A lot has to happen if Andrea Dovizioso wants to win the 2017 MotoGP championship at Valencia. What he doesn't want to happen is for Marc Márquez to run away with the race. And so far on Friday, that's exactly what looks like happening. On the face of it, fifth in both FP1 and FP2 is not promising. But look at race pace, and it is clear that Márquez is in devastating form.
In FP1, Márquez used a single medium rear tire, and posted 11 laps of 1'31. No one else managed more than 3 laps at that pace. In FP2, he again used just a single tire, putting 20 laps on a soft rear tire. He set his fastest lap – good enough for fifth in the session – on his final lap, with a tire that has two-thirds race distance on it. While everyone else was throwing extra tires in to secure passage straight to Q2, Márquez was not concerned.
His pace left him feeling positive. "Of course this gives me good confidence," Márquez said. "But what is better is that we started the weekend in a good way. In FP1 I felt good with the bike. We are on Friday so we need to keep working and keep the same mentality and concentration."
Márquez felt so good that he managed to get his customary crash out of the way in the afternoon. Braking for Turn 2, he got the bike out of shape and down he went. It was crash number 26 for the season. Was it the last one for the season, or were there more coming? "I hope it is the last one but I always hope the last one is the last!" Márquez joked afterwards.
"For some reason it is like this, this year," he said. "I try to push but it is quite critical to find the limit, but anyway we are fast and I said yesterday that I will keep the same Marquez style. I will push in the limit in practice and try to manage in a different way on Sunday. At the moment we are working really good. I lost the front but with many laps on the tire and the rhythm and pace was good. About the crash: I’m not happy but better today than Sunday."
How does he manage to avoid injury, he was asked. "Of course you need that point of luck. You need to be lucky because a crash is a crash and you can be injured anywhere. Most of the crashes arrive in the last part of the practice. Like today I crossed the finish line and I saw T1 and thought ‘OK, I try’. I don't like to crash and be like this but if the level is there then on Sunday we will try to adjust."
Why was he crashing? "This is something related a lot to the bike," Márquez explained. "This year we are very fast but it is so,so difficult to understand where is the limit. Sometimes you have crashes like you didn't expect and you can say ‘yeah you were faster’ but I braked earlier than the previous lap! It is strange, but I almost had some chatter on the rear that I didn't have on the previous lap. It was difficult to understand and I hope that next year – with a different kind of bike, engine, I don't know, an improvement or part – every year you are feeling different. The most important is not to crash in the race."
With Márquez so fast, where did that leave Andrea Dovizioso? The Italian was faster over a single lap, but understood that the Repsol Honda rider had much better race pace. "This is the reality at the moment," Dovizioso replied candidly. "But for sure Dani and Marc have a better pace than everybody with a used tire. This is what we expect so I'm not surprised about that. And about the final result, my position today, I know what we did today is good, but it's not enough. It's not enough because I'm not smooth enough when I make my pace. So we are focused on that, and we know that it will be very important to make 30 laps in a constant way."
Dovizioso took no comfort from Márquez' crash. "Marc crashed a lot of times in his career, especially this year. So I don't think this is something so important about this weekend. For sure it's not the best, but … I don't know. When you crash, there is always a risk, sometimes it's important, sometimes not. Because you know what you did. So he knows very well if it's a problem or not. But the pace he showed today is quite fast."
Where Márquez was generally happy with the bike, and focused solely on tires – the fact that he used a soft tire in the afternoon suggests that the soft will be the race tire, an opinion shared fairly widely – Andrea Dovizioso was still struggling with corner exit. "In the middle of the corner I'm not so fast, but especially the line, the position I am on the exit, I'm not happy," he said. "I can't pick up the bike and exit in a smooth way. I can't do what I want. And that is very important. But it's not easy to fix it."
Though things are not looking good for Dovizioso, the Italian has been buoyed by the support he has felt. "I'm just happy, because a lot of people pay a lot of attention to me," he said. "I'm happy because I can feel a lot of people support me. This is nice." It is true, even of those in the paddock. An informal poll of a few paddock regulars showed that the majority are supporting the Italian. Few believe it is possible, and everyone believes that Márquez is the better rider, but almost everyone would be delighted if Dovizioso were to win the title. It would be a welcome reward for one of the most liked riders in the paddock.
There were lessons there for other riders, Valentino Rossi pointed out. "For me the story of Dovizioso is a very good story," the Italian said on Friday afternoon. "Because he passed through difficult periods in his career, especially in MotoGP. Everybody have to learn from him because he never gave up and especially he never lost the faith, self-belief. He had won one race in ten years and now he has won six races in one year. So to do like this you have to be strong, you have to be 'balanced'. It's like this."
It was in response to a question about the pressure young riders are put under to perform straight away. Dovizioso came into MotoGP, didn't really shine in his early years, then faded from view for a little while. The transformation has been remarkable, and a reward for the hard yards he has put in over the years. Given time, talent will blossom, but the pressure for young riders is always to score as soon as they arrive in a new class. This was not unique to motorcycle racing, Rossi said. "Not just in MotoGP, our sport, but in all sports, everybody wants the results straight away. You never have time. We try to help our guys, we try to work to improve every time. Everybody needs their time."
Perhaps the main competition for Márquez and Dovizioso comes from their teammates. Dani Pedrosa's race pace was exceptional, especially in the afternoon, though he had struggled a little in the morning. Jorge Lorenzo had been quick, both over a single lap and in terms of race pace. "It was not only one lap that I was fast," Lorenzo said. "The last two runs I used the medium rear and was very consistent – one of the most consistent. I put in the soft rear and improved so much. But not only for one lap. I made three laps in 1'30 high. It was good."
Lorenzo explained where the Ducati was losing out to the Hondas. "We have a good stability on braking. The bike always has a good stability. But as always we struggle in the corners that we need to stay for a long time on the angle, and we need to turn the bike. The bike struggles to turn there and we lose compared to the Hondas for example."
Low grip, no M1s
The Yamahas, on the other hand, were nowhere. The problem was a familiar one. On a track with low grip, they simply didn't have the pace. "The grip level in this track is very low also because it's cold and you have to use quite hard tires," Valentino Rossi explained. "So it's a bad, bad condition for us this year, because during all this season we suffer very much in these conditions."
"For me the biggest problem today was hard braking," the Movistar Yamaha rider explained. "Because it is difficult to stop the bike and also after some laps we start to suffer with the rear tire, like happened a lot of times this year. For me this track is very tricky because it's cold and the grip is very low, but at the same time you need very hard tires for the race. So I think it will be not an easy weekend."
After a dismal morning – Rossi ended FP1 down in eighteenth – he made some improvement in the afternoon, though that still left him out of Q2. The main objective for Saturday morning is to find a bit more braking, and then aim for a spot in the top ten in FP3, to prevent a trip to Q1, with all the additional difficulties that presents during qualifying.
Rossi's teammate Maverick Viñales was a good deal more downbeat. "We are working to try to do a good weekend, but mentally it is going to be difficult because the bike is not working," the young Spaniard said. "The rear tire is working really good, so let's see tomorrow. We will try to make the maximum. I tried both, front and rear medium and soft; with both I felt good and I feel the tires have a good potential to push, but the problem is from our bike, not the tires."
"We have this problem at previous races, but here the corners are very narrow and the problems are much higher," Viñales said. "We were struggling on the brakes, and trying to make the bike turn in the corners was difficult. In Malaysia we had the problems in the slowest corner and in the fast corners the bike was really good. Here, all the corners are 90 degrees or more, so we have a big problem for all the weekend."
The factory riders may have been struggling, but that was not the case for Johann Zarco. The Monster Tech 3 Yamaha rider felt he had very good pace, and was capable of challenging for victory, if things went his way. Like Márquez, he had focused on getting the soft tire to work for the race. "I feel good, happy that I started on a good pace this morning," he said. "Overall, using the medium rear tire. The soft rear tire should be a good option for the race, so we have to save this option and keep it for qualifying and the race."
"I think this morning we were the only two riders in the top ten keeping the used tire," Zarco explained. "We were struggling a bit with a 15 lap tire. That's why. We are working on it, and when we find the solution, I will get this good feeling after 15 laps, for sure we can hope to stay with him, and why not fight for the victory?"
But Zarco's main target is to beat the factory riders, that much was clear from his words after practice. Asked if he had made any requests to Yamaha for machinery next year, Zarco told us he believed actions speak louder than words. "I think the best way to request something is to stay in front of the factory guys," he said. "So I'm pushing for that. It's working, and I still feel that I'm learning, still always trying to improve myself, and giving good information. I have Japanese people around me, and if I deserve it, I will be happy. I think we will decide it when we test together after Valencia."
You probably think this Safety Commission is about you, don't you
Zarco's reply gives an insight into just how mentally strong the Frenchman is. He works to his own internal plan, drawn up with his team, and without regard to what anyone else does. He demonstrates how little regard he has for other riders by refusing to go to the Safety Commission, the regular rider meetings held by Dorna on the Friday of every race weekend.
"It's a personal choice," was how Zarco explained his absence from Safety Commission meetings. "In my opinion, there are good people in Race Direction, and speaking about safety, they can see already many things and they can give us safety. If we have a comment to do, you can do it. I think the Safety Commission, if you have a comment to say, you come and you say it, or you speak with Race Direction to say it. But every weekend speaking about safety? For me it's quite safe."
Zarco also hinted at how the atmosphere in the Safety Commission can go sour if riders end up complaining about each other. He was staying away, he hinted, because he was sick of facing complaints from other riders about his riding. "When [the track] is safe, you don't need to go, and if riders are complaining because I'm pushing them or touching them, they are complaining at the Safety Commission about that. But then I'm confident, and I trust the people working for race direction, and they can analyze. The good thing is that they were racers before, so they can understand very well."
The Safety Commission also had a tendency to get too easily sidetracked, Zarco said. "When we are there, there are too many speaking," he told the media. "Sometimes not only for safety, everyone says their own problems. It's not safety, it's just everyone speaking about what he feels. Me? I feel good."
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