It was supposed to be a steady, stable weekend with consistent weather for all three days of the Valencia MotoGP round. But it's 2020, so of course, that didn't happen. After a solid day of dry weather on Friday, conditions turned on Saturday. Not by a lot, but just enough to render chasing a quick time in practice and qualifying a treacherous business, with light rain coming and going throughout.
After the track dried in FP3, it never really rained hard enough to need wet tires. But there was just enough rain at times to make grip supremely treacherous, and to force riders to take bigger risks than they might have wanted. Alex Márquez paid the heaviest price, pushing hard in Q1 after rain had started to fall, the rear coming round on him and snapping back to highside him to what looked like low earth orbit.
It turned out to be a lucky escape for Márquez, the Repsol Honda rider escaping with a painful tailbone and a badly bruised bone in his left hand. His injuries were severe enough that his participation in the race tomorrow is to be assessed during warm up on Sunday morning.
For riders with a championship on the line, the risks were even greater. Marc VDS rider Sam Lowes, currently second in the Moto2 standings, 6 points behind Enea Bastianini, had a crash in FP3 big enough that it was feared he had broken his wrist. Like Alex Márquez, Lowes was lucky to escape without a fracture. But the lingering pain from the injury left him dead last in Q2, and starting from eighteenth. Even that had required a heroic effort. With Enea Bastianini departing from twelfth, a couple of rows ahead, all is not lost for Lowes. Gritting his teeth may turn out to have been worth it.
Imagine, then, the pressure on Joan Mir. The Suzuki rider is within 14 points of his first MotoGP title, taken in just his second season in the class. The weakness of the Suzuki GSX-RR has always been qualifying – though that was not apparent last week – so he faced a sizable challenge on Saturday. First, to secure a slot in Q2, which he did with a commendable fifth fastest time in FP3, after a wet start to that session. Then to attack in Q2, and try to ensure he would start Sunday's race as far forward as possible.
Try as he might, however, Mir came up short. The Suzuki Ecstar rider could not find the necessary speed in Q2, and ended the session as slowest. He will start the race from twelfth on the grid, a difficult position to find himself in at a track where overtaking is so difficult, even for the hyper-agile Suzuki.
That was precisely the situation he had worried about after winning last Sunday's race. "I want to start from the front and escape," he had told the Spanish media a week ago, when asked for his plan for this weekend. "Less risk. The problem with starting from twelfth like in Aragon is that there are many people who want to win the race on the first lap. And this we have to avoid."
Not as bad as he thought
On Saturday, he was a little more sanguine about ending up in the position he had feared a week ago. "In qualifying I don’t know what happened," Mir said. "I felt it a little yesterday, and I don’t know what happened in FP2. Same here. I don’t understand. Didn’t feel the correct feelings to push. I was not able to make a one-lap time. A shame. The important thing is we have pace. We’ve started from this position a couple of times. I don’t like the position but it’s not the end of the world."
He has, indeed, started from twelfth before, at the Teruel round, the second race at Aragon. At that race, he got a lightning start and, with a little bit of help from Takaaki Nakagami crashing out of the lead, was up to fifth position by Turn 12. But the nature of the Aragon circuit helped him, with more than a few corners where he could exploit the ability of the Suzuki to turn. By the end of that race, he was on the podium, crossing the line in third.
Passing at Valencia is much tougher, and much more will depend on the first lap, especially the first couple of corners before the pack starts to string out a little. But starting in twelfth – almost literally the middle of the pack – exposes him to a lot more risk than he would want.
In the same boat
The small comfort is that his direct rivals for the championship are in not much better shape. Fabio Quartararo starts directly beside him in eleventh. Suzuki teammate Alex Rins didn't make it out of Q1, and so starts from fourteenth. Only Maverick Viñales, who trails Mir in the title chase by 41 points, starts ahead of him, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider having had a relatively strong Q2 to qualify sixth.
So what strategy should Mir adopt? Does he go all in for the first couple of corners to try to move up through the field and away from potential trouble? Or should he bide his time, stay safe, and wait to see how the race plays out? Should he only concern himself with his direct rivals for the championship, or should he focus just on his own race?
The opening laps would determine how the rest of the race plays out, Mir said. "The first laps will be crucial. It will be crucial to understand what position we are in to decide what we want to do. I’ll try to recover as many positions as I can. Then if I’m in a good and comfortable position I’ll start to think about the championship but before that I will try to recover many positions."
Pace will only get you so far
Mir had shown strong pace during FP3 and FP4, and was confident of being competitive. In terms of race pace, he had only teammate Alex Rins and Petronas Yamaha's Franco Morbidelli to contend with. But Rins starts from behind him, while Morbidelli grabbed an outstanding pole position. Starting from so far behind Morbidelli would make it difficult to take the fight to the Italian.
"Probably I’m one of few riders that can fight with Franco if nothing happened [in qualifying]. But I am starting really far back. A problem to fight for the win," Mir considered. "I’ll try to give 100% and in the race I’ll see where we are and in that moment I’ll start to think about the championship and my feelings. My feelings will decide. If I stay in the top 10 or not better. Or I want to go for the podium. At the moment that’s what I want."
Mir could not deny that he was starting to feel the pressure. "Of course it’s difficult. It’s a different weekend, a lot of media pressure. So I try to stay calm and do everything normal." The fact that the championship was reaching its climax was taking its toll. "The truth is that we all know the pressure is more because this is going to end quickly. It’s going to finish in one day or next weekend. We can feel the pressure. It’s not a bad thing. But it’s true that I want to finish quickly."
Turned on its head
The Suzuki rider has the least to fear from Fabio Quartararo, judging both by the pace of the Frenchman, and by the demeanor of the Petronas Yamaha rider. Quartararo and his team remain lost, unable to extract the feeling he wants from the bike. They had turned the bike upside down and back to front, and still found no joy, Quartararo explained.
"I think the amount of changes that we did this weekend is much more than we did all the season last year," the Frenchman said. "And we make big changes, because we really think it is going to work, but every time is the same problem, every time we are pushing and trying to adapt the bike, but every time it's the same problem. Normally when we are running bad like this weekend, we put a new tire and everything is OK, because you have rear grip and everything is working. But right now, apart from Franco, who has a different bike to us, we are all running in a bad way, I would say."
Such was his difficulty that he wasn't even thinking about the championship, he was just focused on another overhaul of bike setup which might pay off on Sunday. "Honestly, I'm not thinking about Joan," Quartararo told us. "I'm thinking about trying to make the biggest improvement possible in the warm up, that is something even bigger than today, the change. When we were talking in the box, I was even lost before testing the bike with all the changes that we will do. But I believe in the change, the team looks confident in making the change, and it's not really a strategy. The strategy will be try to have fun, and try to finish as on top as possible."
Quartararo's first focus was on this setup change, and only if it worked would he start to think about Joan Mir and trying to beat him. "Honestly, right now, I'm in another mood than than thinking about Joan. I'm in the mood of making a big improvement for tomorrow morning, and if we have this, I will think about that. But not right now."
Your teammate is the first rider you have to beat
Alex Rins has a little more fight in him, and rightly so, given that the Suzuki Ecstar rider had arguably the best pace of the grid in FP4. But his problem was that he couldn't get out of Q1, spooked by the rain showers which kept passing during qualifying. "Today, it was a disaster the qualifying, we don't have a lot of luck," Rins said. "In the beginning of Q1 I was leading the group trying for a fast lap. I couldn’t get one. With the second tire, I was pushing very hard on the last laps, if not to go to Q2, at least be very close. But I saw in sector three and sector four more strong rain and full of rain flags. I decide to not risk a lot." That cost him a slot in Q2.
Rins took comfort in the fact that he has such strong race pace. "The important thing is we have good pace for tomorrow," Rins said. "We knew that we’d start far back. The key is to do a good start and good first laps. We have potential. This track is more tight. But yeah, let’s try."
The Suzuki rider would be watching the starts of previous races in the hope of picking up something for Sunday's race. "We need to study the starts from previous years. Let’s see if we can take something." Starting from fourteenth, the middle slot of the grid, complicated matters. "For sure it’s better on the side, not the middle. In the middle you have the risk that the front guy close the line."
Tire choice was the most important factor, Rins said, especially when it came to the front tire. That would determine whether he would be able to attack from the start. "For sure to choose the ideal tire is the key," Rins said. "We are between the medium and the hard on the front. Let’s see which tire we choose. It will be crucial to go forward."
On to 2021
Despite the fact that he starts two rows ahead of championship leader Joan Mir, Maverick Viñales had already abandoned any thought of the title. He had no strategy to exploit his better starting position, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider told us. "I don’t have any strategy. For me the most important thing right now is to try and understand what we need to do for next year, especially about the situation of the rear grip because sometimes we suffer a lot. Especially here in Valencia. Where the grip is not that amazing, we are suffering a lot, especially on banking."
Viñales did have a much better feeling with some of the improvements he and his team had made to the Yamaha M1. "We improved a lot the braking and the entry into the corner, but we didn't touch the acceleration," he said. "So tomorrow we will have an opportunity to see if we can improve. If not, we'll focus in the next race in Portimao. But anyway it's important to give a direction to Yamaha because right now with the new bike are a little bit lost. So we need to find a good direction that they can work in the winter to bring something that really works on the bike."
A lot has been made of the difference between the 2020 and the 2019 Yamaha M1 which Franco Morbidelli is riding, and put on pole. But Valentino Rossi feels that this is missing the point. "The problem is that also last year was a difficult season for Yamaha and we need to improve the bike in some areas, the first one is the engine, the second is the rear grip, for example," Rossi said.
2020 vs 2019
The differences were relatively small. "From the first time we tried the new bike, for me the feeling when you ride is very, very similar. It's not very different," Rossi said, identifying this as the potential issue. "So the problem is not that the new bike is worse than the old bike, for me, but the problem is that it's very similar. So we are not able to make the step to improve and for me the bigger problem is this."
The fact that last year's bike is better than this year's bike is nothing new, Rossi insisted. "Now Morbidelli is on pole, he rides very well but in the last years a lot of times it happened that the satellite riders with the old bike are able to be stronger than the factory riders. So for me what we need is a serious work to try to improve."
Franco Morbidelli offered a possible explanation for why the old bike was doing better than the new M1. His crew chief Ramon Forcada already had a great deal of data and experience with the old bike, which made homing in on the best setup that much easier. "What I can say is that Ramon is very good," Morbidelli told the press conference. He has great experience, great knowledge. He knows the bike so much and the fact that we remain with the same bike from one year to another, I think from the point of view of the modifications that we do on the bike and the moves that we do, is an advantage because we are able to be very precise in what we do." The bike was already pretty good, Morbidelli said. "I don’t want to say it too loud but it’s difficult that it needs some modification. So that’s a great thing. I’m lucky to be working with him. Is a great advantage, I would say."
First, the race
Ironically, Franco Morbidelli is perhaps best placed to post a genuine threat to Joan Mir in the title chase. Morbidelli's pace was on a par with that of Alex Rins, Joan Mir, and Red Bull KTM Tech3's Miguel Oliveira. But unlike the other three, Morbidelli starts from pole. The main obstacle between the Italian and victory is probably Takaaki Nakagami, though getting stuck behind Jack Miller would also be a problem.
Nakagami has the best pace of the other two front row starters, the LCR Honda rider back in the groove he has been in for the past few races. Miller may not have shown the same pace, but he had an impressive qualifying and the speed of the Ducati can make it a formidable obstacle for other riders. And Miller was on the podium here last year.
But if Morbidelli can get a good start and get away, he can grab a big handful of points from Joan Mir and perhaps keep his title hopes alive. I certainly wouldn't bet against Morbidelli winning. But given Joan Mir's starting position, and where his other rivals start, I wouldn't bet against the Suzuki Ecstar wrapping up the title on Sunday either. Or I wouldn't, except it's 2020, the year in which anything can happen and more of than not, actually does. So perhaps it is best to refrain from betting altogether, and just sit back and enjoy the show.
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