Is the Chang International Circuit a great track? It depends how you look at it.
“The Buriram circuit is really, really good, the asphalt is working in a good way with hot conditions, that is not easy. Also the runoff areas are really good, the pit boxes,” Marc Márquez said, carefully avoiding any discussion of the layout. Andrea Dovizioso was not exactly complimentary about the layout.
“The track is not the best in our championship, but at the end, everything works well.” Hardly gushing praise.
It may not be the best track layout in the championship, but it served up a veritable feast of racing. Two scintillating support races, with fierce battles both in Moto3 and Moto2, and then the fifth closest podium in premier class racing, and the fourth closest top 15 in Grand Prix history, the gap between first and fifteenth just under 24 seconds.
The last three laps of the MotoGP race were all-out war, with the lead swapping multiple times as a result of impossible passes. And over 100,000 fans braving the searing heat, cheering on their heroes with as much passion as you will find anywhere in the world. Is the Chang International Circuit a great track? It is when you measure it in terms of spectacle and atmosphere. The Thai Grand Prix is a worthy addition to the calendar.
The layout may not be fast and flowing throughout, but the fact that it is split into two halves with very different characters helped to keep the field close. The necessity to preserve tires did the same: Michelin had prepared for a cooler monsoon heat, not the unusual dry heat which meant track temperatures were 10°C higher than anticipated.
All this, combined with a final corner ideally suited to do-or-die passing attempts, and a short run to the line meaning it really had to be all or nothing going into the final turn, and we had a recipe for fantastic racing in Thailand.
The exceptional heat meant everyone lining up on the grid knew they would have to manage their tires. But there is more than one way to skin a cat: should you push early, and try to get an advantage? Or sit quietly behind a group, try to preserve as much performance as possible for the end of the race? The right strategy would also depend on what other riders did, when they pushed and whether it was wise to follow.
Complicating matters was the fear that passing other riders would be difficult at the Chang International Circuit. Sure, there were the obvious places: the hard braking zones for Turns 1, 3, and 12. But would it really be possible to pass elsewhere? They would only really get to test that in the race. The safe bet was to try to be as far forward as possible at the start, to leave yourself as many opportunities to pass as possible.
Starting from pole helped Marc Márquez to play it safe. The Repsol Honda rider got off the line and a clean run into and out of Turn 1. Valentino Rossi held his second place through the first corner, holding off a charging Cal Crutchlow as the LCR Honda rider to tried get around the outside. Andrea Dovizioso dropped a place to fourth, with Maverick Viñales just behind. Behind them, a charging Dani Pedrosa saw his chance at latching onto the front group ruined by a divebombing Jack Miller, who got into the first corner a little hot and pushed himself and Pedrosa wide.
Crutchlow may have made good two places into the first corner, but it came at the cost of drive onto the long first straight. He was powerless to resist the outright speed of Andrea Dovizioso’s Ducati GP18 as it drew level and took the inside line into Turn 3. The front row was reunited at the front of the race, with Cal Crutchlow close behind.
The Waiting Game
Who would make a break first? Márquez led the way, despite an initial attack by Valentino Rossi, the Yamaha man taking a look at the Honda into the final corner. The Spaniard settled into a rhythm which he hoped would stretch the field, but it did no such thing. Rossi showed no intention of remaining behind Márquez. Lap after lap, he nipped at the Repsol Honda’s heels, catching Márquez in the second half of the track and taking a look in the last couple of corners
Márquez was not finding it as easy to push as he had hoped. “I tried to push in the first four laps, five laps, but I saw that the feeling was not the perfect one, with a full tank and all this,” he said afterwards. That meant he got out of the first corner very slowly on lap 5, and saw Valentino Rossi come flying past and into the lead. As they approached the final corner, Andrea Dovizioso passed Márquez as well.
It was Rossi’s turn to try to control the race, but Rossi’s attempts to escape were as unsuccessful as Márquez’ had been. Just as it looked like he might be opening the slimmest of gaps to Dovizioso and Márquez, the championship leaders closed him back down again. At the start of lap 11, the rear of Rossi’s Yamaha M1 had just a bit of a shake as he exited Turn 1, and both Dovizioso and Márquez came flying by.
Now it was Andrea Dovizioso’s turn to lead. He started slow, slow enough to allow the group following the front five to catch up again. Márquez and Rossi sat behind the Ducati, with Cal Crutchlow trying to hold off a charging Maverick Viñales behind him. Johann Zarco, who had been dropped earlier on, was now back on Viñales’ tail, and had Suzuki’s Alex Rins and Dani Pedrosa to contend with. Of the chasing group, it was Pedrosa who looked strongest, pushing to find a way past a Suzuki focused on holding him at bay.
After five laps of holding station, Dovizioso decided it was time to turn up the pressure. After letting the pace dropped into the low 1’32s, down from the 1’31.7s Márquez and Rossi had run, Dovizioso pushed into the 1’31.5s.
Saving the Wrong Way
That proved too much for Cal Crutchlow, who found himself dropping from fourth to seventh. Ironically, because he had tried to save his tires, but gone about it the wrong way.
“I had fantastic grip at the start of the race, but when I was behind them, all I was doing was picking the bike up, to try to save the tire, and then on lap 15, the thing just fell off a cliff. By me trying to save the rear tire, I actually destroyed the rear tire,” the LCR Honda rider explained.
Buriram’s blistering heat had been stressing the middle of the tire, rather than edges, the opposite of how a racing tire normally wears. Crutchlow had been trying to save the edge, but that was the wrong approach.
“With the center of the tire being so hard, that’s what rips,” Crutchlow said. “The center of the tire has been the problem all weekend, but me trying to save the tire, if you see my riding style compared to everyone else, I was picking the bike up really fast, and trying to get the drive. But I wrecked the center of the tire.”
He should have been doing the opposite, a counterintuitive approach. “I should have kept more lean angle and opened the throttle more on the side. Which is the complete opposite way to ride a 300 horsepower bike, or whatever they are. So I destroyed the rear tire for that reason.”
Dani Pedrosa was the next rider to go. The Spaniard was coming into his own, pushing at Maverick Viñales having already disposed of Alex Rins, as he and Viñales closed on the back of the leaders. But a bump on the entry to Turn 5 caught the Spaniard out. The front twitched, then tucked, and down he went.
“In the crash, I was improving my lap times and I was lapping fast and getting closer every time so, just went in and tucked the front on the bump and I lost grip basically,” Pedrosa explained. “The fork did a strange movement with the bump, I lost the grip there and the front.”
Someone Is to Blame
Pedrosa was seething afterwards, but his anger was not aimed at the front tire, but rather the rear. As the lightest rider on the grid, Pedrosa had the hardest time getting heat into the rear tire, he explained. “This was the main problem, the hard rear, because we were forced to use the hard rear and I had a huge, massive, disadvantage on that. Because for me, warm-up this tire was almost impossible. It took me five laps and I had to do two extra laps before the grid to clean the tire and try to give temperature when all my rivals put the new tire in on the grid.”
Alvaro Bautista, the second lightest rider on the grid, had suffered with similar issues. “The feeling with the tires was good on the front, but on the rear, I chose the hard option,” the Angel Nieto Team Ducati rider said after the race. “It was maybe too hard, because I felt the tire didn’t give me the maximum performance I expected, and it was too consistent during all the race, so I didn’t feel too much drop from the rear, so maybe with the medium tire, it could be better.”
The medium could have been an option for Pedrosa – Aprilia’s Aleix Espargaro chose to run the soft tire, despite being one of the taller riders on the grid, and finished the race in thirteenth – but curiously, the Spanish veteran insisted he had been forced to use the hard. “With Michelin and the team we were forced to use hard because of the issues, so we knew, my issue was to make the tire work so we did the best we can,” Pedrosa said.
A clutch problem at the start, then being run out wide by Jack Miller put him even further back at the start, followed by a couple of slow laps waiting for his tires to come up to temperature. “I lost so many seconds, maybe four seconds, in the first couple of laps but then I caught back to them one second before the crash. So this is the positive part but unfortunately it ended up in a crash and I think it would be a lot different if I could start from the front. But the disadvantage was massive today on the rear tire at the beginning,” Pedrosa insisted. “That’s the problem, but…” Pedrosa shrugged. “Because nobody cares.”
Pedrosa’s frustration was clearly partly a result of the fact that he had felt so competitive. “I had the feeling there was the potential to win, regarding the pace, but then obviously when you arrive at the group you have to fight, you have to find the way to pass and make things work. I don’t know how it would have been at the end in the group fighting, but obviously regarding the pace, yes it was possible.” After possibly his toughest year in MotoGP, he felt that a podium, at least, had slipped out of his grasp.
The disappearance of Pedrosa opened a gap behind the leading group which Alex Rins was unable to bridge. It left four men to slug it out for victory. Andrea Dovizioso still led from Marc Márquez, while Valentino Rossi found himself struggling to hold off his teammate Maverick Viñales. A lap later, and Viñales was past Rossi, and the Italian had to let the leaders go, though the gap to the front three never grew to over a second.
With five laps to go, Márquez started to probe. He pushed up the inside of Turn 3 but ran wide, allowing Dovizioso to come straight back. Hostilities were opened, and Márquez was no longer hiding his intentions, but the effort involved in making the pass was clear from the way his RC213V snaked as he tried to turn it in for Turn 3.
More attacks followed. Márquez looked at Dovizioso on the run to the final corner, and at Turn 1, but was never quite close enough to make a clean pass. Márquez switched tactics, closing up through Turn 7 to make an attack at Turn 8. Dovizioso was having none of it, striking straight back to take the lead at Turn 9.
Márquez tried again at the final corner, getting past this time, only to have Dovizioso cut back underneath him and take back the lead. It was a carbon copy of the last-corner passes Márquez has attempted on Dovizioso before, and failed to pull off. It was also a harbinger of what was to come.
Next lap, Márquez tried the pass at Turn 8 again, but this time prepared it a little better. Dovizioso couldn’t come back at Turn 9, but he could attack again at Turn 12, getting drive out of the chicane to slam his Ducati up the inside of Márquez’ Honda.
On the last lap, Márquez changed his tactics once again. This time, he dived up the inside at Turn 5, and though Dovizioso tried to slide back inside at Turn 6, it was Márquez who had the extra speed on the outside line. Márquez held the Ducati at bay through the right handers, but Dovizioso closed up through the chicane, getting drive out of Turn 11 for one final shot at victory. It was all or nothing, braking hard and pushing his Ducati up the inside into the final corner, but running wide.
Márquez cut back inside, turning his bike on a dime to make the short run to the line to take victory. Dovizioso held on for second, just ahead of Maverick Viñales. Valentino Rossi crossed the line in fourth, after avoiding a near collision with the rear of his Movistar Yamaha teammate’s bike, as the front three were slowed up by Dovizioso’s final lunge into the last corner.
The Wrong Strategy
After the race, Dovizioso pointed to his attempt to come straight back at Márquez as the mistake which cost him the race. “Unfortunately, I didn’t make a perfect strategy because I didn’t know the positive and negative points of Marc, because I was always in front of him,” the Italian said.
“When he overtook me in turn five, I tried to answer immediately because I thought I didn’t have any chance to answer until the last corner. That’s why I tried that, but it didn’t work because I lost time when I was trying in turn six. I realized in turn ten, he was in trouble with the tires. I didn’t know. I was able to recover some meters, but not enough to be very close to stop him in the last braking zone.”
A different strategy may have worked out better for him, Dovizioso said. “If I didn’t try in turn five, I was able to try in a different way the last corner. With Marc, you never know how it will end. I was too far to make a really good braking and stop him. So I was too wide. Immediately when I start to brake I realized it was impossible for me to stop. I was hoping that Marc would go wide with me, but he was able to stop the bike a bit better than me.”
It was a remarkable reversal of fortunes between the two. “In the end we get revenge after three times,” Márquez said, referring to the previous last-lap battles, where he had consistently lost out. “The fourth time we change the styles a little bit. I did like Dovi style and he did Marc style. In the end it finished in a good way for us.”
The Wrong Strategy, Then the Right Strategy
That had not been the plan, Márquez said. “My strategy was another one,” he told the press conference. “It was to try to push when there remained ten, eight laps, more or less, but I saw that Dovi’s pace was good. I was able to be slightly faster, maybe, but I wasn’t able to overtake him, because my front tire was kind of overheating, and then I wasn’t able to stop well the bike on the brake points.”
“For that reason, I tried to attack before the last lap to try to cool down a little bit that front tire, but Dovi was really smart and overtook me really quick every time. Then I say, okay, we will see on the last lap. I tried to give everything. I forget the championship. I forget all these things and just I give all what I have.”
The aim had been to try to get to the last corner ahead of the Ducati, Márquez said. He had learned from his pass with three laps to go that if he tried the last-gasp pass at the final corner, Dovizioso would come back inside. “I tried to overtake him there, but I was not able to stop the bike in a good way and he overtook me,” the Spaniard explained.
Márquez had focused on getting past at Turn 5, but his first attempt had failed. “Here I prepared the overtake in turn five all the race,” the Repsol Honda rider explained. “Then when there remained three laps, I tried already there to see what’s going on. But I was not able to stop the bike. The rear was hopping a lot, and then it started to chatter. I was not able to stop the bike in a good way. Then I said, okay, if Dovi arrives in front, he will win.”
But Márquez had learned from the first, failed attempt. On the final lap, he got through to the lead, but the advantage he had gained was minimal. “Then I tried just to play in another way my cards, and it worked well, but very, very, very close,” Márquez said. The Spaniard was under no illusion that he had been superior in Thailand. The race could have gone either way, and he could have accepted the result. “Both of us deserve the victory because he did a really good race,” Márquez said magnanimously.
What was remarkable in the press conference was just how open Márquez and Dovizioso were in discussing tactics. They had already been caught on camera on their way to the podium discussing the outcome of the race. “I only saw you for two corners,” Dovizioso said. “I was at the limit all race long,” Márquez replied. “When you did a 1’31.4, it was the absolute limit.”
In the press conference, the spoke openly about what they had learned from one another, not just for this race, but for the future as well. “If we want to have a chance to win the championship in Motegi, we need to improve two or three areas, because Ducati will be very strong there,” Márquez said.
“I was behind Dovi a lot of laps here and I saw a few points that he was very, very strong. So if we want to beat him in Motegi, we must improve those points to be faster, because if not it will be not possible.”
Which areas need improving? “It’s easy to see,” Márquez said. “I was losing all the weekend two tenths in T1. Losing in T1 means acceleration from the last corner and acceleration from the first corner. In these two accelerations we were losing too much against Ducati, but also against Yamaha.”
“We were losing in a few strange areas. We must improve there because for some reason the electronic side was not working in the best way here, but then on the race we change the setup. We go out with a setup that we didn’t know exactly and we were able to improve. Was working better, but still we need to go in that way because still I don’t feel that acceleration that I want.”
Arriving in a position to win the race had been incredibly hard work, and they had been in more trouble than usual, Márquez admitted. “Yesterday [Saturday] we were working until… I was in the box until 9pm, then I went to dinner, because it was also important to relax. But they were here until I think 10:30, more or less. They were working a lot. We had a few troubles that we didn’t understand. We went out on the race with different electronic things because we were struggling in a few areas.”
Appearances had been deceptive, Márquez told the press conference. “Normally during all the weekend we never have a problem, but for some reason here we did,” he said. “It looks like it’s easy, everything is happy inside the box. Looks like we are enjoying, but we are working very, very hard. This makes the difference in the end. We were the only guys inside the box working to try to improve. We did it. This gave me already this morning in the warmup a small step, and even in the race another small one.”
Preparing for 2019
For his part, Andrea Dovizioso explained that they had made a big step forward in Thailand, confirmation of the progress made at Aragon, a track where they had struggled previously. “It was a bit better than what we expected because yes, the speed was there with a good grip, but in this kind of race, in this kind of track where the [tire] consumption is very high, and today it was even more than Aragon, in the past we couldn’t finish the race and try to make the podium or try to fight for the victory. So I think we did another big step, bigger than Aragon.”
The lessons learned at Aragon had been valuable, Dovizioso explained. “What we understood in Aragon, it works here. This is one of the reasons why we were fighting until the last corner with Marc. We worked in the right way during the weekend, and my feeling improved from the setup. But we worked on some other things. It was good for the tires. I was able to struggle until the end, but not be in a completely different situation than Marc, which happened in some other races.”
The improvements had been incremental, but had come from focusing on the details, rather than getting lost in a sea of radical changes, Dovizioso explained. “To try to improve that [tire consumption], you have to work on the setup and the electronics. It’s the same for everybody, it’s not easy to find something better.”
“You are working on the details, trying to understand. When you race with some other riders you can have some important feedback, and if you explain in the right way to the engineer, this is the way to try to fix something. It’s always very hard, but is what everybody is doing, and it’s what we are doing in a good way, I think.”
That work is in preparation for the 2019 championship, Dovizioso explained, as this year’s title chase was as good as over. “It’s bad to lose the victory in the last corner for sure, but the championship is almost over,” the Italian explained.
“But we are not racing for that. We are racing to try to make the maximum result and developing the bike for next year. I’m really happy to have another four races and continue to work and try to improve a little bit, because we need that if we really want to fight for the championship next year.”
Dovizioso could see the fruits of all that labor paying off, just as it had in the past, the benefit of sticking with Ducati and keeping the same team around him for all of the years he has been with Ducati. “There is always a technical reason about the result and what we are doing,” Dovizioso explained. “When we arrived here, everybody, the media, said this is a track like Austria. Anyone who said something like that I think doesn’t understand a lot about the track. I don’t see a lot of Ducatis in front.”
That was a clue to just how well he and his team had been working. “I think we are working very good. We are improving a lot, and confirm we are battling for the victory. But I think we are doing something special in our group because we are working in the small details and affect a lot the race, because from Brno to now, we are fighting for the victory in every round.”
“This is the reality. When you are in a track where the [tire] consumption is so high, in the past we couldn’t fight for the podium. Now we put Marc in a difficult situation. So I think the step is huge. This is the reality in the way I look at what happened. If some other person want to look at this in a different way, it’s not my problem.”
Marc Márquez also acknowledged just how well Dovizioso has been working this season. “Dovi did a really good championship,” the Repsol Honda rider said. “He’s doing really good work with all Ducati staff because they keep improving every time. Like he said in the first part of the season that he feels he was faster than last year already in the first races, but he did a few mistakes there. But apart from that, he’s riding in a very good way. He’s fast in all the tracks. Now also Ducati together with Dovi are very fast in all the corners. Of course some weak points, but some very strong points.”
That meant that Honda have work to do as well, and cannot afford to be complacent, Márquez explained. “Our target is try to improve our bike, to be better, to be faster and to have the chance to open a gap during the race,” he said. “This is the main target. We know that Ducati, Yamaha, all the manufacturers will improve, and this will be the target. For that reason we are already working for the next season in a few aspects for try to understand if we can improve some of our weak points.”
Schwantz vs. Rainey?
As this was the fourth time that the race between Marc Márquez and Andrea Dovizioso had been decided in the last corner, as well as the handful of other races which have featured major battles between the two, comparisons with historic rivalries are starting to be made. In the press conference, the pair were asked if their rivalry was starting to resemble that between Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey, two giants of the previous Golden Age of racing.
“Of course, already last year and this year we have very great battles,” Márquez said. “It’s nice because always the battles arrive until last corner. Even always I try to give everything until last meter, but Dovi also gives everything until last meter. So, this is the good way.”
The reason the battles were so entertaining is the fact that the Honda and Ducati are so very different bikes, he said. “But we have a different riding style, a different bike. He has very strong points. I have another strong points. So this creates that we are able to play in a good way to find the way to overtake the other.”
Andrea Dovizioso agreed. “I think this happen also because our styles are completely different, but the style is one thing and the characteristic of the bike is another story. Both things created this big difference, because I think his style is going the same style of Honda – very agile and aggressive. He’s able to do that. He’s really good. He’s the best to manage that, but also if he changed a lot his style during the years in MotoGP going that way, the bike and his style.”
His own style is dictated by the character of the Ducati, Dovizioso explained. “My style is a bit more relaxed, but also our bike, you have to ride our bike in that way. You can’t ride the Ducati like this. I don’t think I can ride the Honda in the same way. I think both created this big difference.”
“The battle becomes good because his approach of the brake or the line is completely the opposite of mine. We are trying to study and work and try to be better where he’s better and the opposite. But still there is a big difference from style and the characteristic of the bike.”
So who is Rainey and who is Schwantz? “Maybe I’m Schwantz,” Márquez said, “because he’s braking more under control. I’m braking more on the limit and that special brake point that everybody have in his mind. But my target is try to change my style, try to be like Dovi’s style – smooth, lean a little bit, and accelerate. But at the moment it’s not possible.”
Dovizioso was clear. “For sure Rainey. Not Kevin,” the Italian said. An irony, as prior to his arrival in MotoGP, Andrea Dovizioso had always run the number 34, to honor his childhood hero Kevin Schwantz. But because Schwantz’ #34 is retired in MotoGP, he had been forced to switch to his current number 4. A number which he has certainly made his own.
Freddie vs. Eddie!
If we are to make historical comparisons, then comparing Márquez and Dovizioso to Schwantz and Rainey seems to be the wrong one to make. If there is a parallel with Márquez, it is surely Freddie Spencer, the man whose records Márquez has broken, who was blessed with such supernatural talent that those who saw him race could not believe what they were seeing.
And if we are to find a match for Dovizioso, then it is surely Eddie Lawson, the man they called Steady Eddie. Lawson made the difference with his intelligence, and with his approach, daring to do things differently to his contemporaries. Lawson was calm, smooth, unflustered, in the same way that Dovizioso is. And Lawson only wanted to race, not waste his time and energy on the press, just like the Italian.
You can make a case for Jorge Lorenzo being more like Eddie Lawson than Andrea Dovizioso, the two men sharing an impossibly smooth style. But if we are to search for historical rivalries, then Márquez vs Dovizioso is more Fast Freddie vs Steady Eddie than Kevin Schwantz vs Wayne Rainey.
Behind the sport’s current main rivalry, two Yamahas finished third and fourth. It was the first time in five races that a Yamaha had finished on the podium, the Sachsenring being the previous occasion. And it capped a very strong weekend for the Movistar Yamaha team, and in fact all of the Yamahas. Johann Zarco finished fifth behind Maverick Viñales and Valentino Rossi, and even Hafizh Syahrin had his best result since Brno.
After a dismal weekend at Aragon, and Yamaha being in the longest slump in its history, it was good to score a strong result again, though the lack of confidence had made Viñales more conservative than he might otherwise have been. “Honestly it’s really difficult to ride like this, like going up and down,” the Spaniard said.
“You never have enough trust. I think if that race would have been a different situation, I could have the chance to attack at the last laps. I was there really close, just we need more feeling.”
That inconsistency was a source of confusion for Viñales. “After five or six races I was not able even to get close than ten seconds to the top,” he said. But that was different in Buriram. “I arrived there pretty close. I was able to fight, recover some gap. So I’m happy. I’m happy that we did a good job this weekend. Let’s see in Japan. As I said, no expectations. I go to Japan trying to be clever as I was this weekend, and let’s see if we can manage.”
Was it the nature of the track that had allowed the Yamahas to shine, giving them the chance to use their corner speed to their advantage? “Well, honestly, it’s quite strange, because in Aragon I could not lean,” said a perplexed Maverick Viñales. “It was impossible, and this weekend, it was the strongest point.”
“Where I felt most strong was in sector two, sector three where you only have to do corner speed. That’s normally our main strength. This weekend was actually good. Was riding like the normal Yamaha. Let’s see if we can get it for the next one. As I said, I need to also recover the feelings. Sure, with more confidence I could be fighting more quickly in the front.”
No Easy Answers
Valentino Rossi, who had been forced to brake hard to avoid disaster in the final corner, was happy to have finished fourth, but still uncertain that Thailand was a genuine breakthrough, rather than just the result of racing at a new track, with a very specific character.
“For me, this race is the best race for Yamaha in the second half of the season,” Rossi said. “This is so important. So now we need to understand how much is this track or how much we improved the bike. And the next four races will be very important because we have to try to be stronger and competitive in all the different tracks. Because now Honda and Ducati are strong everywhere.”
Rossi didn’t believe that Buriram was particularly suited to the Yamaha, though it did have some points that helped. “For me, on paper, this track is not a Yamaha track,” he suggested. “I expect to suffer a lot more and to be for example stronger in Misano, but in Misano at the end we struggle.”
“So it’s difficult to understand. But we feel better with the bike [here] and me and also Maverick we are strong, because we feel good. Maybe we improve a little bit. But now we have to see in Motegi. For me more than the layout of the track, it’s the different the grip of the asphalt that helps us more or less.”
Above all, Rossi feared complacency, as complacency was what had got them into this situation in the first place, he said. “In my opinion, to be satisfied is a losing mentality,” Rossi told Italian media. “Sometimes our engineers are happy if Maverick makes a fast lap in the test, they think everything is going good.”
“But if I was doing their job, I would analyze the second part of the season a bit more closely, and I wouldn’t be happy for a fast lap or a front row start.” He was trying to put pressure on Yamaha in Japan, he said. “I’m pushing so hard, and you are starting to see something.”
Living on the Edge
Johann Zarco gave what may be a clue to whether Yamaha’s strong results in Thailand were down to the track or to improvements with the bike, the changes in setup used by Maverick Viñales, and the electronics updates which have come through thanks to the work of WorldSBK engineer Michele Gadda.
For a start, it had been easier for Zarco to ride the Yamaha M1 than it had been in the last few races. “I was exhausted in the last three races I finished – Austria, Misano and Aragon – because instead of fighting with the others, I was fighting with my own bike,” the Monster Tech3 Yamaha rider said. “Now, because of the conditions, it has been difficult, but it was not a fight with the bike.”
The tires had lasted relatively well, Zarco said, but the layout of the track has also helped the Yamahas. “For me, I think sector two, three, and four has been good for the Yamaha because it’s a lot of entry of the corner. Then you must go fast in the corner and just keep the speed and don’t have a strong acceleration. Only in corner twelve and corner three. But corner twelve could be the worst one. But all the others, it’s more corner speed than acceleration and that’s why I think we’ve been competitive.”
The last time that a Yamaha was on the podium was at the Sachsenring, where both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales had stood on the box. That tracks shares a similar characteristic with the Chang International Circuit, in that there are a lot of long corners where the bikes aren’t accelerating hard. It is the hard acceleration which tends to chew up the tires for the Yamahas, it seems.
Crunching the Numbers
The track also appeared not to be too badly affected by the rubber from Moto2, again, perhaps a result of the fact that there is less hard acceleration, and hard braking while leaned over to smear the Dunlop rubber all over the racing line. This has been a bugbear for Yamaha, causing their pace to drop during the race.
A quick glance at the numbers backs this idea up. Comparing race pace set by the fastest riders in FP4 with the fastest laps in the race at a few races paints a fairly clear picture. In Buriram, the median race pace in FP4 for the top riders was around the 1’31.2 mark, while the median fastest lap during the race was about 1’31.5.
Both Viñales and Rossi were lapping around 1’31.2 in FP4, while their race pace was 1’31.5 and 1’31.6 respectively. In short, their pace in FP4 was comparable to the fastest riders, and the performance drop the suffered in the race was about 0.3 seconds, the same as the rest of the field.
Take a look at the Sachsenring, where they were both strong, and a similar picture emerges. Median pace for the top riders in FP4 was around 1’21.5, while race pace was 1’21.7. Both Rossi and Viñales, were a little slower in FP4 – around 1’21.7 – but their fast laps during the race were 1’21.8 when rounded off. Again, the same pace as the top of the field, and no real drop between FP4 and the race.
Compare that with Misano, where the Movistar Yamaha riders had hoped to be fast, spurred on by strong practice times on Saturday, but fallen far short of their heightened expectations during the race. In FP4, Rossi and Viñales had lapped around a tenth of a second behind the fastest riders, 1’32.9 and 1’33.0 compared to 1’32.8. But the Yamaha riders had seen their pace drop by six tenths of a second during the race, while the leaders lapped at the same pace they had set during FP4.
The situation was even worse at Aragon. There, Maverick Viñales’ FP4 pace was already 0.4 behind the pace of the fast riders, 1’48.7 to 1’48.3. But again, he was six tenths slower in the race than he had been on Saturday afternoon, while the pace at the front of the race was only a single tenth slower. Valentino Rossi’s times aren’t even comparable: FP4 pace of 1’49.5, improving to 1’49.3 during the race, around the same pace as his teammate.
Who’s Been Racing on My Track?
What do these numbers mean? They suggest that Yamaha has become very much a Goldilocks bike, that it only works when everything is just right. The asphalt should be neither too grippy nor too slippy, but just right. The corners should not be too short, but and not require too much acceleration, but be just right.
When everything is just right, then the bike is competitive enough to get on the podium, and with a bit of luck, even win. When things are not, then the Yamaha M1 is half a second or more slower than the Honda and the Ducati, even the Suzuki, and will only get into the top six with a bit of luck and lot of effort.
The real proof of the pudding will come at Motegi, a track with a lot more acceleration, and where it is likely to be a good deal chillier than Thailand. The Japanese Grand Prix will be a better measure of whether the improvements made in the last couple of races are enough to make the Yamaha competitive again or not. And there is no mistake, there has been progress for the Yamahas in the last three races or so, with electronics upgrades coming, which have helped to manage the acceleration and the rear tire.
Viñales, especially, believes that the changes made to the bike have helped him, and he hopes that Yamaha will continue to move in that direction. When he got off the bike in Parc Fermé, he stood talking to Yamaha President Yoshihiro Hidaka for a few moments, and caught briefly on camera, he could be heard to say that the bike had been really good, and that what was needed was to move more weight to the rear of the bike. Viñales described the change made to the bike as a “big change”, though others around the Spaniard say that the changes are not as big as Viñales says they are.
There are four races left in the season. Outside of Phillip Island, which is another track where there is less hard acceleration on the edge of the tire, the tracks will not disguise the weak points of the M1. If Rossi and Viñales can get into the podium fight at Motegi, Sepang, or Valencia, then it will be a sign of real progress. That will be confirmation that Yamaha have emerged from the Goldilocks zone.
There may be four races left in the 2018 season, but Marc Márquez should not need that many to crown himself MotoGP champion. The goal is to wrap up the title next race, at Motegi, at the circuit owned by Honda, at Honda’s home Grand Prix. Honda had even worked extra hard to make that happen, Márquez told the press conference. “I feel in the Japanese staff during all weekend that they had a special motivation to have the first match ball in front of our big boss,” the Spaniard said.
Now, it is all in the hands of Márquez himself. With a 77 point lead over Andrea Dovizioso, and 99 points over Valentino Rossi, and a total of 100 points in play, it will be enough for Márquez to finish ahead of Dovizioso to wrap up the title, and score at least 1 point if Valentino Rossi wins the race.
A Rossi victory at Motegi and Márquez going without a single point seem equally unlikely, given the relative form of the Italian and the Spaniard. Finishing ahead of Dovizioso may prove to be a tad more difficult, but still not impossible.
Even if Andrea Dovizioso does manage to beat Márquez, he will only be delaying the inevitable. There is a lot of pride at stake for Ducati and for the Italian, but more than that, they are already preparing their title challenge for 2019. The bike will be better next year, and so will Dovizioso. Unfortunately for them, so will Honda and Márquez.
A Glorious Future
What are we to make of the inaugural Thai Grand Prix? The Thai fans proved beyond down that they deserved a race, over 100,000 people turning up on Sunday, on top of 80,000 on Saturday – more than most other races on the calendar on race day. The fans clapped and cheered, no matter who led, and there was no booing just because their favorite rider didn’t win, or the arch nemesis of their favorite rider finished ahead of their favorite rider.
“All weekend what I felt was a great atmosphere,” Marc Márquez said. “All the fans support all the riders in the same way, and this was really, really grateful. Was like kind of the atmosphere, even after the practice at 6:00, 7:00, 8:00 in the night. It was like a kind of party of motorbikes.”
“This was really great. Maybe was the only circuit that approach the race weekend in this way. The fans come here to enjoy the motorbikes and it was very, very nice because they support all the riders in the same way, and they just enjoyed the great show we give to them.”
“It’s nice to see a big support from the fans, like what Marc explained before,” Andrea Dovizioso said. “In Europe, the fans have to learn from the Thailand fans because it’s nice to see fans with one t-shirt. Can be red, can be yellow, can be every color you want, but support everybody and don’t complain to the other. I think this is the most important thing and what in Europe they forget.”
“I think for me, it surprised me a lot this Grand Prix,” Maverick Viñales said. “I never expected to be so comfortable and happy with all the people, with all the fans. For sure it was an example to all the rest of the tracks, to all the rest of the fans because they celebrate every race as it was the last, even the Asia Talent Cup, as if it was MotoGP. So that’s an amazing feeling.”
What is MotoGP in Thailand? It like Jerez or Mugello, the same party atmosphere, the same passion for motorcycling, but without the partisan bile and hatred. And, given that it is Thailand, with better food. MotoGP has unearthed a real gem at Buriram. A diamond in the east.