It is a common enough sight in Grand Prix racing: slower riders cruising around at the edge of the track, waiting for a faster rider to come by so they can get a tow. It is especially common at the Motorland Aragon circuit. With its massive back straight of nearly a kilometer in length, a decent slipstream can be worth an awful lot.
It is less common to see slower riders cruising for a tow in MotoGP. In Moto3, sure: with horsepower at a premium, cutting down on drag equates to free speed. In Moto2 as well, as the fact that the bikes all produce exactly the same horsepower means that riders have to find an advantage anywhere they can. But MotoGP? A lack of horsepower is not really a problem in the premier class. The bigger problem is usually transferring it to the tarmac to generate drive, and translate that power to speed.
But Aragon is different. Sure, tucking in behind another bike can give you extra speed using their draft, but above all, using another rider as a target makes you that little bit faster. "MotoGP is so close now that if you can follow someone, get a bit of a tow, that's obviously going to improve your time," Bradley Smith explained on Saturday afternoon. "We don't see it very often in MotoGP, to be honest, as much as it was today, but it shows how important it is here in Aragon."
Reference, not tow
Why is it important? "I think it's just the nature of the track, to have a bit of a reference here seems to help," the Red Bull KTM rider told us. "Just that extra little bit of speed everywhere, just eyes up and looking through the corner, a bit like Assen." It was not so much that you could gain half a second down the back straight, more that using another rider as a reference would gain you a few hundredths in every corner.
Smith was one of the losers in the war for a tow. On his final flying lap in Q1, he had been impeded by both Maverick Viñales and Franco Morbidelli, losing him a few tenths and causing him to miss out on Q2. Viñales and Morbidelli would be punished, Viñales with a 3-place grid penalty, Morbidelli with 6 places.
"You can't sit at the end of a back straight like they were," Smith said. "I caught Maverick unawares, Maverick tried to open, but if you're doing 150km/h and you open, you can't accelerate to 300km/h, it just doesn't happen. And Franco just didn't look behind. So Franco was just downright dangerous. Simeon found himself in a similar situation, if he's a little bit more to the inside, basically you had three guys in the braking area, and you just can't do that."
It wasn't just happening in Q1, though, a similar pattern was on display in Q2. In the last three minutes of qualifying, it seemed like just about all twelve riders were sat at the edge of the back straight, waiting for a fast wheel to grab onto. "I saw it again in Q2," Smith said, "but it looked like the majority of guys were pulling right over to the left-hand side, all the way down the straight. I didn't see a lot of guys waiting in the brake area. So I mean it's frustrating when guys pull over to the left, but it's part of the game. What I saw in Q2 is just part of racing, what I saw in Q1 was dangerous, in my opinion."
That waiting game down the back straight was the culmination of a giant game of cat and mouse which had started when the lights went out for the start of the Q2 session. The riders went out in a set of waves, the first led by Dani Pedrosa. A second wave followed shortly after, a smaller group with more space in between.
Following riders isn't the only way to chase a fast lap, of course. The other way is to look for a clear lap, and Jorge Lorenzo managed that by the simple expedient of sitting in the garage and waiting for the others to leave, before starting his quick lap.
In the second run, the waiting game became even more egregious. The entire grid sat on their bikes outside the garage, rubber freshly fitted, all looking at one another, waiting for someone to make the first move. Danilo Petrucci broke first, his departure triggering another wave of bikes heading out to the track. With under 5 minutes to go, the grid was left with no choice.
But the waiting game was far from over. Instead of all heading out on a hot lap, the pack followed one another round for a lap, waiting for someone to crack. They were cutting it finer and finer, and in the end, something had to give. There was simply no more time to waste hoping for a good tow, and so the pack went all in.
That gave Marc Márquez an advantage. The Repsol Honda rider had posted a very quick lap in the first run, and so could rest on his laurels, and hope to improve his time with a little help from someone else. Or alternatively, latch onto the back of Andrea Dovizioso's factory Ducati, and try to disrupt his rival's attempt at pole.
But Márquez' mind games fell flat: Dovizioso pushed on, despite having Márquez hot on his heels, but the two men found themselves in the middle of traffic. Alvaro Bautista was just quick enough for Dovizioso to use as a target, but threatened to hold the Italian up. But a smart (if risky) move entering the Bus Stop, Turns 12 and 13, meant that Dovizioso got ahead of Bautista, putting the Spaniard in between himself and Marc Márquez. The Repsol Honda ran wide, lost the tow, and lost his chance of improving his time. His attempt at mind games had gone off in his own face.
It hadn't been easy for Dovizioso, however. "We were too many riders in the same place," the Italian said. "I tried to find a window. I didn’t want to push the first lap because we slowed down too much and the tire wasn’t ready 100%. I slowed down, but again every rider slowed down, so it was very difficult. The point was I was in the second row so I have to do the lap time. I was able to find a good window, but unfortunately Alvaro didn’t make a really good lap time. He was in front of me with a small gap. I catch him immediately and have to find a way to overtake him. I did it in turn 12, but I have to make a strange brake. I almost crash because everybody was on the limit and I lose time."
Three in a row
But Dovizioso's time at the top would be very short lived. Five seconds after Dovizioso had taken over pole from Marc Márquez, his teammate Jorge Lorenzo bettered his time, and seized pole permanently. It was his third in a row, and a real turnaround for Lorenzo: after the first few races of 2018, the talk was of whether Lorenzo would be out of a job for next season, after underperforming so badly. Since then, he has four poles, and Aragon was the third in a row.
"This third pole position in a row is nice, because in almost one year and a half I didn’t get the pole position," Lorenzo told the press conference. "It was difficult to get the maximum of the soft tires with the Ducati, but little by little I understood the way to maximize this grip. Finally I get these four pole positions in the year and third in a row. Very happy."
It hadn't been easy, however. "This time it was very close, not like Misano, because the lap times were very equal and to have so many riders in front waiting for a wheel made it more difficult to remain concentrated and to push in the last lap. But luckily this group that I have in front of me finally push in the last lap. I have free way, so I could try to improve a little bit the lap time from before for just a little bit and get this pole."
Qualifying and race pace
The front row is a fair reflection of the relative strength of the field. The two factory Ducatis are the strongest bikes on the grid, and Marc Márquez is capable of matching their pace. But the way Dovizioso, Lorenzo, and Márquez make their time is very different: Dovizioso and Lorenzo are fast and smooth, and capable of holding their own. Márquez looks on the ragged edge, the bike moving around wildly underneath him. Even then, the Ducatis had to push: on his final flying lap to take pole, Lorenzo's GP18 had both the front and rear wheels in the air at one time or another.
Their pace in qualifying is an echo of their race pace in FP3 and FP4. Dovizioso, Lorenzo, and Márquez are capable of running low 1'48s throughout the race, a pace no one else can really manage. From there, it comes down to tire choice, and how each rider wishes to gamble. The hard and soft rear tires will both do the race, and each has its own advantages. Choosing a particular tire will determine the race strategy, and the chance of victory.
Like almost everyone else on the grid, Alex Rins is also caught between the two rear tire options. "Looks like the first laps, the grip is very similar between both tires," the Suzuki rider said, "but then after five laps, six laps, the hard one starts to slide, and it's constant. With the soft one, more or less the tire life is better, but it's going down lap by lap. The H is more constant."
Riders have to choose between the hard rear, which has a known drop in performance after five or six laps, after which it will offer a consistent lap time, or the soft rear, which has a smaller drop but which then continues to deteriorate as the race goes on.
Managing the tires will be the key to victory. "During the practice we improve a little bit, not the speed, but in the way I can save the tire," Andrea Dovizioso explained. "I think it will be the key for the race tomorrow for everybody. It will be for sure a difficult race because everybody is struggling with the consumption of the rear tire. It will be very hot, so the strategy will be very, very important tomorrow."
What does tire management entail? Michelin motorsports director Piero Taramasso explained that it was not so much a question of worrying that the tire would run out of rubber – all of the tires Michelin brings to the race are capable of doing race distance – but more of optimizing the performance window of each tire. It was important to manage the temperature in the tire throughout the race: get it too hot, and performance quickly drops off. That means staying out of the slipstream to help cool the front tire, and managing spin using a combination of the right wrist and electronics to keep the temperature of the rear down.
Tire management is what Andrea Dovizioso excels at, so starting from the front row makes him a hot favorite. Jorge Lorenzo is also capable of doing this exceptionally well, and will choose the soft front tire to give him the braking performance he needs to go fast. Marc Márquez can manage many things, so tire temperature seems like something he is able to ride around. But you get the distinct impression that the Repsol Honda rider is struggling a little more than the two Ducatis.
Win it? Or bin it?
Márquez may have to settle for a podium, rather than outright victory, but as it is now three races, and over two months since his last victory (at the Sachsenring in July), his patience will be tested. Will he be able to hold his nerve, or will he go all or nothing for a win?
Márquez believes he has the bike to be competitive, at least. "It looks like I’m the only guy that can fight against the two Ducati riders," the Repsol Honda rider told the press conference. "We have the package. We have the bike. Here I feel stronger in a few areas than in other circuits, like for example Misano. But even like this, still is a long main straight that they did a big difference there. But apart from that, we are strong in a few areas so we will try to manage in a good way. But like you said, we cannot forget that I’m 67 points in front in the championship. So if we cannot win tomorrow, if we cannot fight for the victory, it’s important to finish the race." Easier said than done in the heat of the battle.
Behind the leaders, two more Hondas are in the chase. Dani Pedrosa has a little more pace than usual, as you might expect at a track which he loves, while Cal Crutchlow has been very strong all weekend, continuing his run of form in recent races. Crutchlow continues to brood over the lack of a carbon swingarm, to which he attributes race endurance in hot conditions.
"There's another rider who has got the parts, and we haven't," the LCR Honda rider told us. "I think I'm riding very well, but the difference is the parts they've got now. Some race tracks, I don't think it's much difference, but when it's hot the way it is here, hot in Misano, I think that's been the difference."
The two Suzukis and Jack Miller are also in with a strong chance. Miller made a mistake in qualifying, but his race pace on used tires in FP4 was impressive. Beating the factory Ducatis and Márquez was pretty much impossible, but Miller is in contention in that second group.
The nadir is not yet in sight
Unlike Miller, Yamaha is not in contention, despite a very strong display by Maverick Viñales. The Spaniard got through with a very quick lap in Q1, but could only manage 11th in Q2, though with his Q1 penalty, he will start from 14th. He at least saved Yamaha the ignominy of missing out on Q2 altogether. Aragon was only the second time not a single Yamaha had made it through to Q2 directly.
Viñales had simply stopped worrying about his performance, and ridden out of his skin, despite the poor grid position. He was battling against a bike which was going backwards, he said. "Everyone improved one second from last year and we got two tenths back. It seems like the bike works less than last year."
Viñales didn't want to even think about next year, preferring just to get his head down, and not get depressed at the prospects of another bad year, unless Yamaha can come up with a radical improvement. "I’m really concentrated just on today and being ready for tomorrow," Viñales said. "I don’t want to think about next year, otherwise it will be bad and I will make 15th. I need to keep concentrated on this year. I’ll do my best to trust the bike, to trust that we can make a small step. As I said, I need to be ready so that when the bike works a little bit good I can be there. I don’t want to think onto the next year already."
The perils of worrying about next year were apparent on the other side of the garage. While Maverick Viñales made the best of a bad hand, Valentino Rossi simply floundered. He qualified in 18th, his worst qualifying position since he broke his wrist at Assen in 2006, and struggled through a difficult QP. Prior to that, he hadn't qualified so far down the field since Indonesia 1996, his second ever Grand Prix, racing 125s.
Rossi's comments illustrated his plight. "In reality, I decided to bet everything, because I know that to go into the Q1, I need a lap behind somebody, and I waited," Rossi said. "But unfortunately, we waited too much, and I didn't do the lap. Maybe if I do the second lap, I can improve maybe half a second, I can start three or four positions more in front."
His aims for the race were little better. "For tomorrow, we will try to do something else, we will try to modify the bike in another way," Rossi said. "We will see if we can make a better race, and I will try to take some points. I think this will be the target for tomorrow."
It has been a long time since Valentino Rossi's primary objective has been simply to score points. Yamaha are in a very deep hole, with no sight of climbing out again any time soon.
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