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Mon, 2021-10-25 00:46
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I learned a new Spanish expression today. "Hasta el rabo todo es toro", which translates roughly as "the bull goes all the way to the tail". It's an expression which comes from bullfighting (a misnomer: it is bullying, not fighting, with a large band of armed hooligans ganging up on a single bull, rather than a toreador going head to head with a single bull; for that reason, I am always, always Team Bull) which means you can't trust the bull until you are sure it is dead. It ain't over until it's over. And sometimes it is over before you realize.

Sunday at Misano 2 was the proof of that. It was a day of unexpected outcomes, of shock twists just when you thought everything was done and dusted. As the late, great Nicky Hayden said to me after I had asked a particularly stupid question at Indy many years ago, "that's why we line up on Sunday: you never know what's going to happen."

So a few thoughts on the events of Sunday, ahead of some longer reflections on a day which was so very full of story lines. Literally, every class, every level of every race, there were things you could spend hours pondering and debating. It was one of those weekends.

It started off with Dennis Foggia walking away with Moto3, then Pedro Acosta salvaging a podium at the end. Raul Fernandez destroying the Moto2 field to take a commanding championship lead, then crashing out for no apparent reason and handing it back to Remy Gardner. Pecco Bagnaia leading comfortably and crashing out. The first Repsol Honda 1-2 since Aragon 2017. Enea Bastianini bagging his second podium. Two Aprilias in the top 8 for the first time in the premier class, Maverick Viñales finishing less than two tenths behind his teammate. Valentino Rossi his third top ten of the season at his final race on Italian soil, then throwing his helmet into the crowd – Rossi never, ever gives his helmets away, so this was exceptional. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

But the big thing was, of course, Fabio Quartararo taking his first MotoGP championship, and the first premier class title ever for a French rider. At the age of 22 years 187 days old, he is the sixth-youngest premier class champion, the third-youngest MotoGP champion, and the youngest ever Yamaha champion. History was made.

And it was all rather unexpected. On Saturday, things were not looking good for Quartararo. For the first time in 2021, he qualified outside of the top 12. Indeed, starting from 15th was the worst qualifying position of his MotoGP career. His main rival for the title, Pecco Bagnaia, had qualified on pole, after masterfully progressing through Q1 to dominate Q2 on a drying track. We looked on course for a runaway victory by the factory Ducati rider, while Quartararo had his work cut out trying to pass the thicket of riders he had ahead of him.

Turnaround

The championship seemed out of reach for Quartararo on Saturday night. "If I have to be honest, the championship I have not even one thought about it, because he [Pecco Bagnaia] is P1, and I'm P13 or P15," the Frenchman told us after qualifying. "But he has the pressure, it's not only me. He has the pressure to do well, and maybe he will make a mistake. I don't wish him that, but it's something that we will see. But my feeling is that if everything is normal, we will fight for it in Portimão."

Nothing is ever normal in MotoGP, of course. The only thing you can be sure of in this Michelin & Magneti Marelli era is that something unexpected is going to happen. So we should have known that Quartararo would take the title on Sunday.

What happened? The weather had played a role all weekend, so why would Sunday be any different? Rain and a drying track on Friday and Saturday, and a cold but reasonably sunny day on Sunday. The temperature made tire choice a bit of a gamble: the soft front was too soft with the sun heating the Misano asphalt. But the ambient temperature was barely enough to make the hard front work. The medium front was the safe option, but it was not a tire anyone was particularly keen on. It was not so much the goldilocks option as the least worst choice.

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Sun, 2021-10-24 00:12
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It has been (and probably will be) a very odd weekend. Normally, grand prix weekends have a narrative, a story that builds like a novel, or a compositional structure that grows and swells like a symphony or an opera. Each part leads to the next: test parts and setup in FP1, work on tires in FP2, chase a spot in Q2 in FP3, work on race pace and tire wear in FP4, go for grid positions during qualifying, all building toward the dramatic crescendo of the race. Race weekends tell a story, and like all good stories, they have an internal narrative logic.

Not Misano 2. This feels more like a series of one-act plays, with the same characters but a different storyline every day. Friday was mostly soaking wet, with riders looking at wet tires. Saturday was wet in the morning, and a drying track in the afternoon. Sunday will be dry, probably sunny, but very cold. Each day feels unconnected to the next.

An example. Normally FP4 is the session most relevant for the race on Sunday. Held at the same time of day, more or less, usually offering comparable track conditions allowing teams and riders the best chance to simulate the race. At Misano 2, the track was starting to dry out quickly in FP4, with riders soon swapping to slicks. FP4 turned into practice for qualifying, learning lessons about how the grip was changing, where you could push and where you couldn't. FP4 was relevant to Q1 and Q2, but you learned nothing about conditions for the race.

FP4 was also the moment when Fabio Quartararo realized he was in trouble. Despite pushing as hard as he dared in conditions he hates during FP3, he came up a few tenths short of direct passage to Q2, the first time he has missed out on that all season. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider pushed hard again on slicks in FP4, seeking out the dry lines and taking as much risk as he dared without jeopardizing his grip on the championship. He was fast, too, finishing the session in fourth just behind Jack Miller.

The trouble was that Iker Lecuona had been fastest in FP4, just a fraction quicker than Pecco Bagnaia. Lecuona and Bagnaia were both nearly a second and a half quicker than Quartararo, and looked very comfortable in the conditions. And the Frenchman would have to get past both of them in Q1 if he had any hopes of a decent qualifying position.

"When you are in FP4, and I saw Iker and Bagnaia, and I was third or fourth, and both Iker and Bagnaia were in Q1, I knew it was going to be a tough, tough job," Quartararo reflected on Saturday afternoon. "At the end, I finished third in the Q1." Even worse, that third turned into a fifth, when Quartararo had his best time taken away because it was set under a yellow flag.

A predictable consequence of having to push on a track which was not quite ready: in the final few minutes, riders chased a quick time with the track improving. Pushing harder, taking more risk, traveling faster and faster, but still not 100% certain of conditions. Traveling faster, they crashed harder when things went wrong, and that brought out the yellow flags.

Joan Mir crashed so hard his Suzuki GSX-RR cleared the tire wall and smashed into the fence, hitting a camera operator as a result. The camera operator was uninjured, but the violence with which it happened belied the dangers of conditions like this. "I went into Q1 to get the feeling," the Suzuki rider explained. "I was getting faster, getting feeling and when I started to push I lost the front on the last corner. It looks like I hit a camera guy in the last corner. It looks like he’s fine. I want to apologize because I couldn’t avoid it but I’m happy that he’s fine."

Mir wasn't the only rider to go down. Marc Marquez crashed in FP4 and Q2, as did Iker Lecuona. Jorge Martin managed to crash twice in Q2, ending up in 12th after failing to set a fast time. Enea Bastianini managed to crash three times, twice in FP4 and once in Q1, leaving his crew working late to patch up all the damage he had caused.

Could Quartararo have made it into Q2 if he had pushed harder? Perhaps, but already at the back of his mind, the championship is affecting his assessment of risk. Knowing that he is close means that subconsciously, he is holding a fraction in reserve. "Unconsciously, I have been not risking a lot on the wet patches," the Frenchman told us. "If you look at my Sector 1, I'm the second fastest of Q2, even if I'm not in there. But the conditions were improving, and I'm really fast there. Sector 2, not so much. The only sectors where I lose a lot where the last two, and it was the sectors where the were the wet patches."

Reducing his risk exposure may have been an unconscious reflex, but it was also sensible. He has three races to wrap up the title; there is no point in throwing it away by crashing and injuring himself.

Quartararo has left himself with a lot of work to do on Sunday, but with the weather expected to be dry, he was not overly concerned. "I'm not so worried about tomorrow, of course it's not the best position to start, but P13, I need to make a great start, try to make great overtakes, and we will see what will happen in the race."

Try another day

He did not want to be thinking about the championship, and would not ask his team for updates during the race. "I don't want to know. It's something that will just put more pressure, I think, and it's something that my strategy is to push from the beginning. I need to recover the most points as possible, and then we will see what happens," Quartararo said.

Winning the title was something to worry about at Portimão, not here in Misano, the Frenchman told us. "If I have to be honest, the championship I have not even one thought about it, because [Bagnaia] is P1, and I'm P13 or P15. But he has the pressure, it's not only me. He has the pressure to do well, and maybe he will make a mistake. I don't wish him that, but it's something that we will see. But my feeling is that if everything is normal, we will fight for it in Portimão."

Starting from P1 – and leading the first ever all-Ducati front row, with Ducati Lenovo teammate Jack Miller in second and a surprising and impressive Luca Marini in third – Bagnaia knows what he has to do. His strategy is the same, wherever Quartararo starts from on the grid. "I was needing to push if he was starting P2, and I think I have to push the same now that he is 13, 15," the Italian told the press conference. "The only thing that I can do to keep the championship open is try to win tomorrow. The strategy will be the same as if Fabio was starting more in front."

It is a brave gambler who would bet against Pecco Bagnaia on Sunday. The Italian is on an incredible roll: his fourth pole position in a row, and with a shot at four podiums in a row, the first Ducati rider to so since Andrea Dovizioso in 2018. His pace at Misano is phenomenal, in part thanks to all the training he does at the circuit with the VR46 Riders Academy.

What is more impressive is how he has improved his weaknesses from last year. All winter, he worked on pushing hard when his tires were cold and in low temperatures. That paid off in spades on Saturday, the Italian dominating FP4, Q1, and Q2. It was only with new tires in the wet of FP3 that he struggled, and left him stranded in Q1.

He used that to his advantage. He built his confidence in FP4, and built on it through both qualifying sessions. "Normally I was struggling more in these conditions, but today it was just wet on three or four corners, so it was not a big problem. Also, when I was going over the patches, the grip was not so bad. So, I took confidence in FP4 then in Q1, and for the Q2 I was prepared to push like a normal qualifying."

Jack Miller put his speed in the conditions down to his experience with the Bridgestone tires. Those tires offered phenomenal grip, but only if you were willing to push right from the start. And if you weren't willing to do that, they would bite, spitting you off as the grip disappeared without warning. So in tricky conditions, Miller had learned to thread the needle between pushing hard to get heat into the tires, and taking so much risk you ended up in the gravel.

"It’s like a fine line. You’ve got to walk the tight rope, I guess you can say," Miller told the press conference. "I think the experience from being on the Bridgestones when I came to MotoGP definitely helped that because it was one of those things where you couldn’t go slow on an out lap. You had to push immediately. So, I just sort of adapted that to what the bike is now and the way the bike works now, especially in the wet or when you’re in the wet with slick tires."

Miller explained the secret to riding in those conditions. "You’re trying to generate heat, is what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to compress the tire both on braking and also on acceleration in the points you can, and then just trying to get through the wet points because there’s no really pretty way of doing that, going over the wet parts with a slick tire. There’s nothing you can do. That’s all it is. It’s just trying to generate as much heat as possible. It's something that I’ve been able to learn and do pretty well." It is a high-speed, high wire act on two wheels.

Putting in the heat

The advantage the Michelins have over the Bridgestones is that you can build heat into them more slowly, if you have the patience and the time. This was the approach taking by Johann Zarco, who had been struggling in the mixed conditions. "To get the tire ready, I could take the time," the Pramac Ducati rider explained. "And it seems that on the Ducati, this was working well. For sure if you want to push extra hard on the beginning, you can get surprised. But lap after lap, the tire was getting better overall, and on the left side. That's why it was necessary also to be patient and just feel in the right moment when you can do it. But that's why it's tricky in this condition. And it's a long time since we had cold conditions, because even in Silverstone we got better weather than this, so it was a long time since we had this experience of a cold tire."

It hadn't worked entirely. He had hit a wet patch late in Q2 and crashed at Turn 14. "For the last lap, I was lucky to have Bagnaia in front of me," Zarco explained. "I tried to follow him and I was improving my lap times really well, but I got the mistake at the exit of Turn 13, and maybe touched a bit of water or I touched the kerbs with too much angle, and I crashed."

Behind the three Ducatis on the front row sits the Repsol Honda of Pol Espargaro. The Spaniard has been impressive in the cold, which he is better able to manage. The Hondas all lack rear grip, so slick or cold conditions create a more level playing field, as the other bikes lose grip too.

Leveling down

"It equalizes the situation a bit, especially comparing with the Ducatis," Espargaro said. "Today the grip was low, it was tricky, and it was spinning, you need to keep the line, and this was very difficult. And you see the first three bikes were Ducatis. So it's difficult to manage in these kind of situations, but as we are always managing the rear tire on the entry of the corner, just spinning a little, just sliding, you get used to these kind of situations which are not nice."

The fact that Misano has a bit more grip than other circuits works in Espargaro's favor. "Luckily here it's a little bit less because the grip is nice, so other places, we struggle more and I struggle more, even than the other Hondas. Because my riding style is based on the rear grip, and if I don't have it, I struggle."

This was something he was determined to spend the winter addressing. He was already riding motocross a lot, but he intended to do more supermoto and flat track riding, to get used to that feeling of the rear spinning and not having rear grip. "I'm going to be during all winter on the flat track bike, which I'm not used to doing," Espargaro told us. "I started with flat track when I was a kid, but I think I'm going to take it up properly and I'm going to train a lot. So I'll have a busy schedule for this preseason and next season, I'm not going to get so much rest. But I want to improve the situation I have now, and if we do not improve the grip – which it's not like that, the new bike is better on that, and it's still improving, but just in case – I'm going to come to the preseason ready."

One fast Yamaha

At the other end of the grid is Franco Morbidelli, the only Yamaha rider who has been able to be consistently fast in all conditions. Morbidelli put that down to his riding style. "We are working well to adapt the setting of the bike to my style which is quite smooth," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "Maybe in these conditions my style, my smooth style pays off a bit more. For sure what is certain is the team is doing a wonderful job, setting up the bike, doing the right counter measures in the right time to perform fast and perform well."

What can we expect from the race? It was going to be something of a lottery, Morbidelli acknowledged. "We just had 2 laps in dry conditions all weekend," the Italian told us. "We have basically no info. So it’s really important to do a good warm up to understand what we need for the race. From there on we will think about something for the race, or think about some performance to predict, some performance for the race. But for the moment we can’t tell anything about the race."

Starting from scratch

Tire choice is going to be crucial, but there is little time to make that choice. Fortunately, there is the data from the test after the race a month ago, when conditions were also pretty cold. Even then that will need to be confirmed in warm up, which has been delayed by 20 minutes to give temperatures a chance to rise to the minimum needed for the Michelin tires.

"We will see which tire to use for tomorrow's race, because the soft front and the soft rear, those were two tires that I didn't like, but with these conditions, they were tires that I needed to use," Fabio Quartararo explained. "So tomorrow morning we will start with different tires." There will be a lot of other riders facing a similar dilemma.

Will the championship be decided on Sunday? In reality, it was never going to be settled at Misano 2. Quartararo's lead, comfortable as it is, was not such that he could cruise to the title. His job this weekend is to score as many points as he can and put himself in a position to take the title at Portimão with as few points as possible. If he can climb from 15th to 13th and score 3 points, then a second place would be enough in Portugal. If he can make it to 9th, a third at Portimão would be enough. There is no need to risk anything, and no need to be concerned if Pecco Bagnaia cruises to victory. The next race is where he gets his first real shot at the title, and where the crown will lie most heavily.

Unintended consequences

On the subject of yellow flags, qualifying for the Moto2 class demonstrated that it is impossible to escape the law of unintended consequences. The FIM has gone from punishing riders not slowing down for a yellow flag to automatically canceling the lap time for ever rider who passes through a sector where a yellow flag is being shown.

As journalist Simon Patterson pointed out, that produces a perverse incentive for riders to behave more dangerously. If they slow down through a sector where yellow flags are being waved, they risk letting their tires cool too much, and losing a shot at putting in another fast laps at the end of a session. So knowing that their laps are going to be canceled anyway, they push on and keep riding fast.

We saw how badly wrong that could go at the end of Moto2 Q2. Xavi Vierge crashed at Turn 15, and few seconds later, his teammate Jake Dixon crashed in exactly the same place, his bike narrowly missing a marshal. Dixon didn't really have time to see the yellow flags being waved, and probably didn't have a yellow flag message on his dashboard at that point, so it is hard to blame him for it. (This is one of the areas addressed in the FIM announcement on Friday, about improving communication so that riders get immediate, automatic warning of a bike down ahead of them.) But it points to the weakness of the current system, which has no incentive for riders to slow down.

Dixon will receive a penalty – a long lap during Sunday's Moto2 race – but that was for crashing. But that is de facto already too late. You want riders to be punished for not slowing down for yellow flags so that they do not crash in the first place.

Stout oak

Finally, on the anniversary of the death of Marco Simoncelli, a fitting memorial was raised to the memory of the rider whose name the circuit already bears. An oak tree was planted alongside a plaque commemorating Simoncelli on the inside of Turn 8, Quercia. Fitting, because 'quercia' is the Italian word for oak tree, the corner having been named for the large oak which sat in the middle of the bank on the inside, and why they had to have a corner there in the first place. Trees stand for a long time, and are a good way of ensuring memories live on.


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Fri, 2021-10-22 23:40
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It has been something of an irrelevant day at Misano. On Friday morning, the track was soaking, rain keeping it wet. In the afternoon, it started off wet but a dry line started to form. "At the end, the last 10 minutes to go, we had one dry line, but lap by lap it was getting wider," was how Takaaki Nakagami described it. With damp conditions expected on Saturday, and a cold and dry Sunday, nothing of importance was learned on Friday.

It was a wasted day in terms of finding race setup, perhaps, but it was still useful in overall terms. MotoGP is full of young riders who haven't had all that much time in the wet, and so Friday offered a chance to gain some valuable experience. "Not a wasted day because I don’t have so much experience in wet conditions, and a day like this is good for me," Suzuki's Joan Mir said. "I improved a lot and could understand. When I started in MotoGP, from then to now I ride in a different way and I am able to be a lot more strong."

All that experience might be useful for the future, but not necessarily for the rest of the weekend, the reigning MotoGP champion acknowledged. "It looks like we will start from zero after today." But if, as expected, it is damp on Saturday morning, Friday could still provide useful data for trying to get through to Q2. "I think FP3 can be mixed conditions, not completely dry so it is important that we suffered at the end of the session. It’s what we took from today," Mir said.

Local knowledge

Friday may have been a lost day, but that didn't matter all that much. MotoGP was here just over a month ago for the Misano 1 race, and then had a two-day test in cool conditions much more like what we can expect on Sunday. Everyone has pretty much everything dialed in already.

Especially the riders of the VR46 Academy who train at Misano all the time, such as Pecco Bagnaia. "We have worked a lot on this track. I know everything about this track," the factory Ducati rider pointed out. "Also on the last day of the test, we had conditions which were more similar to this weekend, because the second day of the test was colder. So we already know everything, which tire to use and see what will happen. But I'm sure that our potential is still the same as last race here."

Bagnaia had a crash in the morning, and unusual event for the young Italian. That crash brought his yearly total to 4 for all of the sessions of practice and races in 2021, and putting him level with his title rival Fabio Quartararo. It is remarkable, or perhaps not so remarkable, that the two riders with the fewest crashes throughout the season are also the two vying for the championship.

The Italian was still fast, though, like all of the Ducatis. Johann Zarco topped the morning session, Jack Miller was fastest in the afternoon. There were four Ducatis in the top six in FP1, five in the top ten in FP2. The bike is good in the wet, as are its riders. "I don’t want to blow our own horns, but myself and Zarco are pretty quick in the wet," Miller pointed out. "Always have been. Zarco also on the Yamaha. Myself also on the Honda."

The bike itself is good, though. "I think it comes down to mechanical grip. You have a lot of rear grip in the wet. But it also comes down to how the bike behaves," Miller explained. "The way the Ducati works, it’s definitely more user friendly. You get a lot more feedback and understand what it’s doing."

That makes it easier when it is wet, and also when the track starts to dry, the Australian explained. "Days like today, you don’t stress about going out in the wet. Even when the bike lets go, when we were struggling with the temperature, it was letting go but it gives you plenty of reaction time." The bike is telling the rider what it's about to do, and that makes it much easier to deal with. "It’s the same with the front. Using the carbon brakes in the wet, you’re able to react so quickly on the lever, you’re able to react in those little quick ones you get in the wet, you’re able to react and avoid a crash which is really, really nice." Being able to react and prevent a crash builds confidence, and confidence is the secret to going faster.

What is mechanical grip? Basically it means getting the tires hooked up as a result of the basic design of the bike. The combination of geometry, weight distribution, and the materials used helps the tires dig into the asphalt and find drive, braking, cornering. It is, if you like, 'natural' grip inherent in the motorcycle, rather than grip which comes from using the electronics to alter the behavior of the bike. The bike itself wants to grip; you don't have to find ways to make it grip.

That was the contrast with the Yamaha. Jack Miller had spoken to the man he replaced in the factory Ducati team, Andrea Dovizioso, now that Dovizioso was on the Petronas Yamaha, and was struggling in the wet. "Just listening / speaking to Andrea, someone that rode the bike for many years and knows how it performs in the wet, seeing him struggle more on the Yamaha, and we all know he’s one of the faster guys in the wet. But he seems to be having more issues with the Yamaha than the Ducati."

The problem is not so much a track with water on it, however, as much as a track in which the water is starting to go away. As the track starts to dry, that is when the Yamahas really suffer. In the morning, on a fully wet track, Franco Morbidelli set the sixth fastest time, while Valentino Rossi was twelfth. In the afternoon, on a track where a dry line was appearing, Fabio Quartararo was the best Yamaha, down in 16th.

"To be honest, I'm happy about full wet, because this afternoon, straight away I felt really good on the bike, and until we stopped, we were in P7. So I was pretty happy," Quartararo said. "And then as soon as it dries, if you can maybe ask all the Yamaha riders this can be useful, because it's like you are riding a bike that is totally different. The bike doesn't turn, the bike doesn't want to pick up, the bike has no grip. All the defects you can have in these kind of conditions are there."

The lack of grip was not specific to the front or the rear of the Yamaha M1, Franco Morbidelli explained. "It's a little bit of both. We struggle with both tires, we start to struggle with the whole package. The feeling is that the grip fades away instead of increasing." No grip means going slow, the Italian said. "When you don't have grip, you cannot ride well or fast. This is what happens to us. Instead of when the track gets dry, instead of the grip getting higher, it's worse."

The trouble is that when the track starts to dry, the dry line is faster than the wet. But it is precisely on that damp and drying line where the Yamaha suffers most. "As I said, exactly on the dry lines, we struggle. But you are forced to take the dry lines if you want to make a faster lap time. But the lap time doesn't get so much faster. You need to go on the dry line, because it makes you faster but the feeling is really poor on these conditions. While everybody else is able to have a good increase in grip by going on the dry lines," Franco Morbidelli said.

Fabio Quartararo had gone slower as the track dried out and he had swapped the the soft front wet tire for a medium wet. Theoretically, that should give more support in braking and allow him to go faster. But that was not the case. "As soon as we stopped for the medium front, which I felt it was time to go for it, with a new soft rear, I was spinning so bad. I had no grip, we were almost 1 second slower than the lap time I had before, even though the track was more dry. And basically, a lot of riders that were not super strong in full dry, they made a massive step in the mixed conditions."

This was an area which desperately needs fixing, Quartararo insisted. "We need to understand why we are so bad in that condition. But not only me, it's all the Yamahas are struggling in those conditions. So it's something that we need to find and try to improve."

Choose your fighter

Why is the Yamaha slow in mixed conditions while the Ducati – and the KTM, and the Aprilia – are so fast? Perhaps the explanation should be sought in the Yamaha's thirst for corner speed. The Yamaha needs corner speed to go fast, and so the bike is built to ride on rails on the edge of the tire, and to accelerate early while the bike is still on its side. That is an inherently risky part of the corner, but one which offers a lot of benefits. There are more corners than straights, and a few hundredths in 16 corners adds up to a big chunk of time.

But corner speed necessarily requires grip. In the wet, when there is no grip for anyone, the playing field is level again, and the Yamaha can use the available grip to carry corner speed. In mixed conditions, the grip mid corner is unreliable and difficult to judge, giving the riders a lack of feel. Riders on point-and-shoot bikes like the Ducati can pick the bike up earlier and open the gas on corner exit, exploiting the bike's mechanical grip to maximize acceleration. Yamaha riders have to completely change their riding styles if they want to attempt the same, but even then, the M1 doesn't have the mechanical grip of the Desmosedici.

Can this be fixed? It is most likely an innate quality of the design philosophy chosen by Yamaha. The issue has been there for a decade or more: Jorge Lorenzo was very fast in the wet, and incredible in the dry, but absolutely nowhere when conditions were not one thing or another. At best, the Yamaha riders can hope to limit their disadvantage on a half-wet, half-dry track. And pray it rains as little as possible during the season.

Slip sliding away

Honda also have problems with grip, but their issues are of a different order. The RC213V lacks rear grip, both wet and dry. (At least, in its current incarnation; we will have to see how it changes next year when they introduce a radically revised version of the bike.) On a drying track, that is no different. The one advantage the Honda riders have is that they are used to a lack of rear grip, and are consequently always working on finding a way to maximize the grip they have, whatever the conditions.

Marc Marquez had expected a little more from Friday, and was mildly frustrated to be down in 14th in FP2. He had been unable to find the speed to get through to Q2, while riders on other bikes had been able to make a step forward on a drying track. The key lay in finding some confidence in the rear of the bike, the Repsol Honda rider told us. "We need to understand, because all Honda riders are struggling in the same areas, in the same points, that is try to believe in the rear contact, try to believe in the rear tire, and it's there that we are losing more."

Marquez had also been hampered by the fact that he had been swapping between chassis in FP2. He was still trying to figure out if the chassis being raced by Repsol Honda teammate Pol Espargaro was better than the frame he raced – and won on – in Austin. That meant doing several short runs in FP2, leaving less time to chase a quick lap time. "It was the plan, but it was not going like we want, because we tried both chassis again, one chassis that Pol is using, and the one that I used in Austin, for example."

Testing these in the wet was far from ideal. "So it's also in wet conditions, it's difficult to understand which one is better, because the track conditions are changing." Despite that, Marquez said he would try to make a decision on Friday night on which chassis he will use for the remainder of the weekend. At the time he spoke to us, he was tending toward the chassis used by Espargaro.

Detracting our attention from the start of FP2 came the announcement by the Permanent Bureau – basically, the FIM and Dorna, but in this case, backed by all of the organizations involved in running international circuit racing championships – that a number of steps would be taken to attempt to improve safety.

The cliff notes version (you can read the full story and announcement here) is that minimum ages will be raised in a number of classes, including WorldSSP300, the Red Bull Rookies Cup, FIM CEV Junior Moto3 Championship, and all the various Talent Cups around the world. For the three Grand Prix classes, the minimum age would be raised from 16 to 18. In addition, grid sizes would be cut to around 32 for most classes, and airbags had been made compulsory for all classes engaged in short circuit racing.

Work had also begun with protective equipment manufacturers to find ways to reduce the effect of bike and rider impacts, which have been the cause of the most recent spate of fatalities. And communication systems would be investigated and improved to try to provide automatic, near-instant warning of a crash up ahead on the track, to give riders a chance to slow down and avoid fallen riders and being involved.

A step in the right direction

The move was met with praise from most quarters, though several people were quick to point out that this was only a partial solution. It should be noted, of course, that this is just the beginning, a first step in the right direction, rather than the solution put in place to completely address the problem. Motorcycle racing is working to make the sport as safe as possible, but that cannot be achieved overnight.

For the most part, the riders welcomed the raising of the minimum age, even though many of them had benefited from the younger age limits when they started racing. Marc Marquez was one such rider. "It's true that maybe I'm not the rider to say, because I arrived in the world championship with 15 years old, I moved to MotoGP with 20 years old, one of the youngest ones," the Repsol Honda rider acknowledged. "But it's true that now the tendency is like if you are not in MotoGP with 20 years old, you are not a good rider. And it's not like this. Sometimes some riders need more time than the other ones, and to move the age means that everybody will be more ready, and everybody will be more mature."

The consensus was that riders would be more mature when they entered the Grand Prix paddock at 18 rather than 16, though there were one or two dissenting voices. "It's OK that you have to have more maturity from the guys, but I don't think they change too much from 16 to 18," Pecco Bagnaia pointed out.

For most riders, the rush to get kids onto big bikes as early as possible was the biggest problem. What was needed was for young riders to spend more time on smaller machinery on smaller tracks. "This needs to be a consequence from the smallest category," Marc Marquez said. "I mean, now it looks like that if a baby with 4, 5 years old is not on the bike, it's too late already. And it's not like this, you can start on the bike with 7, 8, 9 years old with a small bike. Just for fun, it's not necessary to compete and go racing."

Minibikes on kart tracks were the ideal environment for kids to learn to race, Aleix Espargaro pointed out. It was much better than putting them on big bikes at Grand Prix circuits. "The most important thing is to educate kids to arrive in big tracks like Barcelona, Mugello a little late," the Gresini Aprilia rider said. "All over Europe we have very nice karting tracks where kids can learn and improve their skills. If they crash in the middle of the track, and another mini bike hit them, the bike weight is half. We don’t need to allow kids with 10 years 12 years old to go on a track with 200kph on big circuit. They have to wait, improve skills on a karting track."

One thing which the rule changed didn't address was the need to change the bikes being raced, to prevent the huge bunches of riders all drafting each other in what was a recipe for inevitable disaster. That was what needed to come next, according to Jack Miller, as older riders could be just as stupid as kids of 16. "Something has to be done with the bikes and the tires. There are some guys well over 18 and acting like fools. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not just the young guys."

The motorcycles needed to be more difficult to ride, Miller said. "The bikes need to be harder. Give them more horsepower or give them less tire. There is too much tire for how much horsepower they got and it makes it too easy to ride. You see highsides at end of race when the tires are knackered and they don’t have an idea of what’s going on. But when it comes to a qualifying lap you don’t see highsides because the tires are good enough and the bike doesn’t have enough power to spin it."

The announcement by the FIM and Dorna is a step in the right direction. But it is a first step, and the road is long. Motorcycle racing is dangerous, but everyone is now committed to finding ways of reducing that danger as much as possible while allowing the sport to retain its essential character.


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Wed, 2021-10-20 08:10
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Though there will still be two more races for Valentino Rossi after Emilia-Romagna round of MotoGP, Rossi's second home race feels like the grand finale to his career. Misano is just a few kilometers from Tavullia, where he grew up, and where he lives and trains. And it is a track where he has seen some success in recent years, winning races and finishing on the podium.

After Misano, we head to Portimão, which has only been on the calendar since last year, and to Valencia, historically one of Rossi's worst tracks, with mostly unhappy memories. So if there is to be a grand farewell for the most significant figure in motorcycle racing, and arguably, in all of motorsports, it is more likely to come at Misano, with Portimão and Valencia served up as an encore.

Everyone has to retire at some point, but it sometimes seemed that moment would never come for Valentino Rossi. The Italian kept defying the odds, snatching podiums, looking capable of winning races, and always in the running for the championship. Even after he celebrated his 40th birthday in 2019, a date by which most racers are long retired, he still scored two podiums, and finished just off the podium another four times.

Yet when Rossi did announce his retirement, after the summer break at the Styrian Grand Prix at Spielberg in Austria, nobody was surprised. Rossi's results were very different from the past couple of years. He had gone from vying for podiums to struggling to get into the top ten.

Going back and analyzing his results in recent years highlights what looks like a definitive break for Rossi. And the more you look at the races he missed in 2020, the more it becomes clear that the time he lost to Covid-19 accelerated the end of his career.

In 2015, Rossi was vying for the championship with Jorge Lorenzo all the way to the final race at Valencia. The next year, he finished second once again, this time behind Marc Marquez, though this time the gap was 49 points rather than 5. His form slipped a little after 2016, still scoring regular podiums and featuring in the championship. All the way up to a streak of six no scores, including being absent for two races with Covid-19. From that point on, his form collapsed.

Crunching the numbers makes the pattern even more clear. In 2015, Rossi was on the podium 15 times from 18 races, taking 4 victories. His average finishing position was 2.6, or basically a podium every race, while his average gap to the winner in the dry was 5.3 seconds. Four DNFs the following season basically put him out of contention for the title, but when he did finish races, he finished closer to the lead, the gap being 4.5 seconds in the dry. With 10 podiums, it was clear he was still competitive.

Season Average gap
all races
Average gap
dry races/no crashes
Average
race position
Podiums DNFs Championship
position
2015 7.064 5.337 2.6 15 0 2
2016 6.155 4.482 2.9 10 4 2
2017 11.237 9.025 4.5 6 2 5
2018 14.992 7.112 6.5 5 0 3
2019 11.271 11.271 5.5 2 4 7
2020 9.246 9.246 7.4 1 5 15
2021 25.665 24.563 14.1 0 3 21

Rossi's form started to slip a little in the following three seasons, though some of that can be attributed to the performance of the Yamaha stagnating, while the Honda and Ducati leaped ahead. From 2017, Andrea Dovizioso and Ducati took over as the main challengers to the supremacy of Marc Marquez, while HRC found ever more speed out of the Honda RC213V, culminating in Marquez' spectacular 2019 season, where he never finished outside of the top two.

Between 2017 and 2019, Rossi's average finishing position fluctuated between 4th and 6th. His average gap to the winner in the dry was 9 seconds in 2017, 7.1 seconds in 2018, and 11.3 seconds in 2019. He scored 6 podiums in 2017, 5 podiums in 2018, and 2 podiums in 2019.

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Fri, 2021-10-08 07:05
Body:


The tower/diving board: visually stunning, and for those of us with vertigo, terrifying.


The second best thing about the tower is way it lends itself to artistic photos


But the best thing about the tower is the view it gives you of just how far riders like Jack Miller hang off the bike


Even Valentino Rossi, nearing retirement, is way, way off the bike


It was a hard weekend for Rossi, however.


Marc Marquez won over fans by carrying a Nicky Hayden flag on his victory lap and into parc ferme


Franco Morbidelli, the most picturesque helmet in the paddock, now in a darker blue


Austin was where Pecco Bagnaia saw the 2021 championship slip out of his hands...


And into the hands of Fabio Quartararo. Quartararo's secret? Getting the Yamaha M1 stopped faster than anyone else


Stopping is something Jack Miller likes to practice. Reaching Toprak levels of efficiency


Takaaki Nakagami switched to the 2021 aero package on his LCR Honda, and had real pace, before throwing it away by crashing


Austin was a weekend where Andrea Dovizioso made a lot of progress


Eyes on the prize


High mass discs on the KTM RC16. And on forks and tires, all the info you need: a 12/70 Michelin Power Slick Evo front, and WP Apex Pro closed cartridge cone valve carbon forks


Different ride-height/holeshot device setups for the Suzuki riders. Alex Rins has a thumb lever for the ride height, and a finger lever for the holeshot


By contrast, Joan Mir has two thumb levers


Prominently visible is also the tank extension with knee grips extending further over the frame, providing more purchase for Mir's knees


At the top, the teardrop-shaped fork covers to reduce drag on the Ducati GP21. Below it, the fork extension sensor rod is connected to the brake mount, just behind the fork canister


The right shoulder of Marc Marquez' Alpinestars leathers has been extended to make it a little roomier, and a little more comfortable


The first thing the mechanics do when putting the bike up on paddock stands in pit lane is turn the handlebars, to prevent nosey souls from taking photos and figuring out rake and trail


Hommage to Kevin Schwantz: Joan Mir used the legendary American's font for his racing number on Sunday


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If you would like to buy a copy of one of these photos, you can email Cormac Ryan Meenan

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Wed, 2021-10-06 00:26
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Sunday was a busy day for motorcycle racing fans. WorldSBK from Portimão, MXGP in Teutschenthal, Germany, BSB from Donington Park, and probably some more that went unnoticed in the hectic schedule. There was a lot of racing to take in, even for the most ardent and completist fan.

The action in Europe was thrilling, WorldSBK turning into the most exciting and tensest racing on the planet right at this moment, and then the racing world turned its attention to the United States of America, where the Grand Prix paddock had set up shop at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.

The racing in Austin was a good deal less scintillating. With the exception of the terror and drama of Moto3 – more on that later – both the Moto2 and MotoGP races were, frankly, dull, decided in the first few corners. Not that there wasn't anything of interest that happened: in Moto3 and Moto2, the championship gaps closed, in Moto2 significantly after Remy Gardner crashed out, his first mistake of the season, while in MotoGP, Marc Marquez returned to winning ways while Fabio Quartararo put one hand on the title.

But the process by which we reached this point was not exciting, in any shape or form. The field was quickly strung out – even in Moto3, at least by its own standards – and the battles for position were few and far between. After the shocking crash in Moto3, the dullness of the Moto2 and MotoGP races was rather welcome.

It wasn't the first time we've seen processional races at the Circuit of The Americas. In fact, processional races tend to be the norm at the circuit. Sunday's top ten in MotoGP was separated by 20.265 seconds, the second closest at the circuit since MotoGP started racing there. The closest top ten was in 2017, when 18.494 covered winner to tenth. The first four races held in Austin saw the top ten separated by over 40 seconds, and 31 seconds separated first from tenth the last time we came here in 2019. That was the only time the margin between the winner and second was under a second, Alex Rins beating Valentino Rossi by 0.462 seconds.

For comparison, only Portimão and Mugello saw bigger gaps between the top ten in the dry in 2021, as well as the wet races in Austria 2 and Le Mans, which tend to be more spread out. For some reason or other, though, Austin always seems to string races out, see them effectively decided in the first couple of corners.

Why is that? "Well, I have no idea," Pol Espargaro responded when asked. Fortunately, he went on to give a long list or reasons: "The track is tricky, long, it's bumpy, so it's very easy to make a mistake. It's physically demanding, and this makes more mistakes. I don't know, maybe it's that. Consistency is very difficult here, and maybe for that, there is more gap in between the riders. But honestly speaking, I don't know."

No room for error

Espargaro is onto something. The first section, the long esses from Turn 2 to Turn 10 is complex, and if you run wide there you are automatically off line for a long time before there is enough space between corners to correct a mistake. And if you mess up bad enough, you are across the hard run off and either have to slow down, or like Jorge Martin, have to do a Long Lap Penalty.

Making things worse is the bumpiness of the track. On a long, complicated track, the bumps are so numerous and varied that you can only really memorize the bumps around the main line of the track. Run off line and you encounter bumps you weren't expecting, turning a small mistake into a major loss of time.

Espargaro had bitter experience of how a single mistake can turn into a nightmare. "In my case for example, on lap 7 I had a huge closing in the second corner, and then I needed to go straight and I need to shortcut on the consecutive corners, and in that place I lost 1.5 or 2 seconds in one lap," the Repsol Honda rider told us. "So this makes a huge gap between me and the guy in front, and then I couldn't recover."

All downhill from there

Things went from bad to worse after that. "I was overtaken by Bastianini, I did another mistake, then I lost another second and a half, so in two laps I lose three and a half seconds. So after, it's difficult after a huge closing like that to come back to a good pace, it's difficult."

That puts pressure on a rider to try to make up ground, tempting them into even more mistakes, Espargaro pointed out. "And then you make more mistakes, you get nervous, you want more than what you can do, and also I cooked the front tire and I burned it and that was it." Espargaro finished over 20 seconds behind his teammate, and race winner, Marc Marquez.

The racing may not have been memorable – with the exception of the Moto3 race, for all the wrong reasons – but it was still a significant weekend. In these subscriber notes:

  • Moto3 mayhem, literally, the hows and the whys
  • Will a two-race ban for Deniz Öncü clean up Moto3?
  • How modern training methods are making for more aggressive races
  • Marc Marquez' secret for turning left
  • Fabio Quartararo's championship calculations
  • Pecco Bagnaia's impossible task
  • Quick thoughts on Martin, Bastianini, Rins, Miller vs Mir, Jenny Anderson on the podium, Dovizioso's progress, and Rossi being right to retire

First, that Moto3 race. Or rather, those Moto3 races. The first attempt at running the race was stopped on lap 7, when Filip Salac highsided on the exit of Turn 11, and needed to be moved with care from the side of the track. He was later taken to the Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin for scans on chest and abdomen.

Once the track was cleared, a second attempt at running the Moto3 race was made. That second attempt did not last long. Halfway through the 5-lap dash, as the pack headed down the back straight, Deniz Öncü moved across in front of Jeremy Alcoba, clipping the Gresini Moto3 riders front wheel. Alcoba went down, leaving Andrea Migno and Pedro Acosta nowhere to go. Migno was launched over Alcoba's Honda, knocking the bike into the path of Acosta, who was a little way behind Migno. Like Migno, Acosta was launched over the prone Honda, skidding along the side of the track and clipping the armco.

It was a horrendous crash, sending a shiver of fear through everyone watching. With motorcycle racing currently haunted by a spate of deaths in support classes, we feared the worst. When the three riders involved stood up and wandered over to talk to each other about just how lucky they had been, a sigh of relief powerful enough to blow a hurricane back out to see emanated from the paddock. There was a feeling that we dodged a bullet.

The long wait

Then the waiting started. Would there be a third attempt to restart the race? The very thought of it was appalling. The crash had left race fans sick to their stomachs, and in terror of what might happen, let alone the riders involved. Each rider reacted in their own way, as was visible from their faces on the TV screen. Pedro Acosta, at 17 still feeling the invincibility of youth, sat comfortably and looked ready to go again. The older, more experienced Andrea Migno looked drawn, and was shown on camera shaking his head, and signaling "basta" with his hands.

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Sun, 2021-10-03 04:14
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It has been four years since anyone lapped the Circuit of The Americas quite so rapidly. In 2018 and 2019, nobody, not even Marc Marquez, managed to get under the 2'03s. So it is a testament to how much faster the MotoGP riders are going that two riders managed it on Saturday in Austin. And this, despite the fact that the track has become so much more bumpy in the past couple of years.

So bumpy, in fact, that it appears as if the circuit has been issued an ultimatum: resurfaces the section from the exit of Turn 1 all the way through Turn 10, or MotoGP is not coming back. Though riders try not to talk to the media about what was discussed in the Safety Commission, the body in which the MotoGP riders can talk to Dorna and the FIM about safety issues, so that they can speak freely, it was obvious there was only one topic of discussion in the meeting: the bumps which have rendered the track so dangerous that there were calls by some riders not to race at all on Sunday.

"There were two or three riders who said not to race on Sunday," Jorge Martin said, but that idea was rejected out of hand. "At the end of the day, I think it's not possible, for me it's not a possibility. We are here as MotoGP, and we cannot stop the weekend. So we will race."

New surface please

What was decided was that the first half of the track needed to be resurfaced. "At least Turn 2 to Turn 10 they need to repair everything, and this is what riders requested," Takaaki Nakagami told us. Then, it was down to the circuit to decide whether they wanted to comply with that request or not. "From our side, from MotoGP, if the circuit say they don't want to resurface, I don't think we will come back."

Polesitter Pecco Bagnaia confirmed that in the press conference. "We decided to ask to COTA to resurface from Turn 2 to Turn 11. If they will not do it, it’s better to don’t come again because it’s too risky," the factory Ducati rider said.

It isn't just about new asphalt, Jorge Martin elaborated. The substrate on which the asphalt had been laid would have to be replaced as, to prevent the bumps from reappearing the following year, as has happened elsewhere. "They said they will ask not just to resurface, but to change the underground from Turn 2 to 10, and if they don't change it, we won't come back," the Pramac Ducati rider said.

Earthworks

Given the unstable soil on which the circuit is built, will that fix the problem? Circuit designer Jarno Zaffelli pointed to the work his Dromo Studios business had done at Silverstone, which suffered similar issues. By using a company specializing in circuit design, in conjunction with a local construction company with experience of groundwork in the area, the issues could be more permanently fixed, Zaffelli told Autosport.com.

Is this the last visit of MotoGP to the Circuit of The Americas? Getting the necessary work done before April next year, when the 2022 round of the Grand Prix of The Americas is due to take place, seems improbable, given that it is just six months away, with winter in between. But more pressure is likely to come when F1 visits the track in three weeks' time. COTA might be able to risk losing MotoGP, but if F1 decides to abandon the track, it would mean major financial losses.

Leaving COTA is hard for MotoGP, as the series is desperate to keep a race in the US, and is doing its utmost to break into the American media market. MotoGP has very few alternatives in terms of race tracks which are up to the safety standards demanded by the FIM. That is much, much easier for F1: the four-wheeled Grand Prix series can simply switch to street circuits, if they can find cities to host them. Generally, cities are all too keen to do just that, given the additional income generated by the fans who flock to the races.

All that is in the future, however. On Saturday, all eyes were on Pecco Bagnaia, who put in a superb lap to take pole with a time of 2'02.781. It is the fastest lap of the circuit since Marc Marquez pole time from 2017. That in itself is remarkable, given how much bumpier the track has become in the intervening period.

It also marked a string of remarkable records. Bagnaia has now taken pole for the third time in succession. The last time an Italian rider did that was Valentino Rossi in 2009. And the last time an Italian rider did it on an Italian bike was Loris Capirossi on the Ducati back in 2005.

Bagnaia also broke Marc Marquez' string of pole positions at the Circuit of The Americas. Marquez has started from pole in each of the previous seven editions, winning all but the 2019 race. But given where Marquez is on his road to recovery from injury, the fact that he has returned to the front row for the first time in 441 days, according to the Repsol Honda press release, since that ill-fated race at Jerez last year, is a surprise in itself.

Though there have been times where Marquez has been competitive – he won at the Sachsenring, finished second at Aragon - finding that extra speed for qualifying has been difficult. "We know that one of our weak points is the single lap, the hot lap in qualifying practice, but today we were able to manage in a good way," the Spaniard told the qualifying press conference.

The difference is the track, Marquez explained. At other circuits, he had been forced to find a tow to chase a quick lap. "I try to always do my job and try to always find the best. Sometimes to find the best I need a slip stream or sometimes I need one riding style or another one," he told the press conference.

Austin is different, though. "Here in this racetrack, I feel good. When I push, the lap arrives. When I slow down, I know why." There are far more left handers than rights here, Marquez explained. "It’s basically because I only suffer in three corners. The rest of the track I can ride with my riding style and this is positive. In Misano for example it’s opposite. I suffer all the circuit. I only ride well in three corners. In the other corners I suffer. This is because it’s left corners. It was my strong point, but now it’s even a bigger difference for my injury."

The fact that Marquez is so comfortable should give the rest of the field pause for thought. Being able to ride as he wants for so much of the lap puts him in a position to reassert his dominance at the track. Not that it will be easy. "Tomorrow will be a long race. You need to manage tires, bike, bumps, but also the physical condition." At least weather should play ball, Marquez preferring the heat. "When it’s warmer I feel better. In the morning with a cold temperature I don’t like. Everything is too harsh and then everything is shaking more. When gets everything softer, it’s when I start to enjoy."

Honda track

Looking at his pace in FP4, Marquez looks competitive. The Repsol Honda rider managed a lap of 2'04.812 on a used soft rear with 19 laps on, a sign that Santi Hernandez and the rest of his team have a bike that will work at the race. In fact, the Hondas appear to be working well, with Takaaki Nakagami starting from fifth, and Pol Espargaro having made it through to Q2, though he had not fared so well in qualifying.

Who will Marquez have to beat? Well, first of all the two riders ahead of him on the front row: Pecco Bagnaia and Fabio Quartararo will be starting from the front row of the grid for the seventh successive race, which is also why the title fight has come down to these two riders.

Takaaki Nakagami also looks to have very strong pace, the LCR Honda rider having found a setup at the Misano test which worked very well straight out of the box in Austin as well. "Misano test we tried a completely different setup on the bike, and then in Misano I had a good feeling with that setup. From FP1 we kept that setup from the Misano test," Nakagami explained. They had made a few changes to damping and spring rates to handle the bumps at COTA, but apart from that, they had left the bike alone.

Bagnaia isn't the only Ducati to show strong pace. Surgery for arm pump appears to have liberated Johann Zarco, the Frenchman showing a genuine turn of speed. "Pretty happy with this second day on the bike after the surgery. The arm was answering much better than yesterday," Zarco said.

He had been happiest not to have any issues in the first part of the track, where the riders faced bumps combined with constant changes of direction. "Sector 1 and 2, because there are many changes of direction," the Pramac Ducati rider told us. "I didn't get any pain in the arm, so I think in the race, the arm can be also really constant, and feel good."

Teammate Jorge Martin also believes he can be competitive, despite the team losing its way in FP4. "We were trying different setups to try to avoid the bump feeling, trying to have more stability on the bumps, but actually we didn't find anything, and the bike was working less," the Spaniard explained. "So at the end, in qualifying we came back to our standard bike, and I was fast as always."

The Suzukis, too, look competitive, especially Joan Mir. Despite a spectacular engine blow up at the start of FP4, when Mir's GSX-RR suddenly lost power and started spewing flames from the exhaust. That left him frustrated, as he had to wait for the bike to be taken back to the pits so that some unspecified parts could be swapped over to his second bike – Mir tried not to admit it was the new version of Suzuki's rear ride-height device which needed to be removed from the bike which had broken down, but it was pretty obvious that this was the case.

Once everything was swapped over, Mir's pace was formidable. Four laps, all in the mid-2'04s, with a 2'04.1 on the second lap. A fix for the stability of the bike over the bumps brought the speed he had been missing in the morning, the Spaniard explained. "Luckily, we were able to manage this situation and manage the solution. Then I was able to be faster everywhere." Being faster everywhere was important: with a lap of over 2 minutes, small gains everywhere added up to a lot over a full lap, and over race distance.

Worth noting also that Alex Rins starts from seventh, the same position from which the Spaniard won the race back in 2019, albeit after Marc Marquez crashed out. Rins was less pleased with his pace in FP4. "The feeling was not so good. we’ve been a bit irregular in lap time but I made one fast lap. I think we have a very similar pace to the guys in front of us," the Suzuki Ecstar rider said.

Jack Miller is the enigma here. Fastest in FP4, and fastest in FP3 – the only other rider this weekend to lap in the 2'02s, alongside his teammate – Miller's pace in FP4 was not great on the medium rear, and he did his fastest lap on a new hard rear. How that translates to race distances is as yet uncertain.

Qualifying was a disaster for the Australian, however. Miller limped home to tenth, a second slower than his teammate Pecco Bagnaia. He made it plain where he believed the issue lay, without explicitly laying the blame at Michelin's door. "I have a hard tire in FP4 and I could do three tenths off the lap I could do in qualifying," Miller said. I can do a 2'02.9 in FP3. I don’t know. It wasn’t through a lack of trying, I can tell you that."

Michelin responded by pointing out – and not naming names – that Miller's out lap on his second run was 20 seconds slower than a normal lap. Without having fully analyzed the data fully, they suggested that "any perceived lack of performance could be attributed to the subsequent reduction in tire temperature and pressure (which we need to confirm later after detailed data analysis) for the single time-attack lap." They also pointed out that Miller appeared to lose 0.8 in just a single sector, Sector 2.

Is this a valid explanation? Miller's out lap was indeed a fraction over 22 seconds slower than his fastest lap. But he is far from alone in this boat: the same was true for Pol Espargaro (12th), Brad Binder (11th), Takaaki Nakagami (5th), Jorge Martin (4th), and Marc Marquez (3rd). Both Nakagami and Martin set their fastest laps immediately after lapping 24.11 and 23.218 seconds slower on the previous lap.

Michelin pointing at Miller's second sector is relevant. The factory Ducati rider was indeed eight tenths slower in that section. At the time, he was riding with Marc Marquez and Pol Espargaro, who were similarly slow in that sector. Marquez had been following Miller, but having already set a fast lap, Marquez felt no need to get in front of Miller and tow the Australian to a faster lap. "The one that was behind [in the times] was Jack. He tried to push but he did a mistake," Marquez said.

It is of course possible that Miller made a mistake in the second sector because his tires weren't performing. But take away the time in that sector, and Miller was on pace to set a time roughly comparable to his first flying lap.

First you must finish

What kind of a race an we expect on Sunday? It will be a genuine war of attrition. The race will be won in the final stages, not the opening laps, though tire choice will determine the opening stages. There are those who are banking on the soft tire allowing them to make enough of a difference in the first couple of laps to get gap. And there is another group who are going with the medium or hard rear in the hope of avoiding the drop in performance they experienced after a number of laps.

Above all, it will be about holding the line and not making any mistakes. Mistakes at COTA are costly: get a bit off line, and you can hit an unexpected bump. The size of the bumps at COTA mean that at best you run off the track, at worst it's the end of your race.

"This track, the key will be to stay more constant possible because it’s very difficult to don’t make mistakes with these bumps, so let’s see," Pecco Bagnaia said. Marc Marquez agreed. "Of course, the bumps are there and like Pecco said, it will be difficult to be constant all race, but I feel okay. I can manage a good pace. It’s true that if I keep a good rhythm then it looks like I can manage well."

Not making mistakes is something that Fabio Quartararo has excelled in all year. And which Pecco Bagnaia has raised to even higher level in the past couple of races. The only real threat to their current hegemony could come from the ruler of the COTA rodeo, Marc Marquez. "I’m sure that Marc will try to push from the start and open a gap," Bagnaia said. Hard to argue with that. And if he does, he will be hard to catch.


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Wed, 2021-09-29 21:16
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Testing - a chance to ride from dawn till dusk


A sure sign of a prototype frame on a Yamaha - left in polished aluminum, and not yet anodized black


Compare and contrast the changes between the 2019 Ducati and the 2021 bike. Above Luca Marini's Desmosedici GP19


By contrast, Pecco Bagnaia's GP21 is different in a number of ways: the tail is different, the rear angled rather than flat; the exhaust straighter, and of course the lower ducts have been added


Dani Pedrosa, back at work as a test rider after a brief moment in the limelight in Austria


After Enea Bastianini's first podium on the previous Sunday, an entire appropriate T-shirt


Ducati's new fairing was one of the more eye-catching items at the test


The Suzuki GSX-RR's sweeping lines are as gorgeous close up as they are at a distance. Even the swingarm spoiler is elegant


The swingarm spoiler seems to be missing from the Ducati GP21 more often than not in the second half of the 2021 season. A sure sign that Gigi Dall'Igna has moved on to the next thing


Introduced in part because of Covid-19, but the use of headphones has greatly improved communication in the Yamaha MotoGP garage as well


The full wet weather set up: fully enclosed carbon discs on the Suzuki GSX-RR. Not the accelerometer under the brake caliper carrier, IR brake temp sensor on top of the caliper


A closer look at the new Ducati fairing: sharper, narrower, steeper


Remy Gardner got a chance to play on the KTM RC16 he will be riding next year...


... as did current KTM Ajo Moto2 and future Tech3 KTM teammate Raul Fernandez


Back to being a test rider for Lorenzo Savadori. His reward? Being sent out on a soaking track


Aprilia were focusing a lot of attention on aerodynamics around the front wheel


One interesting feature: the lip around the edge of the tank on Lorenzo Savadori's bike, to help him keep himself in place


Andrea Dovizioso used the test to adapt better to the Yamaha again, after 8 years on a Ducati


The brains of a Yamaha MotoGP bike is in the tail. Placing the Magneti Marelli ECU in the tail also helps keep it cooler than if you put it under the tank cover, which is where other bikes have them


Honda continues to work on chassis, even for 2021. Here's the frame Pol Espargaro is using - note the bare aluminum


And here's Takaaki Nakagami, with the carbon fiber-reinforced frame


From underneath, you can see the upper part of the new Ducati fairing is quite different: below the top winglet is a triangular duct which isn't on the 2021 bikes


Aprilia's new fairing features modified winglets and a different air intake


A close up of the front aero mudguard, with ducts to cool the brake calipers


Mounted next to the right fork leg, on the upper triple clamp, is the lever for locking the front holeshot device in place


Behind the fork legs is the gold canister which charges Aprilia's automatic rear holeshot device. Press a lever on corner entry, and bike uses the weight transfer of cornering and acceleration to lower the rear of the bike


Nearly the last hurrah for Valentino Rossi


Jorge Martin using the new Ducati fairing, but also not the tail unit: it has grown much slimmer and longer over the years on the Desmosedici


Yamaha are still using the aluminum swingarm on the M1. The vertical weld just in front of the chain adjuster is always a giveaway


This, by contrast, is Aprilia's carbon fiber swinger, complete with protective cover / sponsor sticker showcase


Zoom in on Franco Morbidelli's left handlebar and you can see a clutch lever, a lever for operating the rear ride-height device, and a thumb brake for the rear brake


New bike, old helmet


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Tue, 2021-09-28 23:40
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There has been a lot of talk of tires in 2021. Tires are always a key part of the performance package in motorcycle racing, but they seem to have played an even more important role in 2021. At Silverstone, Pecco Bagnaia complained of a bad rear tire, while Joan Mir said his front tire was off. Two weeks later, it was the turn of Fabio Quartararo to complain of his rear tire, and there have been a litany of complaints from riders throughout this season.

Are these complaints justified? From outside, it is hard to tell. With grids commonly separated by a second, and grid rows separated by a tenth or less, the differences between being perfect and being just slightly off in terms of setup, tire pressure, bike balance have grown massively in importance.

This is not made any easier by the fact that the Michelins have a relatively narrow operating window in terms of temperature. Go just outside that temperature range, and performance drops off dramatically. The devil is increasingly in the detail, and tires are the biggest detail of all.

The benefits of racing

But Michelin are here to stay in MotoGP. The French tire manufacturer recently extended their contract for another three years, through the 2026 season, a clear sign that they see value in being the official tire supplier, despite the fact that this exposes them to so much criticism.

Michelin's Two-Wheel Motorsport Manager Piero Taramasso gave a bit of background on the contract extension. "We are happy about what we did in MotoGP, what we are doing, and it's still a good platform to develop, the tires, new solutions," the Italian boss of the French tire maker said. "We have a very good collaboration with the teams, with Dorna, with the riders. So that's why we decided to stay."

In addition to using MotoGP as a development platform for their tire technology, it was also a great showcase for Michelin, especially thanks to the series producing close and exciting racing. "Also what we like is the show," Taramasso told me. "The races are very nice lately, there is a fight. So we want to stay. This is the main reason."

More inconsistency?

I also asked about the seeming increase in the number of complaints of inconsistency from one tire to another this year, whether the supply chain issues seen around the world this year had affected their production process, or whether the Covid-19 pandemic had otherwise affected the way they produced tires. Taramasso insisted they had not.

"It's just a combination of factors, I think," Taramasso told me. "We didn't change the way we build the tires, we still build the tires in the same place in France, we use the same material, we use the same compound, the same casing."

Nor had Michelin changed anything once the tires got to the track either. "We didn't change the way we work on the track. When we move the tires, they are always with the air conditioning, so we didn't change since last year."

Taramasso acknowledged that more riders had complained of inconsistency, but he put it down to just how tight the field is in MotoGP at the moment. "It's true that this season there are more complaints. Like you see, the level is very high, there are always 15, 20 riders in one second, so if you are two tenths slower, you are at the back of the grid, if you are two tenths quicker you are in the top five. So everything is more extreme, I would say."

Unraveling complexity

Figuring out exactly what is causing the loss of those two tenths from the tire can be incredibly complex. "There are many many factors that can contribute if the tire is one or two tenths slower. It depends on the track temperature, the pressure, many many things," Taramasso said.

With time after the race to comb through the data, Michelin and the teams were usually able to figure out a reason for a particular tire not performing as expected, the one exception being Pecco Bagnaia's rear tire at Silverstone. "All the complaints we had lately, the only one that we are still investigating is Pecco's tire in Silverstone. The other complaints, we analyzed with the teams, and we agreed that there is nothing about tires. I don't know if you saw Fabio's declarations yesterday. After Aragon, Fabio said, 'yeah, the rear tire this and that,' and then when we analyzed the data, it's not the rear tire. This is what happened in 99% of the cases."

The reason riders were so quick to point to the tires was the fact that they are the most important component on the bike, Taramasso pointed out. The tires are the single point of contact between the bike and the asphalt, between the rider's brain and the track surface.

"Everything goes through the tires, all the feeling from the riders, when they brake, when they accelerate, when they lean the bike, everything they feel it comes through the tire," Taramasso said. "So the first reaction is 'ah, the tire is bad', but it's not. I understand the riders, because this is what they feel, but the reason is not because the tire is faulty, or we have a problem with the tire."

With the competition on a knife edge, and every detail counting, then pointing the finger of blame at the tires was understandable. "But I understand it's very tight, so now, two or three tenths is very very vital, it's very very important, because everything is pushed to the extreme, the tire, the aerodynamics, the engine, everything."

Getting it just so

The Michelins seem to be exceptionally sensitive to both tire pressure and temperature. Teams have certainly started paying more attention to temperature and pressure during the race over the past three or four years. Tire valves are now fitted with temperature sensors as standard, as well as pressure sensors, with some teams even investing in infrared sensors which measure the temperature of the inside of the carcass, in addition to the IR sensors on the mudguards and swingarms. Riders have lights warning them of rising pressures on the dash, something which was a rarity back in 2017.

But Piero Taramasso counters this by pointing out that tire pressures and temperatures have always been a critical part of racing. "It's always been like this," the Michelin manager told me. "We know that, especially when you follow some riders, the front temperature goes up, the pressure goes up, so you overheat the tires, you lose grip, but it has been like this all the time."

Compared to 2020, the tires are usually the same spec, so the increase in complaints can't be related to tire construction. "We didn't change anything about the tires, they are exactly the same, compounds, and the places we have been. So it was the case also before. And now they are more sensitive, because when it happens, you lose places and it's a big step."

Guesswork

One complicating factor for Michelin is the fact that they are forced to submit the choice of tire compounds and constructions to be used for every race on the calendar of a particular season before the first race even starts. This was an explicit request by the teams and factories, to allow them to prepare better for the races ahead of time.

It has a major downside, however. It means that Michelin have to take their best guess at what the weather at, say, Silverstone in late August might be. England's fickle summers can mean it could be 14 degrees and overcast, or a bright and sunny 30 degrees, or anything in between. Michelin's tires have always been at their best inside a slightly narrower temperature range, so getting the allocation right was always difficult.

"It doesn't help us to choose the tire in February for August, September, October, because you cannot anticipate the weather conditions. So it would be better for us to change, but this is the rules, we try to adapt," Taramasso said.

For 2022, Michelin would be refining its allocation to remove the compounds that work at the extremes, and focus on making their existing tires work over a wider range of temperatures. "For next year what we might try to do is to make a simple tire range, maybe take out the extreme tire, just keep the compounds that work with a temperature range. So that might make it easy for riders to pick the tire, and maybe makes more homogenous the feedback," Taramasso explained, adding that this is exactly the kind of technology and data which can be transferred directly to their street tires.

New front

The one complaint which Honda and KTM in particular have is the lack of support from the front Michelin. The tire is not as rigid as some riding styles, such as that of Marc Marquez or Brad Binder, demand. After a couple of initial tests in 2019, Michelin had originally planned to test a new hard casing in 2020, with a view to introducing it for the 2021 season. But the Covid-19 pandemic put paid to that plan, and Michelin have been forced to push the introduction of the new spec several years.

"The Covid situation slowed down development, so we still need to do more tests. But we are still working on that, on a new front solution, a new front casing," Piero Taramasso explained. The delay did allow them to also try to reduce the effect of following other riders and riding in a group. "What we will add, because we know that the front temperature goes up when the bikes follow other riders, so we also have this objective with the new front casing. So we will try to solve or at least reduce this problem."

This development, and the limited amount of testing which MotoGP does now, means that Michelin have had to push back the introduction even further. Especially given just how important the front tire is: the front is what the rider feels in their hands, what they use to chase corner speed, how they judge the limit on braking. "If I have to tell you something, I suppose we will be able to test the tire in 2022 and 2023, to be introduced maybe in 2024. This is a realistic plan. Because the front tire, because it's the feeling of the rider, you need much more time to validate it than the rear solution," Taramasso said.


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Thu, 2021-09-23 21:34
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What MotoGP manufacturers change on test bikes for the future reveals a lot about what they feel is wrong with their current machines. So for example, at the Misano test, we saw Ducati roll out an updated version of their fairing, narrower and smaller, and consequently, likely aimed at creating a little more agility.

Aprilia introduced two different aero packages for high speed and low speed circuits. Suzuki had a new engine and a new chassis, while Yamaha had a different frame and revised engine. All small steps aimed at honing their current bikes into something better, an evolution of the bikes that raced at Misano the previous Sunday.

Not Honda. At Tuesday in Misano, Honda rolled out the latest prototype of their 2022 RC213V MotoGP machine, designed to address some of the obvious weaknesses of their current bike. The most remarkable thing about the machine is the stark and obvious differences between the 2021 bike and this latest prototype. This was no minor upgrade from last year's RC213V, this was a completely new bike, from the ground up. Very little remained the same; revolution, not evolution.

A New Hope

Repsol Honda Team manager Alberto Puig spoke of the bike being "a new concept", and though no one in the HRC camp, neither managers nor riders, would give much detail, the photos of the bike, taken by MotoMatters.com contributor Niki Kovács, speak for themselves.

Puig did admit just how different the bike was. "I can only tell you that changes were major changes, they were big changes in the way we approach this new prototype," the Repsol Honda team manager said. "So of course we have to be confident, and especially very excited about the new challenge we have in front of us to change a little bit the concept and to improve the performance."

Marc Marquez emphasized that a new bike brings with it a lot of work to start to make it competitive. "It's a new bike, it's a new concept. It was interesting, it was the first time on track, so a lot of work to do and a lot of time in the box, and not many laps trying big things," he said.

Getting a change as big as this right first time, Marquez pointed out. "It was a big step in both directions. In some areas, a really good direction, and in some areas missing a lot." But this was the first attempt, and there was a lot of work still to do. "We need to understand the bike balance, we need to understand the setup, we need to understand many things, because there are many new parts, it's not only small things, it's a big thing."

Pol Espargaro felt much the same way. "The bike feels good, but it's a brand new bike. It needs to keep developing until the preseason of next year. Still a lot of time so there is margin to improve." The fact that there was only one prototype to be shared among the three Honda riders – test rider Stefan Bradl, as well as the Repsol representatives Marque and Espargaro – also forced them to be extra careful. "It was important to stay on the bike, because we only have one bike," Marquez pointed out.

So what is new about the 2022 prototype? And what conclusions can we draw. The best way to do that is to use the 2021 Honda RC213V as a benchmark. The scrutineering sticker for Misano on the photo below says this is one of the bikes used by Marc Marquez at the Misano round.

And below is a photo of the 2022 prototype, shot from the side, which reveals a huge amount of details. You can clearly see that almost everything is new: frame, fairing, seat unit, exhaust. And there are details which strongly suggest a new engine too. Let's dive into the details of what we can see.

Let's start with the frame. At the front of the frame, you can see a large gap at the headstock, where the air intake passes through. The routing of the air intake is much less intrusive on the 2021 bike, and no doubt the change is related to the new air intake on the front of the bike. More of that later.

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