There is a peculiar type of athlete mathematics. It involves a failure to grasp the concept of percentages, leading to elite athletes promising to give "110%", or sometimes even "1000%". Logic dictates that an athlete putting 100% of their effort and reserves into an activity would lead them to collapse and die of exhaustion as they crossed the line. That would deny them the joy of victory, but more importantly, it would drastically curtail an athlete's career to just a single event, making it a rather fruitless avenue to pursue.
Of course, what they actually mean when they talk of giving 110% is of course making the maximum effort to achieve a goal. Some, commendably, refrain from mathematic hyperbole, sticking to the 100% maxim. Marc Márquez belongs to this group, speaking of giving 100% during practice and races.
A case can be made that Marc Márquez is the rider who most closely approaches 100% while riding. The list of legendary saves the Repsol Honda rider has chalked up at tests and races seems to grow every time he gets on the bike. Of course, he gets plenty of chances to practice: Márquez had 27 crashes in 2017, second only to Sam Lowes. Respected motorcycle guru Kevin Cameron believes that Márquez' saves are not saves, but actually the result of a technique he studies. With every monster save Márquez manages, that gets harder to argue with.
Mr Sixty Six Degrees
Friday at Qatar brought another big save. Pramac Ducati's Jack Miller happened to following Márquez at the time, and had a front-row seat. "I let him past at Turn 6, and I think it happened to be one of his biggest ones yet, it went for so long, all the way to the white line on the outside," Miller said, clearly in awe. "I thought 'he's down, he's down, hes' down, he's down' and then he stood it up and kept going again!"
Márquez laughed it off, as is his wont. "It's true, today I was struggling a lot with the front tire," he said. He corroborated Miller's impression of it being a major save. "I checked on the data, I was 66° of lean angle, so even more than Valencia, but I was able to recover that crash. Of course, when you have that problem, it's not the good way, but in the end, that's my riding style."
The thing is, that save was not an isolated incident. Miller: "Following Marc as well, I watched him lose the front I think six times in the space of two laps. I followed him the lap before crashed through the fast three corners, and he lost the front each time. It was amazing to watch from behind, there was smoke and stuff coming off him. It looked like he was really struggling, like. I was having these moments, but I wasn't pushing too much, and he was pushing into it. I mean, even his crash at Turn 2 wasn't like your normal crash at Turn 2, it was quite late into the corner."
Watching Márquez from behind had made Miller feel sheepish about his own front-end problems with the Pramac Ducati. "It made me feel like I'm complaining a bit too much, maybe, because I'm complaining about mine going a little bit, but watching his go it looked like he had a bit of a handful, you know. Like he was pushing, don't get me wrong, but especially in the fast three corners, he lost the front at the first one, ran a bit wide, and so he went even hotter into the second one. It just seemed like he was a sucker for punishment a bit. He just kept going at it."
Changing the script
Generational riders change the sport they enter, and Márquez is no different. Mick Doohan chose bikes which only he could ride, and used them to destroy the opposition. Valentino Rossi understood that racing glory is to be found in battle, and brought that to racing. Casey Stoner saw any time not spent at maximum speed as wasted, setting fastest sector times on his out lap, and forcing his rivals to respond.
Marc Márquez is exploring the limits of grip, redefining just how hard riders have to push to extract maximum performance from the bike. Márquez seeks out the limit on every lap, whether it be testing or practice, in search of a better understanding of the bike, and of the tires. He has upped his effort once again this off-season, doing more laps and longer runs than his rivals, saving the front more often, still unafraid of crashing though it is something he does with some regularity. If anyone is to match him, they will have seek out limits as he does, and find a way to beat him.
Alternatively, they can invent their own ways of outperforming the Spaniard. Though Márquez was happy with his performance on the second day, he had seen just how fast Andrea Dovizioso had been during the Ducati rider's long run, and was concerned at his race pace. "If you check the lap times, he was very very fast," Márquez said. "Maybe he didn't push at 100%, but he was very consistent, riding in 1'55 low easily, or at least many many laps. And at the moment, we are maybe six or seven tenths behind, so tomorrow the target is to try to be three or four tenths behind him. I know that it won't be the same pace, but we need to be closer."
Dovizioso wasn't the only rider Márquez feared, though. "Both Suzuki riders but especially Iannone," the Repsol Honda rider said. "His pace is also very very good, not only one lap. And then Zarco today also. I didn't check well, but Zarco was also fast." There could be other riders with cards up their sleeves, though, waiting for the last day of the test. "There is still one day left, many teams, and riders are trying different things. Tomorrow for sure that at 7pm there will be many long runs, riding and trying to understand, and then you will see which base and which pace."
Dovi plays the long game
Márquez was right to fear Dovizioso's pace. The factory Ducati rider went out shortly after 7pm – race time - and did 12 laps on a soft tire. His pace in that long run was phenomenal: two 1'54s, five low 1'55s, and a worst lap of 1'55.819. Most others who did longer runs could only manage 1'56s. Crucially, Dovizioso did his run (and his best time of the day) on the soft tire, the Italian focusing on tire management again, just as he had done at Barcelona last year, and just as he had done throughout the season. Dovizioso understands that you win races on the last lap, not the first lap, and that means you have to have the tire left to do the lap time at the end of the race.
"We already did 12 laps with a soft tire to understand the feedback with the tires," Dovizioso told reporters. "I was really fast and I'm happy because I did my best lap during that run. The feeling with the bike was really, really good." The Italian had compared the two 2018 versions of the chassis once again, but still hadn't made a decision. "Still we didn't decide the way because the difference is very small, but overall about today I'm really happy."
Dovizioso, like many riders, had run into problems with grip from the front tire. The peculiar nature of the Qatar track leads to problems finding the right compromise between the left and the right of the tire. The Honda riders want the hardest tire possible to cope with the braking of the RC213V, but that means the left side, which gets much less use, is too hard. Go softer, and the bike either won't turn, or else it ends up with severe wear on the front.
That was a particular problem for Yamaha. Valentino Rossi was trying to get the medium front to work, without suffering excessive tire wear. "We have a problem with the front tire, we can't make it last to the end of the race," he said. "That's the biggest worry. We tried the hard tire, and that would probably last, but I don't like it. It doesn't have any grip. I don't think that is our tire."
Jack Miller had similar problems, though his was with the soft front. The Pramac team had changed the geometry, adding some rake and trail to try to rid the bike of chatter, which had plagued them on Thursday. "We opened the angle up and that sort of fixed it, but then it was too much and I couldn't turn, so then we just went back to our Thailand bike and adjusted the weight balance a little bit, and that sort of fixed the chatter problems. But I'm still losing the front, especially on the softer tire. Tried to run it at the end there, did like eight laps, and on the right-hand side it was completely destroyed."
While Rossi and Miller had problems with the front, Maverick Viñales had issues on the rear. "I felt less grip on the rear," the Movistar Yamaha rider said. "I felt much less acceleration. More spinning. I tried two times, because I thought may it was the tire not at the same level, but the spinning was the same." Viñales had at least improved his pace from Thursday, though he had been unable to set a decent time when he had pushed for a single fast lap. "We are not even close to the level we were last year," Viñales said despondently. Rossi was a little more optimistic, believing that the bike was at least as good as in 2017. The problem is, it's now 2018.
More drive please
Johann Zarco also had issues with the rear of the bike, though he was still both fast and consistent with the Tech3 Yamaha. "With this bike, we have a lot of power, I think it's most of the time the exit of the corner where we can find small things to have better acceleration," Zarco said, adding that he believed that extra drive could come from chassis and suspension, rather than electronics.
"To compromise to have really all the time a better feeling and control well the driving of the bike, the traction when you open the throttle," Zarco said. "This is the way. But it's coming also from the entry into the corner. Today we were doing step by step small things, and I think tomorrow we have to keep the same way of working, because we are going to find these good things."
Suzuki is super once again
After a difficult test in Thailand, Andrea Iannone has been a rocketship around Qatar, the track clearly suiting both the nature of the Suzuki GSX-RR and Iannone's riding style. "In Sepang and Thailand, in some areas the feeling with the bike is really good, but in others no, because on the braking point and first part of entry I struggle a lot. I lose the front in every corner and I don’t use 100% of the potential of the bike," Iannone said.
"Here the corners are more fast, more easy, more smooth. So I have a good feeling with the front. I brake very good and the bike improve a little bit. We, day by day, work in a good way and improve a little bit the lap time," Iannone explained. The fact that his teammate Alex Rins was fifth overall, behind Iannone, Dovizioso, Márquez, and Zarco suggests that the bike also played a role.
MotoGP, now more art than science
What conclusions can we draw from the second day of the final test at Qatar? Despite the fact that once again, different teams were on different schedules, and not everyone was chasing either a fast time or a race simulation, a pattern is starting to emerge. There is good news and there is bad news: as the Michelin and spec electronics era progresses, the bikes are becoming more and more sensitive to even the smallest change in conditions. Sure, the factories get better at understanding tire wear, and Michelin are changing their tires far less than they did in the first year, but as the French tire manufacturer closes in on the best tires for each race track, the perfect operating window gets smaller.
Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that at each track, there are multiple, very narrow operating windows, allowing different manufacturers and different riders all to succeed. At the next track, a different combination of riders and bikes can get it right, leaving the rest to struggle. It will be hard to predict who will do well at which track, as it will depend on the temperature and conditions which prevail on the day. MotoGP has become a little less of a science, and perhaps a little more of an art.
This was Marc Márquez' prediction for the 2018 season, a year of ups and downs in his view. "You already saw last year, there will be many ups and downs. We already saw this in the preseason: even on the same circuit, different days, different hours, there are many ups and downs between the manufacturers, and the key will be to try to be consistent and in the top five every race."
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