Saturday at the Thai GP is in the bag. Here is everything that happened at Buriram for the MotoGP paddock.
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.
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.
How close is MotoGP right now? At the end of FP3 on Saturday morning, the top five bikes were separated by 0.062 seconds. The top three had just six thousandths of a second between them.
And the difference between Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales, first and second in FP3? Just one thousandth of a second. If they were both lapping at the same time, it would have needed the special finish line camera to separate them.
It was pretty close behind the top five as well. There were sixteen riders within nine tenths of Márquez, gaps between them counted in hundredths of seconds, rather than thousandths of seconds.
Qualifying was much the same: the difference between pole and eleventh place on the grid was just half a second. If you made a mistake in two corners, costing you a tenth or so in each, you would have ended up starting from the third row, rather than the front row.
The trouble with racing in MotoGP at the moment is that no matter how spectacular your riding, no matter how phenomenal your achievements, no matter how dominant your performance, you will always, always be upstaged by Marc Márquez.
“The worst thing is that we have to deal with the situation of Marc saving [crashes] every week,” Cal Crutchlow complained, only half joking. “It makes the rest of us on Honda look like idiots. Imagine how many he has saved this year compared to how many we have we crashed. He saves fifteen a weekend.”
Saturday in Barcelona was yet another example, and perhaps Márquez’ biggest yet. In the dying seconds of FP4, after passing Xavier Simeon through Turn 12, Márquez entered Turn 14 and the front folded completely on him.
Where other riders would simply go down, Márquez was unwilling to surrender without a fight. “It was last corner, last lap and I lose the front,” the Repsol Honda rider told the press conference.
“I was fighting against everything, against the bike, against my knee pushing a lot. Then it looks like I was able to save it, but the when I go on the dirty part of the track, I again lose the front.”
He had not yet had a chance to look at the data, he said. “I already said to [my team] to check, but what I can say is that the steering was full close because I feel, but it was long. It was very long this one. It was maybe the longest one in my career.”
Long enough to upstage everyone else on Saturday, despite there being many riders deserving of attention.
Mugello is many things: Majestic, magical, magnificent. It is also mendacious. It can catch you out, lead you down the wrong path, make you think you’ve found the right direction, only to find it is a dead end. It rewards sleight of hand too.
There are many different ways to skin a cat at Mugello, if you will excuse the expression, so you have to keep your cards close to your chest. To win at Mugello, you need to be fast, you need to be brave, but you also need to have a good poker face.
Qualifying on Saturday was both magnificent and mendacious. Pole was won through a combination of sublime riding and a good deal of meddling, subtly controlling rivals to keep them from any chance of a counterattack. It was a masterclass, but then what else would you expect at Mugello?