It is a good job it will be dry on Sunday at the Red Bull Ring. Because if it were to stop raining half an hour before the race started, the rest of the field wouldn't see which way Marc Márquez went. That is the conclusion we can draw from Saturday morning in Austria, when FP3 started on a wet track with a dry line forming. Márquez waited patiently in the pits for half an hour, then when the dry line got wide enough, went out on slick, and destroyed the field, lapping 2 seconds or more faster than anyone else.
It was a display of just how useful all that riding flat track has been to Márquez. There is no one quite so good at searching for grip on a sketchy surface, and clinging so precisely to the thin line of drying track which offers grip. It was a repeat of his superiority in Argentina, only in that race, his superiority was marred by a reckless disregard for his fellow racers on track. He did much better in FP3 on Saturday.
The poor conditions caused major headaches for those riders stuck in Q1 after the FP1 session on Friday morning. The weather meant a lost session, with no chance to improve their time, and no real lessons to be learned from a track that was changing all the time. It left Valentino Rossi with no option than to try to make his way through to Q2 in Q1. That didn't happen, and Yamaha had their worse qualifying performance since Valencia 2007. You can read about the fallout from that, the reasons behind it and what Yamaha are doing to fix it, in this story on the situation at Yamaha.
FP4 and qualifying told a different story to FP3, but it is a familiar one nonetheless. 2018 looks eerily similar to 2017, right down to the fact that front row was identical, and the times set by Marc Márquez, Andrea Dovizioso, and Jorge Lorenzo were within a whisker of the times they had set in 2017. On Saturday, Marc Márquez was just 0.006 seconds slower than he had been a year ago.
Looking at race pace in FP4, it is hard to draw any other conclusion than that the 2018 race is going to be a rerun of the contest in 2017. Marc Márquez has astounding pace, but so does Andrea Dovizioso, and Jorge Lorenzo is no slouch either. Alvaro Bautista has strong pace, and Cal Crutchlow looks like he can run at the front. Danilo Petrucci was fast in qualifying, but is concerned over fuel consumption at a track where accelerating long and hard from low speed corners burns through fuel at a high rate.
What would worry Marc Márquez' rivals is the speed he has on very used tires. In FP4, Márquez ran the whole session on a set of used tires racking up the laps while maintaining a fast and consistent pace. "With the soft I was fast," Márquez said. "Even with 25 laps I was able to ride 24 half, that is a good pace, with the medium too." The soft tire, Bradley Smith said, is worth a second a lap, and the drop off in performance is the same as with the medium or hard tires.
That, of course, is in conditions with a cold track and the sun only occasionally breaking through the clouds to warm the surface. On Sunday, track temperatures could be a great deal warmer, which would bring the medium and hard tires into play. Michelin boss Piero Taramasso was convinced that all three rear tires will be used on Sunday, as each has its specific pros and cons, and riding style is more likely to dictate what happens than tire wear.
The front tire, on the other hand, is a good deal more critical. The bikes spend the best part of a minute either straight up and down, or only really leaning through right handers. Then they encounter Turns 6 and 7, the long left handers in the middle of the track. It takes 50 meters to warm up the left side of the tire, making it a treacherous place if you push too hard too early.
Both Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo are confident of being competitive on Sunday, of having the speed to take to Márquez. Last year, Dovizioso outwitted Márquez with ease, letting the Spaniard run wide and cutting inside to take victory. This year, Márquez is determined to do things differently, and is confident of a different outcome.
"Of course I hope that we have some chance and I will try," Márquez said of the possibility of a last-corner dive for the lead. "But we cannot forget our position in the championship. The mentality tomorrow is just start and be there, try to understand the situation, try to understand which feeling. I hope to arrive in the last lap. I know that we will arrive if not together very, very close. But I hope to arrive in another position or another feeling compared last year, because last year I arrive in the limit and I try because I need to try but I didn’t believe. This year I hope to arrive in a different situation."
That does not mean he will throw caution to the wind, however. "I cannot forget that Dovi is 68 points behind me in the championship," Márquez told the press conference. "Lorenzo also 70, I don’t know. They are far, so is better to lose 5 points or 9 points than 25."
Márquez' attitude promises much at the Red Bull Ring, but last time out, he couldn't seal the deal. All the evidence from Friday and Saturday is that he will have another chance to do just that on Sunday.
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