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Wed, 2021-06-30 01:32
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Though Maverick Viñales dominated the headlines at Assen – both on and off the track – there was a race to talk about too. For a deep dive into Viñales' situation, see the first part of my Assen review. But let's talk about the race, shall we?

Though Fabio Quartararo won the race comfortably, that is far from the whole story. How and why Quartararo won, how he got past Pecco Bagnaia, why Maverick Viñales couldn't catch his teammate, Johann Zarco's stealthy title campaign, Pecco Bagnaia's defensive masterclass, Joan Mir's strength and shortcoming, and Valentino Rossi's imminent and inevitable retirement decision. All this and more is worth talking about.

But let's start with the winner. Fabio Quartararo came into the race as joint favorite with his teammate, Maverick Viñales. The Monster Energy Yamaha riders had dominated practice, Viñales and Quartararo three or four tenths faster than anyone else, and Viñales holding a slight advantage in race pace.

Made for Yamaha

A new track surface combined with tires which were a known quantity and worked well in the conditions meant there was grip aplenty. Add that to a track which suits the Yamaha – long, flowing corners where carrying speed is what counts – meant that everyone was waiting for the inevitable. If a Yamaha got to the front of the race, they would be gone. With Viñales and Quartararo first and second on the grid, the only question was which one it would be.

The fact that it was Quartararo who led into the first corner should not really come as a surprise. The match up between Viñales and Quartararo illustrated neatly the difference between the two. Viñales got the better drive off the line, but ran out of steam as he struggled with his clutch. Quartararo swooped across and into Turn 1 in first place, while Viñales got swallowed up by Pecco Bagnaia, Takaaki Nakagami, and Alex Rins.

Knowing he couldn't let Quartararo escape, Bagnaia launched his first attack on the exit of the Ruskenhoek, the pair slugging it out through Stekkenwal while Nakagami harried them from behind. In his rush to defend, Quartararo was forced to run wide at De Bult, and that let Bagnaia through.

Making plans

From there, Quartararo faced a dilemma: he knew he had to get past Bagnaia before the GT chicane, and the Ducati Lenovo rider had a chance to deploy his rear ride height device to his advantage. The amount Bagnaia gained out of the final corner and along the front straight, and out of Stekkenwal and on to De Bult, was staggering. Watch the footage from the helicopter camera or Quartararo's onboard camera, and the Ducati takes off like a scalded cat, turning two bike lengths into ten in a twist of the wrist. If you didn't know any better, you would be searching Bagnaia's bike for a bottle of nitrous oxide.

The way Quartararo solved this problem was masterful. He closed Bagnaia down through the Southern Loop, using the corner speed advantage against the Ducati at the point in the track where it struggled. He tried creeping up on Bagnaia at Meeuwenmeer, but couldn't get close enough to attack at the GT.

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Sun, 2021-06-27 02:01
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Saturday at Assen only deepened the enigma that is Maverick Viñales. After being fastest in both sessions of practice on Friday, the Monster Energy Yamaha man added FP3 to his belt in the morning, then finished second in FP4. That result was a little deceptive, however: he started FP4 on a used soft tire with 15 laps, nearly two thirds race distance, on it, and put nearly race distance on it, ending with a couple of 1'33.7s. For context, the race lap record at Assen is 1'33.617, set by Marc Márquez on lap 4 of the 2015 race. Viñales' second run was on a new medium tire, assessing tire choice for the race.

Seven days ago, Viñales was just twelfth fastest in FP4, and qualified in 21st. The contrast could not be greater with Assen. Here, he qualified on pole position, smashing the lap record and becoming the second rider to lap the Circuit van Drenthe in under 1'32, after teammate Fabio Quartararo posted a 1'31.922 in his first run during Q2. Both Monster Energy Yamaha riders ended with laps of 1'31.8, Quartararo posting three 1'31s to Viñales' two. But it was Viñales who was the quickest of the pair, taking pole with 1'31.814.

It is quite the turnaround for Maverick Viñales. From penultimate on the grid in Germany to pole position at Assen. From dead last in the race a week ago to heading into the 90th edition of the Dutch TT as one of the two favorites to win. From the outside, it is hard to make sense of Viñales' transformation.

Even for his rivals. "Fabio looks quite strong. We'll see about the other one," Jack Miller said, refusing even to mention Viñales by name. "I mean, he was dead last last week, and decided to actually show up to the race this week, so that's good." There was a mixture of bewilderment and skepticism on his face as he said it.

When the levee breaks...

Then on Saturday night came news which merely added to the enigma. Maverick Viñales did not attend his media debrief on Friday, the reason given being a long technical meeting. (He did, however, attend his TV debriefs interviews. I incorrectly reported that he didn't last night.) The real reason was not a technical meeting, however, but it appears that it was to meet with top Yamaha management to discuss his future.

Spanish media sources are reporting that his future no longer lies with Yamaha. The Spaniard and Yamaha have mutually agreed to part ways at the end of 2021, Viñales getting out of his contract a year early. A contract he signed back in January 2020, after pressing Yamaha for a response to a prodigious offer from Ducati.

Instead, it seems, Viñales is off to Aprilia, to ride alongside Aleix Espargaro. A contract signed this weekend, as part of his separation from Yamaha. For Yamaha, they save a great deal of money – Viñales is reported to be the second-best paid rider on the grid, his salary in the high seven figures, according to AS.com. For Aprilia, they finally get a proven winner on their bike, to take some of the strain of development off the shoulders of Aleix Espargaro, who has been carrying the development load of the RS-GP ever since arriving at the Noale factory. And for Viñales, he trades money – a lot of money – for a chance to escape Yamaha, and to try to achieve success at Aprilia.

Domino effect

The repercussions of all this are sizable. If Viñales goes to Aprilia, then that means that 1) there is no room for Andrea Dovizioso, 2) Yamaha have at least one vacancy for 2022, and possibly two if Valentino Rossi retires, as expected, and 3) Yamaha have to decide whether Franco Morbidelli has done enough to deserve a shot in the factory team. If they do, they have to buy Morbidelli out of his contract with Petronas.

Then there's the question of Raul Fernandez. Does the remarkable Moto2 rookie abandon KTM for Yamaha? Is Yamaha willing to buy Fernandez out of his contract with KTM, the price being bandied about roughly half a million euros? Does he go to Tech3, taking the second seat along his current Red Bull Ajo KTM Moto2 teammate Remy Gardner? Or does he stay in Moto2 for another year?

In the qualifying press conference, Fernandez neatly dodged the question. "For going to MotoGP, everybody asks this, but at the end, KTM says they bring me the opportunity to stay another season in Moto2 and I’m really happy for this," the Spaniard said. "Also in the summer break I will speak with them, but at the moment I know that I will stay in Moto2 another season."

Note the use of the open-ended phrase 'at the moment'. 'At the moment' ends the moment the words left Fernandez' mouth, in the most extreme interpretation of the phrase. That doesn't mean that his situation will change, but by the end of the summer, it most certainly could have. Right now, Fernandez' plan is to stay in Moto2 with the Red Bull KTM Ajo team. But by the time we reconvene in Austria he could have signed to race in MotoGP either with Tech3, or with Yamaha.

A surfeit of talent

Fernandez' decision neatly illustrates the problems KTM face, though they are problems born of abundance rather than poverty. What Raul Fernandez has to decide is where his best chance of getting a factory ride lies. KTM have Brad Binder already signed through 2024, and on his current form, they would be foolish not to extend a similar offer to Miguel Oliveira. Fernandez would receive full factory support in the Tech3 squad, but being in a satellite team is never the same as being in a factory squad: the engineers come into the factory garage first, and only venture into satellite garages afterward.

Does Fernandez have a better chance at ascending to the Monster Energy Yamaha factory squad if he signs for Yamaha? The most likely destination, should he sign for the Japanese factory, would be to take a seat in the Petronas Yamaha squad. Franco Morbidelli would be the obvious choice to promote to the factory team, though his results so far this year do not make that a certainty.

If Fernandez went to Petronas, he would have to weigh up whether promotion to the factory team is an option in the near future: Fabio Quartararo's 2021 season is so far going a long way toward cementing his future as the number 1 rider in the factory team for the foreseeable future. And if Franco Morbidelli could repeat his outstanding 2020 on a factory M1 in 2022, then he would justify a long-term contract there too.

On the other hand, what Yamaha doesn't have is a stream of talented youngsters already signed and angling to get to MotoGP. Yamaha, like most other factories, does not have a career ladder full of Pedro Acostas scrabbling to get into MotoGP.

Viñales signing for Aprilia also leaves Andrea Dovizioso out in the cold. Aprilia boss Massimo Rivola told MotoGP.com's Simon Crafar that they expected to announce their second rider in the next few weeks, though that may now be sooner rather than later. There were hints that Dovizioso had seen the writing on the wall in an interview with his manager, Simone Battistella. "There might be surprises, all contracts can be prematurely ended," the Italian told Corsedimoto.com.

Could Dovizioso take Viñales' place at Yamaha? An intriguing idea, given the history of the Italian with the Japanese factory. But Dovizioso's problem is his age. Would Yamaha want to sign a rider who will be 36 when he starts the season, or would they prefer to take a chance on a young rider, and hope they can develop into someone capable of challenging for a title? They already have one young rider capable of carrying the championship load for the foreseeable future, so they have nothing to lose by choosing youth over experience.

Grip

The bike is also pretty good, at least at Assen. And this, perhaps, explains more fully the roots of Maverick Viñales wild variations in competitiveness. Assen has always been a high-grip track, and the new surface has only added to that. Grip is the major variable in the equation determining Viñales' performance: at tracks where grip is plentiful, Viñales is fast. At tracks where it is missing, he can't turn the bike, get it to accelerate, and is slow.

"With grip I can be fast," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said in the qualifying press conference. "This is the problem that when we don’t have grip we are not able to improve. With this kind of bike when you don’t have grip, you can do nothing. I know this bike is great when you have grip. Without grip, sometimes it’s worse. As I said, for me the Yamaha bike when you are on the point when you have good feeling, when you can create that kind of thing, it’s a fantastic bike. You can do whatever you want with the bike on the track. The problem is that it happened four times in a year. This is the biggest problem."

On Thursday, Viñales had loudly proclaimed that he would simply be copying teammate Fabio Quartararo's settings. But so far, he has done nothing of the sort. "No, I didn’t try at the end because I didn’t want to lose the feeling I had with the bike," the Spaniard said when asked if he had tried Quartararo's settings. "I had three or four points in the track where I can be fast and I don't want to lose that. Also, I’m quite good on stability and this is very important here in Assen."

Untouched

In fact, he had barely touched the bike since it had rolled out of the trucks after Sachsenring. He had started with the settings he had used in Germany, and just left the bike alone. "Honestly, I think it’s a race that I have been less in the box. Maybe just a few times to check a few corners," Viñales said. "Yeah, I had one bike like Fabio, but I have such a great feeling with my bike that I don't want to touch. I felt many positive things in some parts of the track where also keeps the tire in a good mode for many, many laps."

So far, leaving the bike alone was paying off handsomely. "I don't want to touch it. I don't want to lose the feeling. So, I don’t touch nothing. Just keep going," Viñales said. "I know I’m strong in a few corners where it’s nice also to overtake. We will see tomorrow. For sure, we have the chance to try it, but at the moment it’s not in the plan."

If Viñales is slow at one track and fast at another, surely he should be working harder to solve the problems he is facing? Working harder on himself, and on managing himself as well as the bike. Viñales responded to that suggestion with scorn. "What do you want, that I sleep in the box? No, it’s enough. We cannot wait for more races. It’s enough to have five, six races in a row which are really bad results."

The hardest thing was that he had not even been able to pull a single fast lap out of the bag even when grip was low. "Especially for me what is tough is normally even if I have a not good grip condition I was able to make one lap and be in the front, but the last races not even for one lap," Viñales said. "I crash once per race, when maybe I never crashed in all the season. To me it’s an indicator that we were far away. I cannot be more calm. I need to keep going. At least now my heart rate is a little bit more high and I can push more."

Yet a different approach may well be rewarding. Fabio Quartararo manages to be fast even when there is no grip, despite the fact the bike isn't working as well. "I think that in some areas it’s true that without the grip we are struggling," the Frenchman agreed. "In Sachsenring for me it was a really strange situation because at the beginning of the race in turn seven we were struggling so much. I don't know why, because normally with grip we turn a lot. When I had no grip, the bike was turning better in that corner. So, for me it’s difficult to check with Sachsenring because it’s a track that was so strange for us."

In contrast to Viñales, things have been going very well for Quartararo. "In general, I can’t say I had many issues this year," the Frenchman said. Though data was shared, Quartararo only looked at the data of Viñales when he was slower than his Spanish teammate, so he had no real idea where Viñales' problems might lie. "I try to manage on the best way as possible, but with Maverick I’m not checking when he’s struggling. I’m checking where he’s faster than me to try to improve myself."

The Yamahas have no real problems at Assen, however. Sunday's race looks like being utterly dominated by the Monster Energy Yamaha team, both Quartararo and Viñales a big step ahead of the rest. Even Valentino Rossi is having a reasonable weekend, closer to the top ten than he has been for a while.

On the face of it, Sunday's race looks set to be a battle between Viñales and Quartararo, with Quartararo the favorite based on FP4 pace. The only hope for their rivals is to try to get ahead at the start and hold up the Yamahas in the hope of disrupting their game plan.

That is especially true of the Ducatis. "If Pecco's able to get a decent start, which he should be able to do from third place here," Jack Miller said of his teammate Bagnaia. And with Pramac rider Johann Zarco starting from fifth, they should be able to mount an assault. "I think Johann's on second row, I'm on third, so we should all be able to get a decent start and hopefully try to disrupt their rhythm in the beginning. And hopefully that should be able to give us our chance for the end of the race, but we'll have to wait and see."

According to the lap time analysis by ex-crew chief Chris Pike, Bagnaia has the best chance of being able to achieve that. The Italian showed the strongest pace of the Ducatis, having fixed his issues from Friday. But Zarco was confident too, as the Pramac team had found a small change in suspension which gave him a lot of confidence. "In FP4, we also keep trying things and really there is a run that just a small modification on the bike gave me a lot in feeling," the Frenchman said. "So, this is kind of positive. Because I’m sensitive, as soon as I’m feeling good I can enjoy a lot on the bike."

Zarco had been used for a tow by Marc Márquez in Q1, as the Honda rider attempted to make it through to Q2. Far from being upset by it, the Frenchman chose to take it as a compliment. "It’s almost pleasant to have Marc trying to follow or just waiting for you to follow. It’s better to take it in this way," Zarco said. "Marc remains Marc. He won in Sachsenring. He is the champion for me. In that way, it helps to get some self-confidence, I would say."

It had not helped Márquez, the Repsol Honda rider crashing out at the end of Q1 while on a fast lap, and now forced to start from 20th. That is tough for the Spaniard, as his pace is surprisingly strong, close to the Suzukis of Alex Rins and Joan Mir, and a tad better than Pecco Bagnaia.

That was a relief, after a massive crash in FP2 on Friday that left him badly battered and bruised, and with a slight limp he was doing his best to disguise. "It’s true today I started this morning and the first thing was, will it be possible to ride the bike?" Márquez told us. "Because the crash from yesterday I had a lot of pain in the right foot and I was not able to push. With the right arm I’m not able to push a lot. Then it was very difficult. This was in the morning. Then in the afternoon I felt better. This makes me happy because it looks like now is in a better way and tomorrow will be even better to ride fast alone and behind."

Márquez was not just happy with the way he had reacted, but also with the work which Honda had done. The Repsol Honda rider had complained that the traction control settings were not up to scratch on Friday, and that was one of the reasons for his big crash. "Honda is working in a good way. This is the thing I want to see," Márquez said. "Here they bring a chassis. It’s working a little bit better. Yesterday I complained about the TC. Today I received a new solution for the TC which was much better and was working safe. So this is Honda and what I need from the team. They’re working really hard I’m happy for that."

Márquez has a lot of ground to make up before he can be competitive. He has two problems, the first being that his injuries are still hampering him from pushing as hard as he could when he was fully fit. The second is that the Michelin tires are working exceptionally well at Assen, with all three rear compounds raceable, and very little drop in performance in any of the tires. That limits any chance of managing tires to save performance for the end of the race.

That is also the issue faced by the Suzukis, even though both Alex Rins and Joan Mir look to have the pace to lead the group chasing the Yamahas. The two Suzuki Ecstar riders start from the third and fourth rows, but will have to fight their way forward, rather than waiting for everyone else's tires to drop and simply using the Suzuki's superior tire conservation to ride right past them.

"I think Suzuki was strong in the final part of the race before," Alex Rins explained. "Now, we are struggling more to overtake, we are pushing the tires more, and we arrive at the end of the race more like this, more on the limit. I don't know, it depends on the temperature whether we will choose the soft or the hard. But it's true that the disadvantage that we had before, now it's more close."

The other disadvantage the Suzukis have is the lack of a rear ride height device, the hydraulic piston which lowers the rear of the bike on corner exit and for the starts. Rins quantified just how much of a disadvantage that is. "0.2, 0.3 seconds?" Rins told us "Yes, we are losing, this is true. Suzuki calculates how much in every track. For example in Sachsenring, we were losing 0.4 seconds, and here, I don't know exactly, we are losing 0.3."

Suzuki are expected to bring their ride height device to either the first or the second race in Austria. Once they do, that should put Joan Mir and Alex Rins firmly back into contention. Until then, they will have to hope to find a way past the competition at Assen, and to take the best result possible.


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Sat, 2021-06-26 01:30
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Eventful. That was the best way to describe the first day of practice at Assen. The riders got a chance to sample the new asphalt, and they also got a chance to sample typical Assen summer weather: cool and dry in the morning, sprinkles of rain in the afternoon, followed by a downpour harsh enough to soak the track and allow a few laps in full wet conditions. Not ideal for working on bike setup, especially if your name is Garrett Gerloff, and you have been drafted in to replace Franco Morbidelli, who spent the morning having surgery on his meniscus and ACL, and faces an 8-week period of rehab. That would mean a return after the two races in Austria. But more of Gerloff later.

The verdict on the new asphalt was unanimously positive. "The grip is fantastic," Jack Miller echoing the thoughts of almost everyone. "I mean, Moto3 was close to the lap record. We’re already going really fast, from the beginning this morning. The way the tires are working with the asphalt seems to be really good. The tires are not really dropping off. We were all doing our best lap times at the end of FP1 with the same tires, which generally doesn’t really happen."

Though Assen does not see enough top-flight car racing to pull up severe ripples in the braking areas (and lacks the kind of corners were such severe braking will lift the tarmac into ripples), there were still a couple of bumps to worry about. Not big bumps, just in very convenient places. Like on the exit of the Ruskenhoek, the lightning fast left-right sweep at the end of the Veenslang straight. Or at Meeuwenmeer, the fast right kink heading up to Hoge Heide.

Bumpy ride at speed

"This track has something special inside and also the new asphalt has a very good grip," Valentino Rossi told us. "The situation with the bumps is better so I enjoy very much. The feeling with the asphalt is very good. The asphalt is very high quality with good grip. The situation with the bumps has improved a lot; it’s not perfect, in some places we have some bumps, but they make a very good job."

"I only feel one big bump between Turn 7 and Turn 8 [the second part of Ruskenhoek and Stekkenwal]," Johann Zarco said. "It's always moving in Turn 6, but it's moving in Turn 6 because you are arriving very fast. You are super fast and at the same time, you have to change direction, so you are putting force on the bike."

The bumps are part of what makes Assen unique, Joan Mir explained. "For a new asphalt, there are quite a lot of bumps. But especially on the fast corners," the Suzuki Ecstar rider told us. "Most of them were there previously, they just put a (new) surface and didn’t solve the problem of the bumps. Those bumps were there before. For me it’s a bit the character of this track, those bumps."

A flowing track with a lot of grip means one thing: the Yamahas are in their element. So while it was no surprise to see a Yamaha top both sessions of practice, after what happened at the Sachsenring, Maverick Viñales was not the first name you would have guessed would be top of the pile.

No change, all change

Viñales felt the same way. "Today it went well, honestly. I didn't expect to be that competitive and so fast," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider told the MotoGP.com website. "today in FP1 when I saw 1'33.0, with 20 long laps on the tires, it was a fast lap time, honestly. And this afternoon I was just cruising, understand, so it was good. Honestly, this 1'33.2, basically I found a good grip on the bike and I can do more or less what I like on the track, the lines I like, and it seems to pay on the lap time."

Although Viñales had loudly proclaimed at the Sachsenring that he was going to copy Fabio Quartararo's setup at Assen, mirroring his teammate's every setup change, he hadn't even started down that path when he went fastest. "Actually, what is tough is that this was the same bike as Sachsenring. This is the biggest thing and the strangest thing that I felt," he said. He and his team might use Quartararo's setup on one bike on Saturday, but they hadn't done that yet on Friday.

Was Viñales' speed down to the fact that Assen was a track where he has a strong record? The factory Yamaha rider won the race last time MotoGP was here, back in 2019. Viñales rejected that theory. "I'm good also in Sachsenring, you know?" Viñales said. "I had a lot of, let's say, faith at the Sachsenring, because it's a track normally where I go very fast. But everything was gone. I made my worst result. What I understand here that sometimes something happens. Nobody knows what, not even me, and then you can go from last to first. It's strange, because I do exactly the same, I eat the same, I sleep the same."

Wet and dry

Viñales was also quick in the wet. Taking a ranking of the riders using wet tires in the second half of FP2, the Spaniard was fifth quickest, three quarters of a second behind Miguel Oliveira. There were 13 riders who were slower, and the sixth fastest man, Johann Zarco, was half a second slower than Viñales. That is unusual, because Viñales is usually slow in the wet.

Being fast was perhaps even worse than being slow. It rendered pretty much everything meaningless, making no sense of any of the work Viñales and his team had done. To go from finishing last at the Sachsenring to being quickest at Assen made no sense at all, and left Viñales frustrated.

That's why the quotes above were from the MotoGP.com website. The official MotoGP.com website was the only media outlet which Viñales spoke to, refusing to talk to Spanish broadcaster DAZN, and not turning up for his media debrief. The official explanation was that he had been in a long technical debrief, and it was too late and he was too tired afterward to speak to the media.

Viñales may well have been in a technical debrief, and it may have lasted a long time. But that certainly wasn't the whole explanation for skipping his media duties. At least a part of it must have something to do with his frustration at the situation, at Yamaha, at the media, who aim an incessant stream of criticism at him. Then again, he finished last at the Sachsenring, so perhaps that criticism is deserved.

Even that result was hard to understand. Viñales may have been last at the Sachsenring, but he set the seventh-quickest lap in the race. Faster than Valentino Rossi, who he finished behind, and faster than Fabio Quartararo, who finished on the podium. Quartararo's pace was a consistent string of low to mid 1'22s at the Sachsenring. Viñales had no problem matching that pace in the first half of the race, before dropping to high 1'22s. But the Spaniard was capable of repeating that pace at the end of the race. His last lap was a 1'22.7, faster than the last two laps of Miguel Oliveira, who finished second, and faster than the last two laps of Quartararo, who finished third.

That is the conundrum of Maverick Viñales. The Spaniard is indisputably one of the fastest riders in the world, when he can put everything together. But the fact that he was circulating a couple of seconds a lap slower in the middle of the race at the Sachsenring, stuck behind the Ducatis of Luca Marini and Enea Bastianini, also highlights his weakness. It is difficult for the Yamahas to pass the Ducatis, that much is true. But at a tight track like the Sachsenring, a little inventiveness and creativity will get you a long way. Fabio Quartararo managed to get past Jack Miller. So why couldn't Viñales get past Bastianini and Marini?

Viñales' refusal to do media is a harbinger of things to come. Though rider contracts tend not to have language specifying that they must turn up for particular media events, there are usually clauses in there specifying the number of days a rider must participate in media and sponsor events outside of race weekends. There are general clauses on behavior, and not criticizing the factory and bike in public. And there is huge pressure from Dorna to do TV interviews, especially with the major broadcast players: DAZN in Spain, BT Sport in the UK, Sky in Italy.

Those three pony up the bulk of the broadcast rights fees to Dorna, and so Dorna does everything in their power to make sure riders are available for interview. Viñales refused to speak to DAZN on Friday, a move which is sure to incur the wrath of the head of Dorna's media activities.

Mutiny

It was an act of outright rebellion, and one for which I have some sympathy, despite being on the losing end of Viñales' actions. But it also raises questions over the long-term sustainability of the relationship between Yamaha and Maverick Viñales. The pair have a contract with 18 more months to run. It is hard to see how they manage to stick it out together for the entire duration of that period.

On the other hand, Maverick Viñales was fastest on Friday. And it is entirely reasonable to believe that he might even win the race on Sunday, or at least end on the podium. Would that heal the wounds between the two parties, or merely paper over the cracks until the next disaster unfolds? That, in a nutshell, is the enigma of Maverick Viñales.

While criticism of his manufacturer has become a regular occurrence for Maverick Viñales, it was something of a surprise to hear it from Marc Márquez. As a rule, the Repsol Honda rider is extremely cautious when speaking about the factory he rides form couching any criticism in the most diplomatic of terms. So it was remarkable to hear him aim some very direct criticism of Honda's electronics package at HRC.

Remarkable, but entirely understandable, given just how hard he had been spat off the Honda RC213V in FP2. Márquez was chasing Joan Mir around the southern section of the track, accelerating out of Mandeveen and tipping the bike over through Duikersloot. On the onboard video, you can hear Márquez feather the throttle a little, at which point the rear starts to come round, then grabs, and then fires Márquez into low earth orbit. You could count the number of seconds the Spaniard was in the air, and he took a long time to get to his feet.

Surprisingly unhurt

At least he did so, and was soon on the back of a marshal's motorcycle on the way back to the paddock. But he got off the bike stiffly, and with a slight limp, walked back into the Repsol Honda garage. Márquez did not go back out again, though he had the excuse of the rain for not needing to.

The good news for Márquez is that the arm he broke in Jerez in 2020 held up under what was a massive crash. The bad news is that everything hurts as much as the rest, more or less. "Of course I feel I had big crash," the Repsol Honda rider told us. "I have some pain in my knee, some pain in the foot, some pain in the elbow. But everything is OK to continue in the same performance during the weekend."

He may continue, but he expressed his displeasure at a crash like this happening. He did not believe he bore any of the blame for the crash. "I was pushing in some parts of the circuit but in that point and that type of corner I was not riding over the limits, because there was another rider in front of me and I was doing exactly the same as he did or even slower," Márquez said.

Márquez made clear he believed the problem lies with the electronics package of the Honda RC213V. "We cannot have these kinds of crashes," he insisted. "In that kind of corners we are against the electronics. The electronics are there to avoid this type of crashes."

The problem is this isn't a one off, Márquez said. Nor was it a crash that any other factory suffered.

"The thing is only Honda riders have these kinds of highsides," Márquez told us. "In Portimao Alex and Pol. Here me. It was a similar crash in 2020 in Jerez," the Spaniard said, referring to the crash at the first race in 2020 where he broke his humerus, and which triggered his absence throughout the 2020 season.

It was imperative to try to learn from this and prevent it in the future, Márquez told us. "We must understand. We already understand a bit. First of all I checked the data if I did something wrong. This time I was riding in the same way as the previous lap. But just the TC didn’t manage the slide. It’s something there we must understand for the future. For the future doesn’t mean next year. It means this year. To be more safe, because if not, it’s impossible to take the confidence and be fast again."

This is part of a long-term pattern for Honda. It wasn't just Portimão and Jerez 2020 where the Honda's electronics failed to tame its beast of an engine. We have seen it before, arguably. Marc Márquez' crash at Austin in 2019, bringing to an end to his victory streak there, was an electronics glitch that caused him to lose the rear while well in the lead. In 2015, a similar problem saw him run wide and through the gravel at Turn 1 in Qatar, and lose a huge amount of ground. That proved to be just a hint of the problems to come in 2015.

The problem, Ramon Forcada explained to Dennis Noyes in the 'Radio Ocotillo' podcast, is the different objectives the engine designers and the electronics staff have. In one room, the engine builders are working away at trying to get as much power as possible out of a 1000cc V4, and in the room next door, a bunch of electronics engineers are figuring out ways of removing most of that power to make the bike rideable for mere mortals.

It's not just outright horsepower, of course. The Ducati Desmosedici is the most powerful bike on the grid, yet it is, if not exactly docile, at least manageable. HRC has a reputation for making engines which are particularly aggressive, and from time to time, their riders pay the price. They appear once again to have overstepped the mark, just as they have in the past, with an engine which has such an aggressive throttle response that it can get out of hand faster than the electronics can intervene – and far faster than even a rider like Marc Márquez can avert disaster.

One problem at a time

This is not an easy problem to fix. Sure, you can change the engine character with electronics, but if an engine is sufficiently aggressive – too light a flywheel, for example, will cause the engine to spin up and slow down quickly, too heavy a flywheel will not slow down fast enough, and push you into the corners as you brake - it is hard to control without destroying the characteristics you were pursuing when you gave it so much power in the first place.

At least the new chassis which HRC brought appears to be an improvement. Marc Márquez had tested the new frame in the morning session. "About the chassis, I’m really happy with the job HRC did," Márquez told us. "Maybe it’s the first thing that I feel some potential for the future, some clear direction for future. I feel it was working well. I need to compare more deeply during the weekend and at another track. I feel not bad. I was happy immediately when I tried it, I saw some different riding style and different way to understand the things. Overall, I like it."

The American

Finally, to turn to Garrett Gerloff, the American who has switched from the WorldSBK paddock to replace Franco Morbidelli. (And as an aside, if Morbidelli misses the first two races in Austria, it might be more difficult to draft Gerloff in again, as the Czech round of WorldSBK at Most is on the same weekend as Austria 1.)

Gerloff had ridden a MotoGP bike before, of course, but that was at Valencia in wet and mixed conditions. Riding a MotoGP bike in the dry was a very different proposition, the American explained. "I definitely feel better in the wet conditions with the GP bike, just because it makes the whole bike a little bit softer, a little bit less rigid," the Petronas Yamaha substitute told us. "So it just feels a little bit more natural, a little bit more normal for me. In the dry, the bike is so stiff, it's so rigid, the chassis doesn't move, and it can be a little bit violent sometimes, with shaking and being nervous. So that was one of the difficulties for me today."

Violent it was, Gerloff suffering a fast and frightening crash at the Ruskenhoek in FP1. "The crash was basically because I was learning the track a little bit, and I felt like I was going in a little bit hot into Turn 7, so I was just trailing the brake a little bit longer than I had been, and it just kind of did that," Gerloff told us. "It's just a little bit frustrating, because obviously I didn't want to go down. But anyway, I learned that, and all good."

The bike felt very different in the dry at Assen to the wet in Valencia. "For sure the GP bike feels completely different now, like I said, just with how rigid the chassis is," Gerloff explained. "It feels pretty aggressive, where the last time I rode it was mainly with wet settings and wet tires mainly, so the feeling was a little bit more like a superbike. So I didn't think the difference was that big. But now, having the full dry setting and everything, the difference is quite a bit! Especially when you hit bumps with the GP bike, you notice the bumps a lot more and you get a lot more reaction from the bike, you know? So that's the biggest difference."

Gerloff really needed more time on a dry track to get used to the extreme aggression of the MotoGP Yamaha M1. "Really I just want to get more dry laps in," the American said. "We did three laps in the wet, and honestly in the wet, the bike doesn't feel so bad, and I don't feel so bad either. I feel like the bike reacts how I expect it to. So really, if I can get some more dry laps that would be ideal."

Gerloff had identified the problem he faced. "I just need to ride the bike a bit different, I've been looking at data and things, and I guess in some of the faster sections, where I've had the biggest issue, I'm just not loading the bike enough, and when the bike's not loaded all the way, it just kind of reacts to every little imperfection in the track, and it starts to get pretty violent, and so it's pretty hard to carry the momentum, you know?"

There is no try

MotoGP bikes are extreme, and even the relatively easy-to-ride Yamaha has to be pushed hard to get it to work. The problem is it is hard to work up to pushing as hard as possible when the bike doesn't really work when you don't force it. "For sure it's hard to build up to it, because there's no in the middle. There's no middle ground," Gerloff said. "You either do it or you don't do it, but to commit to it, you've definitely just got to have big balls. So I've got to work on that tomorrow."

Forecasts vary for Assen, but the more reliable ones suggest that Gerloff will get the chance to do just that. It's likely to stay dry during the day, heavy rain only falling in the early evening. As much as Gerloff might want to spend his evening getting more laps under his belt on the Yamaha M1, the rules would prevent him if the rain didn't.


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Tue, 2021-06-22 01:00
Body:

It is easy to make predictions. It is much harder to make predictions which will actually turn out to accurately forecast what will happen in the future. Which is why most of the many industries which make their living from what might broadly be labeled "predictions" – futurologists, financial analysts, political and sporting pundits – consist mainly of drawing a line through what happened in the past and extrapolating it on into the future.

Of course, the future doesn't work that way. The world is a far more complex and nuanced place, with a thousand minor details conspiring to change the course of history in unheard of ways. Which is why the only people who make really money off of predictions are those making the odds, such as the bookmakers, or playing with other people's money, such as merchant bankers and investment advisors.

My own role here is as a MotoGP pundit, and in that capacity, I too made my own prediction: that Marc Márquez would make it 11 victories in a row at the Sachsenring this Sunday. That prediction was based on two things: extrapolating the last 10 races in which Marc Márquez had competed into 2021; and Márquez' actions at the Barcelona tests, where he racked up more laps than any other rider.

Doubt creeps in

But as the weekend went on, I started to doubt my pompously overconfident predictions of a Márquez victory at the Sachsenring. On Friday, Márquez didn't chase a fast lap in FP2, saying he lacked "the energy" to do so. He had expected to race without any limitations, but that had proved to be overly optimistic. "Honestly speaking I expected even less, I expected to have zero problems," the Repsol Honda rider told us. "Even like this I am not riding very well. I think you can see in the video my right elbow is very high all the time. I can’t ride like I want."

On Saturday, Márquez missed out on pole position for the first time in 11 years, his pole streak ending at 10 in a row. "The streak of poles has finished, and tomorrow the streak of victories will as well," he told Spanish media. He was aiming for the top five, he said. Given that Márquez had spent a lot of time in FP4 sitting in the pits, perhaps his right arm and shoulder was too much of a limitation to give him a chance for victory, with Miguel Oliveira, Fabio Quartararo, and Jack Miller setting such a searing pace. A podium was definitely still a realistic goal, but as the Repsol Honda rider said himself, his winning streak looked like coming to an end.

The race played out a little differently. Of course it did: all of the unexpected and unaccounted for details meant the race offered opportunities for some, and took them away from others. A brief rain shower gave Marc Márquez his chance to bolt, and the Repsol Honda rider seized it with both hands. After 581 days, Márquez returned to the top step of the podium, taking his 57th MotoGP victory, and moving past Mick Doohan into third place in the all-time podium list, having stood on on the box a total 96 times to Doohan's 95, making him Honda's most successful premier class rider.

Long and winding road

It has been quite a journey. Of disaster, hope, despair; a failed comeback, a broken bone that would not heal, a year of the endless drudgery of physiotherapy, training, and rehabilitation of the body which was betraying him. In the end, the hard work and determination paid off.

Trailing in Márquez' wake is a grand web of stories, of successes and failures, of contrasting fortunes on identical equipment, shattered dreams, comebacks and shortcomings. We will touch on a few of these in these subscriber notes:

  • What makes this a typical Márquez victory
  • The two phone calls that changed the course of the race for Márquez
  • Why this is is good news for HRC staff in the short term, bad news for Honda in the long term
  • Fabio Quartararo extends his championship lead
  • Is Yamaha in the same boat as Honda?
  • The KTM comeback, and Brad Binder's rapid learning curve
  • Miguel Oliveira, rising superstar
  • How the championship momentum has changed.

The question mark hanging over Marc Márquez in the 336 days since he broke his right humerus at Jerez was whether he would ever return to his former level. Early optimism when he returned a week after breaking his arm dissipated when he was forced to pull out ahead of qualifying. The outlook grew bleaker and bleaker, as he suffered one setback after another: the plate breaking again, weakened by the exertion of riding that second time at Jerez; the lack of progress as an infection prevented the bone from healing; the long, slow recovery from the third surgery to fix his arm. Many, many months passed without riding a motorcycle, or even a bicycle.

Will he, won't he?

There were flashes of the former Márquez after he returned at Portimão, and in the races which followed. He was unafraid to push, but unlike before his injury, his ability to save himself when he peered just a little too far over the limit appeared to be gone. In the five races prior to the Sachsenring, he had already crashed 7 times, putting him in joint fourth in the crash league tables.

The real problem, however, was that he had crashed out of three consecutive races, a feat he had never equaled before. He had learned in 2015 the hard lesson of crashing out of races too often, missing out on the title in large part because he pushed too hard trying to compensate for an unwilling bike. Since then, he had learned to crash during practice and find where the limit was, so he would not crash during races. That was proving impossible in 2021.

The problem, he explained, was his right shoulder, still carrying the lingering after effects of shoulder surgery in the winter of 2019-2020, and exacerbated by his crash in Jerez. He could not get his position on the bike right in right-hand corners, which meant he couldn't recover from errors as quickly and easily as he did in the past.

But there were also signs he was preparing for the Sachsenring, a track where he had won ten races in a row already, from 125s to Moto2 to MotoGP. At Barcelona, he was riding more freely than ever, despite crashing out in the early laps. (Or perhaps he crashed out in the early laps precisely because he was riding so freely.) At the test the day after he racked up a total of 87 laps, finally free to work on his riding without the pressure of a race weekend, and without the public scrutiny that televised practice brings.

"Another thing that was very important for me was Monday test in Montmelo," Márquez said. "It was the first time that I was able to ride like I want. Was no pressure, just was like my preseason test so it was only one day but I did many laps and this was very helpful to understand the way to ride."

All that led to Sunday. In the race, everything came together for Marc Márquez. And Marc Márquez was ready for the race. There were a couple of moments which stand out, the Spaniard showing his determination from the start, despite missing out on pole for the first time in 11 years.

First, the start and the first few corners. Márquez held onto the middle of track as the bikes raced down to the first corner, lining up just outside the rear wheel of Fabio Quartararo, taking advantage of Johann Zarco's mediocre start. He turned in a fraction early, which positioned him perfectly to stuff his Honda RC213V inside Quartararo's Yamaha, giving the Frenchman the merest nudge as the rounded Turn 1.

The inside line through Turn 1 then left him perfectly positioned for Turn 2, and to cut across the nose of Johann Zarco, who had taken the long way around the first corner, but had the inside for Turn 2. But that meant the Pramac Ducati rider was slow on the entry to the first left hand corner, allowing Márquez to carry speed into Turn 2, and latch onto the back of Aleix Espargaro, who had grabbed the lead in the first corner.

Márquez chased the Aprilia round the tight, twisting track, but found himself a little too far back to attack into Turn 12, the prime overtaking spot at the bottom of the hill. No matter: knowing the Sachsenring like the back of his hand, he switched to plan B, carrying exit speed out of Turn 12 and then braking later than Aleix Espargaro dared into the final corner, diving up the inside of the Aprilia RS-GP and grabbing the lead. Espargaro found a Honda RC213V in front of him, and couldn't get the drive to counter Márquez' pass.

That first lap was a display of the Marc Márquez of old, but once past Espargaro, he could not easily escape. Lap after lap, Espargaro remained stuck on Márquez' tail, the gap never more than a few tenths.

Then, the second flash of the real Marc Márquez came. The summer air had been heavy with moisture, and on lap 8, it started to rain. Light spots, not enough to dampen the track, but enough to rob the surface of grip and dramatically raise the risk of pushing. Just the conditions where Marc Márquez comes into his own, and can be so much faster than everyone else. "I did the perfect first lap and then when I saw some drops I said, okay, it’s my day," Márquez said after the race. "I continued. I pushed and I was riding same as before when it was completely dry without any drops."

The difference with his rivals was stark. "I have huge respect to Marc obviously, but sincerely today I didn’t expect him to win," Aleix Espargaro said after the race. "He’s been brave in the moment of the race when the rain arrived, because actually we were talking this after the race with Marc and Fabio. It was not just a couple of drops on the screens. It was slippery. I almost crashed in Turn 8, and the track was slippery for four or five laps. So, he was brave enough to make the difference there, and then to maintain for the win."

On lap 9, Márquez pulled out a second from Aleix Espargaro, extending his lead from 0.260 to 1.260. A lap later, after Jack Miller had got past Espargaro, Márquez had gained another half a second over second place, the Australian now holding that position. He has broken the pursuit, and had the race right where he wanted it.

Coming through

Márquez didn't have it all his own way, however. A barnstorming Miguel Oliveira was on a charge, and once he got past Miller, he kept Márquez honest. The two men pushed each other to the limit at a distance, the gap yoyoing as they traded fast laps. Oliveira closed the gap in the final third of the race, but though he got to within a second of Márquez, he eventually had to let the Repsol Honda go. Second was sufficient for the Red Bull KTM rider, better than risking it all on a day where he stood to make gains in the championship.

Márquez had used a mental trick to withstand the pressure of having Oliveira on his tail. At one point, he felt he was tensing up, not riding loose and relaxed the way that he can. So he reached back into his memory banks to recapture the feeling of riding at the track when he won. And when he saw Oliveira's name on the pit board, with a +1 next to it, he swapped the Portuguese rider's name for his brother Alex', recreating their regular training exercises.

"In some part of the race I was just riding too stiff because I was like, I don't want to crash and I don't want to make any mistakes," Márquez told us. "But then I said, okay, forget about all these things. Just I try to come back to the old memories in this racetrack, when I was riding in a good way. I changed the name Oliveira to my brother’s name to when we are training at home. Normally we train in that mode. The fastest guy goes behind, the slower rider in front, and sometimes he’s faster than me in some situations. So, I just changed his name on my mind to my brother. I said, okay, if he catches me, it’s not a problem. But of course, I was pushing and I never give up."

Despite the intense physicality of motorcycle racing, of pushing a 300 horsepower bike weighing 170kg plus with a full tank of fuel, so much of the sport takes place in the mind of the rider, in what is sometimes called the most important 6 inches in racing, the gray matter between the ears. (Ironic, then, that people talk of riders having 'balls', when what they actually have is a finely-tuned prefrontal cortex.) Márquez knew he had to calm himself, release the stress, and find his Sachsenring zone again. Using visualization and memory, he tricked his body into being in a better, faster place. It was enough to carry him to a win which he really needed.

The release of emotion by Marc Márquez showed just how much this win meant, to him and to Honda. Márquez is normally a man who has his feelings under control, beyond the normal brief expressions of joy when he wins. But he struggled speaking to Simon Crafar in the parc ferme interview, and he was still struggling when he did the TV interviews shortly afterward.

It wasn't just Márquez who found it hard to control his emotions. HRC's MotoGP Technical Manager Takeo Yokoyama couldn't hold back the tears as Márquez crossed the line. While Márquez had to face the pressure of trying to understand whether he would be able to race again, Yokoyama had had the pressure of a year of Honda failures on his shoulders. But more of that later.

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Fri, 2021-06-18 23:16
Body:

Day one of the German Grand Prix is in the bag, and is Marc Márquez still the outright favorite for the win on Sunday? If you went by FP1 on Friday, you would say yes: the Repsol Honda rider took three flying laps to set the fastest time of the session, before turning his attention to working on race pace. He used one set of medium tires front and rear for the entire session, ending with a 1'22.334 on a tire with 24 laps on it. That lap would have been good enough for thirteenth place in FP1, just a hundredth of a second slower than Miguel Oliveira's best lap.

Oliveira made it clear that he considered Márquez to be the favorite at the end of the day as well. "For me since the beginning Marc is the clear favorite for the win on Sunday," the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider told us. "We have been trying to understand what he is doing different to the others on this track because he is so successful."

By the end of the afternoon, Marc Márquez didn't look quite so invincible. The Repsol Honda rider finished the day twelfth fastest, six tenths off the fastest rider Miguel Oliveira. The KTM man had achieved his first objective. "I believe together with him will come another couple of riders that are able to challenge for the win. I am working to be one of them," Oliveira said on Friday afternoon.

Reading the tea leaves

It is worth noting, however, that of the eleven riders ahead of him on the FP2 timesheets, only Jack Miller in ninth didn't use a brand new soft rear tire to set a quick time. Both Miller and Márquez set their times on new medium tires, used in a slightly longer run. In terms of pace, Márquez still looks strong, running 1'21.7s on used tires with half race distance on them. As Oliveira said, there are another couple of riders capable of running the same pace, including the self-same Miguel Oliveira, Aprilia's Aleix Espargaro, and LCR Honda rider Takaaki Nakagami.

Fabio Quartararo probably belongs in the same company, the Frenchman putting full race distance on a set of mediums in FP2, his 30th lap a 1'22.532, his 31st lap – that is, race distance plus one – a 1'22.697. At a track which eats tires, that is impressive.

And yet there is reason for concern for Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda rider hadn't used a soft tire to chase a lap time for Q2, but that was not because he was confident of being fast enough on Saturday morning. "It was in the plan to put a new tire. But I did two small long runs to understand the rear tire. Then I said to the team, I don’t feel ready to put a new tire. I don’t feel enough energy. Let’s wait until tomorrow," Márquez told us.

Setback

That was not in the plan. He had come to the Sachsenring expecting to ride without being hampered by his injured shoulder at all, he said, the track being all left handers. But it hadn't quite turned out that way. "I already said yesterday that here I feel less physical limitation," Márquez told us. "Honestly speaking I expected even less, I expected to have zero problems, but even like this I am not riding very well. I think you can see in the video my right elbow is very high all the time. I can’t ride like I want."

He comforted himself with the fact that his pace was so strong. "I am able to manage to be in good pace, but tomorrow I will try to improve that riding style." Was he still the favorite for Sunday? "Favorite?" he asked. "I’m not the favorite at the moment. I’m coming from a deep situation."

Friday at the Sachsenring was a reminder for Márquez that he still has some way to go before he is back to full fitness. "What they told me, all the doctors I visit, they said to me after three surgeries in the humerus, that is a single bone, it’s possible you have a small rotation because it’s so difficult to be precise. So the body needs time. When they say time, I asked, what does 'time' mean? One week? One month? One year? They said one year."

New arm

The complication is that the muscles in the arm need to reconfigure themselves to compensate for the misalignment of the bone in his upper arm. "The muscles will compensate," Márquez said. "Maybe some muscles that before worked less will now work more. But the muscles should compensate this lack of mobility or this different position of the arm."

That was his current problem, the Repsol Honda rider explained. "At the moment this is where I’m struggling. I have the mobility. I can go on the correct way but I don’t feel safe, I don’t have power. In Montmelo I was working a lot on that position. I was able to do it. But now here with more left corners, I’m not able to do it. But it’s not a high limitation in corner speed. In right corners it’s a limitation."

Marc Márquez faces a tougher Sunday than he expected. 30 laps are a lot around a tight and twisty Sachsenring, at a track where he has to work on his riding position once again. He has the outright speed, and he has the pace. But does he have the endurance?

At least the Honda is more competitive around the Sachsenring. Márquez' Repsol Honda teammate Pol Espargaro was working on a theory so that he could exploit the improved performance of the RC213V around the German circuit. "Here, like in T1 and T2, it’s long corners but not very fast corners," the Spaniard explained. "So normally we have problems in these long corners but when they are very fast and you need to carry corner speed and then accelerate and go again with lot of corner speed, in these places we are not very good."

There were fewer of that particular style of corner, Espargaro explained. "We have T1 where we are not too bad. Then we have other places where we catch the grip a much better than the other race tracks and this allows us to be a little bit faster. Even in the fast areas, where we should not be as fast, we are not so bad. I’m just trying to understand why we are better here than the other places."

The two Repsol Honda riders were both using a new aero package, with winglets that could perhaps charitably be called "Yamaha style", as the two photos below demonstrate. Above, the new Honda winglets, swooping and thin affairs, rather than the former blocky and angular mustache used. Below, the swooping and not quite so thin Yamaha version on Valentino Rossi's Petronas Yamaha.

Did the winglets make much difference? Not a great deal, but enough, according to Pol Espargaro. "We tried it in Barcelona," the Spaniard told us. "We homologated it. I used them in FP2. I wanted to go on track with the old spec and check how the bike was. Then I saw Marc went straight away with it, and he was performing well, so I wanted to try it and it was OK, it was fine."

It wasn't a huge difference, but at a track like the Sachsenring, where a fraction over nine tenths of a second cover the first eighteen riders, every little can help, Espargaro said. "Well, there is a little bit of difference. But nothing to say, wow. Already if you check the results lists you will see a lot of riders in less than 1 tenth. So even if it’s a little, it’s enough."

Takaaki Nakagami had used the old aero, and was fast enough to pose a serious threat to Marc Márquez, judging by his race pace. So the difference was certainly debatable. Nakagami had also tested the new fairing in Barcelona, but had not been convinced. "We tested it in Montmelo but honestly I didn’t feel a huge difference," the LCR Honda rider told us. "In some areas yes, some areas I preferred the old one. I think this weekend I will not use the new one and we keep the standard. I don’t feel any big advantage."

Being fast and having superior race pace was one thing, but that means nothing if you don't qualify on the front row at the Sachsenring. "Here is it very important, the starting position, and we need to focus on that to be able to then use the good pace," Miguel Oliveira opined. "If you start behind – even with good pace – it will become difficult to make progress. I believe here particularly we need to work on our grid position. This will be so important for the race on Sunday."

Maverick Viñales underlined the importance of a good qualifying position. "Yeah, we MUST qualify on the front row," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider insisted. "This is the real objective of the weekend. Because like in Montmelo, when I got free in the front, I was riding fast, we closed nearly 2 seconds to the top guys. So we need to try to work for one lap."

At least his single lap pace had improved since Barcelona, Viñales told us. "It seems much better than in Montmelo. In Montmelo, for me it was difficult to keep in front, to keep doing red helmets. Here in Sachsenring, it seems much better to do red helmets. So it's a sign that we are taking the right way."

Viñales, of course, is still in the middle of adapting to his new crew chief, Silvano Galbusera, and was adjusting his goals accordingly. "For us right now, the results aren't important, the feeling is important, and the feeling I can give back to the crew chief," the Spaniard told us. "That is starting to build up, but I'm confident, I'm confident and I think sooner or later, but I think sooner we are going to go fast, and this is the most important."

Much has been made of Miguel Oliveira's improvement since Mugello, but the Portuguese rider bridled at the suggestion this was all down to KTM signing a new fuel deal with ETS, who were supplying a more efficient synthetic race fuel, and the new chassis which the Austrian factory had brought to Mugello. Sure, those had helped, Oliveira acknowledged, but we weren't to overlook the fact that the KTM RC16 had already showed more than a few flashes of speed, he insisted.

"Yes, KTM did a good job bringing a good improvement on the frame," Oliveira said. "I don’t know how much it is giving us and I don't believe it is giving everything but small details count a lot in this category nowadays and the rider who arrives and understands better how to get the maximum of each detail is the one who can be faster at the end. I managed to do it at the moment a bit better than the rest but I don’t think it is giving us a lot of advantages."

Oliveira insisted that by focusing on the new frame, journalists were missing the bigger picture. They were looking for easy answers to complex questions. "I said yesterday that it is misleading this conclusion. Of course you maybe don’t analyze each session that we do, but we do it!"

Variables in the equation

There had been previous signs that the KTM was good, but they hadn't manage to put all of the individual pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together, Oliveira said. "We often have very good pace and the potential to be fast on many tracks, and every GP we managed to be strong in one practice or another but we never managed to finish the race. It gives the illusion that we only came up in Mugello but it’s not quite like that. We have been working, we have been ‘there’ in the shadow, not in the spotlight. Maybe that gives the feeling that whatever we brought to Mugello was a game-changer and it was not. It was a help but it was not everything."

The new chassis had shifted their attention to other weaknesses of the bike, Oliveira explained. "I think we have arrived to the point where we could improve the bike in how we use the front tire and this is a key point for us for how we turn it in the corners. It’s being able to use the softer compound for the front and make it to the race distance safely. The rest is small things, fine-tuning and set-up what is enhancing what we already had good in the past with the 2020 bike."

While the Portuguese rider looks to be capable of winning at the Sachsenring, teammate Brad Binder is struggling with getting his head around riding a MotoGP bike at the German circuit. The speed and horsepower of a MotoGP bike turned an already tight track into a very difficult and challenging proposition, he explained.

Rookie error

"Today’s been a lot more challenging than expected. It was harder than I anticipated," Binder told us. "It’s quite different because you arrive with a lot more speed than in certain places. The way you need to use the throttle to keep the speed going with not too much spin is quite different in general. It’s been a bit of a learning process today."

The change was much bigger from Moto2 to MotoGP than it had been from Moto3 to Moto2, he explained. "I think the step for me has been more difficult. I remember being not bad here on the Moto2 straight away. The main thing for me today is you have to try and keep the level of spin under control. You don’t want to spin too much."

That ran counter to everything he had learned when he last rode here on a Moto2 bike two seasons ago. "That was one of ways I used to ride this track in Moto2 was to turn a lot with the rear tire. That on a MotoGP bike isn’t a good plan. Once it starts to spin you don’t stop and you spin the whole way up the straight."

Starting over

Despite having a year of experience on a MotoGP bike, Binder was having to relearn almost every aspect of the track, he admitted. "This morning my main issue was I was trying to roll in places where I should be closing more aggressive, pulling the front brake and letting go. Where I was just trying to make it smooth and round. I was really struggling with the front end this morning and I kept losing the front in these places and it took away a lot of confidence. I only figured it out when I looked at the data, what I was doing wrong, what was giving me such bad feeling. This track is small. It’s a tiny track. Getting close to 300hp around here is not easy. It’s definitely going to take a little bit of time to figure out."

There was so much to learn, Binder told us. "I think the biggest thing here is you spend so much time on edge. As soon as you pick the bike up, the temperature you reach on the tires on the left changes the way the bike feels a lot. When the tires start to cook it’s more challenging to get into the corners and get it transfer onto the rear tire and to exit well."

It was like being a rookie all over again, the South African told us. "It’s been a bit of a challenge today trying to figure out all these things. I remember this feeling quite well, when I had it many, many times last year when I went to a new track and I felt super lost. It was difficult. But you tend to go to sleep at night and work things out. I’m hoping that’s the case here again."

At least there is one challenge that Binder and the other Sachsenring rookies – in addition to the MotoGP rookies, last year's intake of MotoGP riders have never ridden the German track on a MotoGP bike either – do not have to face. Normally, Turn 11, the right hander at the top of the hill dubbed 'The Waterfall' catches a fair few riders out. The transition from left to right at speed, switching to the right side of the tire for the first time in half a lap, was easy to misjudge if you have allowed your tires to cool off too much.

The summer heat had eliminated that particular danger. "Did you see the degrees on the ground?" Maverick Viñales retorted when asked why no crashes at Turn 11. "That's the reason, man. That's the reason. The right side is warm enough during all the lap."

Conditions are set to stay that way. The heat is here to stay. And that is probably a good thing.


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Mon, 2021-06-14 11:03
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Whatever your impressions of Pol Espargaro, you can’t doubt his courage. It’s now over a year since the rider from Granollers, Catalonia chose to sign for Repsol Honda, leaving KTM’s factory team, which he helped build from the ground up. The seat has been something of a poisoned chalice in recent times. There, Dani Pedrosa’s racing career sizzled out in disappointment. Jorge Lorenzo’s sole year in orange turned into a personal ordeal. And Alex Márquez was informed he would be leaving the squad at the end of his first season before he had even raced. It turns out being team-mate to this generation’s greatest talent is no walk in the park.

Yet Espargaro jumped at the chance to measure himself against Marc Márquez He had long harboured that goal, telling me in 2019 without hesitation he’d choose racing his old Moto2 nemesis on the same bike over any other rider in history. While he was more than a match for his countryman in the junior categories – Pol narrowly lost out to Marc in fiery championship battles in 125s in 2010 and Moto2 in 2012 – their fortunes in the premier class diverged. As Márquez racked up records and titles at a dizzying race, Espargaro forged his reputation aiding KTM’s rise from class rookies to multiple race winners.

Some felt the move was foolish. Not least when KTM started the 2020 season all guns blazing, taking first and second MotoGP wins in races three and five. By then Espargaro had communicated his plans to leave for Honda’s factory team, a squad in the midst of its worst premier class campaign since HRC came into existence at the beginning of 1982. But the lure of joining the team that turned Alex Crivillé, Pedrosa and Márquez into national and international icons, not to mention won 16 of the past 27 premier class titles, was too much to turn down.

National pride

“The best Spanish riders in history have been in this team, have grown in this team, have taken victories and world championships in this team,” Espargaro explained over a Zoom call on the eve of the French Grand Prix. “For a Spaniard, to be in Repsol Honda is something super special. Also, historically to be a Repsol Honda rider means you are a top rider. Sure, in the past (years) Honda hasn’t been amazingly successful apart from Marc. But inside every rider, you think you can be as fast as the top guys. It’s what I’m trying to do. I want to be world champion and to be in this team, it means you raise your level, you raise your image. Hopefully I can reach my dreams here in Repsol Honda.”

It speaks of Espargaro’s grit that he turned a potentially difficult 2020 into his best season yet. There were many hurdles to overcome. A figure with a lesser focus would have fixated on the contrasting fortunes of the factory he was going to leave, and the one he was about join. He then watched on as Brad Binder and Miguel Oliveira took KTM’s first wins in races he himself was capable of winning. And staying in a team that is aware of your desire to leave can often turn the atmosphere sour.

But after a shaky start, Espargaro’s results were steadily impressive. He ended the year with five podium finishes, and a run of seven top fours in ten races – an astonishing improvement for a man (and factory) that broke into the top six just one season before. Not only that; he left amid a flood of tributes from the factory’s top brass.

Regarding KTM’s stunning jump forward, surely there was a time during 2020 when a tinge of regret entered his mind. Espargaro is forthright. “At the end, I was enjoying so much the moment, I was not thinking about the future,” he said. “After four years of suffering blood and sweat in KTM to try and get the results, to finally get them almost every single weekend, I was really enjoying the situation.

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Thu, 2021-06-10 09:30
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The story of the weekend. Just why did Fabio Quartararo open his leathers at Turn 3 on lap 21?


Jack Miller is so proud of being Australian that he likes to point to his country of origin every time he enters the pits


Big Mig Rising - Miguel Oliveira has 45 points from 2 races. If he continues on at this pace, well...


The magic happens somewhere in there. Ducati's rivals are convinced something unsavory is going on, but it is hard to separate envy from actual wrongdoing


Impressive rookie season, struggling as a sophomore. Alex Marquez is not finding his second year in MotoGP easy


An electronics junction box - you can make an educated guess at which connectors are which. At the top, the bottom of the small tank used for warming the bikes up can be seen


Iker Lecuona was trying really hard in Barcelona. Perhaps a little too hard at times


After we published photos of Aprilia's holeshot device mechanism, they now have a nice green plastic protector in place to keep prying eyes away


Enea Bastianini leans into the green


The handlebars get ever busier: traction control and engine braking buttons, front holeshot activation lever, rear holeshot activation lever, brake adjustment wheel, and clutch lever. At least they don't use the clutch lever very often


This is why they do it, those few moments on the top step of the podium


No small part in KTM's success. Dani Pedrosa accepts Pit Beirer's embrace


Silvano Galbusera joins Maverick Viñales on the grid, and in the garage. It brought improvement, though the next question is will it last?


Compare and contrast - bare-chested and open leathers for Fabio Quartararo, leaving himself with extra actions to take on the grid


Zipped and ready for Jack Miller. Less to think about when the 3 minute mark sounds


Valentino Rossi was straight to Q2, for the first time in several races. But it was not without incident


Nothing to hide: The Suzuki still doesn't have a rear holeshot/ride-height lowering device. Visible is the standard adustable rear shock linkage, the 4-into-2-into-1 exhaust, and the coolant pump


The Ducati looks a good deal more elegant when seen from above


Intermediates? No, Michelin Power Cup tires, a track day tire used as a transport tire, for use moving the bike around, instead or ruining racing slicks


#CompulsoryArtShot


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Tue, 2021-06-08 03:06
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It would be nice to sit down at the end of a MotoGP weekend and just write about the race. But it seems increasingly, the first thing a journalist has to do after a MotoGP race is go back and read the FIM Grand Prix World Championship Regulations, also known as the yellow book, back when books were a thing, and rules didn't change every couple of weeks rendering paper books unusable. We have had a stream of rule infractions, both large and small, infringements of rules which few new existed, and the application of penalties which have inevitably needed clarification.

The need to go back and reread the rulebook has sometimes been due to inexperience in particular situations – for example, Fabio Quartararo parking his bike in the wrong spot during the flag-to-flag race at Le Mans – or cunning use of the rules – see Marc Márquez crossing the white lines on pit lane entry at the same race. Sometimes, it has because we needed clarification of very specific situations, such as Miguel Oliveira and Joan Mir exceeding track limits on the last lap in Mugello.

And sometimes, we have had to consult the rules because something so outrageous and unusual has happened that nobody is quite sure whether something is actually legal, and if not, what the punishment is. Engineers refers to these situations as edge cases: a new and unexpected situation that nobody realized was possible, because it hasn't happened before, and requires a very specific and unusual set of circumstances. Such as a rider finishing a race with their leathers unzipped for the last four laps, as happened to Fabio Quartararo on Sunday.

It is a shame that we have to spend so much time on the rulebook, because these instances overshadow some impressive performances and superb racing action. Barcelona threw up a veritable roller-coaster of emotions and spectacle, in both the positive and negative sense. We should be talking about Miguel Oliveira's impressive ride to victory, Johann Zarco's quiet championship assault, Yamaha's curious up and down weekend, whether Marc Márquez' crash means he is getting more competitive or losing ground, and just where Honda stand now:

In these subscriber notes:

  • Why Fabio Quartararo unzipped his leathers, and whether the punishment fit the crime
  • How the collapse of the MSMA is affecting MotoGP
  • Miguel Oliveira and KTM's revival
  • Is Johann Zarco the new Joan Mir?
  • Is Marc Márquez back? And will he be any time soon?
  • Honda in a hole

But first, one of the most bizarre incidents we have seen in world championship racing for a while: Fabio Quartararo's open leathers. The Frenchman raced for 20 laps with his leathers closed – all clearly visible on the video feed – and somewhere between Turn 1 at the start of lap 21 and Turn 4 on the same lap, Quartararo's leathers were open.

Examining the evidence

There is a lot to address here, but first, let's walk through the timeline, on the basis of screenshots from the MotoGP.com video feed. The MotoGP.com video pass has the advantage of watching the entire race from multiple onboard camera views, as well as the broadcast feed with and without commentary, and the overhead shot from the helicopter camera. With a bit of dedication and a lot of time, we can reconstruct exactly what happened to Fabio Quartararo.

First, here is what Quartararo himself said about the incident: "What happened? I don’t know. I just know that I had the leathers completely open in the first corner, I think 5 laps to go, and I just tried to put [the zip] in a normal position again. I couldn't do it. So yeah, it was difficult to ride but unfortunately it happens. It happened today, so Alpinestars are looking how it's possible because at the end of the race it was possible again to close it."

Is that really the case? 5 laps to go would be the start of lap 20. However, the screenshot below, taken at the end of lap 20, you can just about see that Quartararo's leathers are still closed, no chest is exposed.

Did Fabio Quartararo mistake which lap his leathers were open? Here's a shot of Miguel Oliveira and Quartararo entering Turn 1 at the start of lap 21. Once again, it appears that his leathers are closed.

20 seconds later, however, the cameras show Oliveira and Quartararo approaching Turn 4, and the Frenchman's leathers are open, his chest clearly visible. So what happened in the intervening period?

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This is part of a regular series of unique insights into the world of motorcycle racing, exclusive for MotoMatters.com site supporters. The series includes interviews, background information, in-depth analysis, and opinion, and is available to everyone supporting the site by taking out a subscription.

If you would like to read more of our exclusive content you can join the growing band of site supporters, by taking out a subscription here. If you prefer, you can also support us on our Patreon page and get access to the same exclusive material there.

Sun, 2021-06-06 00:32
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Saturday at Montmelo made several things crystal clear in MotoGP. We saw one rider emerge as the clear favorite for the win on Sunday. We saw just how critical tire choice and tire management is going to be at Barcelona. And we saw just how much pressure riders are under, whether it be seeking a tow to get through to Q2, celebrating a quick time in FP3 like a victory, or crashing out twice in an attempt to save a seat for next year.

Above all, we saw just how fast Fabio Quartararo is in Barcelona. The fact that the Frenchman was the only rider to get into the 1'39s in FP4 was not that much of a surprise; the Monster Energy Yamaha rider has been quick all weekend after all. What was a little more surprising is that nobody else managed it, Maverick Viñales getting closest, but still over four tenths behind his teammate.

What should be more worrying is the fact the vast majority of Quartararo's laps in FP4 were 1'39s: 8 of his 12 flying laps were 1'39s. His 9th fastest lap was quick enough to have secured fourth place, his 1'40.278 faster than Johann Zarco's best lap of 1'40.286. Quartararo's 10th fastest lap was a 1'40.290, just 0.004 slower than Zarco's best time.

In a different league

On the basis of FP4 – and there is no better basis, it being the only session where the order of the timesheets count for nothing, and riders are working solely on race setup – Fabio Quartararo is in a league of his own. And to add another dimension to this, the Frenchman did these times on the hard rear tire, and on the medium rear tire, with little to distinguish between the two.

Quartararo was merely second fastest in FP3, but even there, the work he was doing was impressive. He started the session on a rear medium tire which had already done 15 laps. On his final flying lap, the 24th on that tire, he did a 1'40.866. Race distance on Sunday is 24 laps, and if he can get anywhere near that kind of time on the final lap on Sunday, he should have a pretty impressive margin over his rivals.

The logical conclusion to draw from Saturday is that whatever the circumstances, Fabio Quartararo is fast. Much, much faster than the rest. His fifth pole position in a row merely backs that up, the first rider to score five poles in a row since Marc Márquez racked up seven in a row from Valencia 2013 to Mugello 2014. His margin for pole is nothing like his margin in FP4 – the Frenchman is just 0.037 faster than Jack Miller, rather than four tenths – but it doesn't matter. If he can hold his own on the long, long run down to Turn 1 – and the addition of a front holeshot device to the Yamaha M1 vastly improves his chances here – then it will be a race for second for everyone else.

Jack Miller had quite a day on his way to second on the grid. First, he had to make his way out of Q1, after coming up short in FP3, knocked out of Q2 by Valentino Rossi in resurgent form. "Starting out in the morning just wasn’t really able to do what I thought I could do when I put the tire on in FP3," the Australian said. "Being 11th and how tight everything was, I was like, Q1, you know what that’s like."

What Q1 is like is everyone waiting for a tow. And right now, "everyone" includes the eight-time world champion Marc Márquez, the Spaniard frank about his inability to do a fast lap on his own. It also included Márquez' Repsol Honda teammate, Pol Espargaro, though Espargaro was a good deal less stoical about the situation as Márquez was.

Espargaro has a point. The sight of two Repsol Hondas, the finest machines the mighty HRC can build, sitting passively in pit lane waiting for a faster rider to come past so they could get a tow was rather dispiriting. But it was also a sign of just where HRC is at the moment. The Honda RC213V is not competitive, and with Marc Márquez still recovering from injury, HRC don't have a rider who can ride around the bike's glaring weaknesses.

Do what you have to

It was not official Honda policy, Espargaro insisted, but just the inevitable result of not being fast enough. "These decisions are the decisions of the rider. Each rider decides what the rider needs or wants," Espargaro said. "It's clear we are not good, we are not fast. It's clear. And when you are not fast, you cannot do everything by yourself, you need a wheel to improve, by not so much."

"We need to be behind someone because we are not fast, because the bike is not ready to make a lap time alone. This is the truth," Espargaro confessed. "So we the riders are trying everything to try to be fast, so it's what we want. But I hate this. I don't like to be following someone. Because when you need these kind of things, you are forced to do always one thing, which is to follow someone. So you cannot be relaxed, you cannot follow your riding style or just improve yourself. You are just following someone doing what the guy in front of you is doing. So there is no improvement on this. There is just a lap time."

Ironically, the wheel Espargaro had chosen was that of his teammate, Marc Márquez. And Márquez in turn was following Jack Miller, having made his intentions plain, even joking about it with the Australian the previous day. "Yesterday we were joking in the Clinica Mobile with Miller, because I mean I was 15th place and he said to me, 'how much will you pay me?' And today was the time!" Márquez said. "In Qualifying 1 all of the riders – me, Pol – we were waiting for somebody and this somebody was the fastest guy that was Miller."

Nice little earner

The joke played out in pit lane, with Jack Miller rubbing his fingers together as Marc Márquez drew alongside him in the universally understood symbol for cash money. But unlike Maverick Viñales at Mugello, Miller didn't let it faze him. The Australian exited pit lane fully aware that he had a train of riders in tow, all looking to leech off his speed to get through to Q2. But he put his head down and rode as fast as he can, too fast for anyone to follow.

"At the end of the day the first tow is free," Miller joked. "It doesn’t disturb me. It’s a mindset. If you go out there thinking only about the guy that’s behind you, you already lost. The most important thing I think in this situation is something I’ve learned over the years, I need to focus on my job, what I’m doing, and that’s it. If there’s another guy behind me, so be it. If there’s another three behind me, so be it. I can’t control this. At the end of the day, it’s a free world and he can follow whoever he wants."

The choices here are fairly simple. You can get upset and distracted and mess up your lap. You can indulge in a game of chicken, go out and do a slow lap in the hope of discouraging or shaking off anyone looking for a tow. But that is never effective, as the rider looking for a tow always has a lot less to lose than the rider they are following. If you know you need a tow to stand a chance of setting a good lap time, then waiting for someone else will always provide a better result than striking out on your own.

If you know you're fast, then the best option is simply to push, and trust in your own ability. The fact that others are trying to follow you already tells you you are fast enough, all you have to do is to put theory into practice. If you're really fast enough, others won't be able to beat your time, even with a tow.

Jack Miller was sympathetic, having been in a similar pickle himself in the past. "We’ve all been in this situation. It’s not easy. I know I have. Fabio maybe not so much. We’ve all been in this situation where you need a little something extra," he said. But having confidence in your own ability was the best choice, Miller believed "I think it’s nice when you see a rider take this approach, I feel anyway from the outside, especially for myself to have this confidence or have this trust in my bike and my ability that I’m able to push out front by myself."

Miller's self-belief was handsomely rewarded, making it through to Q2 and then onto the front row, finishing second behind Fabio Quartararo. And Marc Márquez' temerity was punished, the Repsol Honda rider losing out to his teammate, Pol Espargaro following Márquez as he tailed Miller to take the second spot in Q2.

It didn't improve Espargaro's situation very much, however. The Repsol Honda rider crashed on his first attempt at a fast lap in Q2, and ended the session in last, putting him just one place on the grid ahead of the teammate he had beaten to take the slot in Q2. But the crash had been entirely expected, Espargaro said, a result of having to take too much risk to try to push for a quick lap, something the RC213V simply doesn't want to provide.

Reaching the limit

"We are so on the limit everywhere, so pushing over the limit," Espargaro said. "The problem is when you need to do that once, it's OK. But when you need to do it twice or three times, like I did today, sure, three times doesn't work, it's too much. Everything is too on the limit, this is the resolution."

Speaking to the Spanish media, Espargaro expressed his despair at the situation. Honda would benefit from having concessions like Aprilia, he said, as a lack of testing meant he had barely had time to adapt to the bike, and the bike was simply not competitive. "I would not be ashamed to have concessions and, to be honest, we need them right now, because we don't have test days," he said. "I have only done five days of testing this season, which is nothing, the bike is not at the level that all of us would like and next year we will have the same test days and we will continue to be in the same difficult situation where we are now."

Marc Márquez was less keen on getting concessions, given to manufacturers who are so uncompetitive that they can't score a single podium with any rider throughout an entire season. "I wish that we don’t have the concessions because that means we will have a podium and maybe a victory," Márquez said, though he acknowledged it would also have an upside. "Of course we are in a difficult moment and everything we can have for the future, some advantage, will be nice to us."

No podiums?

Márquez didn't believe Honda would get concessions, however. "I don’t think we will get the concessions, honestly speaking. I believe we will get a podium before we finish the year." With Sachsenring coming up next, a track where Márquez has dominated, taking pole and victory in every edition he has raced in since 2010, in 125s, in Moto2, and MotoGP. It is an anticlockwise circuit, a ribbon of left handers, his strongest suit, and a track that will not tax his recovering right shoulder too heavily. Ten poles and ten victories in ten consecutive editions suggests that Márquez should be in with a shout of a podium in Germany.

Even if he doesn't score a podium at the Sachsenring or at Assen, the season is only halfway done. With a five-week summer break coming up, Márquez will have time for his shoulder to recover further, and to build strength for the second half. A stronger, fitter Marc Márquez surely has a better chance of grabbing at least one podium from the nine or ten races which will follow the summer break.

Márquez' physical problems have exposed the glaring weakness of the Honda. It does one or perhaps two things particularly well, and almost everything else has been sacrificed to this end. The bike stops superbly and can turn in quickly, but it lacks rear grip almost entirely. And that places an even greater reliance on braking, creating a vicious circle for the Honda riders.

All on the front

"As the rear grip is not how we would like it, what you do is enhance the part with which you know that you are fast, which is with the front end," Pol Espargaro told Spanish media. "The more you lose accelerating or turning, the later you brake. So, it is normal that at the point with which you have the most advantage you try to get the time, because in the other way you cannot. So the more critical it becomes."

Honda, like KTM, have found themselves on the wrong side of the balance of the Michelin tires. This year, the rear is improved, giving better grip, while the front is slightly more critical. The pandemic put paid to Michelin's plans to bring a stronger front tire with more support, which would have favored the Hondas and KTMs and balanced out the better rear. With the regular calendar and testing canceled last year, and a limited test calendar for 2021, Michelin have had to push back the introduction of the new front.

KTM have adapted to this by bringing a new chassis which provides more rear grip, and switched to synthetic fuel which gives the KTM better combustion and a couple more ponies. Miguel Oliveira's podium at Mugello was the proof of the success of that strategy. Honda, meanwhile, are stuck with a lack of rear grip. Until they fix that, their season will continue to be long and difficult.

KTM look like playing a role on Sunday. The race will be a war of attrition, riders struggling to manage their tires over a surface which devours rubber like few others. Miguel Oliveira was fast in qualifying, but more importantly, his pace was impressive.

Pecco Bagnaia, struggling a little with grip and tire choice at Barcelona, flagged Oliveira as a rider to watch. "For me, I think that Fabio and Miguel are the two strongest," the factory Ducati rider said. "Miguel has an advantage in terms of grip, because they have a lot of grip like KTM, but the problem for them is the entry. So the battle will be balanced."

It will be a long race, with tire management being key, Bagnaia told us. "I think also, it's difficult to predict which one will be the best, because tomorrow will be very important to manage the tires from the start. You can't push as you want, because the rear tire is very difficult to manage. So for sure Fabio will start very strong and he will like to open a gap from the start, but it will be very important for the second part of the race to be more constant with the tires."

That left a lot of riders room for hope, Bagnaia among them. "I think that we are still there. In that moment, we can close this gap. But we don't have to lose so much time in the start." Tire choice will be key, finding the right balance between the grip of a softer tire which probably won't last, and a harder tire which won't provide the grip. For Bagnaia, he was caught between the medium and the hard on Saturday, but if the temperature drops as expected on Sunday, his issue merely migrates to leave him trapped between the medium and the soft.

Valentino Rossi, a past master of tire management, pointed out that though the second half of the race was important, that didn't mean that grid position and a good start didn't matter. Getting out of the gate well was crucial, even though the last few laps would matter.

"It’s true that the degradation here is a big issue for everybody and it will be very important to understand the right condition and the right choice, especially for the rear tire but also for the front," Rossi said. "But I think that anyway it will be a sprint race from the first lap, the first corner. The first two or three laps you already decide 85% of the MotoGP race. After, start another, longer phase where you have to decide the other 15%. I think that it will be like this also tomorrow. Everybody push a lot from the beginning."

Rossi was quietly upbeat, after a solid performance in FP3 which saw him go straight through to Q2, having found a real improvement. It had helped that he liked Barcelona, but the bike was better now too. "I like the circuit in Barcelona. I ride quite well. But we also improved the setting of the bike. I think that we did the mistake after Friday, we followed a wrong way," he said. That was no different to any other rider, but because of his past and his age, it received extra attention. "These are things that happen all the weekend to more or less all the riders. The problem is when happens to me, it’s 'Rossi’s too old. You have to stop,' after one bad practice. But it’s normal. You work, and we try it the wrong way. But I am very, very happy with the feeling that I have today because I was not so bad on the track and I enjoyed it."

Rossi's optimism is based on more than just hope. Examining the timesheets, the Italian was genuinely quicker, though he is still some way off a podium. His pace on used tires would put him in the battle for sixth or seventh, the group behind the riders battling over second place, while Fabio Quartararo disappears into the distance.

That group chasing second will likely include Miguel Oliveira, Franco Morbidelli, Pecco Jack Miller, Maverick Viñales, Pecco Bagnaia, and Aleix Espargaro. It will likely also include Joan Mir, potentially putting on a repeat of the 2020 race, with the champion using the Suzuki GSX-RR's uncanny ability to cosset its tires to maintain his pace to the end.

"I think we will make a race again from less to more," Joan Mir told us on Saturday. But that was not sufficient for the win, and not the way for the future. "I think we have to continue to improving. This is not the way to win races. Like this I will be able to finish on the podium, if I’m good in the race, if I’m able to manage well and make super good laps like always."

But the other bikes had moved on, and Suzuki had to start catching up, Mir insisted. "The truth is that we have to continue improving and pushing because the competitiveness this year is really high. A lot of manufacturers improved and we didn’t improve," the Suzuki rider said. "Our bike is really good. we have a good base. But I have the same bike as last year. It’s the same one. What means? I’ve been 2 tenths faster than last year in qualifying. I was eighth last year and with 2 tenths faster I’m tenth. So, this means we are not improving. We need always to push a bit more to have more material and test more things to improve."

A good result would go some way to getting Joan Mir's title defense back on track. But he needs more if he is to stop Fabio Quartararo. And stopping Quartararo looks like an impossible task at Barcelona.


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Sat, 2021-06-05 00:12
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Once upon a time, Barcelona was regarded as one of the great motorcycling tracks, all sweeping corners demanding the utmost concentration and skill. So much of a motorcycling track was it that a couple of sections had to be put into it to make it a better track for cars, and especially for F1. The grand sweep of La Caixa had a hairpin inserted, to give the cars somewhere to brake. And Turn 13 had a tight little chicane added on the inside, to slow the cars down before they got onto the straight. Four fat tires meant they were at risk of going through the final corner so fast that would be within spitting distance of the sound barrier by the end of the straight.

Then Luis Salom died when he crashed on the outside of Turn 13, hit by his bike as he slid into a wall along a section of hard standing which nobody thought needed gravel, something which turned out to be a misconception. Questions about safety were raised, and the F1 layout was adopted. A great motorcycle track ruined.

To their great and unending credit, the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya did all they could to restore the track to its former glory. Turn 13 was reprofiled, more run off was created, a grandstand was moved back. That went half the way to fixing the track. Then earlier this year, the circuit altered Turn 10 to remove the F1 hairpin and restore something resembling the original layout of the sweeping corner at La Caixa. They cleverly found extra run off by the simple expedient of shortening the straight leading toward it, and moving Turn 10 closer to Turn 9.

Fast and faster

Friday was the first time the MotoGP riders got to ride the new layout on board a MotoGP machine. Plenty had done so on production bikes, but a stiff-as-a-board 300 hp Grand Prix prototype shod with MotoGP Michelins proved to be a slightly different affair, much to the embarrassment of Jack Miller.

The Australian had told Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna that the circuit had loads of grip. "Gigi, one of his big concerns was how the grip was of the track," Miller told us. "I feel like a t*** now because I was here the other week with the Panigale. It was fantastic. But riding a Panigale here and a GP bike are two different kettles of fish, the Panigale feels perfect here with heaps of grip. The GP bike definitely doesn’t."

The corner, however, is magnificent, was the universal consensus among the riders. "It feels natural. It feels like a proper motorcycle corner, or a proper racetrack corner with a run off area to go wide or to crash," said Pol Espargaro.

Classic Catalunya

Valentino Rossi agreed. "Turn 10 is a difficult corner, it's very technical," the Petronas Yamaha rider told us. "It's difficult to find the right line and to find the apex in the entry. But I like it. I prefer it compared to the Turn 10 of last year. Also because this Turn 10 is very similar to the classic Turn 10 of Catalunya circuit before."

Jack Miller felt very much the same. "T10 itself is fantastic," the Australian said. "Much better than the bus stop before. It follows a more natural layout of the track and is how every other corner is. It suits it rather than sticks out like dogs b***s. That’s definitely the biggest thing."

The one curiosity was that different riders had a very different view of the grip between the new of Turn 10 and the old asphalt that led into the new corner. "The grip is maybe a little bit more in that corner, because the tarmac is new," was Luca Marini's assessment. "So that corner is one of the best corners in this track for the grip."

Maverick Viñales saw it rather differently. "The grip in Turn 10, it's not that bad, it's just different," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider told us. "When you brake, and then you enter the new asphalt, it's a difference. But for me it's OK. It feels better. A little bit less grip. But I think by the weekend, it will be better."

The problem is the transition from one tarmac to another. That happens right in the middle of the braking zone for the new corner, which can cause confusion. "You start braking on the old asphalt, then change, and in my opinion, there is much more grip in that phase," explained Luca Marini. "In exit, it's all new. The next corner is all new, so the grip level is quite constant, but you brake, there is not so much grip, then you feel that the stopping power of the brake increases, but after some laps you adapt on this."

Pol Espargaro voiced the feeling, shared by every rider we spoke to, that the circuit had responded to the concerns raised previously. "The grip is not so high because Barcelona has never been a place with huge grip because the activity here all the year is a lot. But the transition of the grip is good. The kerbs are well made. Nothing to complain about. We asked for something. It’s not because I’m a pro circuit of Catalunya. It’s something that they did well and we should but we should accept and say when things are well made after we ask for it." Riders are free with their criticism when they feel a circuit is lacking. But they can be just as free with praise when a track does something right.

The reason for the confusion over whether the grip in Turn 10 was better and worse stemmed mainly from the fact that the grip was fairly terrible overall. Barcelona is remarkable for combining a lack of grip from the asphalt with a surface that is notoriously harsh on tire wear. Michelin have added to the confusion by bringing three rear tires which are all close enough in grip that they are all probably raceable.

As a result, we saw all three compounds given long runs, and riders fast on all three tires. Franco Morbidelli tried the hard rear and found it to his liking, clocking low 1'40s on a well-worn H rear. Fabio Quartararo concentrated on the medium rear, and was also posting low 1'40s on a used rear. Pecco Bagnaia put in respectable times on a used soft rear, while factory Ducati teammate Jack Miller put longish runs on both the medium and soft rears.

What all this means is that there is no consensus over which tire to race. "The pace was great, but the grip not so great," Fabio Quartararo quipped. He had run medium tires, but was taking a sly glance at the hard rears. "We saw riders using the hard tire, I think it's a great option for us, we saw in Portimão that it's really good," the Frenchman said.

Anybody's guess

Franco Morbidelli was one of the riders who had tried the hard rear, and liked it. "I found some benefits with the hard," the Petronas Yamaha rider said. "We need to think. I felt a bit better with the medium for sure. But there are some things I like about the hard. We need to choose. We are in doubt. And the fact that we are in doubt is positive." Being in doubt means having the ability to make choices.

Jack Miller had been through two different compounds, and was set to try the third in FP4, he explained. "My FP1 was all the same tires, 20 something laps. Then in FP2, I was trying to go with the soft. Was moving quite a lot. The grip was not bad. But it was moving so I wanted to do a back to back to check how was the M in the afternoon when the track was a bit cleaner. I did some more laps on that. I wasn’t expecting to do a time attack at the end but the team wanted it. We went for it. But yeah, the plan was always in FP4 to try the hard rear and put some laps on that and see how it behaves over some distance."

The reigning champion had tested all three tires on Friday, precisely because of the lack of grip. "I think everybody complains today about the grip," Joan Mir told us. "The grip level low and the tires drop quite a lot. That’s why the people try so many different options to find more consistency. That will be important. The tire degradation here in this track is huge. It will be really important the tire management of the end of race. That will be the key for sure."

Tire wear has played a critical role in previous races at the circuit. Andrea Dovizioso rode a masterful race in 2017, conserving his tires to take a convincing victory. Last year's race was marked not just by the way Fabio Quartararo managed the race at the front, but also by how close he came to losing the race as the Suzukis charged through the field, while the tire performance of others dropped and the GSX-RR's cossetting of its tires paid dividends at the end of the race. Another lap, and it would have been a Suzuki 1-2.

"It’s always like that here in Barcelona, ever since I’ve been coming here with MotoGP," Jack Miller explained. "It’s one of those things. If you’ve got nothing at the end of the race you can lose a lot of time real quick."

That was a lesson learned from personal experience, the Australian explained. "Going back to my first top ten in MotoGP was here. I remember I was just picking guys off at the end of the race. I caught up to Barbera, I think it was. And he had literally no right hand side of his tire left whatsoever. He couldn’t tip in on a right hand corner. It’s definitely always been a key here."

There was a simple explanation, according to Miller. "It’s because there are so many long corners here, turn 3, turn 4, even going up turn 7 up the hill and then 9. And then the 3 last corners. You’re on that right hand side of the tire and they are all high spin areas. You definitely have to be gentle with your right hand because it can come to bite you in the *** quite severely at the end of the race. You drop off really quick."

Honda's lost playground

Low grip is usually a happy hunting ground for Marc Márquez and the Honda RC213V, but that was not necessarily the case any longer, the Spaniard insisted. "It's true that normally when the grip was very low, we were fast," Márquez told us. "But the problem is that the other manufacturers have improved."

Yamaha, for example, were able to find grip where others struggled, Márquez said. "Especially in Sector 2, for example, that there you need grip if you want to be fast. The fastest guys are Yamaha riders, but not a little bit, they are like three tenths, four tenths faster than everybody. So that means that sometimes here the torque and the power is not the most important, the most important is how to get the grip, and we are struggling."

That was why he had tried the soft rear tire, the Repsol Honda rider explained. "I tried the soft tire to try to understand if it's a real option for the race, and it's an option. But still I don't' know which tire I will use." He would most probably let the rest of the grid make his choice for him, he admitted. "Honestly speaking, maybe I will keep going with the soft and the medium, both tires – maybe I will try the hard like Morbidelli – but then on Sunday, I will check the list of the tires, and if there are more mediums on the track, I will choose the medium. If there are more softs, I will choose the soft. So for me, I'm not really with the sensitivity enough to decide which tire is better."

Friday was also the first day for Maverick Viñales working with new crew chief Silvano Galbusera. That was a positive experience, he said, but it also left them with more work to do than usual. "Well, actually we tried a different balance on the bike," Viñales told us. "Basically the objective was to find front feeling, and we accomplished this today, so I'm quite happy about that. But anyway, now we have other problems, this is clear. We solve one problem at a time."

Viñales had been surprised at Galbusera's way of working, he said. "Today we tried many different bikes during FP1 and FP2. It's something that I'm not used to doing, but it's not bad. I'm quite happy, honestly. I'm quite happy because we found very positive things, for sure a few negatives, but we can work on that a little bit more tomorrow, and see if we can make an improvement. It's important to look now ahead, and to the future. So we are trying to work hard."

He didn't want to get ahead of himself, however. "Basically we need to match step by step," Viñales told us. "We cannot try too much, if we go too fast, it's not good. We need to go slowly, building the confidence. I felt good."

It wasn't the first time working with Galbusera, Viñales said. "I worked a little bit with Silvano in the test in Qatar, and I think that he's a smart guy, he has a lot of experience, also with Vale which he has been on a high level for the last years. He can help me in a few things, and for sure, every rider is different, but he will understand me. Because today, honestly I've been quite calm during the day, I understand right now our job, and it feels very nice, honestly."

 


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