What was the big surprise on Friday at the Sachsenring? The fact that there were no real surprises. The first day of practice played out pretty much as you might expect based on the first few MotoGP rounds of 2019. Marc Márquez put in a push on FP2 to wrap up top spot at the end of the first day, a third of a second clear of Alex Rins on the Suzuki.
Besides Márquez, Rins was quick, as were the Yamahas of Fabio Quartararo, Maverick Viñales, and even Valentino Rossi. Cal Crutchlow got into the top 6, just behind Pol Espargaro – the KTMs and the Hondas were the only bikes which could gain a chunk of time from using the soft rear tire – while the Ducatis are not far behind.
Fabio Quartararo felt he could have been quicker, if he hadn't come across his teammate while he was chasing a fast lap. The Frenchman came up behind Franco Morbidelli, who was cruising around the tight interior section between Turns 2 and 3. For a few minutes, Quartararo was fuming, waving his arms in the air and gesticulating wildly.
After the session ended, the Petronas Yamaha SRT rider was a touch more contrite. "I was upset for five minutes," he said. "But you know it's really special, when you put a soft tire in, it's the best moment of the day. You make all the work, and that's the most fun part of the day. Fortunately we can't really make a good lap time with these tires, but that's OK. I was too angry, I should be more calm in these conditions."
Quartararo wasn't the only rider to be balked by riders cruising on the racing line. A few minutes later, Maverick Viñales and Jack Miller ran across the trio of Danilo Petrucci, Pol Espargaro, and Valentino Rossi all waiting for the ideal moment to make a break. The incident led to all five riders involved being called into the FIM Stewards, led by Freddie Spencer.
"It was my first lap of time attack," Maverick Viñales told us, giving his version of events. "I went into Turn 3, and I found I think Valentino and Petrucci and Pol, I didn't remember exactly, but I think they were discussing who should go first, and I was coming, and suddenly Petrux entered the corner and I needed to close the gas."
No place to run
Danilo Petrucci explained what had happened. "We have been called to Race Direction; me, Valentino, Zarco, Espargaro and Morbidelli, which was about the difficult situation at the end of FP2 where in fact I was many riders were going out of the pits and others were waiting for a tow."
The issue was a consequence of the tightness of the first section of the track, however. "The problem is at corners 1, 2 and 3 it is impossible to give space to other riders. I saw Miller coming and I was going on the right side and Jack went through but then he found the two KTM riders. Then there was already three riders in the middle and Maverick was coming, he found me in the middle of the line but the problem is that we don’t have space in corner 1, 2 and 3 to let other riders go through."
The incident went unpunished, in part because it is difficult to get out of people's way there, but also because there is still some leniency granted in FP2. If it had happened at the end of FP3, then penalties would probably have been handed out, Petrucci explained. "In Assen in the safety commission we decided to have the last 15 minutes of FP3 with the same rules as Q1 and Q2. If you make problems for other riders you will be penalized."
But the problem remained the same: The Sachsenring is such a tight and contorted track, especially the first section from Turn 1 through to Turn 4, that it is impossible to get out of the way. Turn 1 is a tight hairpin, followed by a tight flick left into the Omega Curve of Turn 3, very long right hand corner which turns back in on itself. Turn 4 goes left again, before the track finally starts to slowly open out and offer space to get out of people's way.
Would Quartararo have been able to close the gap to Márquez if he hadn't come across Franco Morbidelli on his fast lap? The more interesting question is the fact that Márquez put a soft tire in on Friday afternoon to make sure of a spot in Q2. At previous races, Márquez hasn't bothered, confident enough of his pace to be in the top ten on Friday, working instead on his race pace.
"Everything is a consequence," Márquez explained. "Of course it has been a long time that I have not been using a new tire on a Friday at the end. Today I just put a new tire in, not to be first, just because the strategy for tomorrow was like this. So today we used one strategy to prepare for tomorrow, to understand the tires. Basically I felt good from the first run and that is the most important."
Why did Márquez choose to put a new tire in? Perhaps because he has been trying the new chassis he tested at Jerez and in Barcelona. In FP2, Márquez went out on his first run on the new frame, came in and swapped the tires to the bike with the old frame, then went out and did another long run on that old bike. At the end, to make sure he would be in Q2, he put new tires on the old bike, and went out and topped the timesheet.
Márquez was typically evasive when asked about the new chassis, though he said he was just as quick with both the old frame and the new frame. "Now we need to understand well, but maybe tomorrow I will use the same strategy because still it's not clear 100%," the Repsol Honda rider said. "We have some positive points, with both chassis I'm riding fast and this is an advantage but a problem, because then you don't know which one is better! But yeah, we know which are the strong points and weak points for each chassis. And with both chassis I feel ok. Now it's time to analyse all the things."
When asked by Mat Oxley what the difference was between the two, Márquez first tried to avoid answering the question. "I will not explain the details, if you want I will lie!" he joked. But in the end, he gave a clearer answer than he might have realized. "If you check a little bit this year, we are using a lot of banking, too much, and why we are using banking is because the package is not turning. Then I use all this banking, not because it's my riding style, not because I like it, but because I need to. We are trying to find this turning by the chassis."
Basically, what Márquez is saying is that in order to get the 2019 Honda RC213V to turn, they have to run a lot of lean angle, which means they use up the edge of the tire quite quickly. The aim of the new chassis is to allow the bike to turn better without having to lean it over so far. Through the Omega Curve, Márquez clocked a lean angle of 66°, breaking his previous record of 65°. Using that much lean angle involves a lot of risk, as well as using up the edge of the tire.
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That Márquez should experiment with a new chassis at the Sachsenring is hardly a surprise. Firstly, it is a track which needs a lot of turning, the bike spending most of the lap on its side. But also, it is a track where he is confident of being competitive no matter what, so he can afford to use the time in practice to see if the new chassis offers any benefits, secure in the knowledge he can get through to Q2 at the first attempt. Even if the chassis doesn't help, he still knows he is fast enough on the old frame.
Turning the corner
Looking at race pace, both Fabio Quartararo and Maverick Viñales are not far off Márquez. Does this mean that the Yamaha is good at tracks which require a lot of turning? "For me the Yamaha is good everywhere," Quartararo countered. "It's just some part of the bike is really positive, some less. So here it's true that we don't have so many straights, so the bike is really good. And for me, the handling of the bike is good, everything is OK. So for me it's a good track for us."
Viñales was a little more cautious, saying his pace depended on how much grip the track offered. "I think today for us was really important, because the track is not in a really good grip level, and the lap times were quite good," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider responded.
"Let's see what the grip does," Viñales said. "It's very important to see if the grip increases during the weekend or stays the same. Because yesterday, the track looked very dirty and no rubber on the track. Maybe from today to Sunday the track will improve, and if the track improves we will be stronger. But right now, we have to somehow find grip, especially on lean angle, because I suffer a lot, and to try to be better. I'm quite happy about the feeling I have on the bike, even if I think it's not at the maximum right now."
We have been here before, of course, with Viñales fast during practice, only for the Spaniard to lose out during the race when the track was greasy after Moto2 had laid down a thick layer of Dunlop rubber. But Viñales was much better prepared, he said. "We are going to work and work and see how the track improves during the weekend. But anyway during the race, it will be this grip that we have today. Important to remember that, and to work on today."
But Viñales was confident of a good result, the first day at Sachsenring coming after the win at Assen and a strong weekend at Barcelona. "Somehow we found our way to go with the bike," he said. "I'm using completely the same setup as in Assen, and it seems to work pretty well. For sure we have to make some modifications for tomorrow, because I need a little bit more load on the tire, because in Assen, the camber is always in a different way than here, so you put a lot more pressure on the tire and it seems to work really well for our bike. So we want to try to do that for tomorrow, and see if it solves my problems when I slide a lot. I'm sliding all the time. Even with the struggles we had today, we are pretty close to the top, and that's the most important thing tomorrow."
Quartararo is similarly confident, reading between the lines of what he told us on Friday afternoon. Implicit in his words was the ability to fight Marc Márquez. "My race pace looks good," Quartararo said. "We know that [Márquez] is very strong in, let's call it his track. It's just our first day on a MotoGP bike in the Sachsenring, so I'm really looking forward to look at the data, to see where I can improve, which part of the bike can improve for tomorrow, and still improving our pace by one or two tenths, it will be really good."
Toe to toe
Comparing times in race trim, and Quartararo and Márquez are pretty close together, Márquez holding a small advantage over the Frenchman. Viñales, too, was strong on hard tires, which are likely to be the race tires on Sunday. Even Valentino Rossi is right up on race pace, finally getting a weekend off to a good start.
"The day was not too bad," the Monster Energy Yamaha rider said. "It was quite positive because my pace with the race tyres is not so bad. I’m quite happy. I can ride the bike in a better way. The feeling with the bike is better." Rossi had not been able to use a soft tire, and so his position wasn't really reflective of his pace, the Italian about as quick as Suzuki rider Alex Rins.
"Valentino was really fast," was Andrea Dovizioso's assessment, after the Ducati rider had spent some time following the Yamaha man. "He didn’t make a lap at the end of the practice but at the beginning he was really fast. In the way that he rode it’s really for the race. Quartararo and Rins were really quick in practice."
Dovizioso had studied the Yamahas and Suzukis, to analyze where their strengths lay. "It’s really good to follow other riders because you can understand a lot of things especially during practice," he said. "It’s more clear where you have to look. But it’s not nice to follow Yamaha and Suzuki in a track like this because you can’t make the same speed in the middle of the corners and you can’t use an advantage of the acceleration that you have. Sometimes it’s worse because when I’m able to follow you become more aggressive in your riding. You have to be really calm, smart and don’t be angry at that moment because everything can become worse."
Who does Marc Márquez think is competitive? "Today if you look at the pace me, Quartararo, and Viñales are very close," the reigning champion said. "So it looks like Quartararo is riding the Yamaha in a good way and is showing the real potential of the bike."
How much of a threat does Márquez think Quartararo poses? When asked about the Frenchman, Márquez made a trenchant point about pressure. The pressure Quartararo is currently under, and what awaits once he enters his second year.
When Quartararo had entered Moto3, after Dorna had changed the rules to allow him, as winner of the FIM CEV Moto3 championship, to enter Grand Prix racing while still under the minimum age of 16, the French youngster succumbed to the pressure put upon him. But there was more to it than that, Márquez said. "I think more than this pressure is the pressure to be now actually the only French rider in front. So Spanish riders have a small advantage in that, where the pressure of the country is not only on one rider. There are a lot of riders in front."
Quartararo had been much better since entering MotoGP, Márquez said, but he made sure to point out that it is easy to succeed as a rookie, when expectations are at rock bottom. "It's true that it's not the same thing to ride a bike, like I ride in 2013, and to ride a bike when you have the pressure," Márquez said. "In your first year in MotoGP you don't have a real pressure, because all the results are good. If you finish in the podium it is an incredible result. If you finish in the top 5 it's a very good result. And the pressure arrives when you need to win and when everybody is pushing for you to win."
The future is now
Right now, the Petronas Yamaha SRT team will be happy wherever Quartararo ends, the Frenchman free to concentrate on the race and not worry about the result. But the success he is enjoying right now will inevitably lead to raised expectations, and the measure of the Frenchman will come when he has a poor result after expecting to do well. When he starts the weekend expecting to be on the podium – and more importantly, when the people around him expect him to be on the podium – that is when we will discover what Quartararo is made of.
At this moment, anything Quartararo does will be lauded, whether that be winning the race or finishing inside the top ten. That frees Quartararo's mind from pressure, and that makes him dangerous, a virtuous circle of upward performance. The real test will come if that upward spiral is reversed.
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