We came to Jerez expecting records. A new surface with most of the bumps removed meant the bikes were always going to be quicker around the track. A weekend of stable weather conditions promised ideal conditions for realizing unbelievably quick laps around the track. And a field which is closer than ever ramps up the pressure on the riders to extract the absolute maximum from their bikes. In FP3, for example, there were 16 riders within a second, and the gap between Andrea Dovizioso in fourth and Pol Espargaro in thirteenth was precisely two tenths of a second.
So records were always on the cards, but we were not to know just how many records would be obliterated at Jerez. Thanks to the Triumph Moto2 engines, and a new profile Dunlop tire with a larger contact patch, the Moto2 pole record was smashed by eight tenths of a second. And in fact, Jorge Navarro's Moto2 pole time would have put him second on the grid for the 2004 MotoGP race, between Valentino Rossi on the Yamaha M1, and Sete Gibernau on Honda's fearsome RC211V, a fire-breathing 990cc V5.
MotoGP was even more intense. In the morning, on a cool track, Danilo Petrucci knocked seven tenths off Cal Crutchlow's pole record from last year, becoming the first rider to lap Jerez in under 1'37. During qualifying, as track temperatures rose, Fabio Quartararo shaved a few more hundredths off Petrucci's new lap record, taking pole with a lap of 1'36.880. In the process, he became the youngest ever pole sitter in MotoGP, at the age of 20 years and 14 days, taking the record from Marc Márquez, who had taken it in turn from Freddie Spencer.
History in the making
Illustrious names, but it should perhaps come as no surprise. After the press conference, I spoke to Petronas SRT Yamaha team manager Wilco Zeelenberg, and asked him how the team had settled on Fabio Quartararo as one of their riders. "When he was 14, 15, he was CEV champion twice," Zeelenberg told me. "And that's not easy. He was the youngest rider and was destroying everyone. About four years ago, Lin Jarvis asked me, who do you think is going to be the young up-and-coming man to beat Márquez, I said, Quartararo. And there he is."
It is a remarkable result for Quartararo, but especially for the team. For alongside Quartararo on the grid on Sunday will start Franco Morbidelli, Quartararo's Petronas SRT teammate. The first time a satellite team will start first and second on the grid since Sete Gibernau and Marco Melandri at Valencia 2005. Then, the Yamahas were being run by the Tech3 team. At the end of last year, Tech3 switched to KTM, giving up the Yamahas and making the Petronas SRT team possible.
Satellite Yamahas have outperformed the factory Yamahas at Jerez for a few years now. Last year, Johann Zarco – remember him? - started from third on the grid, while Valentino Rossi was the first of the factory Yamahas. In 2017, Zarco started behind Maverick Viñales, but ahead of Valentino Rossi. In 2015, it was the turn of Pol Espargaro to start ahead of Rossi. This is a track where under the right circumstances, a satellite Yamaha can really shine.
Potential of the package
And circumstances were perfect for Fabio Quartararo. He was quick on Saturday morning, and quick in FP4, when everyone was concentrating on race pace. He qualified in fifth at Qatar, a sign of his potential, and has been consistently fast throughout. Perhaps he really is the rider to be beating Marc Márquez.
Aleix Espargaro had a word of warning on that score, however. What Quartararo had achieved was incredible, the Aprilia rider said. "Unbelievable," Espargaro said. "He's a really good guy, and what I like is that as a rookie, he always works alone, he's never looking for other riders. So this is impressive. And on the other side, it's unbelievable, everybody that jumps on that bike is fast. Zarco in the last years was the new Valentino Rossi, now Quartararo and Morbidelli are the new Valentino Rossi. Even Syahrin was very strong. Syahrin beat me every single race last season, he was always close to the top ten. And look how he's struggling with the KTM now."
It is clear that the success in MotoGP depends on the entire package, Espargaro said, encompassing everything from rider to bike to team. "You know, in MotoGP, the bike is very important," he told us. "But anyway, he's doing an absolutely great job, because Morbidelli has the same bike as him and Franco is a very strong guy, and he is beating him. And Viñales and Rossi as well. So chapeau. I think this new team Petronas looks super, super professional and a really good team, and Fabio is very young and a talented guy, so he has a good future."
Team work makes the dream work
The team is an integral part of this success. "We are in a dream situation," Petronas team manager Johan Stigefelt told Neil Morrison. "The team is amazing. The characters in the team, too. Everyone in the team is so passionate. The thing is with this team compared to others, we’ve all been here from the beginning. And we built this team together. Everyone has contributed to make this team work. So this makes the difference from other teams that have maybe been here for years now. We have a lot of extra motivation, a lot of extra passion. Guys like me and Wilco, we’re former riders and we do this because we love this. We’re not here for any other reason. We’re passionate about this sport, about bikes. We’re privileged to be running this team."
That passion had paid off with a one-two on the grid for Sunday. "If there are 19 races, then you know that 10 of those pole positions are already taken, they'll go to Marc Márquez," Wilco Zeelenberg told us. "And that leaves 9 more, and if you can get one of them, then you only need to ask where do I sign up for that? And then having two of our riders in front of him, in Spain, the first European race, that's phenomenal."
What was the objective for Sunday? "Let's see how it goes tomorrow, but if you're starting first and second, you shouldn't be thinking, well, let's try to get into the top five, top ten. We just have to see how far we can get and see if we can get one of our riders on the podium," Zeelenberg said.
The biggest job was trying to keep Quartararo calm and focused for the race on Sunday. "There are all these people around him, but focus on tomorrow, get your rest, stay calm. All these enthusiastic people around you, they take a lot of energy out of you, they all want something from you. But they can save that for tomorrow afternoon, after the race."
Quartararo had already learned his lesson at Qatar, where he had started from fifth on the grid. "Sure, he stalled the bike, but he didn't lose his way and had a great race after that," Zeelenberg said. "He's very calm now, very quiet, and eager to learn. He helps the other riders in the team as well, Sasaki and Pawi, they all love him, because they are very few MotoGP riders who help others. And he's really involved with those guys. He's a team player, and you can really feel that. And he fits right in with our team because of that."
Sizing up the opposition
You can judge how highly a rider's rivals rate them by the words they use to describe him. Marc Márquez was fulsome in his praise, but each positive compliment carried the odd hidden barb. "I’m happy for Fabio because it’s Saturday. But tomorrow it will be different," Márquez told the press conference. "Fabio is a rider who has a very good talent, but I was more or less in his situation when I arrived in the championship. He’s a guy who has a very good talent, but during his career he changed many, many things. For example, I was really lucky and I found a good atmosphere in all my group, my team and that was easier. He changed team many times, and is a very young rider," Márquez said, pointing to the weakness in Quartararo's career history. "But I believe that he has the talent because he already showed it," he added.
Does Márquez have anything to fear? Going by the times set in FP4, not particularly. The Repsol Honda rider put in thirteen flying laps during FP4. Three of those laps were 1'37s, and six more were 1'38.0s or 1'38.1s. He started his second run on an old hard rear tire which had 18 laps on it. On the 25th lap on that rear tire, Márquez did a 1'38.072. Sunday's race will be 25 laps long.
There may be a couple of riders who can go with him. Maverick Viñales starts from fifth, after a miserable start to Saturday which saw him miss out of Q2 by coming up short in FP3. "Honestly, in FP3, I don't know why, but we could not ride," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "It was very difficult. I could not turn in the corners so I was very slow for corner speed. Then for FP4 we knew we needed to make a big change, we change completely the bike and straight away I felt really good." So good that he ended FP4 just a hundredth of a second behind Marc Márquez.
Viñales was also the only rider capable of matching Márquez' pace in the 1'37s. Like Márquez, Viñales did three laps in the 1'37s, a promise of things to come. "Especially with the hard tire, I felt confident for the race pace because I had really good traction, which is really important." Viñales' team improved engine braking so that he could stop the bike, something which he had struggled with on Friday.
Theory and praxis
Andrea Dovizioso – starting from fourth alongside Viñales – also believed he had the pace to match Márquez. "Our speed is good," the Ducati rider said. "I don't know if it will be enough to win the race tomorrow, because Marc is really strong. Looks like we have a similar pace, but I think for him it's a bit easier to do that lap time, but you can only tell in the race." Dovizioso couldn't get into the 1'37s, but he had a decent run of low 1'38s, which puts him in the same ballpark as Márquez.
He was confident, anyway. "We have good grip, we can keep high speed in the fast corners. In the braking, in the slow corners, we are very competitive, so we have really good speed," Dovizioso said. "We will see tomorrow. We are in the first group in terms of the pace, but the second group is just two or three tenths slower. So the gap is very small. Normally, history shows that Jerez is a strange race, it's a slow race, we are slower, it's hotter, and when you follow other riders for the temperature of the tires, so it's a very difficult race and it's very important to start in the first two rows."
Dovizioso dismissed the idea that you can read too much into the times set out on the timesheets, however. "I think the lap time is the same, my pace and Márquez' pace," the Italian said. "But always it depends how much intensity and how much tires you use to make that lap time. And you can't know that during the practice, you can only see the lap time on the paper. So we can't know exactly if he is in a better situation or not."
A disappointed Cal Crutchlow starts from sixth on the grid, after improving his time from last year but still being beaten by five other riders. He was not confident about his race pace, and is starting to suffer with the ankle he broke at Phillip Island last year, an issue not helped by a huge crash during FP3. "I've not felt great with the bike over the weekend to be honest, we have some problem in the braking with the bike snapping a lot. And that hasn't been fixed since Austin," Crutchlow said.
What kind of a race did he expect for Sunday? "It should be good fun," Crutchlow opined. "I think this year’s race is going to be closer than the other years. Obviously you saw Marc run away with it last year. There's never been a battle really for a long time here. It's been pretty strung out. It seems everybody is on a similar pace."
The tires should help in that respect. Though Michelin had concerns about the new asphalt, they were not flying completely blind when choosing the tire allocation for Jerez. They had data from the MotoE test earlier in the year, as well as data from the Spanish CEV Superbike series, where they compete. The bikes for the two series are very different to MotoGP, Michelin's Two-Wheeled Motorsports manager Piero Taramasso told us, and the tires were not comparable. But the data was enough to be confident that the tires they brought would last the race.
In fact it looks like the tires will provide very good performance from the first lap to the last. "From the data we have, from yesterday and today, with the medium and the hard rear, the lap time is very consistent. There's no big drop," Taramasso said. "There will be no strategy tomorrow. If Frankie, or Marc stay in front, they will go full gas." And the tires should be good from lights to flag.
That should make for an exciting race, especially if someone can hold up anyone trying to make a break. "The second group is just two or three tenths slower. So the gap is very small," Dovizioso said. If Quartararo or Morbidelli can stay in front of Marc Márquez in the first corner, or Dovizioso can use the drive (and holeshot device) of the Desmosedici to get the jump into Turn 1, then anything can happen. We could see Danilo Petrucci, Valentino Rossi, Alex Rins joining in the fray. There is everything to play for at the first European round of the season.
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