Predicting how a MotoGP race will play out is hard. Scratch that, predicting how a MotoGP race will play out is downright impossible. We scour the sector and lap times, talk to as many riders as possible, try to make sense of what they tell us, and take our best guess based on all we have learned. And inevitably, we get it wrong. Because there was something we missed, or because some random factor intervened, or because we didn't pay enough attention to what the riders were telling us, or perhaps paid too much attention to it. Which is why you should probably take the following with a pinch of salt.
After qualifying and practice at Brno, we confidently predicted one of the best races of the year, with Jorge Lorenzo and Marc Márquez setting almost identical pace during free practice. The chase lasted for five laps, before Lorenzo picked up his heels and disappeared, riding a perfect race to an unstoppable win, and killing any burgeoning excitement stone dead.
Silverstone looks like being very similar. There are two riders who are clearly a step ahead of the rest, and on the basis of practice times on Saturday, their pace is very similar indeed. Though you wouldn't say that just based on the headline numbers: in FP3, Jorge Lorenzo destroyed the rest of the field, beating Márquez by nearly half a second. In the afternoon, during FP4, Márquez returned the favor, laying down a withering pace to put over eight tenths on everyone else, and posting a string of ten laps, the slowest of which was faster than fastest lap set by any other rider on the field. The difference between Lorenzo's FP3 lap and Márquez' FP4 lap? Just 0.062 seconds, in Lorenzo's favor.
Tires are what made the difference. Lorenzo put a brand new tire on for the last two laps of FP3, and obliterated the rest of the field. Márquez put a brand new medium tire in FP4, and blew the field away, then slapped in a new hard tire, and was fast with that too. In FP3, Márquez was working on getting the best out of old tires, in FP4, Lorenzo was doing the same, as well as trying out set up change which simply did not work.
Two riders, similar pace on new tires, both much faster than the rest. Who will come out on top? At this point in time, it is impossible to say. What it will come down to is who manages tires the best. This was something everyone spent their time working on during free practice on Saturday, finding the balance between speed in the early part of the race and maintaining grip for later in the race, to keep the pace up. Riders are faced with the dilemma: choose to have a lot of grip early in the race, try to attack in the first few laps and open up a gap, then try to manage that for the rest of the race, or sacrifice speed in the early laps for more grip as the laps tick off. That balance will be key.
It was a balance which both Márquez and Lorenzo had spent time finding, with Márquez throwing the option of a hard rear tire into the mix. The Repsol Honda rider had just about settled on using the combination of soft front (the middle of the three options available) and medium (the softer of the two) rear, when he and his team decided to give the hard tire a whirl. It worked better than expected, the one complication being that the temperature during FP4 was higher than it is expected to be during the race. If (and it's a big if) the sun comes out on Sunday afternoon, Márquez may be able to run the hard rear, which could make all the difference.
Tire life was the one thing which Valentino Rossi had been concentrating on, both on Friday and Saturday, having learned his lesson from last year, where his pace dropped too much after the first few laps, and he had been unable to follow Márquez and Lorenzo. He felt he and his team had done a much better job this year, Rossi being satisfied with his pace as well as with his qualifying position. Fourth on the grid is pretty good, for Rossi, and good enough for him to try to make the break at the start of the race with the top men, though he was still just a little shy of the pace of Márquez and Lorenzo. "On paper," Rossi said, "I think the situation is Jorge and Marc fight for the victory, and Dani and I fight for the podium." But he had not yet given up on finding something during the warm up which would give him just a little bit more pace to match the front runners. "The track is so long that if you find a small modification that gives you just a little bit in every corner, it will be closer."
The two Monster Tech 3 Yamaha riders made it a Yamaha lock out of the second row of the grid. They too had been working on getting the best out of used tires, Bradley Smith saying that his priority had been the latter half of the race. He and his team had decided to sacrifice speed in the first couple of laps for better performance in latter half, a decision made a little easier by the poor qualifying of the Suzukis and Ducatis. With no bikes with access to the softer tire in the first couple of rows, and a relatively short and tight run to the grid, Smith was confident of getting close to the front from the start, hanging on through the first few laps before picking up the challenge in the second half of the race. Their reasoning and work focus may have been different if the Ducatis had been further up front, and able to mix it with the softer rear.
The team had done a good job, Smith said, but they were running into the physical limit of the Yamaha M1 he had at his disposal. He was unable to move the headstock any further forward, to lengthen the wheelbase. That option was available on the factory Yamahas, but not on his. With it, Smith believed he would be able to make the Tech 3 bike even more competitive, but that will have to wait until next year now.
Smith was behind his teammate on the grid for a change, Pol Espargaro finally having find a way to get to grips with the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha M1. They had changed their way of working, Espargaro said, focusing more in using electronics to manage the dropping grip on used tires, and making the sliding manageable, instead of trying to create more grip using mechanical means, especially with shock set up. On a low-grip track like Silverstone, that simply doesn't work.
Behind the Yamaha row are the two satellite Hondas, Scott Redding ahead of Cal Crutchlow. Redding was pleased and surprised to be doing so well, after a miserable time at Brno. But a good result at Silverstone would not change his mind about his future, he told reporters. "You can’t let one race dictate your future," Redding said. "If you look back at Brno and how low I was, even mentally, it was horrible. I can’t let one good race do it. " On Friday, Redding had said he had been 50/50 on either staying or going to Pramac Ducati, but on Saturday he would not be drawn on the issue. One way or another, there will be an announcement about Redding's future on Sunday. Whether that will be to stay or go remains to be seen, but Ducati staff have been confident that Redding will make the switch to Pramac Ducati for 2016, and move into the orbit of the Bologna factory. In a few more hours, we will know for sure.
Further back down the grid, Eugene Laverty bemoaned the fact that the slower riders waiting for a tow had slowed him up. He alluded to them being the "SBS crowd, the people suffering from Small Brain Syndrome." His ideal time would have put him in 14th, where he had finished all weekend, Laverty said. But he had lost the heat out of both new tires dealing with riders looking for tows. He was disappointed to qualify in 19th, and hoping to get a good strong start to make up for lost time.
Moto2 saw a fascinating battle play out, Sam Lowes making perfect use of the day to post an brand new lap record at the track. Alex Rins got close to Lowes, but came up just short, while Johann Zarco and Alex Márquez were also close behind the leaders. Lowes looked as happy as a pig in manure with his pole, and looks ominous for the race on Sunday. Lowes is not going to let this one slip between his fingers at his home race.
In Moto3, Jorge Navarro took his first pole, with Jorge Martin, Mahindra rookie, having been fastest during FP3. Danny Kent was back at the front at last, after a difficult start to the weekend, and confident of more. The problem all the Moto3 riders face is that it is impossible to break away on the circuit, especially if the wind picks up on race day. That means biding your time and waiting for the right time to move, probably on the last lap of the race. You can't get away on your own, so you have to approach the final few laps as a battle which could decisive. Danny Kent told me he had been working on setting that bike up for late braking and fighting hard, preparing for the last few laps, rathe than the early laps.
All of this, of course, depends on the weather staying dry. That may or may not happen, a band of rain moving across the country, and either just missing or just hitting the Silverstone area. It might rain, it might drizzle, but might also even be rather dry. Only time will tell, and for the moment, the riders know what they want.
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2015 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.