What is a new surface worth? The short – and wrong – answer is just under a second a lap, for Jerez at least. The long answer is that there have been too many changes in the series to give a definitive answer. Comparisons between 2018 and 2019 are complicated, as much more than just the surface has changed.
But the track is undoubtedly much quicker, and the surface is much better. The MotoGP race was 31 seconds faster than in 2018, Marc Márquez taking seven tenths of a second off the race lap record. But the Moto3 race was only (well, "only") 9 seconds faster than last year. The Moto2 race was cut to just 15 laps, making comparison impossible, but the race lap record in the intermediate class was 0.9 seconds faster than the previous record.
So how much of that improvement is the track? Moto3 is arguably the wrong class to judge the track by: what makes the class so enjoyable is the fact that nine or ten riders spend almost the entire race engaged in fierce combat at the front, so nobody is riding an ideal line. Moto2 has different engines, different electronics, and Dunlop brought a different profile tire with a larger contact patch to Jerez, all three of those factors adding a significant element to the much faster pace of the race.
Tight and fast
And MotoGP? Part of that 31 seconds comes from the track. Another, significant part comes from Michelin bringing exactly the right tires to the race. Marc Márquez set a new lap record of 1'38.051 on lap 15, Andrea Dovizioso did a 1'38.068 on lap 24, with one lap to go. These were tires which the riders could use to their maximum for the entire race. And another part is the fact that increased competition means that everyone is forced to be faster. Last year, it was Honda vs Ducati. This year, it is Honda vs Ducati vs Suzuki vs Yamaha. You want to win, you have to ride harder.
Marc Márquez rode hardest of them all, but life was not made easy for him. If you just judged the race by the lap chart, it looked like a pretty open and shut case. Márquez got the holeshot, and led every lap to the finish. But until Franco Morbidelli felt his tires start to lose grip on lap 9, Márquez had Morbidelli and fellow Petronas SRT teammate Fabio Quartararo hot on his heels, never more than three or four tenths behind him. Márquez had to work for this, he got nothing for free.
You could argue that if Quartararo had been able to stay ahead of Morbidelli into the first corner, life would have been even tougher for Márquez. Once the Frenchman got past Morbidelli, Márquez was over 1.8 seconds ahead. Yet Quartararo was able to match Márquez' pace, and could perhaps have stayed right on his tail.
As it was, fate intervened anyway. As Quartararo exited Turn 5, and shifted up through the gears, he never got past third gear. Though the team would only say it was a problem with the gear mechanism, I got a glance of the problem when Quartararo entered the pits. It looked to me like the linkage had broken off close to the quickshifter.
When I talked to veteran crew chief Peter Bom about this, he explained that the quickshifter (basically, a pressure sensor which registers when the rider presses the gear lever up or down) sits in an adjustable connecting rod, with left- and right-handed thread at each end. There are M6 lock nuts to lock the connecting rod at the required length. But these threaded bolts are relatively thin, and riders stomp up and down the gears, and sometimes – very rarely – the bolts can break. That seems to have happened to Quartararo.
Petronas SRT team manager Wilco Zeelenberg, obviously disappointed, told us that the parts were all well under mileage, and not due for replacement, so this was a rare failure. Could it have been avoided? Possibly, if the team had replaced every part subject to wear (nuts, bolts, cables, etc etc etc) prior to the race. But this would be both impossibly expensive to do for every race, and also introduce the possibility of more failures: if you replace one part, your chances of doing it correctly are close to 100%. If you replace a thousand parts, the chances of you making a mistake somewhere and introducing the possibility of failure increase dramatically. So teams use wear and tear schedules to estimate mileage for each part, and replace them on schedule. But the system is not infallible, sadly, and Murphy's Law means that when parts do fail, it will be at the worst possible time.
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