The point of motorcycle racing is to go faster than everyone else. And because motorcycle racing is a sport composed of many different parts, there are a lot of different parties wanting to be fastest.
Riders want to be fastest to win races and championships. Factories want to be fastest to win championships, but also to have the bike with the highest top speed, and to collect lap records. Even tire suppliers want to collect lap records. That, after all, is how they measure progress.
Since coming into the class, Michelin have shattered a lot of records set by Bridgestone, the previous Official Tire Supplier to MotoGP. But not all of them, and if you speak to people from Michelin, this is something they are far from happy about.
But they keep chipping away, circuit by circuit, looking for ways to improve the tires to allow the bikes to go faster. This is the way Michelin creates competition for itself, and sets goals for its R&D department to pursue.
So far, they have done pretty well, taking the race lap record at nine of the tracks which MotoGP raced at prior to 2016, when they took over from Bridgestone.
Their record on outright lap records is even better. Up until Friday morning, Michelin still had five circuits where they hadn’t beaten the fastest ever lap set during practice or qualifying by Bridgestone.
Moving the Bar
By the end of FP1, Fabio Quartararo had reduced that number to four, shaving a couple of hundredths off the previous lap record held by Dani Pedrosa. Then, at the end of FP2, the Frenchman went on to absolutely destroy the record, taking the best part of half a second off his own best lap set in the morning.
It was an astonishing lap, Quartararo pushing his Yamaha M1 around the circuit, the bike squirming into corners, the rear smearing thick black stripes all over the tarmac, both in and out of the turns.
To put into perspective how fast Quartararo’s lap is, it has been beaten only four times, once each by Danilo Petrucci, Pecco Bagnaia, Jack Miller, and Andrea Dovizioso.
The four Ducati riders all set their quickest time on the morning of the last day of the test in February, after two full days of riding. They had conditions on their side too: they set their times in the morning, when track temperatures are ideal, on a track covered in Michelin rubber from 25 bikes circulating for two days.
Quartararo set his time in the heat of the afternoon, after just 90 minutes of riding, with track temperatures in the 50s Centigrade, and after the Moto2 machines had smeared greasy Dunlop rubber on the track.
Yet his time of 1’58.576 was a third of a second slower than Danilo Petrucci’s best lap of 1’58.239 set during the test. And half a second quicker than his Petronas Yamaha teammate Franco Morbidelli, the second fastest man on Friday, who had set his quickest time in the morning.
Like a New Track
He had also had to almost completely relearn the circuit, having made so much progress during the year. “The braking reference of February is totally different,” Quartararo said.
“I’m braking twenty meters more far! So a big difference, but that’s normal because February was the first test of 2019 and we are already seventeen GPs in and after two races in a row, so all the riders are very strong after this. It is good to be back and to improve by more than one second.”
The Frenchman had indeed cut nearly a second off his quickest time from the test in February.
Coming back and smashing the lap record was also good for his confidence, Quartararo said. “Phillip Island was really tough and the weekend did not go like we expected; two crashes, one on Friday and another at the beginning of the race, so we arrived here with not a lot of confidence from the race before but we already made first in the morning and then also in the afternoon. The confidence came back which is good for tomorrow.”
Braking was where he had made the most gains, Quartararo explained. “In the test, in the corners, I was already quite fast. Today in the braking we know that corners 1, 4, 9, 14 and 15 is a lot of long braking. I think this is where I make the lap time, but also the corner speed and exit. It is not just one point but all in general.”
One Lap vs. Twenty
Quartararo wasn’t just quick over a single lap. Like all four Yamaha riders, his pace was impressive as well, posting low to mid 2’00s on used tires. Only Marc Márquez and Alex Rins looked quicker, the Repsol Honda and Suzuki Ecstar riders closer to 2’00.2s than the 2’00.4s of Quartararo, Valentino Rossi, and Franco Morbidelli.
But there was one rider who was head and shoulders above the rest. Maverick Viñales had carried his pace over from Phillip Island, and was quick right out of the gate at Sepang as well. Viñales was posting race runs on used tires in the low 2’00s and high 1’59s, two or three tenths quicker than the opposition, and clearly comfortable in that pace.
Just how comfortable was clear from his practice strategy: like Marc Márquez, he didn’t use a fresh soft tire to chase a time in FP2, confident that his time from Friday morning would be fast enough to put him directly through to Q2. That gave him all of FP2 to work on his pace and his setup in the kind of conditions we can expect to see on Sunday during the race.
He was expecting to go even faster on Saturday, but he wasn’t sure whether anyone would crack the 1’57s, which would truly be a landmark achievement. “I don’t know,” Viñales said. “We were very fast, yeah, but I don’t know. But everything is possible now in MotoGP.”
However happy he was with his pace, the Monster Energy Yamaha rider knew his time of 1’59.218 would not guarantee him a slot in Q2 come Saturday morning. “We are going to try to push very hard, because it’s very important to be inside 1’58, because I think 1’59 low is going to be 8th, 9th, 10th place. So we have to be in 1’58 for sure tomorrow morning.”
Riding in Different Ways
Despite being the fastest in race pace and the fastest over a single lap respectively, Viñales and Quartararo had different ideas about how to be fast on the Yamaha. Quartararo did not hold entirely with the notion that to be quick on the M1, you had to be as smooth as possible.
“I think we also need to be smooth with this bike but there is a balance between really smooth and aggressive. We need to find the right balance to suit the Yamaha and I think we did it.”
The Yamaha is widely regarded as the easiest bike for a rookie to ride when they move up to MotoGP, an idea that is backed up by the long string of rookies who have been competitive right off the bat with the M1. But going from being quick to running at the front of races is a different matter, Quartararo explained.
“Every time I ride this bike it is harder to find the lap time,” the Petronas Yamaha rider said. “In the beginning it was really – not easy – but to make a good lap time it was OK. To be really fast is really difficult. You have to be aggressive but really smooth! If you are too aggressive you don’t make the lap time. Too smooth then you have the lap but not fast enough.”
Quartararo may have been faster over a single lap, but Maverick Viñales felt no need to spend too much time studying the data of the Frenchman, or indeed any of the other Yamaha riders.
“Well, actually since five or six races, I’m very concentrated on myself, trying to take the maximum out of every race, every practice, and trying to ride the bike we think can be the best,” the Spaniard said.
“We are very focused on ourselves, we don’t try to compare too much because we are following our own way, and it seems to work. I’m very happy.” It wasn’t so much that they weren’t looking at the data of the others, more that they weren’t drawing any conclusions from it. “Not really reduced, but we keep working on our way, on our side, concentrating more on ourselves.”
It is remarkable that the Yamahas should be so dominant at Sepang, a track with two of the longest straights on the calendar, both coming from slow corners. Yet the Yamahas were not really losing out much along the straights, Viñales explained. “Honestly we don’t lose so much. I was quite surprised, because maybe it was 5 or 6 kph, maybe, which is very positive for us.”
The reason why the Yamahas aren’t losing out on the straight is because of the extra traction they have, Marc Márquez believes. He was most surprised to see all four Yamahas near the top of the timesheets, rather than just Fabio Quartararo. “All of them are at the front. Normally it is one. All four are riding very fast, in the race pace.”
Slow Is Fast, Fast Is Slow
Márquez pointed to the discrepancy in expectation, with the two so-called ‘slower’ inline fours fastest in terms of pace, while the ‘faster’ V4s were a bit behind.
“Especially in FP1 it was strange because here normally the engine is very important, but the bikes at the front were Yamaha and Suzuki, and Ducati and Honda – that are the fastest bikes on the straight – were slower,” Márquez said.
“So, yes, there are two long straights but there are a lot of corners and in the end it is not only about top but the delivery is very important. The Yamaha in that area, especially with rear grip, they have something more in some circuits.”
Viñales acknowledged that traction was an area where Yamaha had made gains, but it was harder for him to tell than for Márquez. “We made an improvement in that area, especially with the electronics. But it’s difficult to understand, I don’t know. So he can tell better because he followed me.”
“When I follow another Yamaha, I feel very similar, so I cannot understand if we have more traction or not. So if he says we have more traction, then maybe it’s the way we are doing well, and that’s important.”
For Valentino Rossi, being quick out of the gate at Sepang was important. “It was a good day because I was quite competitive, especially in the afternoon I have a good pace with the medium tires.” He was still worried about tire wear, but was trying to change his riding style to help.
“It looks like that, also this year for some reason, the riding style of the top riders modify a little bit,” Rossi said. “It’s like with the new bikes, new electronics and different tires you need to ride in another way to find the limit.”
“So very much in braking, so try to brake in another way. Use the rear brake for example. But in general try to be fast without stressing too much the rear tire. This is the bigger target for everybody.”
It was hard for Rossi to understand exactly where most of the tire consumption was happening, in acceleration or braking.
“Good question,” he responded when asked. “In general what we think is more in acceleration. And in acceleration you need to be smooth to pick up the bike, but the style compared to 2-3 years ago is very different now. And in corner entry for me, less.”
But the Italian did still not completely understand why tire wear seemed to be such a big factor for him, rather than the other Italian riders.
“Sincerely speaking, a lot of time we don’t see in the data why I stress more the rear tire compared to the others. So we need to find a way, also with some different work on the bike,” Rossi said. “But anyway, for the first day it’s okay.”
Franco Morbidelli is also fast in Sepang, making it four Yamahas at the top of the timesheets, Andrea Dovizioso the only interloper on the Ducati. Morbidelli explained that they found the right bike setup from the very first session, and that was what allowed him to be fast.
“We started with a different setting compared to Australia and it paid off as straight away,” the Petronas Yamaha rider said. “I was faster compared to Australia and the level was much better, compared to Sunday in Australia. I think this was the key.”
The Yamaha’s strong point is where the Honda is having problems, Marc Márquez explained. “Of course we are struggling a lot to get rear grip on the exit of the corners,” the Repsol Honda rider said.
“Yamaha have extra grip and in that area at the moment it is the best bike, especially with the new tires it is incredible. This is one thing. Then the last part of braking is where we are pushing the front tire too much and for this reason we see a lot of saves. We did one step this year but we need to make another step and force less the front tire to try to have more grip.”
Saving the Impossible
The step Honda made was to give the RC213V more power, so Márquez didn’t have to push the front quite as hard as he did in 2017 and 2018, then have to rely on his catlike reflexes to keep saving the front when it folded underneath him. It hasn’t prevented him completely, however, as he demonstrated so elegantly on just his second lap out of the pits.
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He was still stuck in Phillip Island mode, he explained afterwards. “It’s a reaction,” Márquez said. “Just a reaction. It was only the second lap of the day and I didn’t expect that but I already had a warning in Turn 1 and a big save.”
“Immediately then I say ‘we need to change the riding style for this circuit’ we were coming from a different race track and I’d started with the same style but I saw it wasn’t working and even then we changed the set-up because it was not the correct one.”
It was a reaction which he must train, however. By pushing the front when training on a flat track bike, he learns to understand what happens to a bike when the front lets go, and can try to figure out strategies to get it back again. Practice means Márquez is mentally prepared for the moment the front let’s go, and that is a large part of controlling those moments.
The other part, of course, is in the willingness to crash. Márquez has always been prepared to crash, but when you dive into the numbers, as I did earlier this year, you can see that he is minimizing the risk when he does so. He tends to crash at low speed, and in practice, rather than at high speed or in the race.
But reducing the number of crashes is high on Márquez’ list of priorities for 2020. “I already said in 2017: one of the targets is try to reduce the crashes. It was not possible in 2018; just a little bit. I said the same at the end of 2018. Yeah, we reduced them.” But a lot of it in 2019 was just having more speed to play with.
“Especially because this year I was able to ride in a different way. I was able to force less on the entry of the corner and use more the exit. But it’s true that we need to do another step and we are pushing a lot. We crash less but how many saves? This is where we still need to work. The front tire is still critical in the last part of braking.”
That is something which LCR Honda’s Cal Crutchlow is hoping for as well. His main request to HRC is simple: “To make the bike more consistent that we can all ride and be fast without feeling so on the limit every lap,” the Englishman said.
“You journalists watch motorbikes go around the track all of the time and I am sure you can see that our bike is by far the hardest to ride. The effort we put in is nearly 50% more than everyone else to go around the track at the same speed or even slower. That means our risk ratio to being on the floor is even higher.”
HRC know what is required, Crutchlow said. “Honda are fully aware of our requests but what we have is not too bad. It is just not competitive enough week in, week out for everybody.”
The issues were twofold, a lack of turning with the bike, and an inconsistent engine brake, making corner entry difficult. But the two issues were not related, Crutchlow insisted.
“I think they are completely separate. The deceleration problem we’ve been having is separate to the turning as far as I feel.”
Crashing Not an Option
Marc Márquez’ willingness to crash is not an approach Jorge Lorenzo is willing to take. Lorenzo may be a five-time world champion, and a rider with some spectacular crashes in his past, but he was not willing to push and crash the way that Márquez was. It may work for Márquez, but not for him, Lorenzo said.
“I mean, it’s his way, and with his way he won six world titles in MotoGP. So for him it’s working, so we cannot say that it’s not a good way for him to win the titles,” Lorenzo told the media. “Personally it’s not my way, it’s never been my way in my career, even if I crashed many times and I got injured many times.”
“Injured even more than him, even though I crashed fewer times than him. But it’s his way and his belief. As we saw in the history of motorcycle racing, you can win races and championships with a lot of ways.”
Lorenzo had had a front row seat for Márquez’ spectacular save in the morning, as he had been following his teammate for part of the previous lap. “I think he has a way of controlling the bike that is completely different to other riders,” Lorenzo said.
“He knows the bike, he normally has a very low bike and with his elbow, he finds a technique to save a lot of crashes. And it’s spectacular to see live when you are on the track also, as seeing him on the TV.”
Lorenzo was a little better at Sepang than he had been at Phillip Island, mostly because the track was a very different prospect. “Two very different tracks, Phillip Island and this one,” the Repsol Honda rider said.
“Probably kind of opposites, the track is grippy, it’s flat, good weather. So this gives me much better feelings. We are still in more or less the same position, I was 16th this morning and 17th this afternoon. But about pace, most of the time I was from 1.1 to 1.5 seconds.”
There is still much talk of Johann Zarco potentially replacing Jorge Lorenzo in the Repsol Honda team for 2020, though HRC continue to vehemently deny any such suggestion.
Zarco had a solid day on the 2018 spec LCR Honda, ending FP2 in fourteenth place, just behind Marc Márquez, and half a second quicker than Lorenzo. He made good use of the dry track time, something which had been missing at Phillip Island.
Marc Márquez, meanwhile, was getting a head start on 2020. With the championship in the bag, the Repsol Honda rider spent the day experimenting with a scooter brake, a brake lever for the rear brake fitted on his left handlebar. The smaller silver lever sits where the clutch lever would normally sit on the bar, the clutch having been pushed much lower.
It was still very much in the experimental phase, Márquez explained, and was not yet ready to use. This was a development from previous tests. “We tried in the past but I didn’t like it, especially the feeling I had,” Márquez said.
“Then HRC started to work in a different way and they say ‘we have something new with this part’. Normally on the left side I am very fast and on the right I’m OK – still fast – but not very, very fast. It’s there where we tried to find something more but it was just a first feeling, first contact.”
Márquez is unbelievably successful in anticlockwise circuits with a lot of left hand corners. Those are corners where he can use the rear brake freely, whereas in right handers, there is much less room to move his foot to operate the brake pedal. He had tried using a thumb brake, but never got on with it, Márquez said.
“With the thumb I don’t like. I need to feel the handlebar with my hand.” The feeling with a scooter brake was better, but he and his team had decided to revert to the normal brake pedal for the rest of Sepang, at least.
Rights and Lefts
What Márquez needs is time to get used to the setup. Most riders are now using some form of thumb brake or other, while many are switching to a scooter brake setup. Maverick Viñales has been using a thumb brake for a long time, and has learned to switch freely between the two systems while riding. “I use both,” he said. “I use the hand brake and the foot. It’s very similar.”
The choice of which brake to use was made simple. Foot pedal for left handers, thumb brake for right handers. “One side foot, other side hand,” Viñales said. Before using the thumb brake, he couldn’t ride as smoothly in right handers, as he would have to adjust to use the pedal.
“Normally, I was braking, and I brake with the rear, and then I let go and I am banking again. So it was not ideal for the bike. So we needed to change that, to have more smoothness on the right side of the corners. So yeah, we try always to improve. And if this helps you, it is always an improvement.”
Not as Difficult for Dovi
While all eyes were on the Yamahas, the Ducati of Andrea Dovizioso finished the day third overall. That was better than expected, though Dovizioso was also aware that he lacked the acute pace of the Yamahas. “It was quite difficult but in the way we expected,” the Italian said.
“At the end our speed is better than what we expected in the second practice because we did a really good lap time with the used tire from the morning. That was really important for us. So we are in the group – not the fastest, but we are in the group. I didn’t expect that.”
He also tried a different setup in the afternoon, and that seemed to work, Dovizioso said. “It was positive, because we tried a different setup in the afternoon and the setup was quite big. We never tried it before.
Like always, there were positives and negatives but we got more positive things. And that was the reason why we were able to be fast with a used tire. So I’m happy about that. At the moment it’s not enough to think about the victory. But we are closer than what I expected.”
The KTMs, on the other hand, were having a difficult time. After a tough weekend at Phillip Island, they had come to Sepang hoping for better. Mika Kallio had no ready explanation for what had happened.
“During the winter test everything was more or less fine and we were a lot faster than today,” the Finn said. “But suddenly, since the first laps, I felt that we did not take out the grip from the tires. It is basically the whole package and somehow the front and the rear. ”
The Austrian factory suffered a further blow, when Miguel Oliveira was ruled unfit after FP1. The Red Bull KTM Tech3 rider had picked up a hand injury in his crash at Phillip Island, but that crash had also made the shoulder injury he suffered when he was taken out by Johann Zarco at Silverstone much worse.
He will consult on whether he needs surgery to fix the damaged tendons in his shoulder, but if he does, it means being out of action for three months.
That would be a shame, as Oliveira has been making remarkable progress. Some of that progress had come as a result of studying what Dani Pedrosa was doing as KTM’s test rider. “For me the biggest breakthrough was when I could start looking at Dani’s data and really learn some different things from him,” the Portuguese rider explained.
“He is doing things a lot different from any other rider I’ve seen,” Oliveira said, though he did not want to go into too much detail. “He’s just not such a physical rider. He uses a lot of his brain and you can see how he is giving the input on the bike. That’s all I can say!”
There was frustration for Oliveira that his progress had been hampered by the injury. “I was coming up really strong before I crashed in Silverstone with Johann and that is the biggest shame of the season because I felt really strong. I’ve crashed more in the second part of the season than I have in two years and that’s the reality of the situation.”
“I don’t know if it is because of the shoulder. All I know is that I’m not 100% and when you are like that then to ride one of these bike it’s not cool at all.”