The most remarkable skill of truly great motorcycle racers is their ability to compartmentalize everything. Break down every situation, put each part into its own separate container, and not let one thing bleed into another. Private lives – often messy, sometimes chaotic – stay in the box marked private life, and don't cross over into racing. Pain stays in the section reserved for pain, and is not allowed to encroach in the part set aside for riding. Crashes are to be analyzed, understood, and then forgotten, but not to be allowed anywhere near the part of a racer's mind where they keep their fears. That is the theory, at least, and the better a rider can manage to live up to the theory, the greater their chances of success.
Marc Márquez gave a masterclass in the art of compartmentalization during qualifying at Valencia. The Repsol Honda rider went out on his first run in Q2, and on his first flying lap, lost the front going into Turn 4, the first right hander after a whole sequence of lefts. It looked like a harmless low side, of the sort which Márquez has so often, and which he usually escapes without harm. But whether it was due to the bars being wrenched out of his hands, or due to his arm being folded up awkwardly beneath him as he tumbled through the gravel, he managed to partially dislocate his weak left shoulder.
He got up out of the gravel in obvious pain, doubled over and shambling towards the barrier. Once behind the tire wall, he was picked up by his manager and mentor Emilio Alzamora, and taken on the scooter back to the paddock. He was rushed up into the Repsol Honda truck, where Dr Mir examined him. He suited back up, put his helmet on, and went and sat in the garage, as his team held his second bike ready to go.
After a few minutes just sitting there, clearly in pain, but just as clearly trying to push the pain into a separate part of his brain, Marc Márquez climbed aboard his spare Honda RC213V, exited pit lane, and did two more laps to secure a spot on the second row of the grid, just five hundredths of a second shy of Andrea Dovizioso in third. If he had been capable of a third flying lap, he might have been able to bag a front row start. But even Marc Márquez' remarkable ability to compartmentalize runs out eventually. The pain became too much, so he stopped.
Even more remarkably, Márquez revealed that his shoulder had been troubling him since he dislocated in Motegi, when he reached over to receive Scott Redding's congratulations after winning the championship. He had been in pain since then, but despite that, he secured pole position in tricky conditions at Phillip Island, had Johann Zarco break the rear of his seat during the race, then hunt down Valentino Rossi in the searing heat at Sepang, and go on to win the race. He had been through all that, then partially dislocated his shoulder at Valencia, and qualified on the second row anyway. That is quite some feat of mental strength.
"It was unlucky, because I knew that since Motegi, the shoulder is not so good," Márquez said on Saturday afternoon. "Even last week I had a few troubles and I'm not 100%, but anyway I was unlucky because I was not pushing, just maybe the tire was not up to the correct temperature. I lost the front and then when I arrived in the gravel, I already felt something strange in the shoulder. Then when I went from the track I tried to move a little bit, my people helped me and then everything went into place. Then arrived the doctor, we made a check and everything was fine so I feel ready to ride again."
"I went out again on the track, of course I didn’t push like normal because – I mean it was painful - but I did not have enough confidence to push, but even like this we finished just 0.1s from pole position in fifth place. Happy because in the end we saved the qualifying."
The pain was too severe to just ignore, Márquez said. "In this case it was impossible, because the pain was there. I mean, if you see I did just two laps and in the last lap I already stopped in the box because it was enough. I said 'Okay, I don’t want the pole position, I just want a time to be on the front two rows'. I think it was even better than I expected because the pain was there, but the most important is that I was ready to ride the bike like we see because the lap times were fast. But of course now it's important to work in a good way with the physio to be, not 100% tomorrow, but to be ready."
No easy fix
Márquez is scheduled for surgery on 1st December, for a procedure his brother Alex has also undergone, to be carried out by Dr Mir, the paddock's favorite orthopedic surgeon. While that may fix the issue of the recurring (and painful) dislocations, it is far from certain it will stop the shoulder from being painful.
That, at least, is the experience of Valentino Rossi. The Movistar Yamaha rider also crashed in FP3, banging up his shoulder in the process. That left him favoring his shoulder, and also in pain. It was the shoulder he had surgery on back in 2010, after injuring it during a training crash after Qatar. Despite it being eight years since the operation, it was still a constant cause of pain, Rossi revealed.
"I have some pain sometimes in my left shoulder, and it is not 100%," he told reporters. "The hit was big because I crashed very high. I had some pain and took some painkillers, but for riding it is not a problem. It is an old, old injury and usually it is not so bad, but if I have a problem then there is some pain." Since that injury, and despite the pain, Rossi has had 10 wins, 58 podiums, and 6 pole positions, finishing second in the championship three times and nearly winning in 2015. Valentino Rossi is not so bad at compartmentalization himself.
Strange days like these
Crashes by Rossi and Márquez were just another part of what was a strange day. Despite it not really raining during the morning session, the track remained wet throughout FP3, cold temperatures and a lack of wind preventing the surface from drying. A dry line started to appear at the very end of Moto3 qualifying – all three riders on the front row grabbed their spot using slicks, while the rest remained on wet tires – and times quickly dropped during MotoGP FP4, riders switching from wets to slicks after the first few minutes.
By the time riders lined up for qualifying, the track was nearly, but not quite completely dry. Damp patches remained, keeping the times well away from the track lap record. And making qualifying a complicated and close affair: Maverick Viñales pushed through from Q1 to take pole position, but his time in Q1 would have been good enough to take third.
The tough conditions also made for a much more level playing field. By the end of qualifying, all six MotoGP manufacturers were represented in the top eight places, with five of the six on the front two rows. It is a pretty remarkable grid: Maverick Viñales took pole, two races after taking Yamaha's first win in 25 races, and an incredible turnaround for Yamaha since the last of the European races. Alex Rins is second, his best ever qualifying in MotoGP, and the first time he has started from the front row.
Andrea Dovizioso, Danilo Petrucci, and Marc Márquez in third, fourth, and fifth respectively can hardly be called unusual, but Pol Espargaro in sixth equaled KTM's best qualifying position in MotoGP, matching his starting position at Phillip Island last year. Aleix Espargaro's eighth place on the grid seems almost humdrum after that, but with the Aprilia rider just over three tenths off Viñales' time, there really is very little to choose between the six manufacturers. MotoGP has come a very long way.
Hardware, not software
Where does the improvement for Yamaha really come from? After the press conference, we chatted to Maverick Viñales' current rider coach Wilco Zeelenberg, and he explained that it came almost entirely from the change in geometry and weight distribution. Viñales' insistence that Yamaha listen to him and allow him to dictate the direction of the bike had helped, and a win, a podium, and a pole position were signs this was paying off. It is also a positive pointer for the future, once 2019 testing starts at Valencia on Tuesday.
The closeness at the front of the grid also left a few big names starting from much further back. Johann Zarco starts from eleventh, Jorge Lorenzo from thirteenth, and Valentino Rossi from sixteenth. For the Yamaha riders, of them, their qualifying position belied their pace in varying conditions. Johann Zarco was fifth in FP3, and second in FP4, but a crash during qualifying left him on the fourth row of the grid.
Valentino Rossi felt good in the wet on Friday, but never really got comfortable on Saturday, struggling with feeling from FP3 and never really finding it. "It was a very difficult day for me, very tough," Rossi said "After the practice of yesterday I was quite optimistic to be strong because I feel good. But this morning in FP3 which was very important I was not fast. I tried to push at the beginning but I crashed. After that I took the other bike but I didn’t have the pace, enough pace and enough feeling to go in the top ten. So we modify something for the afternoon but at the same time the condition are different and becoming dry. But in reality in FP4 and in the afternoon I never had a very good feeling with the bike. I felt uncomfortable. I cannot push and I was quite slow."
Rain offers chances
Of course, the fact that heavy rain is expected on Sunday may yet render all of qualifying more or less irrelevant. "I think starting from the back, it's better to have wet conditions," Alvaro Bautista explained, after a sensor problem meant his traction control was continually cutting in during Q1, and leaving him down in nineteenth for his last MotoGP race before heading for the factory Ducati team in WorldSBK. "It's – not easier, but if you have a good feeling, you can come back and fight for good positions."
In part, that is mental, Bautista explained, the rain making the race feel twice as long as does in the dry. "In the race it's different, because you have to do 27 laps and in the wet, it feels like 50," he said. "So we'll see, the important thing is to have a good feeling from the beginning, and try to survive during the race."
Although most of the honors are already settled, Márquez having wrapped up the title at Motegi, there are still a couple of things to play for. Valentino Rossi was pessimistic about holding on to third in the championship from Maverick Viñales, with Viñales starting from pole. The Spaniard needs to take just 2 points from his teammate to drop Rossi from third to fourth.
The race for best independent rider is also still open. Danilo Petrucci trails Johann Zarco by 5 points, but Petrucci has been very strong in the wet all weekend. Zarco needs to find a solution to the problems he had in the wet on Friday if he is to stand a chance against Petrucci. "With heavy, heavy rain, if we understood well why I crashed on Friday, and then I get a quite good feeling from the warm up, then I can do a great race," Zarco said. "If we don't find it with the heavy rain, I will be worried, because Danilo is pretty fast, and he loves that kind of condition, he is able to ride and have confidence and be fast. So he is the main guy to check tomorrow. So I will see what to do."
Though he starts ahead of Zarco, Petrucci himself is less confident of pulling off a coup and winning the battle for best independent rider. "Looking at the points, it's Johann that has to take care, because for me the most important thing is the Independent rider, even if the fifth place [in the championship] is interesting," the Pramac Ducati rider opined. "But I have to recover five points and it's a lot. So I have to risk something because if Johann is clever he can stay close behind me and it's enough." When Petrucci's view was put to Zarco, the Tech3 Yamaha rider agreed. "He is right!" the Frenchman joked.
In the heat of the moment
Danilo Petrucci provided a note of light entertainment at the end of FP4, when his bike caught fire at the end of the session. Petrucci had been waiting to do a practice start when flames started licking out of his lower fairing. The Pramac Ducati rider mistook the crowd shouting warnings at him for cheers of encouragement, and started to wave back at the fans.
"Unfortunately the fairing was a little bit too close to the exhaust, and when I tried the practice start I could see everyone waving at me. So I waved back and they said 'look, look' and the bike was on fire! So they were not cheering at me…" he joked.
Though it is not common for bikes to catch fire, Petrucci's predicament is a symptom of the amount of heat the nearly 300hp Ducati GP18 produces. The engine and exhausts are tightly packed behind the fairing, and it is not uncommon to see Ducati fairing lowers with scorch marks where the exhausts start to burn off the paint. You can tell when a Ducati enters the pits, as they trail a strong smell of singed carbon behind them. The heat is so great that Ducati garages have specially adapted leaf blowers standing by, for blowing cold air into the fairing vents to get rid of the worst of the heat, until the bike has cooled enough to be left alone without anything serious happening. There may be plenty of technical restrictions on the design of MotoGP machines, but the engineers are still stretching the limits as far as they can go, and sometimes coming painfully close to tipping over.
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