't seem to make many mistakes, and even when he does he's still able to make it look pretty quick. He ran wide a couple of times into Turn 8 and I thought he was going to touch a kerb and have a little moment. But he was able to stop, get it turned, and pull it back without losing even a tenth. His mistake management was quite good, let's say."
Now leading, Márquez began slowly opening a gap to the Ducatis behind him. Painstakingly, he took a tenth at a time from the chasing Ducatis. When the gap grew to over half a second, he upped the pace again, dropping from 1'32.6s into the 1'32.3s and 1'32.4s. That boosted the gap from six tenths to a second and a half in the space of just a few laps. With the gap now under control, Márquez settled down to a more consistent pace, just holding onto the mid 1'32s and pulling away from the group.
Follow the leader
With Miller unable to follow Márquez, he weighed his options. He could hear Andrea Dovizioso behind him, hanging onto his tail and looking for a way past. The Australian held on to second for ten laps, but unable to go any faster or close the gap to Márquez, decided to let Dovizioso past and see if the factory Ducati rider had some speed in reserve. Together, perhaps, they could take some time out of the Repsol Honda rider.
But Dovizioso didn't have anything in reserve. Once past, the factory Ducati rider kept up the same pace, leaving Dovizioso and Miller losing even more time to Márquez, and with Danilo Petrucci on a forward charge and catching them again. Two laps later, Petrucci was past the Pramac rider, and Miller was dropping back toward Valentino Rossi in fifth place.
"I allowed Dovi to come through because I thought maybe he would have good pace," Miller said after the race. "But to be honest, he didn't have the greatest pace and he was allowing Danilo to catch us. But it was quite good in another way, because I understood a few things of what he is doing differently by following him. So in one way it was a negative, in another way it was a positive. It was a good race."
His problem was that he had used up too much tire in the start. "I just need to understand a little bit more how to do the lap time without using the edge of the tire like I did," Miller said. "Sometimes we're really good, sometimes we struggle. It's more when I get excited around the other guys, I wanna say. For example today, when that gap opened up to Marc and I got past Danilo, it was all out to catch Marc." Racers are racers, and cannot deny their nature, even if it was the wrong choice, Miller acknowledged. "Probably not the right thing to do that early in the race, but we'll take that and we'll work on that for next week."
Once Dovizioso had gotten past Miller, Danilo Petrucci followed a few laps later. At a track he is historically strong at, Petrucci was out for podium glory. Getting past Miller was also important with an eye to next year, with both of them going for the same seat alongside Andrea Dovizioso again.
Past Miller, Petrucci immediately felt faster than his teammate, and took the fight to Andrea Dovizioso. He prodded and poked, sticking his front wheel all over the back of Dovizioso's GP19. Twice he got ahead of his teammate, making up ground through the first section of the track and getting close enough through La Chapelle to dive up the inside on the way into Musée. But each time, Petrucci ran a fraction wide, and Dovizioso could hold the tighter line and take back second place.
He closed through the final sector on the last lap, but was never really close enough to make a pass. At least, not a pass which would guarantee both he and Dovizioso would remain upright. Once again, an important decision with an eye to next year, given the factory Ducati team's history of teammates wiping each other out of podium positions on the last lap. "With Andrea I gave it all," Petrucci said afterward, "but I don’t want to repeat Argentina of some years ago. I said, okay, I try where I can be sure, but as I said, I made two big mistakes and I have to recover a lot of time."
In the end, though, neither Ducati could get anywhere near Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider cruised home with seconds to spare, his lead of nearly 4 seconds cut in half as he rolled across the finish line to take victory, his third of the season, his 47th in MotoGP, and Honda's 300th in the premier class. He won once again by leading for nearly all the race, increasing the total number of laps he has led this season to 84. That is over 70%, and not the way Márquez has won races previously.
Perhaps it is just coincidence. Perhaps these opening rounds are at tracks which particularly suit Márquez, and at which he can lead with some comfort. Perhaps, once we get to Mugello, Barcelona, Assen, Brno, Austria, Misano, he will not be able to lead quite so easily. But it looks like Márquez has changed his approach, forced in part by the change in behavior of the 2019 Honda.
Without the need to rely on braking, Márquez – and Jorge Lorenzo, and Cal Crutchlow – have all been able to use a softer tire than last year. That means more grip and more feel in the middle of the corner, and less risk of the front washing out. But it also means working around the lack of feel on corner entry, and being ready to deal with surprises handed out by the less predictable engine braking. Márquez has found another way to ride, and another way to win.
That, at least, is the conclusion from Márquez' statements to the press conference after the race. "Normally when it’s cold, we struggle," Márquez said. "It's the first time that we raced with the soft tire in the front, but this year we are able to ride in two, three different ways. I can find the lap time in a different way than last year. This is the most important. Then I’m able to use different tires and different riding style."
Márquez also has fewer problems with the feeling of the front end on corner entry, he told the press conference. This was something they had worked on in Argentina and Austin, and again at the Jerez test. Using that confidence meant he could run a softer front tire than usual, and opened up different riding styles. "Now I start to feel really good on the entry of the corner," he said. "This is the most important. Still a few things there to improve, but as I said, I can use two, three different riding styles because we have more engine. When you have more engine, then I understood the way Dovi and Jorge could ride last year. You can try to manage in a different way, I can ride like last year, but I can ride in a different way. This gives me the confidence to be so constant. This is the main difference."
Márquez went into some detail on the way his riding had changed, perhaps inadvertently letting slip that his riding style and race strategy was in part determined by his choice of front tire. "For example, today I was using the soft front tire and that means that you cannot overheat the front," Márquez explained. "This is a little bit like when Ducati and Yamaha were using the soft and we were not able before. Now we are able to, because we are using the same tires and the bike is turning better."
Finding speed in different places
Using the soft tire meant approaching the lap differently, he said. "Last year we just tried to find the lap time in the brake point. This year, maybe we lose a little bit in the brake point but we gain in other areas. This is the way. But the brake point always means risk. Risk means it is difficult to be constant. Now we are able to play in a different way on the brake point and find the lap time in other areas."
How do you overheat the front tire of a MotoGP bike? "If you brake late and you go in with too much speed, you overheat the front tire. If you follow another rider, you overheat the front tire. For that reason today I just tried to lead the race from the beginning."
When he used the harder front, he could use a different style, Márquez explained, staying behind other riders to maintain the heat in the front. "For example, I don’t remember the race, but sometime I used the hard but it was too cold, I just stayed behind some riders all the race and attacked in the end, because then there was more temperature in the front tire and it was working better. With the soft front, I knew that it will be difficult for me behind somebody, so for that reason I was just pushing to try to find fresh air. Of course, riding smoothly and not overheating the front. Trying to overtake a few riders."
How to beat Marc Márquez
In this, Márquez perhaps let slip the method to beat him, and perhaps even his race strategy. If Márquez rolls up to the grid on a harder front tire, then it may be a sign he is planning to sit behind the leaders and use their slipstream to keep heat in the tires, and rely on the brakes and corner entry to try to pass at the end of the race. If he hits the grid with a softer front, its because he believes he has the pace to try to escape, to carry corner speed rather than braking, and get out in front and use the blast of fresh air to cool his front tire.
This gives Márquez' rivals a tell, and a trigger to respond with their own strategy. If Márquez hits the grid with a hard front, then their mission should be to force him to the front, to keep cool air on his front tire, and force him to manage the risk in braking. If he lines up with a softer front, then their plan should be to sit in front of him as much as possible, disrupt his lines and force him into braking duels. Take away the fresh air to cool his tires, and force him to work the tire as much as possible in defending.
Of course, that sounds simple from the safety of my keyboard. But it is very different, and far, far more difficult to put into practice when, say, you are hammering down the front straight at Mugello at over 360 km/h. Strategy is a key part of motorcycle racing, but there are always so many different factors which figure into a race. If the asphalt temperature hits 50°C, then the hard front is likely to work just as well as a softer front. If Márquez gets the holeshot, catching him isn't easy. Holding Márquez up is easy in a group of four, five, or six riders, but much more difficult when you are alone.
Easier said than done
Having a strategy is important, but strategies are always conditional upon circumstances. As the boxer Mike Tyson said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face". Just because you have a plan, it doesn't mean you will be able to execute it. But at least we know that when Marc Márquez chooses his race strategy, it opens up an opportunity to attack by trying to force him out of it. He isn't invincible.
Invincible is something which Márquez himself is wary off, he said. "I felt invincible in 2014 and then 2015, boom," he told the press conference. "I crashed many times because I felt like this. I arrived in MotoGP in 2013, and ’14 I won. I won 13 races, ten in a row. Then I said in 2015, I will win the title again. You feel really good, but then you come back to a more normal way. We are humans. We do some mistakes. We need to learn from them. We are in MotoGP and everybody is so fast. If you want to be the best you need to be precise in all the things."
It is perhaps here where Márquez is outperforming his fellow Honda riders. The reigning champion did not want to comment on the performance of Cal Crutchlow and Jorge Lorenzo, preferring to focus on what he was doing, rather than what the others weren't. But the fact is that Crutchlow, who won a race on a Honda last year and racked up another couple of podiums, finished only ninth.
The LCR Honda rider is still not comfortable with the feeling of the bike's front end. "I think that we have a difference in the bike from last year, so the front feeling is not like what I had last year, or what any of me or Marc had last year as we were the ones on the different bikes," Crutchlow said after crashing in practice. "But a lot of this stems from the engine brake. The bike is so unstable entering the corner."
Finding lap time
The additional speed which Honda have found has placed Andrea Dovizioso in a more difficult situation. Last year, he could use the horsepower and acceleration of the Ducati Desmosedici to get a gap on Márquez and force the Repsol Honda rider to take more risk. Now, Márquez can stay with Dovizioso out of the corner and all the way along the straight. The Honda turns better than the Ducati, so the Desmosedici's advantages are far fewer now.
So it was a visibly unhappy Andrea Dovizioso who found himself in the press conference room at Le Mans. He had come to France hoping to get some points back from Márquez, but left having conceded 5 more points to the Spaniard. He was happy enough to be on the podium, he said, but he was going to need some help from Ducati.
"We have to be happy about the twenty points and situation on the championship," Dovizioso told the press conference. "This is really positive. We are still there, and everything is open. But the other side, I’m not too happy about the weekend. I struggled a little bit. My speed was there, not too bad, but not good enough. So we go into the race and my confidence wasn’t 100%, so to finish second and go home with twenty points is really positive."
But they had to find some more lap time from somewhere, Dovizioso warned. "On the other side, I think we have to understand and analyze this weekend because we have to find something. Marc and Honda in this moment are a bit stronger than us. We have to understand where we can have a margin to improve because we need something more about the speed so we are able to manage better the tires. Today I was struggling. At the end, to finish second is good, but I was fighting with the bike, especially with the rear tire. This is not good if you want to fight for the championship. At the end I was too slow, I couldn’t keep the good pace we had until middle of the race, so this is negative."
The gap is not huge, though, Dovizioso said. "We have to stay calm because we are very close. We were there in this race, and about the championship. We have to study and try to understand." There is talk that Ducati will have upgrades to bring to Mugello. Whether those upgrades will be enough to give them an advantage over Márquez again remains to be seen.
Close, but no cigar
The fact that there were three Ducatis in the top four is a sign of how close the Italian factory is. The three GP19s took second, third, and fourth, with the two factory bikes on the podium. They may not quite have had the pace to match Márquez, but they are in good shape, with strong Ducati tracks like Mugello and Barcelona coming up.
Scoring a podium had not lifted a weight from Danilo Petrucci's shoulders, however. "Since 2017 people put pressure on me," Petrucci explained. Before, he had been in Pramac, and suffered comparisons with Jorge Lorenzo. "The situation two years ago was with Lorenzo, last year the same. I always have a lot of pressure and I won nothing at the moment. I imagine if I win something one day they won't, but people always like a lot to criticize me. I just don’t listen. I don’t care."
Teammate Andrea Dovizioso had helped him handle that situation, Petrucci said. "For this part, I have to say a big thanks to Andrea, because after Austin he talked to me and told me not to care, to push on your weak point to find the way to enjoy what you are doing. After Austin this has helped me a lot," he said. "This podium is also part of a big work that we made with Andrea this winter and till now. But the weight over me is maybe because I weigh a lot. I have this weight always on my shoulder!"
One problem down, next one up
Andrea Dovizioso wasn't the only rider who felt they needed more performance from their bikes. Valentino Rossi crossed the line in fifth place, finishing in the position he started, though there were a fair few adventures along the way. He had fought off challenges from Pol Espargaro and Franco Morbidelli, but been unable to hold the Ducatis of Dovizioso and Petrucci behind him, nor quite catch and pass Jack Miller at the end.
The issue, Rossi explained, was simple. "I tried to give the maximum, but I wasn’t fast enough," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said after the race. "I lost too much on the straight. I lost too much in acceleration in the low speed corners. All the race I tried to stay there, to not lose the slipstream to try and fight for the podium. The podium was my target, but unfortunately it was not enough to beat the Ducatis."
There was a bright side, however. Last year, Yamaha's biggest problem was the bike using up the tires in the latter part of the race. Through a combination of a different engine character, electronics, and chassis tweaks, that, at least, had been addressed. "The good thing is at the end I was good," Rossi opined. "I was able to come back. It looks like in the last laps this year we have less problems compared to last year. This is positive. But it’s not enough to try for the podium."
In almost every aspect, the bike was very good, Rossi explained, except for top end power. "We improved the tire life with different things on the bike. The bike is very good to ride. I want to see the race, but it looks like in braking, in the corner I’m good. But it looks like the others make another step, especially Honda and now the difference is very big on the straight."
"Check the speed on the sheet," Rossi said. And compared to last year, the Hondas and Ducatis had more or less the same top speed. Given much worse conditions – the track was 26°C cooler this year than last – that suggests they are a bit quicker than last year. Yamaha, on the other hand, is between 2 and 5 km/h slower than in 2018. Surprisingly, Fabio Quartararo had the highest average speed, despite being heavier than both Franco Morbidelli and Maverick Viñales. Quartararo's engine has 500 RPM less than the factory-spec machines of Rossi, Viñales, and Morbidelli, so it is interesting that the Frenchman managed to extract more top speed out of the M1.
The answer may lie in the aero package Quartararo was running. Because he has a lower spec machine, he has the 2018 winglets on his fairing. Those are worse for combating wheelie, but restrict top speed less. The other bikes are all using the 2019 double-winglet fairings, which help a lot more to restrict wheelie and so help the bikes get out of the corner, but they also produce more drag and so cost top speed. Which package the riders choose for Mugello, where top speed is king, should be fascinating.
"In all the race, we suffer very much," Rossi said. "Unfortunately what we can improve is that I’m the slower of the Yamahas for some reason. We need to make it better. I’m always last, second to last, sometimes third to last, but very far from the top. In the history, from 2004 the Yamaha is never fantastic on the straight. But it looks like this year we lose very much."
No easy anser
What can Yamaha do? With the engines sealed for 2019, they can't suddenly magic more horsepower from somewhere. They can play with inlet and exhaust tracts, engine mapping, and electronics to try to squeeze a few more horsepower out. They can work on bike balance to try to get more drive and improve acceleration. But they won't be able to find another 15 horses any time soon. Yamaha will have to rely on the bike's strengths – handling, drive, braking – and their rider's abilities to exploit those strengths to try to compete.
The fates of the other Yamaha riders made it hard to make sense of just where Yamaha stand. The three Yamahas which finished all ended in the top eight. Maverick Viñales crashed out earlier, when Pecco Bagnaia clipped his back wheel after getting caught out by Aleix Espargaro braking to try to block Viñales from passing. But Viñales' weekend went wrong already during qualifying, when he was forced to start from eleventh. Viñales had the pace, as he showed in both the dry and the wet. But until he manages to successfully put together an entire weekend – from practice, to qualifying, to the start, to the first laps of the race, and on to the final laps – that pace is not worth much.
Contrast Viñales with Fabio Quartararo. The Petronas SRT Yamaha rider had a similarly miserable qualifying session, starting from tenth alongside Maverick Viñales. He got off to a worse start, losing three places before he even got to the first corner, then locking the front in the second corner and losing a couple more. But once he recovered his composure, he started planning a way to get back into the race. He picked his way forward, until he found himself behind Alex Rins.
More fuel, more speed
Once he got past the Suzuki rider, he made a bold decision. He switched to the qualifying map in an attempt to find a bit more speed. "Today I did something that I normally shouldn't do during the race," he said. "I switched to the time attack mapping during the race, and I said OK, let's see what happens, and if I destroy the tire, it will be my problem. So when I overtook Rins, I switched to the time attack mode, and then when I pushed a lot to the limit, it's not a question of adaptation, it's because I was really on the limit."
The effect was immediately measurable. He dropped his lap times into the 1'32s, going on to record the fastest lap of the race. He fought his way forward, flames visible from the exhaust on the overrun, passing Jorge Lorenzo and Cal Crutchlow, and eventually even closing on his teammate Franco Morbidelli. It was a bold move, though it did not immediately buy him another 10 km/h in top speed. "Luckily here it was not such a big difference," Quartararo said. "It was small changes, maybe in acceleration the bike was spinning a little bit more, but I can control it a little bit with the riding style. But physically, it was really tough to ride, and lucky that the race was finished."
The biggest difference had come from Quartararo himself, he said. He had learned more about preserving tires, and changing his riding style to maximize tire life. "The biggest thing I learned, is how to save the tire," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. And I think I found something. In the beginning of the year, I was finding lap time in acceleration, pushing like hell, and the bike was sliding a lot. And now I'm doing the lap time in a different way. Not really in acceleration, but more in corner speed, braking, all the reverse of what I was doing at the beginning of the year. So this is what I learned during the race. It's only our fifth race, so I hope to learn things like this every time, but for sure I'm really happy about what we did during this GP."
The next star?
Quartararo continues to impress. Every race he learns something more, and after pole at Jerez and a chance to get on the podium, he handled the heartbreak of mechanical failure with exceptional fortitude. In France, at his home Grand Prix, he barely faltered under the enormous pressure and weight of expectations. His poor qualifying position was down to a gamble that didn't pay off, putting slicks on for the early laps. But it was a gamble taken by the factory Yamahas as well.
Only in the early laps did Quartararo show any weakness, but the second half of his race was good enough to match or better the pace at the front. A top five would have been possible, he said, had he not had such a miserable start. The next tracks are Mugello and Barcelona, where the Yamaha will go well around the back of the track, but suffer in top speed. Quartararo's progress there should point to the way for better Yamaha tracks after that. Assen, Brno, Misano, Silverstone, Phillip Island, Sepang, it is hard to imagine that the Frenchman will not manage a podium at one or more of those tracks.
Quartararo's pace is in no small part due to the happy marriage of his riding style and the Yamaha M1. Pol Espargaro's sixth place finish is similarly due to the way that the KTM RC16 fits Espargaro's riding style like a glove. Where the Yamaha M1 rewards smoothness, and the ability to sit back and encourage the bike to do its thing, the KTM demands to be beaten and bullied, pushed and harried into submission. That is why Pol Espargaro was so unhappy on the Yamaha, and why he feels so completely at home on the KTM.
Orange, crushing it
The Spaniard had benefited enormously from the two days of testing at Jerez, one on the Monday, and another on the Wednesday, which took place behind closed doors. There, Espargaro and teammate Johann Zarco had tried a carbon fiber swingarm, which had had proved to be a significant improvement on the standard aluminum item.
The improvement did not come over a single lap, but the new swingarm provided a more consistent feel over the entirety of race distance. That was visible from the result Espargaro secured at Le Mans. Though they had done better at Valencia last year, in a bizarre rain-soaked race, Espargaro's sixth place, less than six seconds behind the winner, was KTM's best ever dry result.
"Simply a stunning result, and almost unbelievable after less than two and a half years," Espargaro enthused after the race. "What we are achieving…who says that the tubes and WP don't work?! We are showing that we are on the way. It is unbelievable and I am so proud of this project."
Conventional wisdom is nonsense, probably
There has been almost universal skepticism that KTM would be able to succeed using the steel trellis frame and WP suspension, as they go counter to conventional paddock wisdom. Conventional wisdom dictates that an aluminum beam chassis is the only option for anyone wanting to be competitive in MotoGP, and that the lack of data which WP has makes it impossible for them to compete with Ohlins, who rule the rest of the MotoGP grid. Even Honda dropped their in-house brand Showa in favor of Ohlins eventually. Surely KTM will have to do the same?
Apparently not. Though there is still much progress to be made, Esparagaro was just a tenth or two off podium pace. The concept appears to work, but the project just needs more time. The carbon fiber swingarm was a big step in the right direction, helping to make the lap times more consistent. The time which KTM riders had lost in the second part of previous races, Espargaro managed to hold on to, keeping his sixth place and minimizing the gap to the leaders.
"It looks like in general we get more stable lap times," KTM team manager Mike Leitner said. "The consistency went up. This was quite a good help. But this was this race, now we have to go to Mugello, but for us we are still in the beginning of the third season for us, and to be here, I never would have expected it. With a steel frame, with WP suspension, you get the question a thousand times, do you believe it will work? Yes, we believe it. 100%."
There was more, of course: a new chassis, a new engine configuration which provided a friendlier power delivery. But the swingarm, and the layout of the Le Mans track conspired to give Espargaro his best shot in a race.
Was this a bigger result for Espargaro than his podium in Valencia last year? "Yes, 100%," the Spaniard said without hesitation. "For sure the podium gave us a lot of good feelings and good spirit to keep on working but what we have achieved today is unbelievable. There were no crashes in front. We cannot say this was an unfair result. We are there because we were fifth, and we were there during the whole race. The competition is so high here with the best riders in the world and we are just five seconds from HRC. It is amazing and for sure gives us wings to keep working and be better in the next races to keep fighting for the top ten."
The real test for KTM and Espargaro will come at Mugello. Le Mans was a track which suited both Espargaro's riding style and the strengths of the bike. But Mugello was a track where they struggled last year. But the result had left Espargaro bursting with confidence. "I don't know what we can expect in the next races because I couldn't imagine we could do that today," he said.
The test in Jerez had changed a lot. "Wednesday was really good in Jerez and sometimes that happens at a test: you change something and it goes really good and you arrive to the next race and it goes the same. The step in Jerez was much better for here compared to last year and hopefully it will be the same in Mugello. I’m looking forward to jumping on the bike in Mugello because after the result of today my confidence is high but my soul is very curious."
The contrast with his teammate could hardly be greater. Where Espargaro pushed hard and ended up sixth, Johann Zarco struggled throughout the race and finished thirteenth. The story was the same as ever: a bike which Zarco cannot ride, and which he shows no signs of being willing to adapt to. Optimism on Saturday after he posted strong times in the wet disappeared once the track dried on Sunday, Zarco once again running up against the limitations of the KTM RC16, and his inability – or unwillingness – to adapt to.
Zarco's pain and disappointment is written all over his face. In media debriefs, he looks like he wishes he had chosen to pursue a career as an actuary. New rider coach and assistant Jean-Michel Bayle has his work cut out.
The other transferree had a little more success. Jorge Lorenzo had a breakthrough on Friday, after dumping the seat he had brought with him from Yamaha and switching to the standard Honda seat. That allowed him to ride more naturally, but he was still some way off from being able to wrap his head around the Honda RC213V. Lorenzo started relatively strongly, but dropped back as the race went on, eventually dropping out of the top ten.
Part of Lorenzo's problem is a lack of upper body strength. That has come in part from an inability to train after fracturing his scaphoid in a training accident back in January. Though the bone his healing well, the scaphoid takes a very long time to heal fully, and it will take another couple of months before it is fully healed. That is currently preventing him from working on his shoulders, arms, and upper body.
Lorenzo feels he is as fit as he has ever been, as far as cardiovascular fitness is concerned. But he lacks strength. And the vicious way the short and high Honda RC213V pitches the rider forward places huge demands on the upper body. Cal Crutchlow is the living embodiment of that: the LCR Honda rider turns up every year at Sepang with the upper body of a cyclist. With a body type that builds muscle relatively easily (much to his chagrin), Crutchlow ends up at Valencia with the chest, shoulders, and arms of a boxer. He hasn't done any strength training to get that way: it has all come from the bike. Until Lorenzo can build that kind of strength, he will struggle.
Finally, Suzuki, and Alex Rins. The Spaniard discovered the penalty of qualifying badly at Le Mans. He had struggled all week with corner entry, from the moment he released the brakes. That cost him dearly during free practice, where he missed out on Q2 and ended up 19th on the grid. From there, he had a relatively strong race, fighting his way forward to finish tenth.
That, in itself, would be commendable. But the problem is that he came to Le Mans as second in the championship, a single, solitary point behind Marc Márquez. He left the French track as third, 20 points behind the Repsol Honda rider. For a rider with aspirations of the championship, that is unacceptable. Titles are won on a rider's bad days, not their good days. To win a championship, Rins needs to finish in the top five, even when the weekend is going badly. And that means ensuring he is in Q2, and once in Q2, ensuring he qualifies on the front two rows.
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