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.
Qualifying is a tricky business at the best of times. Having qualifying just half an hour after FP4 – that is, if you don’t have to pass through Q1 – makes it even more complicated.
That final session of practice is the only chance to work on setup without worrying about getting through to Q2 – and in my book, makes it the most interesting session of practice all weekend.
But that also means that if you want to compare two different setups, FP4 is the session you do it. After FP4, you have thirty minutes to get two bikes ready for qualifying, with identical setups.
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.