Motorcycle racing fans have heroes. They worship the riders like demi-gods, beings capable of superhuman feats of speed and agility.
And watching riders at the top of their game – Marc Márquez skating the edge of disaster, Alex Rins sweeping through corners, Andrea Dovizioso braking not when he sees god, but after he has been invited home to meet god’s mother, Valentino Rossi disposing of rivals like they are standing still – it is easy to understand why they are deified like that.
They truly are exceptional, awe-inspiring, breathtaking to watch.
This idolization of riders makes it easy to forget that there is more to MotoGP than just a superhero on two wheels. If a rider is to destroy his rivals, he needs a weapon, and that weapon needs to honed to a fine point before being wielded with the kind of malice racing requires. Bikes need engineers to design them, mechanics to prepare them, crew chiefs and data engineers to make them fit the riders’ needs.
Riders, too, need preparation. They don’t just wake up one day, leap on a bike and go racing. They must train, and diet, and stretch, and get themselves ready. They must listen and learn from engineers, coaches, team managers.
They need support when they are down, encouragement when they are up, guidance when they are out of control. They need to be honed and fettled as much as the motorcycles they race.
E Pluribus Unum
This, then, is the package which is spoken of so frequently. Success in racing is a collaborative effort, finding the right rider to put on the right bike, prepared by the right team. When all goes well, when rider, bike, and team are in sync, they make for an unbeatable combination.
But, they are also immensely fragile. It only needs one component to fail – a mistake by a rider, a part breaking on the bike, the wrong setup direction taken by the team – for the whole thing to fall apart. Getting that right week after week is truly the mark of greatness.
What does getting the package right look like? Look no further than the Petronas Yamaha team. The MotoGP arm of the team has been put together from scratch, overall team manager Johan Stigefelt bringing in former factory Yamaha advisor Wilco Zeelenberg to run the MotoGP operation. Zeelenberg has surrounded himself with smart and talented people, from rider coach Torleif Hartelman to crew chief Ramon Forcada, and a raft of top-shelf mechanics and crew.
The team have signed two young, exciting riders, in Franco Morbidelli and Fabio Quartararo, both riders who need careful guidance to get the best out of their talent. That was immediately evident in Qatar, where Quartararo qualified in fifth in his very first race.
The Frenchman stalled the bike on the grid, and had to start from pit lane, but the way he handled himself, and the way the team managed him after the race turned out to be a huge learning moment for all concerned. In their first four races, both riders have been straight through to Q2, and qualified in the top ten.
And with the odd exception, Quartararo and Morbidelli have finished well inside the top ten.
Getting It Right
So it was a surprise, but not a shock, to see the team take the first two spots on the grid during qualifying in Jerez. Quartararo, Morbidelli and the rest of the team put everything together to make a perfect qualifying, Morbidelli taking second, Quartararo becoming the youngest ever rider to qualify on pole in the premier class. He took that record from Marc Márquez, who could only manage third, while Márquez in turn had taken the record from Freddie Spencer.
Márquez can console himself that it took Quartararo four races to take his first pole position, whereas the Spaniard had done it in his second MotoGP race. But the Petronas Yamaha rider’s pole was a sign of what was to come in the race, and what could be to come from Quartararo.
Talk to some inside Honda, and they will tell you that Márquez is paying close attention to Fabio Quartararo. Not just because of his speed, but because of his aggression, and his fearlessness.
That made the start even more important than usual. Stuck on the inside of the front row, Marc Márquez had to try to get the best possible start, and try to get ahead of both Quartararo and Morbidelli. He might have hoped for a mistake by Quartararo, perhaps from nerves starting from his first pole position.
But Quartararo had already made his mistake in Qatar, and had learned from it. “Fabio has made a mistake once, so it shouldn’t be a problem,” team manager Wilco Zeelenberg said on Saturday night.
The Right Line
Both Quartararo and Morbidelli got good starts off the line, but neither got the rocket start which Marc Márquez did. While Morbidelli fought to keep the front wheel of his Yamaha M1 down, Márquez shot off the line and into the lead.
His lead was short-lived on the run to the first corner, however, Andrea Dovizioso getting even better drive off the line and into Turn 1, perhaps the beneficiary of Ducati’s holeshot device, propelling him from fourth on the grid to having half a bike length on Márquez going into Turn 1.
Here, Márquez’ qualifying position played in his favor. Holding the inside line, he grabbed the lead as they turned in for the apex, forcing Dovizioso to slow up. That allowed Morbidelli to slip inside the Ducati, forcing Dovizioso to sit up, and give up all the ground he had made. While Márquez charged off toward Turn 2, Morbidelli, Quartararo, and even Maverick Viñales slid underneath him.
Márquez plan was plain from the start. Push hard to try to open a gap, and lose the chasing group. The two Petronas Yamahas were in no mind to acquiesce to Márquez’ plan, sitting hard on the Spaniard’s tail, and not letting him escape. The leading trio had opened the slimmest of gaps, with Maverick Viñales leading Andrea Dovizioso, who had a rampaging Alex Rins to contend with.
The Suzuki Surgeon
Rins had started from ninth, but was coming through fast. He clinically sliced underneath the two LCR Hondas of Cal Crutchlow and Taka Nakagami at Turn 5, a brave move of itself, then held the tight inside line at the final corner to get past Danilo Petrucci. Now he had his sights set on Petrucci’s factory Ducati teammate Andrea Dovizioso, and would not be denied.
Dovizioso held Rins off for four laps, but Rins got past at the final corner at the end of lap five. The move cost him exit speed, however, and the Ducati blasted past back to fifth along the front straight.
But the first pass had only been a warning shot, and Rins used the outstanding corner speed of the Suzuki GSX-RR to fire out of Turn 8 and dive underneath the Ducati at Turn 9. This time, Rins made it stick.
At the front, the order remained the same, Márquez pushing on and lapping in the low 1’38s, while Franco Morbidelli and Fabio Quartararo remained firmly clamped to the tail of the Repsol Honda. Something had to give, and that was Morbidelli’s tires.
On lap 9, he felt his tires start to lose grip, small rises in temperature and pressure taking away his feeling with the front end. His lap time slowed by half a second, then eight tenths, and he lost the wheel of Márquez.
“I had a big drop from both front and rear and I had to slow down a lot, unfortunately,” Morbidelli said after the race. But it had been a major boost to stay with Márquez for so long, and to be so fast. “I was feeling so confident and so at ease in the beginning, but I had a big drop and I had to go into safety mode.”
A Matter of Timing
When Quartararo saw that his teammate was in trouble, he knew he had to make his move. It took him a lap and a half, but as Morbidelli’s bike squirmed under braking for Turn 6, Quartararo held his line and clung to the inside of the turn. When Morbidelli turned back in, he found his teammate on the racing line, and was forced to give up second place.
Quartararo immediately put some space between himself and his teammate, a clear sign that Morbidelli was struggling. Alex Rins capitalized on those problems, as Morbidelli was also holding up Maverick Viñales, the factory Yamaha rider not finding an immediate route past the Petronas bike. As they braked for the final corner, Rins slung his Suzuki up the inside of the factory Yamaha to take over fourth from Viñales.
Once clear. Quartararo upped his pace again and started to chase down Márquez. The gap was nearly two seconds, but the Frenchman was back on track and circulating at the same speed as the Repsol Honda rider. Márquez saw the gap on his pit board and knew that this was the time to make the difference. He took two tenths off his lap time, and opened the gap up further, setting a lap record along the way.
That speed in the middle of the race masked that he had been more cautious at the start, Márquez explained. “I was patient in the race,” he said. “In the first laps I didn’t feel that feeling, so I said, ‘We wait.’ I was going wide a little bit on corners, maybe with the full tank, maybe with the track conditions.”
“When the tires started to drop and the bike started to slide more, and the fuel tank was less, then I said, ‘Okay, now I start to feel like in the practice.’ I started to attack, but always under control. Then I saw that Fabio was coming, Rins, and on lap fifteen I just attacked one time because then you show to the opponents that, hey, I am here. Then I tried to control.”
Luck Runs Out
Could Quartararo counter that attack? We will never know. The Frenchman pulled away from the chasing group, and was keeping Márquez honest. Then, as he exited Turn 5 on lap 14, he reached for another gear and couldn’t find one.
His gear linkage was broken, one of the bolts connecting to the shift rod and quickshifter broken. The bike was stuck in third gear, with no way of changing gears. Quartararo’s race was over.
As he rolled into the pits, the Frenchman was utterly distraught, tears streaming down his face at the thought of a podium lost. He got off his bike outside the garage, squatted down next to his bike and screamed in frustration. He had been so very close to glory, but fate had left him empty handed.
How could something like this happen? The rod and bolts connecting the gear linkage is thin, usually an M6 thread, or 6mm in diameter. Riders treat the gear lever roughly, stamping up and down through gears, and so the entire linkage has a tough life.
Parts are changed on a regular schedule to avoid failure, but sometimes, even that is not enough. “The part that broke was nowhere near its mileage limit,” team manager Wilco Zeelenberg said after the race. “But racing is a mechanical sport, and these things happen.”
Head in the Right Place
What happened when Quartararo came to speak to journalists was another sign of just how good the package is around the Frenchman. Despite his heartbreak less than an hour earlier, he faced us calmly, and with optimism, sad at the chance he had missed, but happy at what he had achieved.
“Of course I was really disappointed because we can challenge for a really good position,” Quartararo responded philosophically. “When you look at the pace I had, the weekend we do, I only can be happy at the moment. Unfortunately, no podiums, no top 5, no points, but the experience we take is a lot.”
“The pace was fast, but it’s like when you’re riding with these guys in the first laps I learned many things, and I was acting on the bike like I have more experience than only my fourth race,” the French youngster told us.
“I was doing some mapping change, I saw that the tire pressure was high so I managed to get it cooler. So for me we take a lot of experience. Okay, unfortunately we didn’t finish the race, but we need to take all the positives and leave the negatives here.”
Could he have stayed with Márquez if the gear linkage hadn’t broken? “I don’t want to say yes, but I think we could fight for the podium at this race,” Quartararo replied. “The pace was really good and I managed to get something into the race that made a plus. I was two tenths faster on the pace than in practice. So yes my feeling was really good.”
How did the Petronas Yamaha SRT team transform Quartararo from a howling bundle of rage to the calm and optimistic young man who appeared before the media? Experience, coaching, and knowing the character of the young man involved.
“He does a lot of it himself,” team Wilco Zeelenberg explained. “When he came in, he exploded for a moment, and you have to give him 15 minutes. But then we tell him to think about what he achieved, think about the future, we tell him this won’t be the last time, that sort of thing. We all really believe that, so it’s easy to tell him that. But on the other hand, it’s a huge missed opportunity because of a stupid little mechanical thing.”
Should we anoint Fabio Quartararo the second coming of Marc Márquez / Valentino Rossi / Freddie Spencer? His performance at Jerez certainly demands respect, and shows the Frenchman is really something very special. It is worth bearing in mind that Quartararo rides a Yamaha, and that starting your MotoGP career on the easiest bike on the grid to go fast with can flatter a rookie at the start of their career.
This time last year, we were all wondering when Johann Zarco would win his first MotoGP race, whereas in 2019, the answer to that question is obviously not any time soon. There are those who contend that part of the reason that Valentino Rossi is still able to be so competitive at 40 years of age is because the Yamaha M1 is the least physically demanding bike to ride.
But even then, it is hard to deny just how good Quartararo was at Jerez. He qualified on pole, taking Marc Márquez’ record for youngest ever polesitter from the Spaniard. He was the fastest Yamaha rider during free practice, and was on course to finish as first Yamaha rider in the race, until his mechanical mishap. His pace in all four races of far has been excellent, setting the fastest race lap in Qatar, his very first MotoGP race.
Quartararo is clearly bursting with potential, and it is merely a question of whether it can all be unleashed.
We already knew he is talented – the FIM changed the rules so that the Frenchman could start the season in Moto3 before his sixteenth birthday, after winning the FIM CEV Moto3 championship two years in a row – but his career has also proved it is easy for him to lose his way.
After a dynamite debut in Qatar, he disappeared, only briefly resurfacing last year with the Speed Up team, gaining his first Grand Prix victory and a podium.
The parallels between last year and this are that both the Speed Up team and the Petronas Yamaha squad are run by people who know how to manage riders, how to get the best out of them. As Quartararo matures, he is in the right environment to succeed. We have not heard the last of Fabio Quartararo.
Time to Strike
Quartararo’s retirement coincided with Alex Rins’ attack on Franco Morbidelli. The Suzuki rider had found outstanding drive out of Turn 5 and had rocketed past Morbidelli down the back straight, before being forced to swerve to avoid the slowing Quartararo. He held his line through Turn 6, and was off to chase Márquez, though by this time, the Repsol Honda rider was gone.
Morbidelli was starting to function as a high-speed rolling road block. Like Rins, Maverick Viñales had to work to get past the Petronas Yamaha rider, taking two laps to get by, which was time enough for the Suzuki rider to open a comfortable gap over the factory Yamaha.
Once Viñales was past, Morbidelli started letting more riders past. Andrea Dovizioso was next, and Danilo Petrucci, Valentino Rossi, and Cal Crutchlow would follow. Eventually, Morbidelli would find his feet again and figure out how to get the best out of his Yamaha. That allowed him to get back past Cal Crutchlow and track down Rossi again, though he would not be able to get past.
“I was hoping that the feeling would have come back,” Morbidelli said after the race. “I was still struggling when Vale and Cal passed me, and I was in deep trouble.
But then I understood a couple of laps later that there was some window and some areas where to push, so I tried to understand where and how, and I managed to be fast and got to 1’38.6, 1’38.5, 1’38.6 in the last three laps.”
With Márquez out front and Rins chasing, only the last podium spot was still in contention. Maverick Viñales had the best shot at third, but Andrea Dovizioso was not going to go down without a fight.
Dovizioso chased Viñales hard all the way, closing on the Yamaha down the back straight and into Turn 6, then once again into the final corner. But Viñales had the measure of the Ducati, and kept him neatly behind him each time.
In the last two laps, Dovizioso gave it everything, setting his fastest lap, and the second fastest lap of the race, bar Marc Márquez’ record-setting lap, with one more lap to go. He got close to Viñales, but the Monster Energy Yamaha rider kept the door firmly shut. Viñales crossed the line in third, just ahead of Dovizioso.
That result mattered for a couple of reasons, one to do with Marc Márquez, another to do with Andrea Dovizioso himself. Firstly, if Dovizioso could have gotten past Viñales, he would have scored an extra three points, putting him level with Marc Márquez, instead of in third place with Alex Rins ahead of him.
With the championship as tight as it is, those three points could turn out to be vital. Dovizioso’s gap to second place was just over a second. But that second was three places, and seven points. These are the results that will end up deciding the championship, rather than the number of wins.
Dovizioso missed out on the podium in Jerez, but Marc Márquez will miss out at another race, while Alex Rins will cross the line in fifth or sixth elsewhere. The time differences will be measured in tenths of a second, but the points tally will vary wildly. With 15 races left in the season, everything is still in play.
Rite of Passage
Dovizioso’s fourth place – or rather, Maverick Viñales’ third place – was a milestone in the career of Marc Márquez too. For the first time in his career, he was the oldest rider on the podium. At 26 years of age, he is three years older than Alex Rins, two years the senior of Maverick Viñales.
This novelty came hard on the heels of Saturday, when he had been the oldest rider in the qualifying press conference, and on the front row of the grid. Polesitter Fabio Quartararo had only just turned 20, Franco Morbidelli is 24.
What does this mean? While the old guard is still competitive – Valentino Rossi (40), Andrea Dovizioso (33), and Cal Crutchlow (33) have all been on the podium this year – there is a new generation coming up through the ranks.
For the first time in his career, Márquez has to look not just ahead, at the riders he is trying to supplant, but at the youngsters coming up behind him and hoping to take his place. That requires a change of attitude, a different way of thinking, and how he copes with that will mark a decisive point in his career.
So far, Márquez has been slightly cagey when the subject is broached. He is fulsome in his praise of his young rivals, but there is always an undercurrent of distrust, of putting them in their place, reminding them of their shortcomings.
On Saturday, Márquez subtly pointed out that the difference between himself and Quartararo was that he only moved after he had won a title, first in 125s, then in Moto2, neatly glossing over the fact that he signed his contract to join the Repsol Honda team early in his final season in Moto2, before he had won the title in the intermediate class.
Putting Them in Their Place
After the race, Márquez went down that same route again. “It looks like now the philosophy or the mentality of the young riders is just MotoGP, MotoGP, MotoGP,” Márquez opined.
“Many riders have a good talent, and then they arrive very young in MotoGP. For example, in my case I arrived very young, but in my career, I only chose to move if I won the title. Because then is when you are ready a hundred percent.”
Worth reminding ourselves again that Márquez only wrapped up his 125 title at the final race in Valencia, and signed for Repsol Honda in early July of 2012, when there were still 10 races to go.
“Now many riders arrive very young and then they get experience in MotoGP,” Márquez said. “It’s something that has also some risk because you can lose your place if you don’t adapt really quick.” But he also acknowledged that younger riders are coming for him, despite still being relatively young himself.
“I’m 26,” Márquez said. “I’m not old, I’m young. But yesterday, Fabio is twenty. Of course Viñales and Rins, they are younger than me. Step by step I am getting more experience, but some young riders will arrive. That is the natural thing. Sure, one day some rider will arrive who will beat me and we will fight for the championship. I will try to learn about them and about the young riders, because they will give something new in the category.”
Rhyming with Rossi
It is said that history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. As has happened so often in the past, the career of Marc Márquez carries eerie echoes of Valentino Rossi, the man he has supplanted as the dominant figure in the sport.
At 26, Rossi was at the top of his sport, dominating racing in the 2005 season, and so successful that he was even contemplating a switch of codes to race in F1. From 2006, a host of young talent arrived, starting with Dani Pedrosa and Casey Stoner, followed by Jorge Lorenzo, and eventually Marc Márquez, who started beating Rossi regularly and forced him to up his game. Could the same thing happen to Marc Márquez?
When I put that question to Valentino Rossi on Sunday night, his first reaction was to make a joke. “So 26 is old now?” the 40-year-old, who spent the first part of the year answering questions about his age, quipped in response.
“First of all, the most important thing is the final result of the race,” Rossi pointed out. “Márquez won. So nobody can say anything to him.” But Rossi acknowledged that when younger talent first enters the class, it is a moment for reflection.
“It’s difficult. For me, it’s like you see things from the opposite way. Because I arrived and I was very young, I was the youngest, I arrived to the 500s at 20 years old, and my opponents were 33, or 32.”
“But now it’s the opposite, so… You need to stay calm, try to take the positive from the young riders, because usually the younger riders are very, very strong, and a lot of time stronger than you, because you are old. So you need to stay quiet and try to take the positive things from this. But it’s also a challenge, it’s good for the motivation.”
Are the Times A-Changin’?
So far, Marc Márquez has proved himself worthy of the old nickname of legendary Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx, ‘The Cannibal’. Márquez has as voracious an appetite for victory as ever, the only thing holding him back from trying to win every race being his even greater hunger for winning championships. But if his desire or attention falters, there are an armada of youngsters at the door, clamoring to take his place. Sooner or later, they will succeed.
Alex Rins is turning out to be one of those youngsters. Fresh off his victory in Austin – the first for Suzuki since Maverick Viñales won at Silverstone in 2016 – Rins followed up at Jerez with a second place, keeping him firmly in title contention.
You can point out that in both races, Rins was handed a place by circumstances out of his control. In Austin, he inherited control of the race after Márquez crashed out. At Jerez, he took over second after Fabio Quartararo’s bike packed up on him.
That may be true, but it is also worth pointing out that Rins’ success is also despite his own best efforts to handicap himself during qualifying. So far this year, Rins has been at best mediocre during qualifying, never starting any further forward than the third row of the grid. That has meant fighting his way forward in the early laps, often losing time because of that, arriving in the lead group with his tires used and with a time deficit which is difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.
The problem is that neither Rins nor Suzuki – teammate Joan Mir is not much better during qualifying – understand where the problem lies. “Sincerely I don’t know,” Rins told the press conference.
“As I said before, we need to improve on the braking area, so maybe it’s one thing that tomorrow we will work on that. Maybe if we improve this thing, qualifying becomes easier. I try to put the bike on the limit, but sincerely I don’t know what is the problem.”
Yamaha returns to form
For Maverick Viñales, Jerez marked a return to the podium for the first time since his victory in Australia last October. Third place was sweet indeed, but all the more so because he had finally been able to put together a race from start to finish, and had not struggled in the opening laps.
In Qatar, he had started from pole, but gone backwards off the line and finished in seventh. In Argentina, he had started from second, but lost ground early until he was taken out of the race on the last lap by Franco Morbidelli when he was in seventh place.
In Jerez, he finally got everything right. “We worked a lot on the start this weekend,” Viñales told the press conference, “trying to find a method to be more consistent on the start, and finally I think we found it. Also in Austin I started well, I just moved in the last second because of the engagement of the clutch.”
“It was a shame, because in that race I felt really good. It was really important today to start good, be there in the first laps. Luckily we understood the situation of the tires and I kept saving a little bit in the early laps to be fast at the end. I think here in Jerez it’s always important.”
There is still a lot of work left to of, Viñales said. “Still there is a lot to improve. We have to find out the way to get more grip in the race.” New surface at Jerez, with plenty of grip, no doubt helped the Yamaha be competitive.
But the bike has also made a big step forward in terms of tire consumption through the race, and in getting traction out of corners. It is still an area where the bike struggles, but there is definite forward progress since last year.
The results and the lap times clearly proved that. On the penultimate lap of the 2018 race (i.e. before the celebrations skewed the lap times) Valentino Rossi was 12 seconds behind Marc Márquez, while Maverick Viñales was nearly 17 seconds slower than the Repsol Honda rider.
At the same point in the 2019 race, Rossi was 8.3 seconds behind Márquez, and Viñales just 4.4 seconds. That is remarkable progress.
“We are stronger than last year,” Valentino Rossi said after the race. “Even if my position is worse than last year, my race was a lot better. Last year I finished fifth but because there were a lot of crashes in front. And the pace of the race was very, very fast, I was like 25 seconds faster than my race last year. The gap from the first position is less, I feel more comfortable with the bike, and especially in the last lap, I was fast.”
Rossi’s problem, like Alex Rins, was his poor performance in qualifying. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider missed out on Q2 because he was just 0.041 slower than Jorge Lorenzo in FP3, and finished in eleventh place. In Q1, he missed out again, finishing third behind Pecco Bagnaia but 0.072 seconds.
That left him starting from fifteenth place and with a mountain of work ahead of him. The fact that he fought his way forward to finish in sixth is an achievement indeed, and keeps him in contention for the title, trailing Márquez by just 9 points.
Question of Perspective
Finishing fourth, Andrea Dovizioso was in two minds over his result. To be in contention for the podium at a track where Ducati has struggled so badly is a powerful sign of progress. But Dovizioso believed he had much better pace during practice, and came up short in the race. In a field as tight as it is in 2018, coming fourth meant losing a lot of precious points.
“Our goal was to make a podium and we didn’t do that. This is the negative,” Dovizioso said. “The other negative part is the confirmation of our speed in the fast corners. I was struggling at the beginning of the race. I couldn’t keep that speed. This is the reality.”
“We worked quite well during the practice and our speed was quite good. Just the race can show the real reality. I didn’t need this race to confirm our negative point of the bike, but I thought there was a smaller limit in that place. Our speed wasn’t enough to stay in front.”
But Dovizioso also saw how close he was to the front by the end of the race. “At the end our speed wasn’t bad and the gap at the end wasn’t bad,” the Italian veteran said. “I think we’re better than last year. But there are more competitors in a better situation than last year so that’s why we made fourth like today.”
“Rins confirmed another time he will be a championship contender. Yamaha are struggling a little bit but they are fast. And Marc will be strong all season. It will be hard but our speed and the way I rode was better than last year.”
Dovizioso’s Ducati teammate Danilo Petrucci finished a couple of seconds behind him, making it two factory Ducatis in the top five. Fifth place or better is where Petrucci is aiming at this season, so at least that objective was achieved. Though the Italian had been hoping for more.
“The target was the podium and unfortunately I missed the podium,” Petrucci said. “I cannot be 100% happy, for sure I am happy about the points, the championship ranking, I used my head.”
A View of the Opposition
Both Petrucci and Dovizioso had managed to get a good look at the Suzuki, and size up where the GSX-RR was stronger than the Ducati Desmosedici GP19. “I did all the race behind Dovi, just the first lap behind the Suzuki of Rins and the problem is that we cannot brake as late as him,” Petrucci said.
“If we brake like him we go wide. When we have grip on the rear tire we can turn the bike but you never know when the grip goes down, so at the beginning of the race we have to manage a lot and in fact I lost a lot of time compared to the end of the race.”
“Suzuki, I think, in the turning is better than all the bikes,” was Andrea Dovizioso’s opinion. “Rins, when he overtook me, his speed in the middle of the corner was amazing. It’s impossible for me to understand but maybe in the hard braking they are not so strong. It didn’t look like it but maybe they have some limits when a big talent rides the bike it’s always difficult to see a bad point of the bike. But for sure in the middle of the corner they are so fast.”
The two Yamahas of Valentino Rossi and Franco Morbidelli crossed the line behind the two Ducatis, and after them came a fleet of Hondas. Cal Crutchlow took eighth, struggling to hold off his teammate on the 2018 bike, Takaaki Nakagami. A few seconds behind Nakagami, Honda test rider and wildcard Stefan Bradl took tenth spot.
Old vs. New
Crutchlow contrasted his bike with the older bike of Nakagami, emphasizing that while the 2019 Honda RC213V was faster, it still had some downsides which made it tricky to cope with over the duration of a race. “It was good to finish, but the rest was not fantastic,” Crutchlow said.
“I definitely didn’t come here to finish 8th. But that’s what we got and we have to accept it. On a bad day this year we should be finishing probably still inside the top 6. But I didn’t feel good all weekend. I didn’t feel fast or confident or comfortable all weekend. I didn’t look it when I watch the videos and stuff like that. But it was important to finish and I needed some points.”
A poor start and choosing the wrong tire – going for the medium rear instead of the hard – had hampered Crutchlow’s race. But above all, it was his feeling with the bike which had worked against him.
“We’ve done four races so I know the feeling of this year’s bike, but I think the chassis side of things from last year I felt a lot, lot better. I’ve back-to-backed the 2018 bike, and the feeling and confidence that I had with that bike is a lot more than I have with this one,” Crutchlow said.
The LCR Honda rider was aware of just how much personal preference counts in this, and acknowledged that the 2019 RC213V is competitive, as Marc Márquez has already won two races on the bike. “Everyone will always say ‘Marc is winning on it’, but you have to accept that he’s a different rider,” Crutchlow said.
“It’s not me. Maybe if he jumped on the ‘18 bike he’s not be as fast as he is on the 2019. At the moment that’s the way I’m feeling and we need to work on it. I’m still confident, I still feel fast, I feel motivated. As I said, I’m looking at eighth place as a bad result, but it means that you’re in the top 8 of the world.”
Crutchlow may not have had a fantastic feeling with the 2019 bike, but at least he finished close to the leaders. Over 18 seconds behind his Repsol Honda teammate, Jorge Lorenzo crossed the line in twelfth, and lucky that Jack Miller had crashed out while battling with Aleix Espargaro for eleventh.
He was even luckier that Pol Espargaro had gotten confused, and thought the race was over a lap before the end, giving up the place to Lorenzo.
Lorenzo was brutally honest in his appraisal of his performance after the race. “I cannot be happy about my race, obviously,” he said. “I cannot be enthusiastic. The logical thing is to be sad, to be disappointed and to be worried.” This was the race where Lorenzo would turn around his season, but things had not turned out that way at all.
The Repsol Honda rider took the blame upon himself. “The truth is that when I was alone already in 13th, 14th position I had no pace,” he said. “I didn’t feel comfortable on the bike. I was slow. If you are fast you recover time, positions, meters… But I couldn’t do it because I wasn’t competitive enough.”
The problems are down to braking, and the support he needs to get into the corner correctly, Lorenzo explained. His preparation has been hampered by the fact that he broke his scaphoid, and that has prevented him from doing the kind of strength training which would give him the power in his shoulders to support his body weight under braking from the first to the last lap.
“I have problems in the entry of the corner. Still I don’t have support,” Lorenzo said. “The bike is transferring too much weight to the front and it’s difficult for me to have enough energy in the arms. I need to find some solutions for this problem.”
“Then I’m sure something related with engine braking, or the chassis, we are missing something that we still don’t understand. This gives me a feeling of ‘unsafety’ in the entry of the corners. I’m losing a lot of time compared to Cal and Nakagami, and of course to Marc. Until we improve this problem, we will not go fast.”
From Hero to Thirteenth
Lorenzo isn’t the only factory disappointment, of course. Johann Zarco, who was brought to KTM to challenge for the top five, and eventually for podiums and wins, continues to struggle. He got off to a bad start at Jerez by having a huge crash, and upset KTM bosses by having an understandably major tantrum about it in the pits.
Making it much, much worse, however, was the fact that he had cameras on him at the time, and could be overheard blaming his crash on ‘a s**t chassis’ and ‘a s**t engine’. That caused KTM CEO Stefan Pierer to speculate publicly about getting rid of Zarco at the end of this year, instead of serving out his contract through the 2020 season.
Zarco was candid on Sunday about where his shortcomings lay. “I wanted to overtake more riders but it was not possible for me,” the Red Bull KTM rider said. “I’ve been too much on the limit all the race, I’m losing a lot on acceleration and when you lose too much in acceleration then it’s complicated to overtake riders on the brakes because I’m always a bit too far to try something.”
“But I could keep some pace and I had some overtaking with Pol. But then he took kind of good pace and I could follow him for more than half the race and then I lost a little bit the gap. But I was staying focused to finish the race because at the moment it’s the only thing I can go for the target. It’s really a pity to have as target just to finish the race but I’m still fighting more with the bike than with the others.”
Next race up is Johann Zarco’s home race at Le Mans. But it will be a very different experience for the Frenchman compared to last year. In 2018, Zarco traveled to Le Mans coming off a podium, and with all the speculation being whether he could pull off a coup at his home race and win. In 2019, he will be glad of the attention being paid to Fabio Quartararo, taking the spotlight off him and letting him get on to work.
Will Quartararo succumb to the pressure? That will be the test of the Petronas Yamaha SRT team. He will need to be protected from excessive media attention, from the hordes of ‘friends’ who will emerge from the woodwork and decide they will need a guest pass and a guided tour of his motorhome, as well as his undivided attention.
He will need to be kept calm, the job of Torleif Hartelman and Wilco Zeelenberg to keep his focus on the racetrack, and not the thousand things going on around him.
This, then, is the hidden part of the package. From the outside, we can all see how good the bike is. We can see how talented the rider is. We can see indirectly how well the team sets the bike up, gets it ready to meet the riders needs.
But we don’t see the quiet times, the moments when a team manager takes a rider aside and calms him down, the team eating together to build a collective spirit, the jokes, conversation, and banter, which helps dissipate stress and keep the rider’s eyes on the prize.
In many ways, this why Marc Márquez has had the success he had. Sure, he has sometimes (but not always) been on the best bike. And sure, he arguably has the best people around him, though even then, they are there because of the way they work together, rather than their individual strengths.
Above all, though, Marc Márquez knows that the most important asset he has is the package, the entirety of all these individual pieces that go to make the whole.
At Jerez, he demonstrated the value of the entire package with great clarity. Motorcycle racing is like a jigsaw puzzle, and nobody puts the pieces together quite like Marc Márquez.