So far, the inaugural Thai round of MotoGP has been full of surprises. We expected heavy rain at the track on most days, but it has been pretty much dry as a bone throughout. We expected Yamaha to be nowhere, yet the Movistar duo of Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi have looked seriously threatening all weekend.
We expected the round to be popular: the only surprise here is just how popular it has been. An estimated 65,000 fans came to watch qualifying on Saturday. To put that into perspective, that is more fans for qualifying than fans on race day at six of last year’s rounds.
Nearly twice as many as fans on race day at Phillip Island. Sunday should be packed, with a good chance that this will be the round with the highest attendance.
The hot weather has taken Michelin by surprise as well, not for the first time this year. That is hardly Michelin’s fault, however: after they introduced several changes during the 2017 season, the teams demanded that Michelin set the tire allocation at the start of the year.
That demand is coming back to bite the teams, as it is hard to get the allocation absolutely spot on if you have to predict the weather many months in advance. The hot European summer has caused problems on occasion, and now the heat in Thailand is doing the same.
“The situation is not easy, because the track conditions, they are very different compared to when we came here for the test,” Piero Taramasso, head of Michelin’s two wheel motorsport division, said on Saturday evening.
“When we came here for the test, track temperature was 48°, 49°, yesterday was 53°, today was 57°, 58°.” The heat means that there is less grip and greater tire wear than during the test, with the rear tire spinning up during acceleration.
It’s Spinning, But Not as We Know It
Spinning tires are perfectly normal. The rear is supposed to spin on corner entry, riders using the spinning tire to help the bike turn, then have to try to control it on corner exit. The problem is that the tire is not spinning up there, but towards the end of the straight, in fifth and sixth gear.
“This is very strange, it’s very particular to this track,” Taramasso said. “What happens is the spinning is in the straight line, that’s when the bike is straight, that’s why the wear is in the middle. Then on the left and on the right side, there is no issue. So the tire is not wearing there.”
Concerns over wear mean Michelin have decided to strongly recommend to teams that they use the hard rear tire. “With the hard, you can do a proper race, you can attack from the beginning to the end, the tire wear looks good,” Taramasso told reporters.
“So this is our suggestion for all the riders. Now, the soft and the medium, you can do the race with them, but you have to manage. We know that the last five or six laps, you have to manage, because the rubber left on the tire will be just a little bit, so the performance will go down. So it’s just a performance problem, not safety, that’s why the allocation is what it is, we don’t take out any tires. Riders will decide their final choice, but we as Michelin recommend very strongly the hard one.”
Playing It Safe
This is unlikely to upset the factory teams, as all of the factory riders were planning to use the hard rear anyway. Most of the top riders were running in the low 1’31s using the hard rear, and managing to maintain that pace on very worn tires. There were a few riders willing to use the soft, Taramasso said, but it would be the riders further back.
“Usually, when they gamble, it’s always riders at the back of the grid, who try or believe that if they go with a risky choice, it can help them. But I don’t think it’s the right choice,” Taramasso said.
You have to wonder, however, if Marc Márquez might make the same gamble. Márquez spent all FP2 on a soft tire, putting in an impressive pace. He started off FP4 on a hard tire, and then at the end, for no discernible reason, he switched to a soft rear. No one else in the top ten did, and only a handful outside the top ten.
Márquez’s gamble on the soft paid off handsomely in Aragon, and given his confidence in managing on a tire with little grip, in conditions with little grip, he must feel confident he can nurse the tire home at a decent enough pace. Michelin boss Piero Taramasso estimated that the soft would lose 1 or 2 seconds a lap for the last 5 or 6 laps. Márquez may disagree.
Strange Grip Helping the Yamahas?
The strange conditions at Buriram may explain why the Yamahas are so competitive. The place the tires are spinning is at the end of the straight, not the exit of the corners, which has been the biggest problem for the Yamaha M1. The bike is braking well, and with grip on corner exit, accelerating well.
Spinning up in sixth gear was pretty low down on Yamaha’s priority list, whereas the horsepower of the Ducatis and Hondas make it more of a handicap. Check the top speeds during practice, and they are all pretty close, within 1 km/h of each other, with the exception of Andrea Dovizioso, who is quicker than the rest.
So it is that Valentino Rossi ended up in second, narrowly missing out on pole, while Maverick Viñales is not far behind, in fourth. Rossi was as surprised as anyone to be on the front row. “It’s like a surprise also for us because in the test we were quite in trouble here in this track,” the Italian said.
“But we arrived yesterday and I feel not so bad in the practice. When you start with a good level, looks like our bike this time make the tire work in a good way. It’s also more easy make the right decision.”
Unlike his teammate Maverick Viñales, who had asked his team to make major setup changes before Thailand, Rossi had made only small changes to the bike. “From Aragon in reality we modify something, but the bike is very similar,” he said. “So maybe just the better areas between the tires, the M1 and this track.”
“From yesterday to today we work hard. We try to improve the balance. Try to create more grip, and I am not so bad. I feel good because I am not so bad in braking. I am happy to start in the front row but I am also happy for my pace in the FP4 because also with the race tires I’m quite strong. So now we have to confirm tomorrow because you never know.”
This is perhaps the biggest question: how the Yamahas will react once the Moto2 bikes have smeared Dunlop rubber all over the track during the race. Yamahas were quick during practice at Misano, but the changed grip conditions during the race left them struggling. “It’s just Saturday,” Rossi cautioned.
“We need to understand tomorrow because also in Misano Saturday we were fast and Sunday no. So we will speak after the race.”
Shake Ups Going On
But changes had been made. “We arrive here with some small modify for the acceleration, but on the paper we don’t expect that is a lot better,” Rossi said. That modification had come partly as a result of some of the changes made on the organizational side, with Yamaha devoting more resources to their program, including bringing in electronics expert Michele Gadda, who had previously been seconded to the Pata Yamaha WorldSBK team.
“In the last period Yamaha had some new engineers. One is Gadda and the other also in Japan. Is something that coming from the new group of work. So it looks like that Yamaha try to put more effort. This is what we need for try to fight with Honda and Ducati.”
It is clear that there is something brewing inside Yamaha’s MotoGP effort. Speaking to GPOne.com, Movistar Yamaha team manager Maio Meregalli acknowledged that Yamaha would be investing more resources, in the hope of exiting the slump.
“We will definitely have more people, including in Italy. In our base at Gerno di Lesmo, we have expanded the department which works on the electronics, and this will be the base for the test team, with Jonas Folger as test rider.”
Yamaha have also already tried two different version of the 2019 engine configuration at the Aragon test, Meregalli said. “The objective was not to find more power, but to improve power delivery,” the Italian team boss told GPOne.com.
The Next Furusawa?
There are also rumors flying around Buriram of even greater shake ups to come in Yamaha’s organization. Whether that reaches to the highest levels of the organization remains to be seen, but more and more frequently, Masao Furusawa is being hailed as an example.
The legendary engineer was brought in in the middle of a miserable 2003 season from Yamaha’s snowmobile division, and had not been involved in racing previously. Perhaps Yamaha need to do the same thing again, bring in an outsider with fresh ideas and no existing loyalties.
There have also been changes on Maverick Viñales’ side of the garage. In an interview with Italian TV, the Spaniard had spoken of his feeling of loneliness, of not being supported by the team. That had changed recently, though.
“We spoke in the last period, and I think it’s done. We all want to be competitive, we all want to improve, so I think this year is going to help a lot to understand these feelings and to be even stronger for the next ones.”
“Anyway, as I said, we are trying to discover new lines to try to work, and the one we did this weekend was a good one, and it’s something we asked for months ago, but anyway, we are doing it now, and I hope that it works tomorrow for the race, and then in Japan. Because it’s important to compare in two tracks, not just in one.”
Improving the atmosphere in the team was also a little easier during the overseas races, as the team members have to rely on each other more, and have less room to withdraw. “I like it,” Viñales said. “I’ve been pretty close with the team. The overseas races, you need to be more close with the team and that’s for sure helping us to be more calm, to be maybe more clever.”
The Unwilling Favorite
While the Yamahas look like being the wildcard in Thailand, the main battle looks set to be between Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso once again. In the press conference, Dovizioso tried to play down his role as one of the favorites.
“It’s very difficult to know because a lot of riders have really good pace. A lot of riders were able to make 1’31 low,” the factory Ducati rider said. “I think the two Yamahas, two Suzukis for sure will be there. Crutchlow I think has a really good pace. So, I expect a big group.”
But the timesheets do not tell the whole story, Dovizioso intimated. “Like always, making one lap is one thing. Making the lap time in an intelligent way is a different story. So it’s difficult to know from the TV and the paper the details about that.”
Leading Better than Following
Suzuki’s Andrea Iannone was not fooled. “I think Márquez and Dovizioso can put half a lap on the rest,” the Italian said. Iannone had ended up sixth, though he had annoyed Dovizioso on the way, disrupting the Ducati rider’s fast lap. “Iannone always needs a guide when he’s riding,” Dovizioso said. “He’s very fast, but he always makes his lap behind other riders.”
Following other riders was not always the right strategy. Jack Miller had tried to do just that, and come to regret it. “I messed up my qualifying,” the Pramac Ducati rider said. “I should have gone alone, I tried too much to focus on trying to follow somebody whereas I think I had better pace alone. We live and learn and we’ll go onto the next one.”
Marc Márquez sits on pole, but his path to the pole was not an easy one. Márquez had looked comfortable throughout practice, but was starting to slip down the order during FP3, and threatening to lose out on direct passage to Q2. When he went in to swap bikes and use fresh tires to chase a quick time, he had a problem with the bike.
With only a couple of minutes left in the session, he only had time to jump on his original bike with a new rear tire, and no time to swap the very used front. He went out, pushed hard, and crashed at the very fast Turn 4, ending up in eleventh spot.
“Happy how we finished the day, but honestly this morning we were very, very unlucky because when I put the new tires to time attack we had a small problem on the bike and then I go in,” Márquez explained.
“We didn’t have time to change the front tire, and I go out with the second bike. It was not the setup that I like, even the front tire was 20 laps the hard. I lose the front, I crash. This is the risk if your strategy is prepare a lot the race that you have only one chance to come on QP2.”
Forced to pass through Q1, Márquez rode an outstanding first qualifying to easily make his way through to Q2, setting a faster time in Q1 than the lap that gave him pole. In doing so, he also became the first ever rider to pass through Q1 and take pole position, but that was nothing to be proud of, he said.
“It was not my intention to be in QP1. I was very disappointed this morning because during all weekend I feel really good. Everything was ready to be straight away to QP2, but was time to go in QP1. But honestly speaking I was riding much better in QP1 than QP2, for some reason.”
“QP2 I was pushing too much and over the limit, but QP1 I was smooth and the lap time comes easy. I expect I will be 1’29 in QP2, but then I pushed more and I did more mistakes.”
Saturday’s qualifying sets up quite the spectacle for Sunday’s first ever Thai Grand Prix. The gaps are small, and the field looks very tight. The schizophrenic nature of the Chang International Circuit means that the Ducatis have the upper hand in the first part of the track, while the Yamahas and Suzukis are superior in the second half of the circuit, while the Hondas are strong in both parts. A tight last corner allowing for last-lap heroics means the race could be decided in the final corner.
But in the punishing heat of Buriram, with track temperatures likely to soar higher than we have seen all season, managing tires will be crucial. Strategy will come into play, with riders deciding whether to try to push early, or hang back and wait for the final third of the race. Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso start as favorites, but there are five or six other riders who should be in the podium fight, including the Yamahas.
This could be the race where Yamaha save something of their season, though actually taking victory might be hard, especially if the grip level drops after Moto2. But even a strong result at Buriram won’t necessarily mean an end to Yamaha’s travails.
The proof of Yamaha’s pudding will come after they leave the anomaly that is Chang, and head back to more normal territory at Motegi. But before then, let us enjoy the strangeness and the excitement of Buriram.
Thailand, and the country’s and region’s fans, deserve nothing less.