In an interview I did with him at Assen, I asked Marc Márquez if he was ever afraid. “At the moment, no,” he replied. The one time when he had been scared was after his big crash at Mugello, when he had locked the front wheel over the crest of the hill, and bailed at around 270 km/h to avoid hitting a wall.
After that, whenever he crested the hill at the end of the straight, he had subconsciously backed off the gas. He did not believe he was afraid, until his data engineer showed him the throttle trace, which showed him closing the gas.
We can add a second occasion when Márquez was afraid. As at Mugello, it came after a crash. This time, though, it was not as a result of his own riding, but the riding of the marshal who rushed him back to the pits in record time during Q2, giving him one more shot at pole.
It started with Márquez’s second run during qualifying. The Repsol Honda rider had elected to go for a two-stop strategy, and so had left the pits early and laid down a marker on his first run. That marker was overtaken by Jorge Lorenzo a minute later, and so Márquez went out and pushed hard on his second run. A little too hard, as it turned out.
Márquez may have made many spectacular saves in his career, but this crash could not be saved. “The thing is that I lost the front too early, where I didn’t expect, because I leaned the bike too aggressively,” he explained. “I always expect to lose later [in the corner], and then I was not ready with the elbow. And then I tried to save it, but when I saw the gravel, the wall, I checked a bit and then I just put my arms on my shoulders, which are very important to protect. The other ones were crashes that normally you control, but this one was a big crash and it’s important to be fit.”
A plan was forming even as he tumbled through the gravel. He knew his own bike would not get him back to the pits. He crashed at Turn 15, and knew it was a long way back to the pits from the inside of the track. His first thought was to sprint across the track and into the pits, but he was afraid he would be penalized for dangerous behavior. He sprinted through a gap into the service road, in search of a ride back to the pits. He saw a scooter belonging to a photographer, but he couldn’t see the keys, and so he ran on.
A few seconds later, a marshal rode out in front of him on a scooter, and Márquez leaped onto the back of it. Anyone who has witnessed Italians riding scooters through busy traffic will know just what a turn of pace they are capable of. Indeed, earlier in the day, veteran Italian journalist Paolo Scalera had told me of the time he had to pull out all the stops on his Aprilia road bike to keep up with Max Biaggi on a Suzuki Burgman, while Biaggi rode to a cafe on his Suzuki Burgman 400, with his wife on the back.
The scooter screamed round the service road, through the tunnel, and through the gates of the paddock. Márquez jumped off the scooter and sprinted through the garage and onto his second bike, which was already waiting for him to make his third run. Total time elapsed? 2 minutes and 24 seconds.
Most of the time had been made up on the scooter, Márquez related afterwards. “Even the guy with the scooter was pushing a lot, it was scary sometimes that we would crash! But he did a great job,” the Repsol Honda rider said. High praise indeed, and if all the seats in MotoGP for 2019 hadn’t already been filled, who knows?
It didn’t help, unfortunately. Márquez couldn’t improve on his third run, having yet another moment on his final lap, though this time he was able to save it.
The crash did not come entirely out of the blue. Choosing a two-stop strategy is smart at a short track like Misano, but in this case, Márquez had also been prepared for a mishap. “I was planning to use three tires, so then to be quicker we used both bikes because I feel the same with both bikes, and luckily both bikes were ready,” he said. “So it is a strategy to use three tires but it is also a strategy in case. I already felt like, ‘hmmm, maybe in qualifying we will see what happens’. Because you feel already when you have a big chance to crash and this time I knew it was a risk.”
Even without the crash, it is unlikely that Márquez could have taken pole. Jorge Lorenzo was relentless during qualifying, breaking the lap record twice, and ending Q2 nearly three tenths quicker than anyone else. Nobody was going to get near Jorge Lorenzo on the Ducati on Saturday.
It hadn’t looked that way in the pits. Like Márquez, Lorenzo had elected to do three runs. But his second bike changeover went anything but smoothly, with mechanics rushing to swap tires while the spare bike sat idly by.
It had not been as hectic as it had seemed, Lorenzo explained. He had not turned a wheel in the mixed conditions of FP3, and that had left him with extra tires, meaning more attempts at a fast lap. “With a short track, we decided to have three tires strategy, but we had to use both bikes as we didn’t have three front soft tires,” the Factory Ducati rider told the press conference.
“We decided to use the medium for the first tryout. In case this medium give me good feelings, maybe we can put another medium.” At the end of the first run, before jumping on the bike with a soft front tire, Lorenzo told his mechanics to get the second bike ready with a medium front, instead of the second soft they had originally planned.
But as he pushed on the bike with the soft front, he realized he had made a mistake. He felt even better with the soft front than with the medium front, so when he came back in again, he had to explain that he wanted a soft front tire. “When I tried the soft one, even if my lap was not good because I made some mistakes, I felt better with the soft one. So, I tell them to change again the plan. That was the case. Soft one today have me struggling a bit in the maximum angle, so finally I could improve these couple of tenths.”
The surprise of qualifying was Jack Miller in second, but perhaps it should not have been such a big surprise. The Alma Pramac rider had been impressive at Silverstone, and had been quietly quick at Misano as well. In FP4, Miller finished sixth fastest, and with a pretty strong pace. In Q2, he picked his time right, finding Jorge Lorenzo ahead of him.
Using the factory Ducati as a target, the Australian set a searing lap, despite Lorenzo pulling into the pits before he finished his lap. “To do a 1.9 around here is something incredible, so I’m happy about that,” Miller said. “I have to thank Jorge for a little bit of the tow, but I was quite shocked when he pulled in on the last sector.”
Maverick Viñales took third in Q2, and like Miller, Viñales has found himself once again. He and his team made a big step forward at the Misano test, a change which paid off at Silverstone as well – or would have, if the race hadn’t been canceled due to the rain. Jack Miller had reached his nadir in Austria, before climbing his way out of the hole at Silverstone. For Viñales, the moment had been a geometry change in Silverstone.
Miller didn’t really know where his revival had come from. “To be honest, I wish I could tell you, the bemused Australian said. “It seems to me a little bit like 2014 all over again for me. I always struggle in those few tracks that we’ve been to. It just wasn’t happening. I was trying and doing everything the same, more or less. It took for Austria to really sink in. I was there fighting for the race but just cooked the front tire and ran off in the gravel. It was a shocking race in the end for me. It really took that to sort of hit a low point and go home and step back and sort of hit the reset button and go. It seems to have worked.”
For Viñales, it was all about finding the right feeling with the bike, to give him the confidence that he could ride it as he wants. He hadn’t changed, he insisted, he had just been given the right tools.
“I am the same Maverick that finished tenth in Spielberg,” Viñales said, “so I didn’t change nothing. I do exactly the same. Just I get better feeling on the bike, so I can push more myself and I can go more on the limit. Honestly Yamaha improve but still we need to improve more. The other manufacturers are on a really good level and as I said, I can’t wait to improve and to help Yamaha develop a really good bike, especially for next year.”
Though Lorenzo dominated, the rest of the front row was almost pot luck. Sure, Miller and Viñales had been the best of the rest, but from Miller in second to Valentino Rossi in seventh, there was just over a tenth of a second. Second to eleventh, or Miller to Dani Pedrosa, was less than half a second, Pedrosa bemoaning the fact that a tenth or two would have put him on the second row, rather than the fourth row. In terms of pace, it is close.
What is Jorge Lorenzo doing better than the rest? “He is really, really fast, even on used tires,” Danilo Petrucci opined. “He is able to stop the bike really well, and pick up the bike, and find traction, the good grip on the track.” As far as Petrucci was concerned, Lorenzo is the favorite for Sunday’s race.
He is not alone in that opinion. Valentino Rossi pinpointed five riders he believed would be in contention for the podium at Misano. “We are all very, very close,” he said. “Looks like the two Ducatis are very strong, but at the same time, also Maverick, Márquez are very strong. So we are five, minimum. Also you have Crutchlow, you have Miller who are not so far. Depends. I hope that we can fight close with everybody until the end.”
More Data Please
Rossi’s optimism had come from an improvement they had made earlier, which had brought him much closer to being competitive. “I improved my situation in braking, because we modified the balance of the bike, and I feel better,” the Movistar Yamaha rider said.
“We improved a lot the electronics. But usually from Saturday to Sunday, with more kilometers on the track, we have more data to understand whether you can do a little bit better, also about the riding style. So for me, to fight for the podium, I need two tenths. If we are able to find that somewhere, we can try.”
Rossi’s problem is that he starts from seventh, at a track where it is hard to pass. “Starting from the third row, everything is more difficult, more complicated, especially the first chicane,” he said. “From the other side, it’s true also that anyway, all the guys in front have a good pace, so there is nobody who made one lap and was slow afterwards.”
“So we are everybody more or less there. But for sure, starting from the third row will be not fantastic. But we have to try, we have to try to be strong from the start, and especially in the first two laps, and we’ll see.”
The big question mark over both Yamahas is just how well their tires will hold up over race distance. Though both Rossi and Viñales put a lot of laps on old tires, they still aren’t sure what happens in the final five laps, where they have suffered most in the past. “It’s a difficult question, I don’t know,” Rossi said. “I know that until lap 16, I’m strong. But after that, the race is another eleven laps, so after lap 16, we will see tomorrow.”
Stop the Escapee
Andrea Dovizioso starts ahead of Rossi from fourth on the grid, and perhaps has a better chance to get away at the front. “We are a minimum of four, five riders capable of that pace and I think for the layout of the track and the consumption of the tires, tomorrow will be a really fast race, the Italian explained. “Also because I believe Jorge wants to start very fast and that for sure can create this situation.”
Starting fast and in front gave an added advantage at Misano, according to Dovizioso. Overtaking at Misano was hard, “because there is a lot of hard braking, straight braking, and you can’t really create a lot of lines,” Dovizioso explained. “The good line is very narrow because the track is slow and most of the braking is straight. So you can’t create something crazy. In the fast part of the track a little bit, yes. Turns 11-12-13. But in the other parts not so much.”
Who is really fast at Misano? Digging a little deeper into the pace during FP4, when the weather was good, the track was improving, and riders were chasing setup rather than lap times, it was interesting to see who was doing what on which tires. There were a lot of riders capable of running regular low 1’33s, with the occasional 1’32.
Old Tires Count More
But it was more interesting to see who was doing those times on which tires. Maverick Viñales finished FP4 as fastest, but he did two runs, first on a new soft rear tire, then on a new medium rear tire. Jorge Lorenzo used a single tire throughout FP4, putting 15 laps on a medium rear tire, and posting a 1’33.170 on lap 14. Valentino Rossi did something similar, putting a total of 17 laps in two runs on the medium rear, posting a 1’33.276 on lap 16.
The real action was with Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Márquez, however. Dovizioso used an old medium rear, putting 23 laps in total on the tire. On the rear tire’s 23rd lap, four short of race distance, Dovizioso did a highly respectable 1’33.557.
But Márquez took the cake. He started FP4 with a medium rear tire which already had 13 laps on it. He did two runs, ending with a grand total of 30 laps, or 3 more than race distance, on the tire. On his 29th lap, he did a 1’33.299. That is quite a fearsome pace.
Sunday’s race will come down to a number of questions. Can Jorge Lorenzo escape from pole position, and control the race from the front? Can Maverick Viñales overcome the issues he has had in the early laps of races recently, and be quick right from the start? Can Andrea Dovizioso keep his teammate in sight, and outthink Jorge Lorenzo? Can Valentino Rossi find the couple of tenths he believes he needs to be truly competitive, and fight his way to the front in the early laps? What of Jack Miller in second, or Cal Crutchlow in sixth?
Or will Marc Márquez put on a show once again, spurred on by the presence of a hundred thousand loyal Valentino Rossi fans, all booing him? Hard to bet against Márquez when that is an option.