The most remarkable skill of truly great motorcycle racers is their ability to compartmentalize everything. Break down every situation, put each part into its own separate container, and not let one thing bleed into another.
Private lives – often messy, sometimes chaotic – stay in the box marked private life, and don’t cross over into racing. Pain stays in the section reserved for pain, and is not allowed to encroach in the part set aside for riding.
Crashes are to be analyzed, understood, and then forgotten, but not to be allowed anywhere near the part of a racer’s mind where they keep their fears. That is the theory, at least, and the better a rider can manage to live up to the theory, the greater their chances of success.
Marc Márquez gave a masterclass in the art of compartmentalization during qualifying at Valencia. The Repsol Honda rider went out on his first run in Q2, and on his first flying lap, lost the front going into Turn 4, the first right hander after a whole sequence of lefts.
It looked like a harmless low side, of the sort which Márquez has so often, and which he usually escapes without harm. But whether it was due to the bars being wrenched out of his hands, or due to his arm being folded up awkwardly beneath him as he tumbled through the gravel, he managed to partially dislocate his weak left shoulder.
He got up out of the gravel in obvious pain, doubled over and shambling towards the barrier. Once behind the tire wall, he was picked up by his manager and mentor Emilio Alzamora, and taken on the scooter back to the paddock.
He was rushed up into the Repsol Honda truck, where Dr. Mir examined him. He suited back up, put his helmet on, and went and sat in the garage, as his team held his second bike ready to go.
The MotoGP flyaway races are a headache for Dorna in a lot of different ways. There is the logistics, the calendar, a host of legal and customs issues, ensuring that facilities are up to scratch, in terms of safety, medical facilities, pit garages, and more.
They have most of these things pretty much nailed down – something which comes with having run the series for over 25 years – but the one hurdle they face every year is TV schedules.
Sport has infinitely more value when it is shown live, because the very fact that the outcome of a contest is unknown is what provides half the thrill. Anyone who has suffered the wrath of the mob after posting spoilers on Social Media will understand that.
So when MotoGP goes east, to Thailand, Japan, Australia, and Malaysia, the series runs into a dilemma. These are key markets for the factories, and growing markets for Dorna in terms of TV audiences. But they are also a problem when it comes to Europe, whose broadcasters contribute a very hefty sum to Dorna’s finances.
Live audiences drop off a cliff for races which start at 6am, and so Dorna do what they can to shift the race start into a more audience-friendly window. Far more people will be willing to get up on a Sunday morning at 8am for a race than they would be for a 6am, or – heaven forfend – a 5am start.
Dorna have dealt with it by trying to push the race start back as far as reasonably possible into the afternoon (that’s afternoon, local time). But at the past couple of races, that policy has run into serious problems. At Phillip Island, a 4pm start means the temperature can drop significantly between the start and the end of the race.
And in Sepang, starting at 3pm puts the race right in the window where the daily afternoon rains drench the track, and disrupt the race. For the past couple of years, the riders have been pushing Dorna to change their minds and reschedule the race. On Saturday at Sepang, they finally got their way.
Racing is always about balancing risk and reward, but sometimes, that balance is put into very stark contrast. Phillip Island is a very fast track with notoriously blustery weather, with strong winds commonly blowing in rain showers.
The weather gods have not looked kindly on this year’s Australian Grand Prix, though it has stayed largely dry. Gale-force winds, icy temperatures, and the occasional downpour have, shall we say, livened the proceedings up considerably.
The upside to being battered by strong winds is that the weather can blow out again as quickly as it blew in. Scattered showers are just that: scattered away towards the mainland in the blink of an eye. But they can be scattered over the circuit again in a matter of minutes.
This does not exactly make things easy for the MotoGP riders. Heading along the front straight well north of 330km/h and seeing spots on your visor, then wondering whether Doohan Corner, a 200+km/h corner is going to be completely dry or not is, shall we say, unnerving.
Doing all that during qualifying, when you know you only have 15 minutes to post a quick time, doubly so. As the reward goes up, so does the tolerance for risk.
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 is a common enough sight in Grand Prix racing: slower riders cruising around at the edge of the track, waiting for a faster rider to come by so they can get a tow. It is especially common at the Motorland Aragon circuit. With its massive back straight of nearly a kilometer in length, a decent slipstream can be worth an awful lot.
It is less common to see slower riders cruising for a tow in MotoGP. In Moto3, sure: with horsepower at a premium, cutting down on drag equates to free speed. In Moto2 as well, as the fact that the bikes all produce exactly the same horsepower means that riders have to find an advantage anywhere they can.
But MotoGP? A lack of horsepower is not really a problem in the premier class. The bigger problem is usually transferring it to the tarmac to generate drive, and translate that power to speed.
But Aragon is different. Sure, tucking in behind another bike can give you extra speed using their draft, but above all, using another rider as a target makes you that little bit faster. “MotoGP is so close now that if you can follow someone, get a bit of a tow, that’s obviously going to improve your time,”
Bradley Smith explained on Saturday afternoon. “We don’t see it very often in MotoGP, to be honest, as much as it was today, but it shows how important it is here in Aragon.”
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.
The weather usually plays a role when racing in the UK, in any discipline, but Saturday at Silverstone, the rain took center stage.
Not just because of the way it forced the MotoGP riders to pick their strategy very carefully, making timing and tire management absolutely crucial. But also because a heavy downpour at the southern end of the track created massive problems, and kicked off a serious debate.
More than that, it caused a bunch of riders to crash during FP4, starting with Alex Rins at Stowe, or Turn 7 as the riders tend to call it, to avoid confusion during debriefs. Then Tito Rabat crashed in the same place.
Then Franco Morbidelli, whose bike hit Rabat who was sitting in the gravel, smashing into the Reale Avintia rider’s right leg, breaking his tibia, fibula, and femur, requiring surgery and putting him out of the running for a long time, if not for the remainder of the season.
Having been the first to fall, Alex Rins did his best to emulate Kevin Schwantz at Donington in 1992, running out into the gravel to warn other riders to take care, while all around him, riders headed into the gravel, unable to brake on the water-soaked surface.
Jorge Lorenzo came flying by, as did others, until eventually the session was red flagged.
Those crashes triggered a chain of events which saw the MotoGP race start moved forward to 11:30am local time, to avoid the expected heavy rain on Sunday afternoon, which could have made it difficult to run the race.
It caused delays as the riders were forced to wait for the return of the medical helicopter, which had flown Tito Rabat to hospital in Coventry. And it created a fascinating spectacle during qualifying, where timing ended up being everything.
It is a good job it will be dry on Sunday at the Red Bull Ring. Because if it were to stop raining half an hour before the race started, the rest of the field wouldn’t see which way Marc Márquez went.
That is the conclusion we can draw from Saturday morning in Austria, when FP3 started on a wet track with a dry line forming.
Márquez waited patiently in the pits for half an hour, then when the dry line got wide enough, went out on slick, and destroyed the field, lapping 2 seconds or more faster than anyone else.
It was a display of just how useful all that riding flat track has been to Márquez. There is no one quite so good at searching for grip on a sketchy surface, and clinging so precisely to the thin line of drying track which offers grip.
Normally, I would start my Saturday round up talking about how pole position was won, whether it was expected or a surprise, and taking glance at race pace among the main contenders for victory on Sunday.
But that would be to ignore the elephant in the room. Sure, Andrea Dovizioso’s pole was impressive, and a little unexpected given just how quick Marc Márquez has been all weekend. But, that’s not the big news from Brno.
The big story in MotoGP is in the final place on the fourth row of the grid, and how he ended up there.
Brno is the place the bomb finally burst between Maverick Viñales and crew chief Ramon Forcada. The tension has been building between the two for months, with rumors that Viñales has wanted to replace Forcada since the beginning of the year.
Viñales has complained that Forcada will not make the radical changes that the young Spaniard requested in search of a solution to the traction problems. Forcada has wanted to stick to the plan, and work through issues methodically, so as not to lose sight of the bigger picture.
For the past few weeks, it has been an open secret that Viñales will be getting a new crew chief in 2019 (Esteban Garcia, currently crew chief for Bradley Smith at KTM).
But Forcada and Viñales have soldiered along, their disagreements only occasionally seeping out into the public, such as at the Le Mans race, where Viñales told the media he had tried to crash in every corner because he felt it was the only way to demonstrate to his team that the bike would go no faster.
Betting on Marc Márquez to take pole and win the race at the Sachsenring looks like the safest bet imaginable. From 2010 until 2017, Marc Márquez has started the race on pole and gone on to take victory in all three of the Grand Prix classes he has raced in. Márquez is truly the King of the Sachsenring.
Friday seemed to merely underline the Repsol Honda rider’s dominance at the Sachsenring. Though he didn’t top the timesheets in either FP1 or FP2, that was only because he hadn’t bothered putting in a soft tire in pursuit of a quick time.
Take a look at underlying race rhythm, and Márquez was head and shoulders above the rest of the field.
That pace continued into Saturday morning. Once again, Márquez was not the fastest – he finished sixth in FP3 – but in terms of pace, he had half a step on everyone else. But it was only that: half a step. Others were starting to catch the Spaniard. Could he really be in trouble for the race?
Márquez looked even weaker in FP4. Sure, he had a bunch of mid-1’21s, but he had lost a couple of tenths to the sharp end of the field, perhaps discouraged by the small crash he had in the first corner, when he failed to save the front from going.
He ended the session in tenth. A worrying development, given there is no incentive for riders to stick in a soft tire for FP4, as it does not have an effect on whether a rider progresses straight to Q2 or not.