“I mean the championship is, we can say, over,” Andrea Dovizioso told the pre-event press conference on Thursday in Buriram.
With five races to go and a total of 125 points at stake, Marc Márquez leads Dovizioso by 98 points. Mathematically, the title is still open, but you would be not be wise to bet against Márquez winning the championship this season.
In FP1, Marc Márquez demonstrated both why he is leading the championship, and how the championship isn’t over until it has been put beyond mathematical doubt.
On his first run of the weekend, the Repsol Honda rider went out and posted a string of laps in the 1’31s, a second or more clear of his rivals. On his second run, he repeated that pace, becoming even more consistent.
On his third run, he exited with new soft tires, front and rear, with the intention of putting in a quick lap to secure a spot in Q2 on Saturday.
It was the same strategy as in Aragon: go out in FP1, and if you feel good on the bike, post a lap good for Q2 at the end, so that you can spend all of FP2 working on race setup in conditions that will most closely resemble the race. With rain forecast for Sunday, it seemed like the right choice.
Error of Judgment
But Márquez made a major miscalculation. He was slower on his out lap than he should have been, getting through Sector 2 around 6 or 7 seconds slower than usual. When he arrived at Turn 7, his tires were probably a little cooler than they should have been, and Márquez had moved a little off line to get past Pol Espargaro.
As he entered, he shut off the throttle completely, instead of cracking the throttle a fraction. The engine brake kicked in, the rear slid out, then the tire gripped once again and it launched Márquez skyward.
It was a huge crash. Márquez was flung through the air and landed on his back. The bike spun end over end, destroying both the front and rear ends of the RC213V. So violent was the impact that it snapped the carbon-fiber swingarm when it landed, launching speculation that the swingarm had cracked to cause the crash.
It was a demonstration of just how much stored energy is released in a highside, as the bike compressed first the rear shock, then the rear tire, pushing it off the rim, only for that energy to be released again.
Márquez was left doubled over in the gravel. An unusual sight, normally, the Spaniard is able to get up and walk away. After a few moments, he was helped up and walked off with the marshals, and then taken to the medical center for further evaluation.
Though no fractures could be seen, there was heavy bruising and swelling on his back, hip, and knee, and the doctors were afraid the swelling was hiding serious injury. So Márquez was sent to the local hospital for an MRI for further checks.
He didn’t go without putting up a fight, arguing with Dr. Charte, who had ordered Márquez to have scans in hospital before declaring him fit. Looking back, Márquez understood their decision.
“It was around five seconds that I couldn’t breathe,” was how he described what had happened after the crash. “For that reason, I was there on the floor, in the gravel. And it’s only five seconds, but for me it was like twenty seconds there, because it was a big impact.”
Having the wind knocked out of him had worried him initially, but once he recovered his breath, he was rearing to go again. That was why he had resisted going to the hospital.
“It’s true that then, step by step it was coming better and better, and when I arrived in the medical center, I was already OK. But then of course, I understand that the doctors tried to manage the situation in the best way, in a safe mode, and they preferred to have a deep scan to look at all these things.”
MRI scans showed no fractures, though Márquez had heavy bruising on his back along the muscles which line his spine, and on his hip and knee, and so he returned to the circuit, where he was passed fit to take part in FP2.
A crash like that could have changed the course of the championship. It was a sign Márquez was mortal, like everyone else, and could make a mistake and crash, and be injured in the crash. So would he take time to recover and get back up to speed slowly?
What Is Best in Life?
That is not how Marc Márquez operates in 2019. He is at the height of his powers, his goal not just to win, but to demoralize his rivals while doing so. His aim, to quote the cult 1982 B-movie Conan the Barbarian, is simple: “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women.”
Márquez looked decidedly second hand sitting in the garage at the start of FP2. Once he left pit lane, it took him three laps to go faster than Maverick Viñales’ fastest time from FP1. He proceeded to follow the plan set out in the morning, working on race pace using old tires, his time from the third lap quick enough to put him sixth fastest overall.
Only where almost everyone else had need a new soft tire to set their fastest time, Márquez kept the same set of tires all practice, his final lap a 1’31.083, on a soft rear with 23 laps, 3 laps shy of race distance.
That last lap was fast enough to put him straight through to Q2, faster than either Joan Mir or Alex Rins on fresh rubber, and just six hundredths of a second slower than Andrea Dovizioso on a new soft tire.
If anyone had expected signs of weakness from Márquez, he was unwilling to oblige. After being highsided off the bike, Márquez returned to intimate his rivals. It was a stunning performance.
Andrea Dovizioso described Márquez’ mindset at the end of Friday. “There are two types of riders,” the Italian said. “Some riders stay behind a painful or bad situation. Most of the riders put the limit in front of everybody and play on that.”
“So they speak always, ‘I have this, I have this, I have this.’ Some do the opposite – they don’t say the things, so they don’t show the limit. And they push 100 percent. Marc is one of them.”
Dovizioso emphasized that some riders play up their injuries for the media, as a way of seeking an advantage. “There are some other riders doing that. Especially with the media a lot of riders complain about a lot of things but they are smaller than the reality.”
“But for the media it’s nice to say that or push on that.” But not Márquez, the Ducati rider insisted. “Marc is different for sure. But he’s not the only one.”
So what happened? The immediate explanation after FP1 from Repsol Honda team boss Alberto Puig was that Márquez’ highside had happened because he got off line and got some dirt on his tire. “On the back straight probably he was not on the correct line,” Puig explained.
“I mean he was on the outside line and looks like that area is a little bit dirty. The tire got some dust there and it’s one possibility that the tire was not completely clean. That was probably the reason because he was not fast and the tire was up to temperature, so probably it was a matter of some dust or dirt on the tire.”
Throttle, Not Dirt
Márquez’ rivals offered a different perspective. “Dirt?” Jack Miller asked. “Nah. He just didn’t scrub the tire in enough, just pushed it a little bit too hard too early, that’s what that was.”
“Honestly, every time you change direction there on a new tire it goes, whoosh, comes around. Like I said, I keep a little bit of partial throttle there just to sort of keep it sliding rather than have it come back.”
Jack Miller had a keen eye. When asked about the crash, Marc Márquez acknowledged that part throttle had been to blame. “Of course the first thing I did after hospital is check why I crashed,” Márquez said.
“Then of course I was much slower than the normal laps, because I was exiting from the box. Of course it was new tires, of course maybe the track was not clean enough, this is normal. But the main difference is that normally in that corner, we don’t close completely the gas. We close the gas a bit, but we don’t close.”
That had been his mistake, the rear locking up when the engine brake kicked in. “In that lap, I closed the gas. When you close the gas, the engine brake is going in, and then is when I locked the rear.”
“So it’s not a mechanical problem, it was more my mistake. But it was because I was riding slow. But for me more than this change on the riding, it was more maybe the tire was not ready or maybe I was a bit on the dirty part of the track. So it’s difficult to understand.”
Nature of the Beast
Cal Crutchlow believed the nature of the Honda on new tires contributed to the crash. “It’s not a dirty tire,” the LCR Honda told the media. “I think he didn’t lean enough in Turn 3, which is probably true, completely.”
“But when you come through there and the tire – it’s a very typical Honda thing – we have no grip in the out laps compared to the other bikes. If we follow another manufacturer in the out lap it’s so difficult, because we don’t load the tires the same way.”
This was what had caused the crash, according to Crutchlow. “When we shut off the gas – he highsided off gas, and it’s because the weight is not there to push it. I followed Morbidelli on an out lap in the second run this morning, and honestly it was embarrassing.”
“I might as well have been on a wet track trying to go round the corner the same speed as him, because we need an extra lap. We need that extra lap to be able to make the tire work. In qualifying it’s a little different, because we push so hard that we load the tire more.”
Crutchlow had not been surprised that Márquez had returned to dominate after his crash. “If you look at the first run in FP2, I was talking to my crew chief Beefy, and he said, ‘Aw, he looked a bit sore in sitting in the garage before he went out,’ and I said, ‘he’ll do a 1’30 in a minute’. Five minutes later, he’s doing 1’30s.”
It was a good day for Yamaha at Buriram. All four Yamahas finished in the top five, with only Jack Miller interposing himself on the Pramac Ducati, bumping Valentino Rossi down to fifth. A somewhat curious result, given that the Yamahas have one of the lowest top speeds at most tracks (at Buriram, they only have the KTMs behind them).
But Buriram is not so much of a horsepower track as it looks on paper: once you get into Turn 5, the track becomes all about corner speed and the ability to turn. Two things the Yamaha M1 is particularly good at.
The M1 is quick in the third and fourth sectors of the track, stretching from the entrance to Turn 5 all the way back to the finish line, after Turn 12. “Well, there’s a lot of corners!” Fabio Quartararo laughingly explained after FP2.
“If you look, first and second sector is only three corners, so I think that’s why the, let’s say, powerful bikes are in front, but when you arrive to sector three and four, there are much more corners, and I think our bike is, the really strong point of the Yamaha is the turning.”
More Revs, More Speed
Quartararo had finished the day as fastest, proof that being fast in the corners helped a lot. But there are clues that the Frenchman has finally been given clearance to use the 500 RPM extra the other Yamahas have.
Normally, Quartararo’s Petronas Yamaha is down on speed compared to the other Yamahas, the two factory Monster Energy Yamaha machines of Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales, and the factory-spec M1 of Petronas Yamaha teammate Franco Morbidelli. But in Thailand, Quartararo is keeping step with them.
Compare Buriram to Aragon. In FP1 at Aragon, Quartararo was the slowest Yamaha, posting a top speed of 327.3 km/h compared to the 331.3 km/h set by fastest Yamaha Maverick Viñales. In FP2, Quartararo was slowest again, with 323.4 km/h versus 331.3 km/h by Viñales again.
In Thailand, Quartararo was suddenly a fraction faster than his teammate Franco Morbidelli, and no longer the slowest Yamaha. His deficit to the fastest Yamaha was much smaller as well. In FP1, Quartararo posted a top speed of 326.2 km/h compared to Valentino Rossi’s 327.2 km/h. In FP2, he followed it up with a 324.3 km/h to Rossi’s 325.3 km/h.
Now or Never
The deal, sources around Quartararo and the team will tell you, speaking on condition of not being quoted, was that Quartararo would end the season on the same spec bike as the other three Yamahas.
And if the French youngster is to receive the full rev range of the engine, then Buriram, with three significant straights, is a track where it might be used. And with Motegi to follow, another stop-and-go track where the bike is revved through the gears, then it makes sense for Yamaha to ease the reins on Quartararo’s engine here, rather than wait another couple of races.
It is worth pointing out that this doesn’t require Quartararo to be given a different engine (which would be against the rules).
The revs are controlled by the software in the ECU, a rev limit set by Yamaha engineers which Quartararo could not exceed. With a few clicks of a computer mouse, that limit has been raised by 500 RPM.
Making It Last
Opinions are split between the Yamaha riders on whether their speed will translate into race pace. Valentino Rossi was most pessimistic. “It looks like we are very competitive, and especially in the time attack with the soft tire, all the Yamahas are good,” the Italian said.
“Like last year the feeling in this track is positive because the tires work well and the bike you can ride well. But for the pace we have some more problems so we need to work and to find the right tire for the rear and we need to find the way to remain constant for all the race because it will be very hot and very hard for the tires.”
Maverick Viñales shared Rossi’s concerns, but believed they could be overcome. “I worked with the medium tire quite a lot today, and we know the soft is very good but the hard we do not know yet,” Viñales said.
“I was working with the medium as I have good feeling on the medium. We will see. It is very difficult to see but also it is true that we have to be a little more aggressive under acceleration because we lose out on top speed. Anyway, we have to work to see the tire degradation after the race. Here normally it is quite okay, it is not a big drama so we will see.”
Quartararo, on the other hand, was unconcerned. “The normal run was really good,” the Frenchman said. “Honestly, I didn’t expect to ride this fast, and we have something to improve on the bike that maybe can give us one or two tenths. So if we achieve what we really think about this setting, we will be really happy.”
Whether Yamaha will have much time to work on race setup on Saturday remains to be seen. The forecast was for heavy rain in the morning and afternoon, but the chances of a downpour have diminished as the morning draws near.
It could well be an almost dry day, with showers now looking more likely after qualifying is finished. But with Marc Márquez in his current mood, it would be hard to bet against him grabbing pole, whatever the weather.