It is hard to overstate just how important pole position is at Misano. It is a tight and tortuous track, with few opportunities to pass. Small differences in practice and qualifying become magnified during the race: the holeshot is worth its weight in gold here. Get a gap, and you can be gone. The smallest winning margin at Misano was 1.578 seconds, which was the deficit of Jorge Lorenzo to Valentino Rossi in 2014. A second of that was lost on the final straight, however, as the Italian celebrated a significant victory with a monster wheelie.
It doesn't mean that races can't be exciting. The 2014 race saw an epic battle between Rossi and Marc Márquez, which lasted half the race until the Spaniard asked too much of his front tire and crashed out. Races can be hard-fought, but eventually, one rider will wear the rest down and open an unbridgeable gap. That is easier when the rider starts in front.
The first corner is another reason that pole matters at Misano. The hard right then left combination is notorious for pile ups, and the further back you are, the more likely you are to get caught up in the melee. A front row start is your best hope of making it through unmolested, though a second row start will do at a pinch. Any further back and unless you can secrete a small bottle of nitrous somewhere on the bike in search of a rocket-assisted start, carnage awaits.
Which is why riders are prepared to push so very hard for pole at Misano. None pushed harder on Saturday than Jorge Lorenzo, who has found himself once again at the Italian circuit. His pole lap was electrifying, the Movistar Yamaha rider breaking the lap record on his first attempt, then deciding to take a few more risks on his second run, knowing that the risk of injuring himself in a crash was low in the many slower corners which are a feature of the circuit. His second lap was the best lap of his life, he said in the press conference. "I risked a little bit more in braking, opened the throttle a little bit more, especially in the slow corners where the risk of injury is much less," Lorenzo said. "I risked more than normal."
It was plain to see just how hard he was pushing it. Normally, the smoother Lorenzo looks the faster he is. At Misano, he went beyond smooth, letting the bike buck and weave beneath him as he stayed calm and poised on top of it. He used every inch of the track (quite literally), and became the first motorcycle racer to ever lap the track in under 1'32, setting a lap of 1'31.868.
After the session, there were doubts that Lorenzo's lap was legal. Pictures quickly emerged of Lorenzo's bike over the kerb and running on the red asphalt area, with Social Media gorging itself on its customary outrage. Near identical pictures were show of Takaaki Nakagami in the same spot, on a lap for which he had his lap canceled. Why, The Outraged demanded, was Nakagami's lap negated, but Lorenzo's allowed to stand?
The Race Director explains
Having spoken in the past about track limits with Race Director Mike Webb, I suspected they would have a better view of the situation than we did. Once the day was over, fellow Paddock Pass Podcaster Neil Morrison and I ventured off to the office of the Race Director (no simple journey, having to run the gauntlet of security guards demanding to know why we didn't have the appropriate sticker on our passes which allows us access to the inner sanctum of Race Control). There, Webb explained the procedure.
"We've got the full HD and different cameras in problem places - we know at each circuit where there is likely to be a problem and we've got guys, as in more than one person, whose only job is to look at track limits and report back," Webb explained. "What we get is a marshal report, so a marshal with binoculars [says] 'this rider number'. That then gets referred to the video operators who find the video reply for that exact corner at that exact time and review it backwards and forwards, in slow-mo, whatever they need."
The judgment is fairly simple. "It's either in or out, and we need evidence before we do anything, because if it's a pole lap for example we have to be ready to justify it if a team appeals it. The criteria is - and all of the canceled laps are - both wheels of the bike have to outside of the track and the track is defined by the colors."
What of Lorenzo?
In the case of Lorenzo, the Movistar Yamaha rider had one wheel still hard up against the outside of the kerb, which bought him reprieve. "If any part of the motorcycle - one tire or other, even the side of it - is touching a kerb it is in. You have to have a clear gap of both tires outside of the line," Webb clarified. "Guys are getting away with the front still just on the kerb and the back because it's sliding is off - that's in. We have to have a clear gap that I can defend to the team and say, 'that's out because I can see daylight between'."
If there is any doubt, or the pictures are not unequivocal, the rider is given the benefit of the doubt, Webb said. "So if we can't prove exactly that he or she is out, they get away with it. Our guys spend all day, and it's a total nightmare. The amount of man hours we spend looking at that stuff. It’s the same people every week and they are making the same judgment. I haven’t yet disagreed with one of their calls." There was not enough daylight between the wheel of Lorenzo and the kerb at Turn 16, and so Lorenzo was given the benefit of the doubt.
To assess Lorenzo's position on the track, Race Direction use one of the many special cameras they bring to each track, and place at the points around the circuit where they know from past experience to expect trouble. "Turn 16 [where Lorenzo is supposed to have run wide] is fine because we have what we call a 'domo' camera, that is movable and zoomable with a very high quality and that's all we need. Because if you've got a straight on shot it's very easy to see." That camera is positioned to look directly down the outside kerb of Turn 16, to get the most precise shot of any transgressions.
If the procedure is simple during practice, the race was a different question. Assessing an appropriate penalty had been a headache, the rulebook having been changed when Jonas Folger was made to drop one place in a Moto2 race after exceeding track limits. At the time, the next rider behind him was nearly seven seconds behind him, at the head of a big group. Folger lost a huge amount of ground in the maneuver, and ended up in 19th and at the back of the group he had rejoined into.
Since then, a time penalty has been assessed, commensurate with the advantage gained. At Silverstone, Aleix Espargaro was given a 1 second penalty for cutting the track,while Tito Rabat was given half a second for a similar infraction. "Silverstone was obvious where it was very clear to us how much time Espargaro had and therefore he got a penalty greater than that. That's somewhat arbitrary, but it's based on our preferred penalty being a change of position, but where that is blatantly not fair we will do something else."
The current situation is far from ideal, Webb acknowledged. "In the case of 16, where the kerb ends if you get it wrong a bit you are on the dirt. Maybe the first couple of riders who do that get away with it. As the dirt gets dug up and a hole forms then it becomes dangerous. So we've extended the concrete to stop that problem, and stop a maintenance problem for the circuit, but if you let them ride along the concrete we've made the corner faster. And I don’t want to make any corner faster. Ever."
"I would honestly love to find a passive solution," Webb admitted. "Something like artificial grass that is safe - and means I don’t have to watch. If they go there, they go there but they are going to lose time. We've created this nightmare for ourselves to police and like everything we police nothing is 100% foolproof, someone might get away with it one day. We're actually doing a pretty good job I think, but I'd like to find a better solution. Whether it's something more electronic/automatic, which we are working on now. But I'd really like to find the ideal kerb solution that dissuaded the riders from going there. A disadvantage but not unsafe. It's a hard project because we have to agree with the FIA as well, what they will accept on tracks."
The riders are relatively happy with the compromise. The front row riders all agreed in the press conference, with Valentino Rossi expressing their shared opinion the best. "Yes, is better like this," he said. "Sometimes you have the problem that the lap can be canceled and for sure more work for the guys, but for the safety is a big improvement because if you go too wide from the curb and you touch the dirt it’s very dangerous because you are already fast. Sometimes you cancel your lap but for the safety is better. So I think it’s a good idea."
Lorenzo is joined on the front of the grid by his teammate Valentino Rossi. The Italian suffered spinning problems with his first rear tire, which left him lingering down in seventh. His second tire was better, and Rossi found the speed he had shown in practice to end a third of a second behind Lorenzo. Maverick Viñales took third, bringing the confidence of his win at Silverstone to Misano.
It was also a vindication of the progress made at Brno, where Suzuki had found something of a solution to the lack of rear grip which the GSX-RR has suffered from in hot conditions. "Since Brno we did a good step on the high conditions and today you have the result," Viñales said. "In FP4 we were riding with really old tires and I was feeling really constant and really good. In the qualifying also."
There was a moment of high comedy in the press conference, when Lorenzo was asked what had passed between himself and Marc Márquez as they had exited pit lane. The two had hit pit exit together, and Lorenzo was clearly trying to force Márquez to get ahead, and give him some clear track, thereby preventing Márquez from getting a tow from him. Asked by an Italian journalist what had transpired, Lorenzo replied. "I don't know. Maybe it was a 'biscotto'."
That, for those whose knowledge of Italian sporting jargon is limited, is a reference to both a biscuit (especially of the sandwich variety), and to a pact between two soccer teams to allow one of them to win to try to hurt a third team. The punch Lorenzo's quip packed was because of who asked him the question. The journalist in question is the reporter for the Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport. It was that publication which led the charge against Lorenzo after Valencia, accusing Márquez and him of conspiring together to deprive Valentino Rossi of the 2015 championship.
Leaving aside the events of last year (they have been done to death here, and among every group of racing fans on the Internet), the brilliance of Lorenzo's reply lies in who it was aimed at. The Gazzetta reporter was hoping to get a pithy quote attacking Márquez for being irresponsible. Instead, he got a full intensity burn of a quip using his own words against him. There was loud laughter at Lorenzo's quip. But none of it came from the Italian journalists assembled there.
Tight race awaits?
Lorenzo was clearly in good form, and that is usually the case when he is in good shape on the track as well. Qualifying pace is one thing, but the real tale of the tape is to be found in free practice. That showed that there are a several riders to watch out for, including Jorge Lorenzo. The Movistar Yamaha rider showed strong pace, but perhaps not quite as good as that of his teammate Valentino Rossi, and of Repsol Honda's Marc Márquez. Dani Pedrosa is also quick, as are the two Suzukis.
In terms of outright pace, it looks like Valentino Rossi will have Marc Márquez to deal with, if the Repsol Honda rider can get off the line well from the second row of the grid. Jorge Lorenzo is a tenth or two off the pace of Rossi and Márquez, and on equal footing with the Suzukis, with Dani Pedrosa, and even with Pol Espargaro.
The winner will be determined by tire wear, and who manages to conserve them best. That is something of an unknown: few riders have put race distance on the tires, and so have little idea how they will react after 20 laps. Most are likely to go for the soft rear tire, though Valentino Rossi was seriously mulling the hard. He decided on that after FP4, when another soft tire seemed to suffer too much from spinning. Rossi was forced to fit a hard, and delighted and intrigued to be much faster on the hard than he had been on the rear.
The front tire is more of a question mark. For most riders, they will be opting for the medium front, to match the soft rear. That medium front uses a new construction, and seems to give some more stability, though it lacks a very tiny amount of feedback. But different manufacturers reacted very differently indeed. The Pramac riders complained bitterly that none of the tires worked for them, none of them producing grip. The Honda riders really wanted something a little stiffer, to cope with the stress the RC213V puts on the tires.
Marc Márquez was even going to opt for the hardest of the three front tires, which uses the old construction but much harder rubber. "The hardest front with the old casing has some locking, but for our bike it's better," the Repsol Honda rider told us. But that was a choice very much dependent on the weather. The forecast for Sunday is for there to be a little more cloud cover, which would help reduce the temperature of the track. The question then becomes whether Márquez can get sufficient heat into the hard front, or whether he has to follow the rest of the pack.
There were some question marks over the consistency of the Michelin tires. All three front row men had had issues with tires, something which other riders had noticed. "Until this race the situation was good because the performance of the tire were quite constant and also with the Bridgestone sometimes happen during one season," Valentino Rossi said. "But in this weekend I have some problem, yesterday with the hard and this morning with the second soft."
The return of Saturday night specials, but for all?
The problem was widespread enough for Michelin to investigate. Tire production codes are being checked, to see if there is a common thread which runs through the bad tires. The way the tires are handled is kept as uniform as possible, and closely monitored. Tires are kept together, mounted on wheels and then laser balanced, with the Michelin tire techs all having clear and strict instructions on how to handle them. There have been issues with Michelin tires this year, but very few which hint at quality control problems. The French tire maker needs to go through its data and check to see if this is a question of handling (the tires losing performance due to issues such as storage procedures) or a matter of production (e.g. a problem with the manufacturing process).
If it is the latter, of course, then Michelin could produce a replacement and have them shipped down to Misano. It is only 900km from Michelin's HQ in Clermont-Ferrand in central France to Misano. Michelin could produce a tire, and have it at the race track and ready by the time the race comes on Sunday. The Saturday Night Specials could be back, albeit in a different capacity.
If there is a small group of favorites in the MotoGP class, that is very much the situation in Moto2. Johann Zarco has found some of his old form, lapping quickly and qualifying on pole. Alex Rins is struggling a little, as is Sam Lowes. Zarco's main rival this weekend could end up being Takaaki Nakagami, the Japanese rider having strong pace in practice.
In the Moto3 class, it seems like every rider is a favorite, but in reality, it is hard to bet against Brad Binder. The championship leader laid down a withering pace in FP3, and was constantly being harassed in qualifying as riders looked for a tow. He still managed to take pole, despite running wide and into the gravel, many of his pursuers doing exactly the same thing. Binder will face stiff competition from the Spaniards and especially the Italians, having already singled out Enea Bastianini as the biggest threat at the moment.
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 2016 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.