You don't expect to be cold in the desert. On Friday evening, most of the paddock were wandering around in short sleeves and t-shirts until after 9pm. On Saturday, people were pulling on jackets shortly after sunset. By the time MotoGP finished, people were starting to lose feeling in their hands.
It wasn't just the temperature. The wind had picked up enormously on Saturday, blowing sand onto the track in places, and blowing any residual heat from ever nook and cranny around the circuit. It was not the normal chill of the desert evening. It was cold.
That caused more than a few problems during the evening. Session after session, class after class, riders fell, mostly at Turn 2. That is the first left hand corner for nearly 2km, after the final right hander before the long straight, and then hard braking for Turn 1. That is a lot of time for the front tire to cool down, especially when there is a hard headwind blowing down the main straight, whipping the heat from the tires.
Horses for courses
Should the race time be moved to prevent more crashes? That depends on who you talk to. If you are on a Honda, then racing at 8pm is very close to thrusting the riders into the mouth of peril, with nothing to defend themselves with. "We already pushed a lot yesterday, nearly all the riders, to change the time because we are taking a risk that is not necessary," Marc Márquez said. "It is a survival race for everyone, but especially for me, because my inexperience of the bike and my condition," said Repsol Honda teammate Jorge Lorenzo.
If you are not on a Honda, there is a little less urgency. Of the Ducatis, only Tito Rabat and Jack Miller crashed, and Miller acknowledged that his crash was because he got a little bit greedy. "Fortunately our bike works quite well also when it's like this," Andrea Dovizioso commented. "Yes, you have to be careful in some corners. You can’t push 100 percent for example in Turn 2. But if you adapt and push in some other corners you can make a really good lap time."
Johann Zarco went down twice on the KTM, but the rest stayed upright. Not a single Yamaha crashed. "I just had a lot of sliding on the bike, it was like the tire was really cold, that was my impression," said Suzuki's Joan Mir.
Moving the race time was not necessary as far as Michelin's Piero Taramasso was concerned. "8pm is OK. You never know with the conditions." And one senior figure in a non-Honda team commented to me privately, "They didn't move the race when we were struggling. Why should they move the race just because someone else is?" As the old adage has it, the throttle goes both ways.
Hail to the new king?
Maverick Viñales understood all too well how to play that game. The Monster Energy Yamaha rider was fast both on race pace in FP4, and utterly dominant during qualifying. Though he came up short of Marc Márquez' best lap set yesterday, in near perfect conditions, Viñales still managed to beat Johann Zarco's pole record from last year. He was two tenths clear of Andrea Dovizioso and Marc Márquez, and nobody really got close to challenging his supremacy.
"We are working in a good way," Viñales said. "I think Yamaha understand my riding style really well. I can push the bike and that is the most important. Straight away I felt really good, I pushed." This added burst of speed came not just from the bike – despite its blatant lack of top speed, the Yamaha M1 is excellent in just about every other aspect – but also from between the rider's ears.
All in the mind
For Maverick Viñales is the living embodiment of the old adage that the most important component on a racing motorcycle is the six inches between the rider's ears. A change of crew chief and entourage have created a radical transformation in Viñales. He has faith in himself and in his crew, and is able to put the whole package together.
"For sure it's a compromise of everything," Viñales explained. "I mean, I changed quite a lot the team, I felt much better inside the team. We made a really good plan, especially though this weekend. Also with Yamaha we worked really good. When I feel good I can push and bring the bike to its best."
Fast and French
All of the Yamahas are working well in Qatar, or rather, all bar Valentino Rossi's bike. The two Petronas SRT Yamahas line up fifth and eighth on the grid, with Fabio Quartararo fast in FP4 as well. Quartararo's fifth place on the grid is the best rookie performance in qualifying practice since Jorge Lorenzo and James Toseland in 2008, who qualified first and second on the grid.
Can Quartararo convert that excellent grid slot into an equally impressive result on Sunday? "We don’t know," the Frenchman said. "I have my pace and I checked the pace of the other riders but I am just thinking about trying to follow them. We can follow them but we don’t know about the last five laps, that is where the question is, and also how to manage the MotoGP race because when you make a race simulation sometimes you are alone or sometimes you have other riders six seconds in front but in the race it is 22 riders at the start. Let’s see what happens. The difficult thing is I have no experience but step-by-step we will improve the race."
The Petronas SRT Yamaha rider certainly made an impression on his rivals. "He is doing great," Maverick Viñales said. "We already saw in the test that it was not just one lap, he had a good rhythm. I think he is really smart and what I saw is that Fabio is a really talented rider, so for sure he is fast."
"I followed Fabio a lot since the Spanish championship, and he's a very talented rider," Marc Márquez said. "He arrived on a bike that is working well and you saw already today, in his first race weekend, not far from Maverick who is the fastest Yamaha at the moment. But he's a rookie." Danilo Petrucci was equally impressed. "I saw Quartararo in FP4, and he is very, very fast, he is riding so well," he said.
Quartararo and Petronas teammate Franco Morbidelli had a visit from a high-profile guest on Saturday. F1 champion Lewis Hamilton – also backed by Petronas – spent the day in the Petronas Yamaha garage, grilling the riders on how to ride a MotoGP bike (Hamilton, like many F1 racers, is also a keen motorcyclist, and spent time on track with the Pata Yamaha WorldSBK riders over the winter), and closely studying the bikes as they were warmed up in pit lane.
Hamilton showed the same keen interest as any other racer, his passion for bikes shining through. Franco Morbidelli said he was surprised at the humility of the F1 champion. "It was very surprising for me to see the person he is, the passion he has for this sport, and how humble he is. And how interested he is in these things," he said.
Hamilton certainly didn't swagger down pit lane like a hotshot with ideas above his station (there are plenty of those to be found in pit lane, but they are usually only legends in the eyes of their mothers), but the fact that he is famous is inescapable. Wherever Hamilton went, he was engulfed in a swarm of media, photographers looking for a picture, PR bods trying to hold back the masses. It looked for all the world like Valentino Rossi: the same swarm of media, all vying to get a bankable shot or a newsworthy quote.
Rossi himself is nowhere near the front of the grid. The Italian couldn't make it into Q2, neither directly nor via Q1. Rossi will start the race from fourteenth on the grid on Sunday, and he remains at a loss for solutions to the problems he is having. The front tire is still being burned up too quickly on the right side, as a result of all the right handers at the Losail International Circuit.
Rossi had no idea how to fix the problem, but at the Michelin debrief held every race weekend, Michelin boss Piero Taramasso had an explanation for where the problems were coming from. "It looks like it is related to bike set up," Taramasso said. "The way Valentino is riding, he is braking very hard, late, not like Marc but close to Marc, so he's very aggressive, and he needs a very, very good balance to save the front tire."
The problem is particularly severe in Qatar. "Especially at this track, it's a problem, because with the sand on the track, with the humidity, the low temperature, everybody struggles to get the front tire to work. If your setting is not perfect, you get graining, the tire is worn out quicker."
Rossi is not alone in this, Taramasso said. "He's not the only one. Other riders also, if you go around the track, you can see that their tires also show this graining a little bit. Then you have to do some more laps, and normally it cleans up. In some cases, if the setting is wrong, it never cleans up."
In an attempt to solve the problem, Rossi opted to use the new version of the Yamaha aero package, which previously only Maverick Viñales had been using. Rossi had started the weekend on the old package, as had the two Petronas Yamahas of Fabio Quartararo and Franco Morbidelli, but in FP4, the new package appeared on his bike. A curious decision, given that it means that Rossi has now used up both of his permitted homologated fairings, meaning no more updates throughout the year.
Rossi did not sound particularly keen on the plan, but had agreed to it after Yamaha told him they were unlikely to bring another update during the season. "I said it was better to remain with the old wings and try to adapt it, but Yamaha said that they are not sure they will bring an update in the year," the Italian said.
On the face of it, Marc Márquez appears to be having a very strong weekend, smashing the pole record in FP2, and putting himself into third on the grid, and in prime position for Sunday's race. Yet that is perhaps a mark of Márquez' strength as a rider, for Qatar is anything but a good weekend for the Honda rider. He has only won here once, whereas at most other tracks, he has won in multiple years.
His front row start was won with the unwilling assistance of Danilo Petrucci, though the Italian had a sneaking admiration for the brazen way in which Márquez had secured his assistance. "For sure I made a mistake," the factory Ducati rider told us, "first because I didn't have the chance to do a very good lap, but especially because Marc was the cat and I was the mouse, and he won today. He was more clever than me, he made a strategy and it worked, and I let his strategy work."
Márquez had forced Petrucci into giving him a tow, by the simple act of ensuring he was always in the right place at the right time. " But I couldn't do anything else," the Italian said. "This was the problem. In the first run, I waited for one lap, and then on the second lap, I had to push. But I said, OK, I will do one lap at 90%, because I know Marc is behind me, and I can give him a good tow, but I have another chance. In the second run, it was the same, but I had no time at the end, and I waited another lap. But then there was one minute left at the end, and I decide to push, but imagine if I crash on the last lap? I would start in twelfth position, maybe. So this was better."
Was this fair? "It's part of racing," acknowledged Petrucci. "Unfortunately for me, he didn't do anything incorrect. For sure he waited a lot on the track. But it's racing. And we know Marc is a champion for many years, so when he is a little bit in trouble, he uses everything he has, and this time, I was one of his weapons. The Honda is very, very powerful. This is the worst track for them, and he is in front."
Should that trouble his rivals? Almost certainly. At a track which has been historically bad for Márquez and the Honda RC213V, he is still starting from the front row, and in perfect position to catch a tow with the leaders, and use the horsepower of the bike to stay with them for as long as he possibly can. Studying the timesheets, he does not have the best race pace, but he is not very far behind the riders who do.
Danilo Petrucci looks to be one of those riders, slamming out 1'54s throughout FP4 more easily than anyone else. Andrea Dovizioso and Maverick Viñales are not far behind, but the lead group could be as large as ten riders, according to Petrucci.
"For sure the first row are the favorites," Petrucci said on Saturday night. "Then I saw Quartararo in FP4, and he is very, very fast, he is riding so well. Then, I think I can fight for the podium. Then I don't know if Rossi will be in the mix. Also Rins is very, very fast on the pace, and we are already at ten people."
In four of the past five years, the Qatar MotoGP race has been decided by less than a second, and a couple of times, by less than a tenth of a second. There are plenty of things not to like about Qatar as a circuit. But the layout of the track has produced absolutely superb racing. Qatar may pay a large amount of money to Dorna for the right to hold the first Grand Prix of the season. But they earn it back by producing a genuine spectacle. Sunday's race should be no different.
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