Motorcycle racing is the cruelest form of addiction. What racers need to feed their habit is to win, but winning is hard, one of the hardest things of all. To do so, you have to go beyond yourself, push beyond your limits, exceed what you thought was possible.
That creates a paradox: if you want to win a championship, sometimes you have to accept you can't win a race. Too much of that servility, though, and ambition will chafe at the bit. The temptation to have a go is hard to resist, with the risk of ending in gravelly ignominy.
That has been the fate of Marc Márquez so far this season. Wins have been few this season, just three in thirteen races. Even podiums have eluded him, Márquez ending off the box in three of the last four races. There is only so much a young man bursting with ambition can take.
That ambition looks set to burst forth at Aragon. If Misano was a track which Marc Márquez had marked down as a place he could risk losing a lot of points, he had comforted himself with the thought that Aragon followed. Aragon is a Honda track, a Márquez track even. It is a track where he has won. But also a track where he has crashed trying to win.
Just how hard is Márquez trying to win? On Saturday morning in FP3, while cold tires were causing a spate of crashes, Márquez went out and hammered in a lap that would have been good enough for fourth on the grid during qualifying. There was more to come during FP4, when Márquez laid down a race pace which was several tenths a lap faster than anyone else. Then in qualifying, he took control, seizing his fourth pole in a row at the track.
Can anyone catch Márquez? Valentino Rossi was skeptical, and Dani Pedrosa was keeping his own counsel, yet both are in with a chance, should conditions play along. Neither man was helped by crashes, Rossi losing time after he went down on his out lap in the morning, Pedrosa losing the front as he pushed during qualifying. Pedrosa was less than a tenth off the time of Márquez when he crashed, on a lap that would have been good enough for the front row at the very least. Pedrosa will need a start like in Misano, but the tight first corner is a recipe for carnage at Aragon.
As for Rossi, the time lost after his early crash – entirely his own fault, pushing too hard on a cold tire – meant he didn't get to work on finding the couple of tenths he is missing to Márquez. He was thankful, too, for the airbag in his Dainese suit. "That type of crash is quite dangerous because first of all you don't expect it and also you go quite slow, so I landed quite heavy on the shoulder," Rossi said. It had saved his shoulder from further harm.
Cloud cover to the rescue?
Can Rossi challenge Márquez? To do so, he needs to have the hard tire working. That only really works well when the sun is out and the track is hot, but the forecast is for Sunday to be overcast. Rossi could try to run the soft tire, but that will only work for a few laps. After that, the right side of the tire is not up to the task.
Cooler temperatures may play into the hands of Jorge Lorenzo. He needs all the help he can get. With the hard tire, he is simply not competitive, his pace in FP4 over a second slower than Márquez. The soft tire put him onto the front row, Lorenzo taking third just a fraction behind Maverick Viñales. But racing the soft tire needs track temperatures to be lower.
Lorenzo's problem is one of edge grip, a common complaint for him this year. Without edge grip, he can't get the bike to turn, and use his corner speed to his advantage. When the rear tire slides, the Yamaha just runs wide, pushing the front out wider. The Hondas can use the rear wheel to turn the bike, but the Yamahas definitely can't. When the tires match the conditions, and he has grip on the edge, Jorge Lorenzo is still unbeatable, but that just hasn't happened often enough for him this season.
Colder temperatures may also help the Suzukis. Maverick Viñales starts from second, while Aleix Espargaro is on the third row, but both riders have found improvements in recent weeks. Viñales and Espargaro are not far off the pace, and cooler temperatures mean they have grip and not so much wheelspin at the rear.
Realistically, though, the pace of Márquez looks unstoppable. At a long track, he is putting half a second or more on everyone else. Colder temperatures may make him move from the asymmetric tire to the V, the harder of the two medium tires, which will not last as well on the left hand side. The weather and the tires have thrown up surprises all season, Márquez noted. "Every race is like this," he said. "This year this is one of the nicest thing of the championship. Maybe today I was the fastest one and tomorrow with lower temperature I will struggle with the tires. "
A costly set of crashes
The morning session was marred by crashes, including an incident with Marc Márquez. Of the 21 riders in MotoGP, 14 have fallen this weekend. Cooler temperatures were the cause, in combination with the peculiar nature of the Aragon circuit. Its location and the timing of the race mean that the mornings are often cold. The track is exposed, set on a hillside, and a fresh wind can blow across the track, cooling tires. From Turn 14 to Turn 2 is a long way, the best part of 30 seconds or more, meaning that the right hand side of the tire has a long time to cool down. The braking point to Turn 14 is right on a crest, meaning any sudden application of the brakes can be enough for the front tire to wipe out.
That was pretty much what happened in the morning, with Alvaro Bautista, Nicky Hayden, and then Marc Márquez all crashing in the same place. Only Márquez had an explanation for the crash, both Bautista and Hayden saying the front went without warning. But that braking point is so difficult that the smallest error can result in disaster, especially in the morning. Hayden thought he might have just touched a white line, Bautista thought he had used just 1 Bar more brake pressure. That was enough.
As for the crash by Marc Márquez, the problem was that he was caught off guard when he saw waved yellow flags for the Hayden incident. He grabbed a handful of brake right on the crest, and the front tire folded, taking Pol Espargaro out with him.
Not a repeat offender
Afterward, Márquez was adamant that he had not been careless about overtaking under yellow flags. He had learned his lesson at Silverstone in 2013, he told the press conference. "In Silverstone 2013 was completely my mistake, but since that time I always slow down when I see a yellow flag, even if I’m coming on the fastest lap because it’s something that I realized there is dangerous," he said.
"Most of the time I do the same mistake one time, not more. But this time I speak with Mike Webb and with Race Direction and the problem was in the previous corner that normally must be the yellow flag was not there. First of all I say I didn’t see but they check on the cameras and was not there. Then when I arrive on the brake point I was planning to overtake Pol because I didn't see any yellow flag. Then when I realized that was yellow flag I tried to brake more to be more safe and don’t overtake him, but the problem is that I locked the front. It was unlucky."
Moving the pits
It was unlucky indeed for Pol Espargaro. The Monster Tech 3 rider had just recovered from a crash with Danilo Petrucci, where he lost the front going into Turn 2. Espargaro's Yamaha slid across the track and then pit lane entrance, taking out Petrucci before the Pramac Ducati rider even had a chance to see what happened.
That crash highlighted two major problems at Aragon. The first is the placement of pit exit, riders joining the track on the outside of a corner which is notorious for cold tire crashes in the morning. Should the pit exit be moved? It's hard to say where to move it to, given the layout of the track. Pit exit will always be in the way with the right handers from Turn 2 on, the chance of riders losing the front and their crashed bike presenting a danger to anyone joining the track. Perhaps the best option is to have a marshal on pit exit monitoring the track, and only releasing riders from pit lane if there is no traffic. That is easy enough to do for MotoGP during free practice, of course, though how you monitor that during the frenzy of Moto3 qualifying is another matter altogether.
When a bang on the head is unacceptable
Perhaps a bigger worry is the fact that Danilo Petrucci was allowed to continue after his crash. On Saturday afternoon, he said he had no memory of the crash, and had no memory of some of the laps he rode afterwards. "I saw Pol’s bike ten centimeters from me and then a big crash," Petrucci said. "At that moment I was conscious but I didn’t remember where I was. I said, ‘OK, I’m standing, my bones are all together,’ so I came back to the pits. But when I went back out I didn’t remember where I was. I was quite scared. I did six laps this morning and I didn’t remember four and a half of them."
Those are clear signs of concussion, and concussion should mean that Petrucci is barred from riding. In 2014, MotoGP implemented the SCAT 3 protocol, which checks for concussion, yet somehow, Petrucci slipped through the cracks.
That represents a potentially very dangerous situation. A rider has been sent back out on track when he is still disoriented, and doesn't know where he is or what he is doing. That must surely represent a much heightened risk of crashing. That is not just dangerous to Petrucci himself, but also to anyone he is sharing the track with.
The decision to send Petrucci back out is also not helped by the battle inside the team for the GP17 for next year. Petrucci and Scott Redding will be judged by their results in the last eight races of the year, and the rider who has performed best in those races will get the Ducati GP17, while the other rider will only have a GP16. That kind of pressure is not conducive to good decision making: riders may be tempted to go out when they are not fit, and cannot really ride safely. The pressure inside the team may end up causing injuries for riders outside the team.
It is hard to swallow that a rider with signs of concussion was allowed back on the track, yet a rider who made a "derogatory gesture" was fined by the FIM Stewards. Nicolo Bulega was handed a €300 fine for giving another rider the finger during practice, the Italian being accused of acting inconsistently with good sportsmanship. Taking another rider out because you are still woozy from concussion would seem to be a far less sporting thing. The FIM – and this is a matter for the FIM, as the sanctioning body – should really find a better use for its time.
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