Photos

Thu, 2022-10-06 14:39
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The rain in Buriram caused quite a stir. There were a lot of things we couldn't see coming. Including the riders in the opening laps


Teamwork makes the dream work. The popularity of this stance is currently disputed.


The typical Buriram dry weather setup: Big brake discs and a minimal front fender to help cool the tire (these are the Michelin Power GP transport tires, hence the tread)


Polesitter vs Polesitter. Marco Bezzecchi started from pole but went backward. Marc Marquez, who had pole at Motegi, moved up to finish fifth


The sky above the grandstand was the color of television....


Miguel Oliveira continues to be formidable in the wet


The ride-height device in action. It gets used a lot at Buriram


Still the most beautiful exhaust, and arguably the most beautiful MotoGP bike. Suzuki's decision to leave is a tragedy, though not just from an aesthetic perspective


Fabio Quartararo is doing everything he can to hold off the might of the Ducatis. The rain made him pay a high price in Buriram


Back, and fast. Cal Crutchlow is on his way to winning the informal Test Riders Championship for 2022


Double duty. Former test rider Tetsuda Nagashima was subbing for the injured Takaaki Nakagami this week, after a wildcard in Motegi


While Honda have switched back to aluminum, KTM are persevering with carbon swingarms. Because it is easier to make small adjustments to the design to change the behavior


The Aprilia RS-GP bears a growing resemblance to the Honda Pacific Coast 800 of the 1990s


The people's favorite, Danilo Petrucci came back to MotoGP to fill in for Joan Mir. He had fun, but jumping on to a new bike is always a major challenge


Jack Miller is fantastic in the wet. Miguel Oliveira is a fraction better


Johann Zarco was convinced he could have won the race had he arrived on the tail of Marc Marquez a couple of laps earlier. But he was "too late" to try to pass Pecco Bagnaia


Brad Binder lost too much ground early. Note the 360 degree camera on the tail of his bike, used for mobile-friendly footage


Ready


It has been frustrating for Aleix Espargaro. He is so close to his first MotoGP title, and yet it remains tantalizingly out of his reach


The VR46 Academy is delivering. Both Marco Bezzecchi and Pecco Bagnaia on the front row at Buriram


When the rain hides the problems of the bike, Alex Marquez shows that he is still an outstanding rider


This man is on a roll. Jack Miller has reinvented himself with great success in the second half of the season


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Mon, 2022-10-03 23:41
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After a weekend of waiting, the rain finally came on Sunday. It had been forecast for Friday, but Friday stayed dry. It was forecast again on Saturday, but Saturday was dry as well. In the run up to the Grand Prix of Thailand, Sunday had looked like offering the best chance of remaining dry. But that forecast proved to be wrong as well.

The trouble started as the Moto2 race was about to get underway. A few raindrops on the grid quickly turned into a downpour. After a brief delay, the organizers started the race, but it would only last 8 laps before conditions forced Race Direction to red flag it, spray and standing water making it impossible to complete the race safely.

Several abortive attempts to restart the race followed, but when another downpour started as the Moto2 bikes got halfway round the track on the sighting lap to the grid, the red flag went out again and the race was called. With less than two-thirds distance completed, half points were awarded, much to the consternation of anti-decimal faction of the MotoGP paddock who abhor the ugliness of a points table which does not consist solely of integers.

The rain hammered down on and off for the next 40 minutes or so, forcing a delay to the start of the MotoGP race of nearly an hour. But 57 minutes after its originally scheduled start time, the lights went out and the MotoGP grid roared into Turn 1 in a cloud of decibels and spray.

Conditions were pretty miserable on the opening laps. There was a lot of spray, and rivulets of water were streaming across the track between Turns 3 and 4. Opinions were divided on whether conditions were safe to ride or not.

Were conditions over the limit? "Yes, for me it was," Suzuki's Alex Rins believed. Mooney VR46 rider Luca Marini was a little milder in his judgment. "Well, it was on the limit," the Italian said. "Sincerely, it was really really on the limit, because the spray of the other bikes was really big, and in the straight between Turn 3 and Turn 4, there were many rivers, and with the MotoGP bike, when you spin in the straight, it's not easy. It's not good to feel this."

The deeper inside the pack you were, the worse the spray and visibility became."Going down the straight it was like someone had a blanket over your head because of the amount of spray from all the bikes," Brad Binder said after the race. "And I had to keep rolling in the straights, because I could not see where the braking markers were."

Cal Crutchlow, a not completely willing returnee from retirement, was another who felt it wasn't safe. "The start of the race was so dangerous, we couldn't see anything in the back. So I rode the first two laps slow because I don't care enough to not be able to see," the WithU Yamaha rider said. "Nobody could see in the back. People were shutting the throttle in 5th gear in the straight. And then somebody hit in the back of each other and it's just ridiculous."

Aleix Espargaro, normally one of the more vociferous proponents of safety, felt conditions were good enough to go. He had been arguing with the other riders, telling them to take their concerns to MotoGP's safety representative, Loris Capirossi on the grid, where they had the opportunity to do just that.

"I was angry with the other riders!" the Aprilia rider said. He had taken his concerns to Capirossi. "I said to Loris, the track is perfect we can race very good but please clean 3-4 because there is no visibility and there are rivers crossing the track."

His annoyance was with his fellow riders. "How do you think I feel when Fabio says to me ‘yeah, there is no visibility…’ I was like ‘OK, go and tell them!’. You cannot stay sitting on the bike and then if there is a crash blame everybody," Espargaro said. "There is a race direction on the grid and it is good that we can give some good information to them and they can improve the track. They delayed by five minutes more and did their best."

Perhaps the start could have delayed a little longer, but it would not have made that much difference. It needed bikes circulating to clear the water, and once the field had spread out a little, both visibility and the amount of water on the track improved. "After three or four laps, the track condition was good," Luca Marini said. "So maybe they could delay the start of the race a little bit, but this was the decision of the organization, and finally nobody was in danger. There were no dangerous situations, so everything went well in my opinion."

Calendar games

The reason for the rain, of course, is because MotoGP visits Thailand during its rainy season, as part of the Asian and Australian flyaways. Here, Dorna is caught between several different fires. On the one hand, there is the availability of circuits, and how MotoGP fits in with other events. As a rule, the only event that trumps a MotoGP race is F1, but Dorna doesn't have a completely free hand in setting a date.

F1 plays a role in deciding dates as well, both series attempting to avoid racing in the same timezone, or at the same time if they are. Then there's the weather in Europe, especially the northern races at Silverstone, Assen, and the Sachsenring. The window for those races is relatively narrow: snow can fall and temperatures can drop to freezing even in mid April, as WorldSBK found out in 2019. Even the softest compound Michelin uses need temperatures of 8°C to start working properly.

Finally, there is the double whammy of freight costs and logistics. The flyaways dotted around the Pacific basin are grouped together because it is much cheaper to fly freight and staff between, say, Japan and Thailand, or Australia and Malaysia, than it is to fly them between Asia and Europe.

Choosing a date

That leads to some unfortunate scheduling choices. In 2023, Buriram, Mandalika, Phillip Island, and Sepang all happen over a five-week period from mid October to mid November. That works in terms of logistics, but less so in terms of climate. Thailand's dry season is from November to March, just after the race in Buriram. November to March is the wet season on Lombok, the Indonesian island where Mandalika is located. Dry season for Sepang is May to September, right in the middle of the European races. While the best weather at Phillip Island is between roughly late November to March, the antipodean summer.

Now take all of those ingredients and create a calendar which works. The expansion to include races outside of Europe and turn MotoGP into a truly global series is a necessary and important objective. But it does mean that there will always be races where the weather will be an adversary.

Of course, mixed weather can be conducive to a more open championship, as we found out at Buriram. After qualifying on Saturday, Fabio Quartararo looked like he might at worst lose a handful of points to Pecco Bagnaia, and perhaps even widen his 18-point gap if he got a good start. When the rain came, the general consensus was this helped Quartararo and hindered Bagnaia. In the last truly wet race this year, at Mandalika, Quartararo had finished second, while Bagnaia had scored just a single point.

In Japan, Bagnaia had confessed that he hadn't been able to find a good feeling with the Ducati Desmosedici GP22 so far this year, after being strong in the rain in 2021. Rain had been a cause for concern.

But that was not at all how things had played out. Bagnaia had gotten a strong start, and held on to take third at the end of the race – with perhaps a little help from Johann Zarco, but more about that later on – while Fabio Quartararo had sunk like a stone. The race had been won by Miguel Oliveira – the winner of the previous soaking race at Mandalika in March – with Jack Miller finishing second. But the real winner was Pecco Bagnaia, closing to within 2 points of Fabio Quartararo.

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Sat, 2022-10-01 21:55
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Saturday at Buriram gave us a glimpse of the future. If you want to know what the sprint races will look like next year, look no further than the fact that Ducati have secured their sixth front-row lockout of the season, that there were five Ducatis in the first two rows, and that there were two more on the third row. It was the thirteenth time a Ducati qualified on pole this year, in seventeen events.

Only Fabio Quartararo (Indonesia), Aleix Espargaro (Argentina and Barcelona), and Marc Marquez (Motegi) have prevented Ducati from sweeping an entire season's worth of poles. Pecco Bagnaia is just two races away from winning the BMW M award as best qualifier, which features seven Ducati riders in the top nine.

The bike really does play a very large role in that dominance of qualifying. With his breathtaking last lap, breaking Fabio Quartararo's pole record from 2019, Marco Bezzecchi became the seventh Ducati rider to secure pole this year. Only Bezzecchi's Mooney VR46 teammate Luca Marini is letting the side down, though Marini has been close, starting from the front row twice this year.

What does this have to do with sprint races? Next year, when sprint races make their debut, a rider's finishing position is likely to be disproportionately affected by qualifying position. And if Ducatis are dominating qualifying, then they pretty much have the sprint race in the bag.

Why is the Ducati dominating qualifying? The three Ducati riders on the front row didn't have a clear and simple answer. "Difficult to say because I never tried other bikes, so I don't know," rookie Marco Bezzecchi reflected. "Just the bike is competitive also in the pace. Just is a bike that is made to push at the limit always."

Basically, it is easy to understand where the limit is with the Ducati Desmosedici, and easy to take it there. "It’s nice because at least you can stay very focused to always push and try to brake as late as you can and try to do everything perfect," Bezzecchi reflected. "I think the grip of the bike is good, not the best maybe, but in braking it’s very strong. Now in the MotoGP of today, the braking part is very important. So, this is a very good characteristic of the bike."

The importance of braking is something which had helped Jack Miller win in Motegi. The Australian had explained how he had used the long flight from Spain to Japan to study the data from all of the Ducatis, and switch his focus from corner exit to corner entry. "I was also able to make a relative step, to get that feeling on the bike, to allow me to carry more speed into the corner, basically," Miller had told journalists on Friday. "To brake later and maybe focus a little less on the exit, and focus more on hitting my braking markers and getting the thing stopped. And then let that exit sort of come to you."

The riders shouldn't be underestimated as a factor, Jorge Martin pointed out. Ducati had eight very strong riders, something emphasized by the fact that the current generation of bikes are very close in performance. "I think it’s more about the riders, because nowadays all the bikes are quite similar," the Pramac Ducati rider said. "For sure we have good stability in braking, but I think it’s more about fast riders and being able to make one fast lap."

Pecco Bagnaia, the man Ducati have backed to win them a rider's championship, saw the benefit of having so many strong riders on essentially the same bike. "Eight riders pushing each other to improve," was the explanation the factory Ducati rider gave. "We already know that all the other riders with Ducati are really great in time attack already in the past with Moto2 or Moto3. For sure, our bike is helping us to be so competitive, but thanks to all the riders in Ducati, we are elevating the potential of our bike, pushing each other every session."

It is patently clear that Ducati benefits from having so many strong riders on their bike. But there is reason for concern as well. Bagnaia starts from the front row, with main title rival Fabio Quartararo behind him in fourth. But he has Marco Bezzecchi and Jorge Martin beside him, and his more natural allies, teammate Jack Miller and Ducati's Pramac workhorse Johann Zarco behind.

Why does this matter? What Bagnaia really needs is to win the race, and finish with riders between him and Quartararo. If it was Jack Miller beside him, the Australian could be relied on to move aside and let Bagnaia through. (Even though, as Ducati team boss Davide Tardozzi told MotoGP.com, Bagnaia has repeatedly told Ducati that he wants to try to win the title without having to rely on help from Ducati stablemates.)

Instead, he has Jorge Martin, still bitter from being passed over for the second factory Ducati seat in favor of Enea Bastianini. Martin was starting the race with the intention of winning, he told the press conference. "I can take some risks tomorrow. It will be interesting to see the start and the first two laps. I will take my chances. A victory is important for me, so I will give my 100%."

Martin knows that he will face stiff competition, but that won't change his objective, he said. "I will be happy also with a podium because there are a lot of Ducatis competitive, also Fabio, Marc, a lot of other riders are fast, so we will try our best."

In front of Jorge Martin is Marco Bezzecchi, a rider Martin has battled hard with in both Moto3 and Moto2. There is no love lost between the two Ducati riders, which could end up with them losing sight of Ducati's higher goal and concentrating on each other.

Even the normally dependable Johann Zarco could be a problem for Pecco Bagnaia. Zarco is still to win a MotoGP race, despite racking up 15 podiums in his MotoGP career. With four races to go, Zarco is not likely to be inclined to step aside for Bagnaia, should a chance at victory present itself.

Ducati has made a rod for its own back with the Desmosedici. Both the GP21 and the GP22 are clearly the best bikes on the grid. With horsepower to spare on the straights, outstanding braking and entry, good drive grip, and since the aerodynamic upgrades earlier this year, a bike which changes direction pretty well, the Ducati does everything well, makes it easier for the rider.

That should be a good thing, but if the rider is having to make less of a difference, then the riders are always going to end up much closer together. Ducati have tried to spread the risk by having a fantastic bike and a lot of good riders. Now all those riders are in a position to battle one another, instead of riders on other bikes.

The nature of the Buriram track doesn't help in that respect either. Normally, when going through the pace in FP4, it is relatively easy to pick out who is going to be fast on Sunday afternoon. But the nature of the track means that there are lots of ways to go fast there, and that leaves the field very close.

There are probably five riders or six with outstanding pace – Fabio Quartararo, Pecco Bagnaia, Johann Zarco, Marco Bezzecchi, Jack Miller, Brad Binder were all running high 1'30s and low 1'31s on used tires – while behind that, there are another five to ten riders who are capable of running low to mid-1'31s, including Marc Marquez, Enea Bastianini, and Alex Rins. A small tweak on Sunday morning for any of those, and they could be there too.

"As always, I think Fabio will be there, Jorge has been quick all weekend. There is a big group of guys. Marc will be quick," was Jack Miller's assessment. The tropical heat and humidity will play a role. "As I said it is a long physical race and I haven’t seen anybody put a lot of laps together without a slow lap in between or whatever, I’ll tell ya it’s hot out there. For sure it will not only be a test of speed but also of endurance."

Tire management is not really going to be an issue. Both the medium and soft rears were setting fast times even with a lot of laps on them. That was Jack Miller's conclusion at the end of FP4. "I was running eighteen laps consistently and still in the 1'31s at the end and one of the fastest guys on the track. I think I was second and did that on lap nine. I was able to keep that pace to be there or thereabouts," the Australian said.

Being surrounded by Ducatis may be an inconvenience for Pecco Bagnaia, for Fabio Quartararo it is a formidable threat. Despite having outstanding pace in FP4, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider came up just short in qualifying, and will start from fourth. "Today was tough because I feel that we had great potential for the race," Quartararo sighed. "I went out on an old tire and I was feeling quite fast. For the time attack I gave my 100% but, we know, we are reaching the limit in a lot of places and we know how much we lose on the straights."

The problem remains the same as ever: because of the lack of top speed, there is only one place he can overtake. "In the last corner," Quartararo answered without hesitation. "It is the only one I can do, and I feel really good. Especially in Turn 9-10 and 10 I can carry speed and prepare something for the last corner. I think it is the only place where I can pass."

He was hampered, like all of the Yamahas, by a lack of rear grip. "We had a great lap today but the grip I had in 2019 was better. We can clearly see the grip is much lower," Quartararo said.

One minor consolation for Yamaha is that Quartararo is no longer the sole fast Yamaha. Franco Morbidelli is showing signs of real progress, while Cal Crutchlow has lost very little speed since retirement, despite barely having been on a MotoGP machine. Morbidelli was sixth fastest overall in FP4, while Crutchlow was eleventh.

The problem for Morbidelli, however, is that he is still struggling with a single fast lap. That left him qualifying down in fourteenth, just ahead of Crutchlow. The problems had started in FP3, when Morbidelli hadn't been able to improve on his time from Friday. "A tricky day, because we missed Q2 just for a small amount of time, and then we needed to go through Q1, and in the time attack, again I couldn't extract the real potential from the bike," Morbidelli explained.

"That is my problem," Morbidelli admitted. "I cannot extract the full performance from the tires as I would like to. I struggle with the grip in the time attack especially, more than in normal running. In normal running, when I make many laps on the tires, I'm able to finally after many laps take out some performance. But in a time attack, we have just three laps at our disposal, and I just cannot feel the right performance from the tire soon enough."

Aleix Espargaro is in a similar boat, but for different reasons. The Aprilia RS-GP simply cannot get on with the special stiffer Michelin carcass needed in Austria and Buriram, the bike cannot compress the tire enough to create grip and drive.

That is a bitter pill for the Aprilia rider to swallow. "Yesterday in the technical meeting, the guys said to me, it's because the carcass of the tire is different," Espargaro said. "I said to the guys, it's the same as the other riders, don't say this to me please. We know it. It's a different carcass, but the others are fast, so why are we not?"

There are no easy fixes, but Espargaro gave it his absolute best. The Spaniard rode absolutely out of his skin in Q1, but came up a tenth short of Marc Marquez and Miguel Oliveira. "I'm happy that you guys saw that I tried really hard, because I tried really hard this weekend, I'm trying everything I could, but I can't find a way to go faster, sincerely," Espargaro said.

If the race is dry – and it looks like it will be wet, but then again, it has looked like rain all weekend and almost every session has been completely dry – then Espargaro fears he is in trouble. "I think my pace is not a disaster. It's not as fast as the best, but if I'm able to maintain the 1'31 low, I'm not super far. But starting 13th will be difficult," he said.

The lack of rain ended up penalizing Marc Marquez as well. The Repsol Honda rider had been outstanding on Friday, looking very much like his old self. He had hoped for a wet Saturday, in order to recover a little bit.

Unfortunately for him, pretty much the opposite happened: he was nudged out of Q2 by Luca Marini in FP3, the Italian being 0.007 faster than Marquez. Then he had to take two runs to be sure of passing through Q1, leaving him with just a single soft rear tire for Q2. He might have made it onto at least the second row, too, but a small mistake in the final corner saw the rear step out, which cost him a couple of tenths.

His exertions on Friday had already cost him, Marquez explained. "Yesterday I felt better than today and I know that tomorrow I will feel worse than today." After that, though, he had a chance to prepare for the next two flyaways at Phillip Island and Sepang. "But I know next week I will relax and then have another step. So this is the target."

Marquez is still buoyed by the fact that he feels he is starting to ride as he did prior to the big smash which cost him so much in 2020. "Like I said yesterday, now on Fridays I feel that pushing. As you see on TV I start to play with the bike, I start to slide on the left corners, I start to shake on the braking points. It was a long time since I did this. Now step by step I started to get the connection with gas and this I like."

If it does rain on Sunday, then anything could happen. "If it’s wet everything is open," Marquez said. It would open opportunities for Aleix Espargaro as well. "If it rains, or it's flag-to-flag, I will risk more than ever this season. All or nothing. I have to," the Aprilia rider said.

A wet race would throw the front of the race into turmoil as well. With Jack Miller on the second row, and Johann Zarco strong in the wet, their chances would increase further. Brad Binder qualified a lowly twelfth, but a combination of lightning starts and a wet track would put him right back in the running.

Fabio Quartararo has been strong in the wet so far this year, so it should give him the upper hand in the title chase. But Pecco Bagnaia feels that the change Ducati made from Friday to Saturday will help him be competitive in both wet and dry.

It is normally fairly simple to pick a winner in MotoGP, or at least, to pick a podium candidate. This race feels different, though. A combination of ambition, rivalry, and very close performance means the race is wide open. Throw in the possibility of rain, and the whole thing is up for grabs.


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Fri, 2022-09-30 23:32
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The MotoGP paddock had been looking fearfully at weather forecasts the entire week, and well into the night. Some of them drove through flooded roads to arrive at the Buriram circuit in Thailand, a week after losing Saturday to the rain at Motegi. MotoGP feared another washout.

Instead, they appear to have dodged a bullet. There were a couple of rain showers, and some half-wet, half-dry conditions for Moto3 and Moto2, but MotoGP had two sessions of pretty much completely dry practice. And looking at the weather forecast for tomorrow, there is every chance of it being dry again on Saturday. But also, every chance of rain.

At least the teams got a decent day of practice, and could work on setup and getting the bikes dialed in for Sunday's race. It was helped by the fact that despite not having raced here since 2019, the track was in surprisingly good shape. "The track was in pretty decent condition considering we haven't been here in three years, so pretty happy with that," Jack Miller said. "That was probably the biggest question mark, and with the amount of rain we've had in the last couple of days, or I don't know how much they've had the last week, but if you look around there's plenty of standing water, so it looks like they've had a bit."

Dry practice meant we got a chance to see who had decent pace and who didn't. The Ducatis have clearly made a step since 2019, with Johann Zarco, Jorge Martin, and Pecco Bagnaia looking strong, as were Fabio Quartararo and Marc Marquez. Much more about Marquez later, but worth pointing out that the tires are holding up well at Buriram.

Times were fast on both the soft and medium rears, the pace very consistent with little drop. Both tires look raceable, if it stays dry on Sunday. "Today we were concentrating on the soft tire, because it was looking well in the morning, after three laps of time attack, it was not dropping so much," Pecco Bagnaia said.

The fact that weather conditions were good, but there was a chance of rain on Saturday morning, imbued the entire grid with a sense of urgency. That created its own set of problems at the end of FP2, with yellow flag after yellow flag appearing, causing a spate of riders to lose laps. However, the importance of the yellow flag rule – to remove the incentive for riders to pretend they haven't seen them and push anyway – was clearly on display when Cal Crutchlow went down in the final minutes, and marshals had to clear his bike from runoff at the exit of Turn 7, bikes firing past just a couple of meters away.

It was frustrating for those such as Brad Binder who missed out, though. "This morning my pace was pretty good and this afternoon in the first two it was also and I felt pretty confident," the South African explained. "Unfortunately in the last run my brake pads opened twice because of a lot of shaking so I lost two laps because of that and the third one I had yellow flags. So, I didn’t do a single lap with new tires! It’s really frustrating but at the end of the day I have been fast and I can go fast but I didn’t get the opportunity for a lap."

Even without the yellow flags, improving was hard. Only roughly half the field managed to post a better time, leaving four of the ten places in provisional Q2 to riders with times set in FP1. That was down to conditions, with raised humidity and the wind picking up in the afternoon affecting grip, and a cross wind through the third sector making it tougher to hang on.

"Conditions today were a bit strange, maybe for the humidity, maybe for the hot temperature, I don't know," Pecco Bagnaia told journalists. Ducati Lenovo teammate Jack Miller agreed. "It was a bit harder to do the lap times this afternoon. Seemed like the wind definitely picked up, sort of a cross wind through that sector. The third going on fourth sector was a bit tricky."

Suzuki rider Alex Rins fingered the rain at lunchtime as a possible culprit. "Maybe for the heavy rain that Moto3 had just before FP2," the Spaniard said. "Maybe, I don't know, it made something strange on the track. The grip was lower. I talked with some riders and they had the same problem."

Two dry sessions came as a godsend to Pecco Bagnaia. After struggling badly at Motegi in the dry, and never really finding a working setup, he ended up crashing out of the race. A repeat of that in Buriram would be a major setback for his title campaign.

Things hadn't gotten off to a good start for the factory Ducati rider. "This morning I was a bit worried, because I started and my feeling was very close to the feeling in Japan. So we had to reconsider a few things," Bagnaia said.

Bagnaia and his team managed to quickly turn things around, however. "We worked very well with the team, we did the correct things and finally in FP2, from the start of FP2, my feeling with the bike was really great. The pace with used tires was quite competitive, the time attack went well. I'm very happy about today." With the caveat that it is still only Friday, things are looking good for the Italian.

The man he is chasing had a slightly less successful day. The morning had gone well, but he came up short chasing a fast time on Friday afternoon. "I did not feel that great on the bike. I feel that I am on the limit," he said. "But you know the conditions will be changing quite a lot and, like always, you can see the top five are the same bikes but I think we would also have been there if it was not for the mistake and the yellow flag." Fortunately, he was already through on the basis of the time he set in FP1.

Quartararo had another problem to deal with in the afternoon: the issue of being followed by Ducatis. Luca Marini chased him round for a couple of laps, much to the irritation of the Frenchman. Not that there was a lot he could do about it. "They are eight!" Quartararo said. "So they can play pretty much. Unfortunately I don’t have any help, and today I had Franco in front, but he was gone." Morbidelli is continuing to make progress with the Yamaha, finding the added aggression needed to go faster.

Luca Marini pleaded innocence when asked about following Quartararo. "Nothing in particular," the Mooney VR46 Ducati rider said. "Just try to understand his lines, how he rides here. Because in 2019, in my opinion he was the best. His riding style was really perfect during the race, and he just missed a little bit of tire management compared to Márquez in my opinion, because in the last five laps, Márquez had something more."

Following the rider who came second in 2019 made sense not just because it was Marini's first time on a MotoGP bike in Buriram, but also because the Frenchman was conveniently located in pit lane. "I was following him also because he's close to me in the garage, and it's easier to start with him."

Marini also pointed out that it was better to do it on Friday than on Saturday, when it might have more severe consequences. "In my opinion it's better for him that I follow him with used tires in FP2 than in qualifying and make him nervous."

The Italian then pointed to Marc Marquez as a rider who has recently made a habit of following other riders. "Márquez did this every time, and nobody bothered Márquez for this. So for me, things go on, and everybody... also I was following him, and he followed me too. That's it. It's just something that happens in every race in every practice with every bike. It's just the cameras were there."

Third in championship Aleix Espargaro had the worst day among the title contenders. Aprilia are starting with less data than both Ducati and Yamaha, given just how radically the RS-GP has changed since 2019, and that gave them a lot more work to do. It was so different that Espargaro couldn't even recall how that old bike felt. "I don’t remember! It was a completely different bike. You cannot imagine. In Japan I used a different gear in four corners and here is it three. I did corner #3 in first gear and this year in second, I did #4 in four, this year in third. I don’t know what we were doing for the first three seasons in Aprilia."

Just as in Austria, however, the Michelin heat-resistant casing seemed to be causing problems for the Aprilias. Things were particularly bad for Espargaro, however. "We don’t have any grip and we spin too much and that has not happened for a long, long time. I think it as Brno when I last had this feeling. A lot of spin with both riders in Aprilia. My feeling is that I am not riding that bad bit on a couple of accelerations I have no grip at all."

Maverick Viñales was having very similar problems. "Very low traction on the rear. I brake very good. I feel good with the front tire. But in the rear I don’t know why." Viñales hadn't had the same problems at the Red Bull Ring. "In Austria I had much more grip than here. Here I don’t know why. Zero. I touch the gas and spin a lot, even with new tires."

The only solution, Viñales said, was work. "Sometimes the situation is like that. you need to keep focused. Head down. And you need to push."

Fresh off his victory in Japan, Jack Miller had been fast in the morning, though circumstances had worked against him in the afternoon. The confidence he was carrying came from after the race in Aragon, though. The long plane flight from Spain to Japan had given him a chance to look closely at his riding style and see what he needed to change to go faster.

"I said it in Japan, the boys after the race in Aragon, all sat on the plane and gave me a big list of basically, analyzing, breaking down everything. And really got to sit down, study that, and understand where I need to improve with my riding," Miller said.

He had been able to make that improvement in Japan, and it had paid off for him. "In Japan I was able to do so, and also able to make a relative step, to get that feeling on the bike, to allow me to carry more speed into the corner, basically. To brake later and maybe focus a little less on the exit, and focus more on hitting my braking markers and getting the thing stopped. And then let that exit sort of come to you."

His way of thinking about where speed came from was the wrong way around, Miller explained. "Before, the whole idea of this MotoGP thing is you've got 300 horsepower and you're always focused on trying to make a good exit, to make the time up on the straight, essentially. Whereas those other boys just seem to be winging the exit and really focusing on making up the little difference on the brakes, and mid-corner. And that's where I was losing. Basically because of braking a little earlier, OK, I need to focus on getting a decent exit. And those other fellas aren't, at all. Not too stressed at all about the exit." That change had led him to victory at Motegi.

While we had all been keeping a keen eye on how the title candidates were getting on, our attention kept getting drawn to Marc Marquez. The Repsol Honda rider had a crash in FP1, then got back on the bike and ended the session fastest. His pace was strong too, sufficient for other riders to start to take notice.

If you wanted a graphic example of just where Marc Marquez is in his recovery, then I suggest you watch this clip from the end of FP2. Jack Miller messes up his last lap, and is forced to go wide, before cutting back to the exit of the last corner. Marquez sees Miller, uses his body to stand the bike up, balancing on the very edge of the kerb to avoid having lap canceled, and then turns the uncontrolled exit wheelie into a stand up wheelie across the line.

It is balletic in Marquez' body control, and MotoGP poetry to look at. (Yes, I know you don't "look at" poetry, strictly speaking, but you catch my drift). But what should worry Marquez' rivals much more is that it speaks of the joy which Marquez exudes when he rides a MotoGP machine. That joy is only possible because he understands he can ride freely again, without pain.

He was, naturally enough, very happy. "Especially because in Motegi, I felt better than Aragon. But today I felt better than Motegi. So this is what makes me more happy," the Repsol Honda rider explained. "This means that with more time, I will be better and better. And this is the target."

It was the first time in three years that he had been able to have a normal Friday, pushing from the very start and throughout both sessions, Marquez explained. "Today I was aggressive from FP1 to the last lap of FP2. I was pushing, I was working on my rhythm, I was working on the setup. But working in that way, I start to play with the bike, I start to understand better the setup, I start to understand better what I need on the bike. And step by step it's coming better and better."

And contrary to Luca Marini's accusations, he no longer needed to follow other riders to set a decent time, Marquez explained. "Today in the afternoon I went out, first run and second run alone, pushing, rhythm, consistent." His speed was coming from his riding, not from the Honda RC213V. "It's the same bike, but it's Marc that improves. Because the bike is the same like I raced in Qatar, in the first races. And we are trying a few things, for example this morning I was with the carbon swingarm, this afternoon with the aluminum. Very similar feeling. But just trying things for Honda."

While Marquez felt his arm was tired, it helped that Buriram is not as demanding a track as Motegi had been. "I feel better than Motegi," he said. "It's physical, this track, but it's physical about the weather. Not about the force you need to do on the bike. So this helps me."

That had allowed him to take risks again, find the limit, and get away with it. "Today I said exactly to the team. I said, 'today I used many lives!' And it was like 2019, I was pushing all the laps in practice." That had simply not been possible before his fourth operation. "The problem is the last two years, I can't push all the laps. Because if I do, I don't arrive on Sunday in good shape. Now, OK, I will not arrive on Sunday with the best performance, because a lack of muscle, but not because it's painful."

He was building his Friday the way he used to in the past. "I attacked from the first run – where I crashed already," he laughed. "OK it was a stupid mistake, but then I went out and I attacked. And my way to find the limit is in FP1 make many mistakes, and then put everything in the correct position. And then in FP2 I was already more consistent. But it's the same riding style like in the past. Still not like in the past, but coming better and better."

Marquez is still not back to full fitness, and hoped that the weather would lend him a helping hand on Saturday. "I hope tomorrow it will rain. Not for the result. But to save my energy. Because today I already feel tired. Because today I pushed, I pushed a lot."

Marquez' efforts had not gone unnoticed by his rivals. "I think that Marc in this moment is the one with good pace, similar to us," Pecco Bagnaia noted. "It's difficult to know now, sincerely. Because like I said, everyone has tested different things with tires. Zarco was also very competitive in terms of pace, in terms of time attack too. So let's see. In this moment, Marc is the one who has more here, but it has already three years since we came here, and considering the step we did from FP1 to FP2, that is so big, I think that we can be competitive. But Marc for sure is always so competitive. He's always the one to put in the middle of the battle."

It is looking increasingly likely that Marc Marquez will have a key role to play in the 2022 MotoGP title chase. Not by being directly involved - trailing Quartararo by 146 points means it is already mathematically impossible for him to win the title – but by being a constant presence at the front of the race. Marquez now looks capable of being on or close to the podium at every race. And that means he is going to start stealing points from the main contenders everywhere they go. Championship calculations are about to get a lot more complicated.

21 in '23

Finally, after a very long delay, the 2023 MotoGP calendar was announced. The delay came after the possibility to add two new races, in Kazakhstan and India, opened up over the summer. India, in particular is a surprise, due to previous issues with customs and import taxes. That, however, appears to have been cleared up, paddock sources report.

The arrival of Sokol and Buddh means that Aragon had to make way. Not permanently, but as the start of the rotation which the Spanish circuits and Portimão are planned to make. From 2024, we should see three of the five circuits feature every year, the tracks taking it in turn to host a race.

That has created a rather strange calendar, however. Kicking off in Portugal, the first nine races take place at a leisurely pace, spread over 16 weeks, with a three-week break between Le Mans and Mugello. There follows a three-week break to Silverstone, then two weeks later it's Austria, and another two week break.

Then things get very hectic indeed. Ten races in 13 weeks, with the last six sandwiched into 7 weeks in October and November, culminating in the season finale at Valencia. That race is scheduled to take place on November 26th, followed by a one-day test. Though Valencia can still be bright and sunny in November, the light fades quickly, and with it, the temperature. Not ideal, though still feasible.

A real world championship

Though the general feeling among team members is that it is going to be a hard and grueling slog, most of the riders were rather well-disposed to the calendar. Above all, they were most enthusiastic about the addition of India to the calendar.

"I think it’s very important to go to new countries and improve the community of MotoGP," Maverick Viñales said. "We must improve and grow. We must become the most important sport in the world. For me it’s great. Of course I love racing. It’s something, India is important for us, because I can see many fans for us in India, like Indonesia. For us it’s important. Will improve MotoGP a lot."

Jack Miller was similarly enthusiastic, and pointed to the importance of expanding the sport outside of its traditional base. "We've got a big calendar on, but I like the look of it. One less race in Spain, two new countries. It's fantastic for the championship to be spreading out a little more rather being solely Europe-based," the Australian said. "So for me, I like the idea of that. I like taking MotoGP all around the world. I think that's the goal and that's how it should be."

Miguel Oliveira pointed to the additional stress of the new race format, with a sprint race on Saturday. "Very exciting to go to new places and it’s a step forward. We are getting more time out of Europe, especially at the end of the year, which will be a challenge. The new format gives us a little but more stress and it will be funny to how many back-to-back races and the chance to score points twice in a weekend will affect everyone. It will be more and more important to have a group confidence and good worth ethic inside the teams. Also the riders to look it as a big, big marathon and not stress too much. It will need some time to adapt to it."

A long year

There were also reservations about any thought of expanding the calendar further. "Well, my wife will change the locks on the door with this calendar and the new Kazakhstan and Indian races," Alex Rins joked. "But apart from the jokes, it's nice to discover new places, new tracks. For sure if it will be harder because we will be more time out of home, but it looks good." But a season of 21 races was the limit, the Suzuki rider said.

The only real dissent came from family man Aleix Espargaro. "Very tough," is how the Aprilia rider characterized the new schedule. "It will be very demanding, especially in the last part of the year. It will be tough to do three consecutive races twice so far from home will be very demanding physically and mentally and with the sprint races and the new tracks. A very demanding calendar, sincerely."

It would require a total rethink of how to approach the year, in terms of time with his family and children, Espargaro said. "I will try to organize as much as possible with my team and with my family, maybe I will travel more with my kids. Let’s see how I will organize it."

Above all, however, Espargaro was worried about that last part of the season, with six races in seven weeks. "I have the feeling that the last part will be very demanding for the riders and everybody in the paddock."

Beats working for a living

We still have to see how much of the calendar survives by the time we kick off the year at Portimão on March 26th, 2023 – India and Kazakhstan are still subject to FIM homologation – but whatever happens, it is going to be a very tough year. But as MotoGP photographer Cormac Ryan Meenan likes to point out to me whenever I complain about the schedule, it beats having a job you hate, and having to pull a whole eight hours five days a week, 50-odd weeks a year. That is true. But sometimes, when the alarm goes off after another 5-hour night of sleep, and I drag my aging bones out of bed, it doesn't necessarily feel that way.


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Wed, 2022-09-28 21:52
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After an absence of three years due to the Covid-19 pandemic, MotoGP is returning to the circuits in Asia and Australia. A lot has happened in those three years in terms of motorcycle development; there has been a sea change in the way that bikes are controlled, as ride-height devices have been introduced to aid acceleration and braking, and engineers have gotten a better understanding of aerodynamics, sufficient to start gaining in the corner, as well as on entry and exit.

When MotoGP raced in Argentina for the first time since 2019 earlier this year, Aleix Espargaro's winning time of 41:36.198 was more than 7.5 seconds faster than the 41:43.688 Marc Marquez took to win in 2019. Argentina, however, is not a great basis for comparison, as the track sees very little use in between races, and the condition of the surface can change a lot.

So Motegi offers a better comparison. It is track which sees regular use throughout the year, with which all of the manufacturers know a great deal about, and which is also regularly used as a test track by the Japanese factories. Weather conditions were not quite comparable – it was overcast and cooler in 2019, with track temperatures of 27°C, rather than the 38°C from Sunday's bright and sunny race – but the differences in times are big enough that they can't be explained away by a slightly warmer track.

Hard comparisons

Comparing between seasons is tricky, of course. The race in 2016 was faster than 2019, for example, though still not as fast as 2022. And 2014 was faster still, but that was in the period when MotoGP was still using Bridgestone tires and proprietary electronics. Still, this is the best comparison we have for the moment.

To see how much MotoGP has advanced – and how each factory has improved – I put the lap times from 2019 and 2022 into a spreadsheet to compare them. That produced some fascinating numbers, not just in terms of how much faster MotoGP is going now, but who has improved since 2019, which manufacturers have gotten faster, and who has improved least.

The two tables below contain a selection of riders, based mainly on finishing position and whether they were racing in 2019. Apart from the winning time, I compared the 2019 and 2022 times of Jack Miller, as best Ducati; Marc Marquez, as best Honda and 2019 winner; Fabio Quartararo as best Yamaha and runner in in 2019; Miguel Oliveira, as the only KTM rider to have raced both years; Maverick Viñales, to compare the Yamaha of 2019 and the Aprilia of 2022; Franco Morbidelli, as a benchmark for Quartararo's improvement; and Aleix Espargaro, who was with Aprilia in both years.

Riders and bikes

In addition to comparing riders, I have also taken the times for each of the five manufacturers who finished in 2022 and compared their best finisher from 2019 and 2022. That gives a direct comparison for the bikes, rather than the riders, though for Aprilia, Honda, and Yamaha, it is the same rider (Aleix Espargaro, Marc Marquez, and Fabio Quartararo respectively), while Ducati's best rider was Andrea Dovizioso in 2019 and Jack Miller (obviously) in 2022, and KTM's best finisher was Pol Espargaro in 2019 and Brad Binder this year.

Let's start with the winner. That gives a good sense of how much faster MotoGP is as a whole. Marc Marquez won the race in 2019, just beating Fabio Quartararo, in a time of 42:41.492. Jack Miller won this year, with a clear advantage over Brad Binder, in a time of 42:29.174, over 12.3 seconds faster.

But this wasn't just down to Miller's incredible time. The first nine riders across the line were faster than Marquez in 2019, from Miller down to Enea Bastianini, who finished in 42:39.492, exactly 2 seconds quicker than the Repsol Honda rider. Those nine riders included bikes from five of MotoGP's six manufacturers (both Suzuki riders withdrew with mechanical issues): a Ducati in first, a KTM in second, a Honda in fourth, an Aprilia in seventh, and a Yamaha in eighth.

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Tue, 2022-09-27 01:22
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It has been three long years since MotoGP last embarked on its Pacific tour, the flyway races in Asia and Australia which form the crescendo which build toward the season finale, and invariably decide the MotoGP championship. So the Motegi race, first of four overseas rounds, provided both a solid benchmark for the progress made over the last two and a half seasons, and gave us a foretaste of what is to come.

Motegi also changed the complexion of the championship. The importance of each race ramps up exponentially, as there are fewer and fewer points available. Closing gaps in the championship gets harder each race, the penalties for mistakes harsher, the rewards for success richer. Motegi mattered more than Aragon, and next Sunday, Buriram will matter even more than Motegi.

What we saw in Japan was a masterful display of riding, Jack Miller rising head and shoulders above the rest. We saw two Ducatis on the podium, though both of them the 'wrong' Ducatis in terms of the championship. We saw Marc Marquez complete a MotoGP race without pain for the first time since 2019 (and frankly, probably for much longer than that), and give a taste of what he is still capable of.

More significantly, we saw the momentum in the championship swing back in Fabio Quartararo's favor due to the fickle nature of events. Aleix Espargaro suffered the consequences of human error, a mistake by an engineer forcing him to swap bikes. Pecco Bagnaia was a victim of the vagaries of the weather and the condensed calendar, missing out on track time to sort out a setup that would allow him to be competitive. Quartararo, meanwhile, soldiered on, building on the start of his season and eking out the points needed to strengthen his hand in the title chase. There is still a long way to go. But Quartararo leaves Japan with much better odds of retaining his MotoGP crown than he had on the flight into Tokyo.

Let's start with Jack Miller. Since he adopted the more typical Ducati base setting also used by Pecco Bagnaia at the Barcelona test, Miller has gone from strength to strength. In the nine races including Barcelona, Miller had just two podiums and a total of 65 points, and was ninth in the championship, 82 points behind the leader, Fabio Quartararo. In the seven races since Barcelona, Miller has had four podiums, including the win at Motegi, and scored 94 points. He is now fifth in the championship, 60 points behind Quartararo.

It is rare that a rider is utterly dominant on a weekend, but Miller was pretty much unstoppable from the start. Off to a strong start in FP1, quick in the wet in FP2, it was only in qualifying that he came up short, ending up seventh on the grid. It didn't matter all that much: after trying the hard rear tire in morning warm up – one of only five riders to do so – Miller got a strong start, took three laps to get past everyone in front of him, and disappeared. Grinding out a pace in the low to mid 1'45s, he had a gap of nearly 4 seconds by the halfway mark. From there, he cruised to victory, still clearly faster than anyone on track.

"It went better than planned, to be honest," Miller told the press conference with more than touch of understatement. "I felt strong all weekend. I knew my pace from the Friday practice, and even this morning in the warmup I was able to put in a heap of consistent 45’s on that H. Felt like that was the race tire. Once I got going, I seemed to be able to pick off the blokes relatively quickly. But once I hit the front, I was able to sort of just sit at my pace. I knew where I could push. I knew where I needed to manage it. The bike worked amazing all day. Rode out of my skin, that’s for certain."

The hard rear tire was clearly the right choice for the race. Of the five riders who tried it in warm up – Miller, teammate Pecco Bagnaia, Marc Marquez, Luca Marini, and Miguel Oliveira – all but Marquez would race it. In addition to Miller winning, Oliveira finished fifth, Marini ended sixth, and Bagnaia was running in ninth until he crashed out trying to pass Fabio Quartararo.

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Sat, 2022-09-24 22:31
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If you wondered why BMW does not build and race a MotoGP bike, Saturday at Motegi gave you your answer. With torrential rain forcing a red flag in the Moto2 Q2 session, the cancellation of MotoGP's untimed practice session FP3 (FP4 had already been scrapped due to the shortened schedule), and the delay of MotoGP Q1 and Q2, Loris Capirossi and his crew were sent out multiple times to assess the state of the track in their safety cars.

That meant that the audience were treated to hour upon hour of BMW cars circulating at speed, with close ups of the cars drifting through the water, the BMW branding on display. (Do not ask me what car it is: I have so little interest in cars I don't even own one. The only thing I know is that it is some form of M model, which, I learned from the introduction of the BMW M1000RR superbike, is BMW's sports brand.)

With this, and the BMW M Award for the best qualifying performances of the year, BMW gets a massive amount of exposure through MotoGP, without the risk of failure associated with actually racing in the series. Why would they trade that in to go racing?

The reason for the BMW safety cars circulating was the state of the track. Heavy rain had started overnight, and rain and thunderstorms blew through Motegi just about all day. Riding was possible, but only sporadically. Conditions were constantly changing, as the rain came and went.

Normally, the half-hour session before qualifying would is the most important of the weekend. Teams and riders get to tweak setup and figure out the best tires for the race. So its loss would be a major blow. But with the weather set to be dry on Sunday, circulating in the wet would amounted to little more than burning fuel anyway.

Michelin usually provides journalists with a summary of how their tires have performed at the end of each day, and what they expect for the race. But on Saturday, they had nothing worthwhile to add. "We don’t have anything interesting to share that will be relevant for the dry race conditions forecast for tomorrow," a spokesperson told us. That is how relevant Saturday was to the race.

Of course, Saturday was still important. Qualifying decides the grid, no matter what the weather on either day. And Saturday at Motegi really delivered: if the last few races have been something of a Ducati whitewash (redwash?), conditions threw up a really mixed grid. Sure, there is one Ducati on the front row – Johann Zarco, who benefited from coming through Q2, and understood that time could be gained from using a second soft rear tire – but the grid is a real mixed bag of manufacturers.

The biggest story is surely that Marc Marquez took his first pole position in three years – 1071 days, to be exact – and the first pole for a Honda since Pol Espargaro took pole at Silverstone last year. It ended another streak of shame for HRC, of 21 races without a pole position, the longest run since Honda returned to the premier class since 1982.

On the one hand, it shouldn't be such a big surprise. Marquez is fast in the wet, and better than pretty much everyone else at judging grip when track conditions are unpredictable. It is also less physically demanding riding in the wet than in the dry, an important factor at a track like Motegi, with a lot of hard braking into right-hand corners. The Repsol Honda rider was already fastest in the wet FP2 on Saturday morning.

But this is also a sign of how well Marquez' operation has succeeded. The fourth operation was hard on his body – the surgeons had to cut through his arm muscles in four different places to be able to remove the 34° rotation in his right humerus – but the fact that he can ride again, and fast enough to nab pole at Motegi, has to be a foretaste of what is to come.

Marquez was reticent to draw too many conclusions about his future from just a single pole. "It’s only pole position. It’s in the wet," he told the press conference. "But in the situation we are coming from and the situation we are right now with the team and with Honda, struggling a lot in 2022, it's a really good news for us inside the team. Especially because we need that small achievement, we need the small motivation and this fresh high inside the box is necessary. It was the time to do it."

He was happy that he was riding in a more natural way than before his operation. "Last year in the wet, I was competitive, but I was riding in a strange way and I didn’t feel comfortable on the bike. I didn’t understand how was coming the lap times," Marquez explained. "But today, I confirmed that my arm position was in a perfect way. I was able to brake like I want, go in, pick up the bike. I’m very happy for that."

Whatever happened, he was already looking at the operation as a success, Marquez said. "Already right now, the last surgery for me is a victory. In my normal life, I can have a normal life. I don’t feel pain all the time. For me, the last surgery already was a success. Then now we need to understand if on racing, for my professional life, also is a success."

Does starting from pole mean he is a candidate for the win? Marquez played down any chance of that happening. "Tomorrow we will come back to my natural place right now," the Repsol Honda rider warned. "Of course, I would like to be in the top. Of course, I would like to fight for the podium. Of course, I would like to fight for top five. But it’s not the time. This is what I believe."

It wouldn't stop him from trying, of course. "Always when I will have a small chance, I will try, because I’m like this," Marquez admitted. "My character is the same as when I arrived in MotoGP. But tomorrow will be a very long race. I already felt on Friday that here I will struggle to be consistent and attacking for all laps. But, we will see."

His rivals were not convinced by Marquez' modesty. "I mean of course Marc because he is going well and we all know he can turn it on on the Sunday," Jack Miller replied when asked who he feared in the race. "Whether or not the fitness is there in his shoulder… It’ll be interesting to see what he can do. Of course he says he's not, but you know, he’s said that 1000 times before. He's the boy who cried wolf!"

Aleix Espargaro was unsure of what to expect from Marquez on Sunday, precisely because of the Repsol Honda rider's fitness. "He's fast. He's been fast also in the dry, not just on the wet. And here it's about three things: to manage the rear tire, the speed, and then in his case he has got the number three, which is the physical condition, which the others don't have.But he's very fast in Japan always and it looks like his bike works good here, because also Pol yesterday was fast."

For Fabio Quartararo, it was Marquez' pace on Friday that had him worried. So much that it was making him rethink his own tire choice for Sunday's race. "He's strong, and actually he's the one that makes me doubt to go with the medium rear because he make 1'45.0-1'45.1. For sure it was a kind of time attack, but 1'45.1 with the medium is really fast," Quartararo said. "He has the speed. He has the pace, he's starting from the pole so I think you can put a coin on him for the victory."

The Frenchman is not the only rider confused about tire choice for Sunday. Race day is set to be dry and relatively sunny, but not warm enough to race the hard. With the start at 3pm and sunset at 5:32pm, the temperature is likely to drop during the 42 minutes or so the race will last. The medium should last the distance, and be capable of performing well throughout. It looks like being the safer option. But the soft has more grip from the start, and the drop doesn't seem too big.

The problem is that nobody knows if the soft will last for the 24 laps of the race. Normally, the teams would use FP4 to figure that out. But the schedule meant there was no FP4, and the weather meant that there was no session to take its place. So the soft is going to be something of a leap in the dark.

That is true for the entire race. The wet weather meant the grid is pretty topsy turvy. Take Pecco Bagnaia: the Ducati Lenovo rider qualified in a lowly 12th, and admitted that he was lucky to have gotten through to Q2 on Friday. "The only good thing was I was already in the top ten. With my lap time I think I’d be last today," Bagnaia said. That is not quite true: his time of 1'57.373 would have put him 21st, just behind Remy Gardner. It is the first time he has been off the front two rows since Portimão, where started dead last after a massive crash in Q1.

Bagnaia had no explanation for his miserable form in the wet. "Sincerely, we haven't checked anything so I have to check the data. I think something is not working, sincerely. Last year I was always competitive in wet. This year, not. I’m always struggling. The only time we raced in the wet was in Indonesia and I finished 15th. Then all the practice in wet I was struggling. Maybe in this moment on this bike, I’m not at my best in the wet."

Bagnaia starts a row behind Fabio Quartararo, his main rival for the pole. Quartararo had started qualifying off well, but just didn't get any faster. "I'm not happy because I expected much better," the Frenchman said. "I expected much better because, I still don't understand how it's possible to go into Q2, make 1'56.3 on the first lap, and then all the qualifying the same, no improvement."

Starting down in ninth is a problem for Quartararo, who showed real speed in the dry on Friday. In terms of pace, the Yamaha rider looked like being fastest, but his only real hope was to start from the front. Because being behind other riders exposed the bike's weakness. He may have Pecco Bagnaia behind him and Aleix Espargaro just a single row ahead of him, but he was still at a disadvantage.

"The only problem is, you know, the facilities they have compared to us to overtake," Quartararo said. "This is the problem. So I'm more worried about that, where I can overtake because every braking is after a straight. So this will be my main problem for the race." He only had one real chance, at the entry to the S curves. "At the moment only Turn 7. That is not really a place to overtake, but if I want to overtake is the only place that I can."

Aprilia's Aleix Espargaro is the best placed of the championship contenders, having qualified sixth. He had decent pace in the dry on Friday too, but his biggest problem is that the Aprilia RS-GP has changed so radically since 2019. The bike is so much better, but that also meant that all of the data, right down to gearing, had been rendered meaningless.

"I don't know what to expect sincerely," Espargaro said. "Yesterday the bike was very far from to be competitive. From 2019 to here the Aprilia was another world. I changed gearing in five corners. I did three places in first gear and now I will go insecond. In one place I did second and I will go third. We changed the gearbox close to 20km/h. We changed the balance, the electronics. So even like that on Friday I was very fast. So I think tomorrow can be a good day for us."

With an upside down grid, making predictions is hard. Jack Miller has looked very strong all weekend, but a lack of feedback from the front meant he ended up qualifying in seventh. Maverick Viñales is, as usual, convinced he can win, and starts from fourth, a very promising spot.

Marc Marquez starts from pole, but probably doesn't have the pace for the win, so when he runs out of strength, does he move aside or does he fight hard to keep riders behind him, making it hard for each one to pass? If he holds the field up at the front, that may give riders further back – Fabio Quartararo, Pecco Bagnaia, Enea Bastianini down in 15th – a chance to make passes which otherwise wouldn't be there.

The most intriguing prospect is perhaps Brad Binder. The South African is always outstanding in the wet, and qualifying in the rain allowed him to secure his first ever front row start. He is so used to starting from the fourth row or further back, and at making lightning starts to make up ground, it makes you wonder what he can do from the front row. Perhaps he will shoot into the first corner clear of the rest and disappear off into the distance. Or maybe he is so disoriented by not having riders in front of him that he hesitates and gets swamped by riders coming from behind.

So place your bets. Sunday's race at Motegi looks like being something of a lottery, but in a good way, with nobody knowing where they will end up from where they start on the grid. The pressure is high as the season starts to wind down. Sunday could end up being a very big day for the championship.

 


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Fri, 2022-09-23 22:15
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Friday at Motegi was the equivalent of being fourteen and having a distant relative visit for the first time in three years. "Goodness, haven't you grown up!" they say to you, as you roll your eyes and try not to look utterly exasperated and embarrassed.

In this case, it's the MotoGP bikes in the role of the surly teenager and Motegi as the annoying relative. The bikes really have changed a lot over the past three years, as a quick glance at the timesheets will tell you.

In 2019, after two 45-minute sessions of practice on the first day, Fabio Quartararo posted a fastest time of 1'44.764. In 2022, despite only having one 75-minute session of free practice, the first nine riders were all under Quartararo's 2019 time, with Jack Miller nearly a quarter of a second quicker. Maverick Viñales was second fastest in 2019, with a lap of 1'45.085. The first sixteen riders, all the way down to Franco Morbidelli, were faster than that.

It's not just that the bikes were faster. The field was also much closer. In 2019, the top three were separated by over three tenths of a second. In 2022, the gap between first and third was 0.049. In 2019, there were twelve riders within a second, in 2022, there are nineteen.

The closeness of the field can be painful sometimes: Johann Zarco missed out on Q2 by one thousandth of a second, finishing eleventh in a time of 1'44.798. Maverick Viñales squeaked through to Q2 with a 1'44.797, good for tenth place.

But having the times be so tight also highlights just how strong the performance of some of the Motegi newcomers is. Luca Marini ended the day in fifth place, just 0.136 behind Jack Miller's best time. Being fifth at the end of the first day is good, but being just over a tenth shy of Miller was even better. "I'm satisfied about the position, the gap to the first is something that I didn't imagine, sincerely," the Mooney VR46 rider said. "Because we are really close together. Everybody's close. But just a tenth from the first is incredible for me, the first time here."

What has changed in those three years? Obviously the introduction of ride-height devices and the growing importance (and more importantly, greater understanding) of aerodynamics plays a big role. But so does the fact that in terms of performance, the bikes on the grid have never been so equal.

Fastest man of the day Jack Miller reflected on the biggest changes since 2019. "Definitely the ride height devices. The ride height device was invented for places like here. That’s made it a lot better. Acceleration is a lot better," the Ducati rider said.

Ride-height devices make such a big difference at Motegi because of the stop-and-go nature of the track. With so many corners exiting onto short straights, there were plenty of opportunities to deploy the device. Jack Miller listed the places he was using it. "The last corner. Exit of Turn 2, exit of Turn 4, and then before the back straight, that little straight and then the back straight."

That changes the nature of Motegi, Marc Marquez said. "The feeling is the track has become more narrow and shorter. The power we are putting from corner to corner with the holeshot… We activate the holeshot here five times so it’s a lot. We are putting more and more torque and braking later and later. For that reason already from the first run we were already very close to the best lap of the race in 2019."

Along with the new technologies, the bikes have also gotten better through the natural process of development and evolution. That was obvious not just from lap times, but how the Ducati GP22 felt, Jack Miller explained. "The bike’s improved, I mean just initial rollout. That uphill chicane where I think Zarco binned it today, that section before was always a bit of a nightmare to get the timing right on the change of direction, to get the thing to actually react after changing direction rather than pushing wide and then finally coming back around."

The GP22 was a totally different kettle of fish to the GP19 Miller rode last time he was here. "It was really reactive, really receptive through there and the bike was really precise so that alone - you're not having to force the handlebars. And then again, the last corner, that sort of flop over chicane, seems to be a lot easier. Able to hit my mark there pretty much every lap, It makes it a pleasure to ride."

The Ducati may have changed and improved over the last three years, but it was nothing compared to the Aprilia RS-GP. Aleix Espargaro had seen the 2019 bike overlaid on top of the 2022 bike. "It’s like a motocross bike compared to a MotoGP," the Spaniard said. "It was super high, the engine position was super high in 2019. Now it’s another bike, longer, aerodynamics. It’s crazy how the bike’s changed from 2019 – crazy. Especially the Aprilia."

The 2022 RS-GP was a totally different machine to its predecessor, Espargaro said. "It’s another bike. The power delivery is a lot higher. But you’re able to use it. The torque is different, the aerodynamics. This track was the third worst on the calendar where the wheelie was a problem. Now we’re not even half of this. And with more power. It’s crazy. This is the shocking thing."

That radical difference brought with it its own set of problems. "Sincerely we struggled a bit in the first two runs. The bike was super far in terms of electronics, in terms of power delivery. I was quite angry with the engineers but they told me they tried as much as possible to adapt to the 2019 information to 2022," Espargaro explained.

"But it’s unbelievable how much the bike changed. How we raised the power, the wheelie was a big problem in 2019. Now it’s less than half." That meant a huge step forward in performance, Espargaro said. "From FP2 which was dry here in 2019, most of the top guys did high 1'44s, and I did a 1'45 high. And today I did a 1'44.5. Most people dropped half a second but I dropped nearly 1.5s. So it has been difficult to set up the bike but in the last part of the session the bike was quite good."

Adapting to Motegi on a MotoGP bike was more difficult than Brad Binder had expected, the Red Bull KTM rider explained. "I thought I would be a little bit faster straight away, but I wasn't. I started off pretty slow in the beginning, and each time I came in and went out again, I got a little bit better."

Like the Aprilia, KTM had a lot of work to do, with the bike having changed a lot in the past three years. "Our starting point was really far from where we needed to be with the power levels, and also the TC, they were really on the conservative side so the bike just wasn't going forward. Each run we had time to adjust things, and it got better and better each run," Binder said.

Part of the problem was how the track was changing. 75 minutes is a lot of time to be circulating, the riders laying down more rubber on the track as the session went on. That meant constantly recalibrating all your markers, Binder explained. "The big thing is that, like, my braking markers at the beginning were really early and the bike still wasn't stopping. And then as the session went on, the grip got better, so you start to brake later and later and you have to keep adapting, because it was such a green track at the beginning. So it made it difficult for me to find markers."

The good thing was that the asphalt itself does not seem to have deteriorated much since MotoGP was last here. "It's kind of cool when you haven't been to a place for quite some time and the track has stayed in good condition," Jack Miller said. "The asphalt feels like it did in 2019."

The bad news – and the reason why so many riders pushed for a fast lap at the end of the session – is that the weather is not looking promising for Saturday. Heavy rain started at the end of Friday evening, and is set to continue all through the Saturday morning. That could make finding further setup changes difficult, and will certainly complicate tire choice if FP3 (the untimed half hour session, which would normally be FP4 if we hadn't lost a session on Friday morning) is wet, or at least not fully dry.

For the moment, it looks like the choice of rear tire is completely open. The soft works, without a significant drop, and the medium is good for some riders, offering more stability. If Sunday is dry (which it probably will be) and warm (which at Motegi, is never a given) then the hard might work too.

"Also it's interesting with the tires, to understand which can be a good option in the rear," the ever-philosophical Luca Marini reflected. "Because I didn't feel good with the medium, but it looks like the safest option. I felt better with the soft, but I didn't do many laps. So we need to see. Also I would like to try the hard, but if tomorrow it will rain, it will be difficult to work for the race."

There was time for experimentation, however. Suzuki has brought new tail wings to Motegi, in an attempt to improve the GSX-RR for the final few races before they leave. The intention had been to try them on test rider Takuya Tsuda's bike on Friday, before handing them to Alex Rins on Saturday. But once Rins got wind of this, he had other ideas.

"It was very funny because yesterday I knew at the end of the day," Rins said. "They wanted to make Tsuda try it first and I went running to the Japanese guys and I said ‘hey guys, come on, let's give it to me to try, please!’ They didn't want to so I said, ‘OK, let's make a deal, if I'm competitive in the first minutes, let's try it first!’ They say ‘OK, OK’. So was quite funny!"

Rins got his way, and immediately felt an improvement. "I felt like more stability on the rear, on brakes. Looks like, comparing the first to the second run, I was able to brake a little bit harder and go in the corner."

The bike was more stable on corner entry and easier to control, Rins said. "Looks like this. At least less shaking." That is very much in line with Ducati's rear wings, which serve a similar purpose.

Rins was pleased that Suzuki had been able to bring these rear wings so quickly. "I'm quite impressed because especially Suzuki, they don't make this kind of thing so fast," he said. At first glance, it is also quite surprising for Suzuki to be investing at so late a stage, when they are due to pull out of MotoGP at the end of the year.

But the development process in MotoGP is a fairly lengthy one. Engineers do not just pull aerodynamics updates off the shelf: there is modeling to be done, CFD simulations, wind tunnel testing, and testing out on track. So these will have been coming for a while now. And Suzuki's budget would have been set at the end of last year, and once set, budgets have to be spent. It makes sense to try to go out on a high, so any improvement is welcome.

With limited running on Saturday due to rain, Friday may prove to be the best indicator of what is to come in the race on Sunday. Judging by race rhythm in the middle of Friday afternoon, a familiar pattern emerges: Fabio Quartararo's pace is unrelenting, and faster than anyone else. But it probably won't do him any good, because once the Ducatis turn up the power, they can simply outgun him during qualifying. Quartararo will once again need to qualify on the front row if he isn't to get swamped by Ducatis at the start of the race.

"Intense!" is how the Frenchman described his first day at Motegi after three years. "But it was quite good. I think our base looks not too bad. But to see the margin the others have compared to us is amazing because I was on the limit from the first lap and our margin is not so high. So actually it’s quite tough out of the acceleration with the holeshot device and the aerodynamics Ducati have, it was tough, but I feel we did our best today and was quite OK."

The issue for the reigning champion, as for everyone at Motegi, is choosing a race tire with limited dry practice time. "We will need to analyze quite well which tire to use," Quartararo said. "I think the front is quite clear. Rear not, because the soft looks like it has a little bit more performance. We need to see how much it drops. The medium looks good. I think our pace was quite OK, but I'm ready."

The tire situation could prove to be crucial. Even if the teams had two days of dry practice, an absence of three years means that understanding what the new bikes need would be complicated. But having to choose tires based on just a single, 75-minute session plus a 20-minute warm up on Sunday means that a lot of teams and riders will be taking a leap in the dark for the race. It definitely won't be over until the checkered flag drops.

A positive development at Motegi was the fact that there was not one, but two Hondas in the top ten at the end of Friday. Marc Marquez had a solid first day of practice, finishing sixth, while his teammate Pol Espargaro ended the day just a couple of hundredths behind him in seventh.

Finishing sixth was a positive development for Marc Marquez, at a track where he is going to suffer far more than at Aragon. Aragon was a flowing track with mostly left-hand corners. Motegi is stop-and-go, with very hard braking and a lot of right-hand turns.

Marquez had made it even tougher on himself by pushing himself on Friday in the knowledge that Saturday would be wet, so there was no point in waiting for tomorrow. "Today the fact we had only one practice of 1hour 15 minutes, and tomorrow looks like it’s going to rain, I started full attack," the Repsol Honda rider said. "Full attack, not like crazy. I just didn’t think about my physical condition, I gave everything I had."

He paid the consequences for that effort. "I feel it. Because in the last part of the practice I started to feel some pain in specific points," Marquez said. This was not unexpected. "Before coming here, we already imagined it will be a very difficult circuit. Today I understood to do a full attack race distance and be consistent will be very difficult. Maybe for the race distance I need to drop a bit the pace to finish in a good way."

The pain was worse than at Aragon, and unlike at the Misano test and the Aragon race weekend, the bone was hurting too. Motegi is so demanding that it quickly sapped the strength from his recovering muscles and forced him to adopt the wrong position on the bike. "The problem is the muscle is there, and when it loses power, then you start to stress in a strange way, you start to make strange positions in the shoulder, the bone. You are pushing the joints more."

The positive thing from Friday was that he had confirmation that the Kalex swingarm was working well. Though he was a little coy about explaining exactly what the swingarm did better, he did tell journalists that the biggest difference was in the feedback the aluminum swingarm delivered.

"I feel like the information you receive … it’s not like you have more grip or less. It’s like the information, the way we slide or not, it’s in a different way," Marquez said. "For that reason we still need to understand the performance. In terms of performance, it’s very similar. But in terms of information, it’s where I feel the biggest difference."

Perhaps the biggest surprise was to see Pol Espargaro so close behind his teammate, after a miserable weekend at Aragon. Espargaro had scored just a single solitary point at Aragon, yet here he was competitive, something for which he had no explanation.

Marc Marquez believed he knew why Espargaro was fast at Motegi but not at Aragon. "It’s like always. In the practice, in Misano test, in Mandalika, in Sepang, full rubber down on track, good grip, when you can use lean angle, then the lap time is coming," Marquez explained. "Today the practice was 1 hour and 15 minutes, which means half an hour more of rubber on track. In the end the grip was so high. As soon as we have high grip, the lap time is coming."

That means that Pol Espargaro never had to deal with his Achilles heel, Marquez explained. "Especially Pol is struggling a lot with a lack of grip. Like Aragon. When the track is spinning, he is struggling even more."

The fundamental issue was not with Espargaro, Marquez was keen to point out, but rather with the current iteration of the Honda RC213V. "The problem is that with this bike, the lap time depends a lot on the rear grip. You cannot do anything with the front. You don’t have the feedback, the information to push with the front tire. Everything is depending on rear grip. Especially in this track, we don’t use the turning. It’s a stop and go track. You don’t carry the speed in the middle of the corner, and that’s our weak point this year."

Will Espargaro be able to carry that through to Sunday's race? A wet and difficult Saturday is going to make life tricky for everyone, and make practice extremely unpredictable. With qualifying completely open in the wet and then a dry Sunday, on top of limited dry running, it would be foolish indeed to be confidently making predictions. Motegi looks like a very good time to be hedging your bets.


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Wed, 2022-09-21 00:02
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Much of the attention after Sunday's race went to what happened at the front: Enea Bastianini beating fellow Ducati rider Pecco Bagnaia, Brad Binder firing from mid pack to the front in the first couple of corners, and of course, the massive crash caused by Fabio Quartararo hitting the back of Marc Marquez' Repsol Honda, and in the aftermath, Marquez and Takaaki Nakagami colliding, and Marquez being forced to pull out of the race with a piece of Quartararo's fairing stuck in his rear wheel.

But that meant that some of the things which went on behind were overlooked in the media overload. Aleix Espargaro's return to the podium puts him right back in the championship chase. Brad Binder showed his exceptional class to finish fourth, and nearly on the podium. And some of the riders who felt they had the pace to make up ground in the first couple of laps after qualifying badly.

First, a few words on team orders. At Misano, everyone on a Ducati told us that Ducati Corse CEO Gigi Dall'Igna had been round to have a word with them. The gist was that they were to feel free to try to take the win, if the win was there, even if it meant passing Pecco Bagnaia. But they were not to take excessive risks while doing so: beating Bagnaia was acceptable, but attempting a pass and taking Bagnaia out if they failed was not.

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The piece of context missing here is that Dall'Igna told his riders this when Bagnaia was 44 points behind Fabio Quartararo with seven races still to go, an average of 6.3 points per race behind. At that point, the onus is on Bagnaia to score points, rather than the other Ducati riders to get out of his way. After Misano, Bagnaia had cut that deficit to 30 points with six to go, the average now 6 points per race. He had inched closer, but had still left himself a lot of work to do.

Aragon changes that dynamic significantly. Bagnaia now trails Quartararo by just 10 points, an average of 2 points for each of the five races remaining. Bagnaia has the championship in his own hands: he is capable of winning the title without any external help at all. But interference could ruin all that, so surely Ducati should now start issuing team orders to the other Ducati riders, telling them not to pass Bagnaia?

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Mon, 2022-09-19 23:57
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Marc Marquez was hoping to make an impact on his return to MotoGP at the Motorland Aragon circuit. He made an impact alright, but not quite the one he was intending. A lightning start, collisions with Fabio Quartararo and Takaaki Nakagami – much, much more on that later – and a withdrawal due to having a chunk of Quartararo's fairing stuck in the back of his bike. Marquez had come up short on his objective: "Try to get kilometers, try to finish the race, and we didn't get the target. I just did one lap," he said after the race.

We will come to apportioning blame for the Quartararo-Marquez crash later, and how Enea Bastianini came to the championship leader's aid at the end of the race. The race itself was in some ways a repeat of last year: a waiting game, with a burst of excitement settling the outcome in the last couple of laps.

Bastianini's victory wrapped up the manufacturers championship for Ducati again with five races to go. There is no doubt that the Ducati is now the best bike on the MotoGP grid. But the halfhearted celebrations in the factory Ducati Lenovo garage betrayed just how much more the riders championship matters to Ducati.

Pecco Bagnaia closed the deficit to to Fabio Quartararo to just 10 points at Aragon. But the season is far from over. With five races left, there are 125 points still on the table. In theory, Luca Marini, twelfth and 120 points behind Quartararo, is still mathematically capable of winning the championship, as are the eleven riders ahead of him.

Realistically, the title will be fought out between the top three, with 17 points separating Quartararo, Bagnaia, and Aleix Espargaro, with Enea Bastianini, 48 points behind, a wildcard. But as we have seen, a lot can happen in five races. And the cost of failure increases with each passing round.

Which leads me nicely on to the first-lap incident between Marc Marquez and Fabio Quartararo. Following events live, it looked a lot like recklessness on the part of the Repsol Honda rider, especially in the second incident which caused Takaaki Nakagami to crash. But watching the replays on the MotoGP.com website from all of the available viewpoints and camera angles, and a more nuanced picture emerges.

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